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Paraguay: Historical Setting
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting


Paraguay was one of the first countries in South America to achieve independence. Its history since the arrival of the Spaniards in 1537 evokes images of tremendous sacrifice and suffering amid lush surroundings. Because of its small population and poverty, however, its weight among the nations of the modern world is small. At the time of the Spanish conquest in the mid1500s, Paraguay was the second most important of the Spanish dominions in South America after Peru. But its preeminence as a colony did not last because it produced no gold or silver. In the long run, however, the country's lack of precious ores proved to be a blessing because it allowed Paraguay to escape the horrors of slavery that prevailed in the mines of Peru and Mexico. The Spanish conquest and settlement proceeded more humanely in Paraguay than elsewhere in Spanish America.

The country's basic characteristics were determined during the first few decades of European rule and reinforced under the Republic of Paraguay after independence in 1811. The country has a largely egalitarian social structure. Its relatively homogeneous population of mestizos follows Spanish culture and religion but speaks the Indian language, Guaraní, at home. It also has a tradition of authoritarian rule and a concomitant lack of democratic institutions. Finally, Paraguay suffers from a paranoiainducing isolation, originally because of its location in a wilderness populated by hostile Indians, and later because of its location between powerful neighbors -- Brazil and Argentina.

Partly because of its remoteness, Paraguay never had a very large European population. The colony's first governor urged Spanish men to take Indian wives to help them take their minds off returning to Spain, solve the problem of the scarcity of European women, and encourage peaceful relations between the tiny, vulnerable, European colony and its numerous Indian neighbors. Neither Spaniard nor Indian needed any prodding, however, as mixed unions predominated from the start. The Paraguayan republic's first dictator, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, a criollo who distrusted his own criollo upper class, strengthened this pattern of marrying Indians. Francia forced the elite to marry Indian women, confiscated their lands, and broke their power. The disastrous 1865-70 War of the Triple Alliance, which ended with the death of Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López, further strengthened the mestizo composition of society. At the end of the war, only 28,000 Spanish males were alive, down from 220,000. Spanish women who wanted to marry had no choice but to accept mestizo suitors.

Dictatorship is to Paraguay what constitutional democracy is to Scandinavia or Britain: it is the norm. Paraguay, a country where power has usually been centered on one man, has a history of domination by authoritarian personalities. Paraguay's authoritarianism derives from Spanish attitudes, isolation amid hostile neighbors, and political inexperience and naiveté among a population that has historically proved willing to abdicate its political rights and responsibilities. Nearly 300 years of Spanish rule rendered many Paraguayans poor, uneducated, unaware of the outside world, and lacking in experience with democracy. Furthermore, the people were nearly always under the threat of attack either from Indians or from raiders from Brazil. Indeed, its three neighbors -- Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia -- each went to war with Paraguay at least once since 1810.

Francia, named "dictator for life" in 1816 by a largely uneducated nation grateful for his diplomatic and administrative expertise, set the tone by founding a despotic police state that lasted until his death in 1840. His goal was to keep the country independent at all costs. He succeeded by founding the world's first system of state socialism, sealing off the country's borders, and pouring all available resources into defense. Paraguay was the only major country in Spanish America to undergo a major social revolution as a direct result of independence. Father and son dictators Carlos Antonio López and Francisco Solano López succeeded Francia from 1841 to 1862 and 1862 to 1870, respectively. After the 1865-70 war, military officers began to replace civilians as politicians but this fact represented no change in the country's pattern of dictatorial rule.

Paraguay's stability diminished after 1904 when the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal -- PL) ruled the nation. Paraguay had traded stable dictatorships for unstable ones. Between 1904 and 1954, Paraguay had thirty-one presidents, most of whom were removed from office by force. During the particularly unstable period between 1910 and 1912, seven presidents entered and left office. As political instability grew, so did the importance of the military in politics. Still, military rule did not predominate. Only four of eight presidents who finished their terms were military men.

A 1954 coup ushered in the Stronato, the period of rule of Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda, who remained in power in late 1988. Few imagined in the 1950s that Stroessner's term of office would become the longest in Paraguay's history. Stroessner effectively combined political skill, hard work, and repression to gain complete control of the National Republican Association-Colorado Party (Asociación Nacional Republicana-Partido Colorado) and eliminate regime opponents. By the early 1960s, all other political parties were either legitimating the political system by participating in fraudulent elections or were effectively isolated.

Although Stroessner clearly represented continuity with Paraguay's authoritarian past, he also dragged the country out of its isolation. A mammoth hydroelectric project at Itaipú on the Rio Paraná shattered Paraguay's seclusion forever by injecting billions of dollars into the economy. The project put money into the pockets of previously penniless campesinos and contributed to the emergence of the middle class. Many observers believed that economic growth unleashed demands for democratic reform in Paraguay, and, as the 1980s began, the Stroessner regime seemed increasingly under attack from its critics.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Paraguay was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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