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date: 24 April 2017

Paraguayan Politics, Economics, and Cultural Identity, 1870–1936

Summary and Keywords

In the period 1870–1936, Paraguay began to redevelop economically after its devastating loss in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870). Turning to a liberal economic model popular in the region at the time, government officials began selling off large tracts of land to foreign investors, in particular Argentine investors. The liberal era in Paraguay was notoriously turbulent as political rivals often relied on Civil War to gain power. Nonetheless, this period was pivotal in helping to shape ideas about the nation. The era ends at the Febrerista Revolution (1936) when returning Chaco War (1932–1935) veterans made their mark on Paraguayan politics and identity.

Keywords: War of the Triple Alliance, Chaco War, liberal era, Febrerista Revolution, peasants (agriculturalists), yerba mate, tannin, Guaraní language, Colorado Party, Liberal Party

In Paraguay, the period between the end of the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870) and the Febrerista Revolution (1936) was marred by political instability marked by civil wars that impeded economic recovery followed by a bloody war with Bolivia, the Chaco War (1932–1935). A lack of easily accessible exportable commodities and a restructuring of land policies that left rural regions in poverty undermined economic and cultural recovery that elites in Paraguay longed for at the end of the War of the Triple Alliance. Nonetheless, this was a time when ideas about the Paraguayan nation were developed and reinforced. Urban elites debated fundamental notions about citizenship, language identity, and nationalism. How well all of these ideas were understood in rural areas is debatable, but certainly, the Paraguayan agriculturists—as peasants in Paraguay commonly referred to themselves—did develop ideas about their place in the nation. At the end of the Chaco War these ideas were put into place with the short-lived Febrerista Revolution.

The War of the Triple Alliance was a defining moment in post-colonial Paraguayan history. The war began when, according to historian Thomas Whigham, Paraguay’s neighbor, Brazil, coveting land in Uruguay, began intervening in domestic Uruguayan politics. As a result, the Paraguayans, fearing that the Brazilians were upsetting the delicate balance of power in the Southern Cone, invaded Mato Grosso in 1864.1 Brazened by his success in Mato Grosso, Francisco Solano López, more commonly known as el mariscal (the Marshal), sent Paraguayan troops across Argentina to involve Paraguay in a Uruguayan civil war. These acts led Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay to form a military alliance to defeat the one man, Solano López, they considered responsible for acts of aggression. According to this logic, the Allies were not going to war against the Paraguayan people, but rather against a brutal and barbarous dictator who was manipulating his people. After nearly six years of war the Allies occupied Asunción; both the Brazilians and the Argentines acquired substantial territory from Paraguay and all three victorious nations imposed war reparations. However, the Paraguayans were in no condition to repay the reparations as the nation had lost approximately 60–69 percent of its population to disease, starvation, and battlefield injuries.2 Significantly, women outnumbered men in post-war Paraguay. Although in the years following the war, women were fundamental to the growth and survival of the nation, their role in politics and economics in the post-war period, as argued by Barbara Potthast-Jutkeit in her text “¿Paraíso de Mahoma” o “País de las mujeres?” (Asunción, Paraguay: Instituto Cultural Paraguayo Alemán, 1996) was limited. In the end, their patriotic efforts during and after the war failed to earn Paraguayan women political, social, or economic power. Paraguayan gender norms in the liberal era remained the same as during the pre-war period. This meant that women were expected to remain in the domestic sphere, although for many rural and poor urban women economic realities made that ideal impossible and many Paraguayan women earned a living either as domestics for elite families or as market women.

The stark demographic collapse after the war meant however that it took several generations for the nation to return to its pre-war population. In the meantime, in the years following the war, the Allies occupied Asunción. The occupying forces, comprised mostly of Brazilian troops, retired from Paraguay in 1876 but not before pillaging the nation of anything of value. Moreover, the provisional government put in charge in Asunción in 1869—before the death of Solano López on March 1, 1870 in Cerro Corá—both banned the use of the Guaraní language in schools and also quickly moved to create new institutions such as “ports, police, mail service, courts, schools, all of which were created in a surprisingly short period of time.”3 Through these efforts, the Allies tried to control both the cultural and institutional future of the vanquished Paraguayans. Although the Brazilians constituted the majority of troops occupying Paraguay, the reality was that the Argentines, due to their close proximity via the Paraguay River, exhibited the most amount of political and economic influence over the nation. As an aside, the Uruguayans forgave the Paraguayans’ war debt in 1885. In celebration and honor of this gesture, the main plaza in central Asunción, the Plaza San Francisco, was re-christened the Plaza Uruguaya.

The Liberal Era

Political scientist Paul H. Lewis dates the “Liberal era” in Paraguayan history from the occupation of Asunción during the War of the Triple Alliance on January 1, 1869 to the rise of the Febreristas after the Chaco War in February 1936.4 The Colorados, whose formal name was the Asociación Nacional Republicana, and the Centro Democrático, more commonly known as the Liberal Party, were both founded in 1887. The Colorados dominated politics in Paraguay until the 1904 Liberal Revolution. The Liberals controlled politics until after the Chaco War in 1936 when they were thrown out of power by a third party, the Febreristas. This was one of the few times in Paraguayan history when a third party held the presidency, although it was only for eighteen months. (Another notable exception in the two-party system of control of Paraguay occurred between 2008 and 2012 when Fernando Lugo, a left-leaning priest rose to the presidency with the Patriotic Alliance for Change. He was overthrown in a Colorado-led coup in 2012.) It should be noted that neither the Colorados nor the Liberals differed in “a belief in limited government, free enterprise, free trade, and individualism.”5 Significantly, both parties also welcomed and encouraged foreign investment in Paraguay. Because access to politics was one of the only sources of wealth, controlling the presidency and the source of relatively lucrative patronage jobs resulted in violent political encounters not only between the parties, but also within. As a result, both parties were fractured by political infighting that led to bloody civil wars. For example, the nation was at war during the centennial celebrations of 1911–1912 and Paraguayans also found themselves embroiled in civil conflict from 1922 to 1923 over a disputed presidential election hastened by union organizing and strikes in Asunción from the small, but growing working classes in Asunción. The political instability of the early 20th century meant that real economic, social, and cultural growth was severely impeded during the liberal era.

The Colorados, led by Bernardo Caballero, who was a founding member of the party, dominated Paraguayan politics from the period following the occupation until the 1904 Liberal coup. Caballero, who had served as el Mariscal’s second-in-command, was captured by Brazilian troops at Cerro Cora until 1871 when he was released. Caballero was greatly admired for his efforts during the war by his supporters, and his administration established the Civil Registry, the Banco Nacional, and began rebuilding Paraguay’s infrastructure and communications after the war.6 His political opponents charged Caballero with “corruption, thievery, oppression and murder.”7 While the Colorados under the leadership of Caballero had hoped to rule Paraguay under a one-party system, the founding of the Liberal Party ended such hopes. The Liberals led several unsuccessful revolts because they felt that the Colorados were manipulating election results. The end of Colorado rule came in 1904, when the Liberals were finally able to oust their rivals.

As already mentioned, during this period international actors also vied for control over the struggling nation. Argentine influence in politics and economics was strong during the liberal era, although the Brazilians also certainly attempted to exert control over Paraguay. This is evidenced in the 1894 Cavalcanti coup when the Brazilians attempted to influence Paraguayan politics by sending special envoy Dr. Amaro Cavalcanti to ensure the election of General Juan Bautista Egusquiza.8 However, the mission failed and subsequently Argentine influence in Paraguay grew substantially. This influence is most visible in the Argentine support for the 1904 Liberal coup and the Chaco War when they provided military equipment in both cases.

The liberal era was also marked by increased anxiety over the Chaco region. The western Chaco region had never fully been incorporated into the Paraguayan state and competing claims to the region from Bolivia led to increased tensions between the two states during this era. Disputes about the region went back to the early national period when both nations tried to claim the region as their own. However, after Paraguay’s defeat in the War of the Triple Alliance and Bolivia’s defeat in the War of the Pacific (1879–1883) both nations turned their attention to the Chaco. They both began establishing small forts in the region and skirmishes between troops escalated in the early 20th century. Although prior to the 1930s most Paraguayans largely ignored events in the Chaco, this changed in October 1931 when a Bolivian attack on the Paraguayan Fort Samaklay led to rioting in Asunción because of perceived inaction by the government of José Guggiari in defending the Chaco. After two days of riots, the police left eight students dead. Historians have interpreted the events of October 1931 as a turning point in national consciousness. Some suggest that this was the first battle of the Chaco War, others that it was the beginning of the 1936 Febrerista Revolution, and yet others posit that it was the end of the post–War of the Triple Alliance period. However it is understood by historians, after the events of October 1931, it became impossible for the Paraguayan government to ignore calls for war against Bolivia.

Because of Paraguay’s close relationship to Argentina, the Paraguayans were able to secure the support of the Argentines and the Carlos Casado company (a large tannin extraction company that worked in the Paraguayan Chaco and built the only railroad in the region in the early 20th century). The Argentines sold large quantities of arms and supplies to the Paraguayans during the war and the Casado company allowed Paraguayan troops to travel in the Chaco on their private railroad. Historians have considered these relationships as one of the many reasons that Paraguayan troops were successful in the Chaco War.

The dominant cultural and political debate in Paraguay during the liberal era was whether Francisco Solano López was a tyrant who led his country to disaster during the War of the Triple Alliance or a hero who saved the country from certain dismemberment at the hands of the Brazilians and Argentines. This debate was heated and passionate and intellectuals in Paraguay conducted public debates about the narrative in newspapers, public forums, and pamphlets. On one side, the heated rhetoric was led by the anti-Lopista, Cecilio Báez, whose most famous work about the topic was La tiranía en el Paraguay, sus causas, caracteres y resultados. Asunción (Paraguay: El País, 1903), published in 1903. His work outlined the reasons that Paraguay was backward and in need of reform and laid a great deal of blame on Solano López for blindly leading hapless Paraguayan soldiers into a conflagration they could never win. His words found followers among the Paraguayan intellectual community and among the members of the Liberal Party in Paraguay. This was the official position of the Paraguayan government beginning with the 1904 Liberal Revolution and it remained so until the 1936 Febrerista Revolution. Consequently, in an effort to write the former president out of the nation’s history, Paraguayan textbooks never mentioned the name Solano López.

The rival Colorado Party, on the other hand, vehemently opposed this position and argued that Solano López had valiantly led the nation during its “National Epic” as the Lópistas named the period. Led by intellectuals such as Juan O’Leary, the Lópistas worked tirelessly to restore Solano López to the national narrative crediting him with having the foresight to see the danger posed by the aggressive Brazilian monarchy and the Republic of Argentina intent on re-establishing the boundaries of the old Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. This narrative of the heroic Solano López dominated, and continues to dominate, Paraguayan histories and narratives in the post-1936 period.

Paraguay’s Rural Regions

Prior to the War of the Triple Alliance, there was an abundance of public land in Paraguay. However, after the war, the situation changed dramatically. Rural land holdings in Paraguay after the war were, according to the historian Jan Kleinpenning, increasingly in the hands of private landholders. The sales of what had previously been tierras fiscales (state land) meant that during the 1870s and 1880s Paraguay’s rural classes lost access to land. Much land was sold after the passage of the 1885 Ley de Venta de Tierras Públicas. In the end, the aims of the law were achieved as “99 percent of the area of forests and grazing lands has been sold in 1900, while all the natural yerba mate [Paraguayan tea] stands had also come into private hands.”9 This change meant that many Paraguayans who previously had been small landowners, and who collectively referred to themselves as “agriculturalists,” became landless workers following the War of the Triple Alliance.

Argentine investors also took advantage of these large-scale sales to purchase land. Hence, Argentine political influence in Paraguay was reinforced with the purchase of lands by private Argentine investors. As the historian Gabriela Dalla-Corte Caballero has noted, one of the most influential Argentine families in Paraguay was the Casado family from Rosario, Argentina. The family patriarch, Carlos Casado, purchased large tracts of land in the Chaco from the Paraguayan state in the years following the War of the Triple Alliance. The primary reason for interest in the Chaco was the quebracho (literally break-ax trees), used in the making of tannin. Although Casado was not the only one to purchase land in the region, his purchases were by far the largest and most important. In eastern Paraguay, land was sold to the Argentine La Industrial Paraguay S.A. and the French-owned Société Générale Paraguay-Argentina, which were transformed into large yerba mate plantations. These large-scale sales of land help to fund the cash-poor Paraguayan government in the post-war period.

Although large land holdings became common in Paraguay, there were exceptions. In 1873, it was possible for Paraguayans who had been small landholders prior to the war to earn títulos supletorios (substitute titles). If titleholders that had lost their paperwork during the war could provide witnesses to testify that they had held the lands prior to the war, they could re-gain the titles. As a result, some Paraguayans were able to retain their rights to land. This meant that some Paraguayans were able to eke out a living through working their own land. Nonetheless, these holdings were relatively small and most agriculturalists found themselves landless. Be that as it may, the powerful memory of when land was abundant led Paraguayans, even those who did not have access to land, to refer to themselves as “agriculturalists” instead of peasants. The use of that euphemism meant that Paraguayans viewed citizenship through the lens of working the land. Working the land, according to this logic, brought certain political rights. These ideas became the foundation of the populist Febrerista revolution.

One of the few sources about rural life in Paraguay during the early decades of the 20th century was Rafael Barrett, a Spanish reporter who lived, worked, and reported in Paraguayan newspapers about conditions in rural areas. He documented the extensive use of Guaraní in the countryside and the working conditions of Paraguayan laborers on yerbales (large yerba mate plantations), often referring to the workers as slaves. Moreover, he regularly commented on the poor educational system, lack of adequate health care, and deficiency of infrastructure in rural areas. He blamed politicians and greedy landlords for these problems. He also reflected on Paraguay’s many riches including its fertile land and natural beauty.

Paraguayan Culture

By the early 20th century a new group of men born after the War of the Triple Alliance who studied together at both the Colegio Nacional de Asunción and the Universidad Nacional de Asunción, came of age in around 1900. Known collectively as the “Generación del 900” these men represent a new birth in Paraguayan literature and culture. While many of the men were trained as lawyers their written work reflected interest in building a modern Paraguay. These elite men however, were not the only cultural voices; Paraguay’s rural classes also found ways to participate in the new cultural birth of the country in the early 20th century.

After the War of the Triple Alliance, the Guaraní language was banned in schools and in government documents. However, the reality was that, for the vast majority of Paraguayans, Guaraní was their first and only language, particularly in rural areas. While in Asunción elites spoke and wrote in Spanish, even in urban areas, Guaraní was used in the homes of elites and, among the lower classes, it was the only language they spoke. In a debate similar to that of the place of Solano López in the nation’s political history, the discussion about the status of the Guaraní language in the nation’s cultural heritage came to a head during the liberal era.

Once again, Cecilio Báez—a member of the Generación del 900—was one of the major debaters. He argued that the use of the Guaraní language was ensuring Paraguay’s continued backwardness and that it had stymied Paraguay’s cultural growth. The use of Guaraní, according to this logic, inhibited Paraguay’s economic growth because of Paraguay’s inability to effectively communicate with their Spanish-speaking neighbors. Nonetheless, even those who denounced the use of the Guaraní language recognized that its use could not easily be stopped and, as a result, many realized that Guaraní would continue only as a second language to be used quietly among family and friends.

However, others of his generation, including Juan O’Leary, argued that Guaraní was the language of an authentic Paraguay. They argued that the language represented Paraguay’s strong and proud mestizo identity (which they referred to as the Guaraní race.) They contended that the language had united Paraguayans in the face of their enemy during the War of the Triple Alliance and that Guaraní continued to be a source of pride. Significantly, they argued that it was equal in value and complexity to any European language.

Historians have consistently shown that the Guaraní language was quite important in Paraguay, calling Paraguay the only truly bilingual nations on earth.10 Historians and linguists have attributed the survival of the Guaraní language in Paraguay to a variety of factors including the Jesuits’ use of the language (although they only used it in homilies and preserved all other Catholics rituals and rites in Latin) and its extensive use in both the War of the Triple Alliance and the Chaco War. However, during the liberal era more evidence for the language’s everyday usage and survival is evident with the Imprenta Trujillo (Trujillo Press), a Lópista press. The Imprenta Trujillo began publishing the small but influential magazine entitled Ocara poty cue-mí [Little flower of olden days] in the early 20th century. This magazine published poetry and songs by non-elite writers, much of it in Guaraní. It should be noted, however, that although the magazine emphasized works by non-elite writers many of the poets and lyricists became household names, including, most famously, Emiliano R. Fernández.

Emiliano R. Fernández, more commonly known as Emiliano-re, was a musician and poet born in the small town of Guarambaré outside of Asunción. His fame grew in the years prior to the Chaco War when he worked in a tannin factory in the Chaco, and published his work in Ocara poty cue-mí. While serving as a sergeant during the Chaco War, his fame grew and his song and poetry about the Chaco War earned him a place in the hearts and minds of Paraguayans. His most famous works include, “¡Que Vivan los nietos de Solano López!” [Long Live the Grandchildren of Solano López], “Nanawa, he ne rembiapo” [Operation Nanawa] and, most famously, “13 Tuyutí” [The 13th Regiment]. These songs were composed in a combination of Guaraní and Spanish known as jopará. It should be noted that these songs continue to be quite popular as contemporary Paraguayans believe that they reflect ideas about Paraguayan nationalism and identity that continue to this day. These themes include a strong belief in Guaraní as the language of the Paraguayan nation, pride in Paraguay’s soldiers in defending the nation, and celebration of the life of Solano López.

During the years preceding the Chaco War, Paraguayan playwrights began producing Guaraní language plays. The most famous of these dramatists was Julio Correa who, along with his wife, Georgina Martínez, founded what became known as the Guaraní school of theater where ideas about Paraguayan life and identity were explored. Because of the popularity of Correa’s work, his ideas about language, art, Paraguayan identity and politics dramatically influenced how Paraguayans thought about their country. His most popular work, Guerra Aya, was performed in Guaraní and explored themes about rural life and struggle. Correa became a life-long Febrerista after the 1936 revolution.


Paraguayans commonly refer to their capital city as “the mother city.” This narrative places Asunción squarely in the center of the history of Spanish South America as it recounts how various expeditions that were launched from Asunción resulted in the establishment of other major metropolitan areas in the region including, but not limited to, Buenos Aires, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and Corrientes. These powerful narratives of centrality help to alleviate the painful reality that for much of the colonial and the national period during the late 19th and early 20th century, as outlined by the political scientist Paul H. Lewis, Asunción was a “somnolent backwater” where “city people traveled mostly on foot or horseback along streets picturesquely lined with orange trees.”11 In other words, even though Argentines were able to exert significant political and economic pressure on the government, in many ways the city of Asunción was quite remote and isolated from the outside world. Travel in and out of Asunción, and Paraguay more generally, was limited to movement on the Paraguay River to the lower Río de la Plata—a trip that could take as long as a week in either direction. As observed by the few tourists who found their way to Asunción, it lacked modern conveniences and it was not unusual to see cattle grazing in the middle of the city.12

Although relatively isolated from the rest of the region, Asunción was home to flourishing and important presses. Both the Liberal and Colorado parties had their own newspapers that reported on politics, cultural events, and scientific discoveries. Paraguay’s most important and well-regarded men, including Rafael Barrett, Juan O’Leary, Enrique Solano López (son of el mariscal), and others were all regular contributors to the newspapers during the liberal era.

There was also during the liberal era continued growth in the form of scientific and cultural venues in Asunción. Of particular note is the Jardín Botánico y Zoológico founded by the German naturalist Carlos Frebrig in the early decades of the 20th century. The Jardín Botánico quickly became a popular destination for asuncenos (as residents of Asunción are known) with a rich collection of plants and animals from all parts of the country. Containing aviaries, green houses, and a rich collection of fauna native to Paraguay including tapirs and avetruses (a flightless bird native to South America) the Jardín Botánico provided space for Paraguayans to discover the natural riches of their country. Moreover, with its abundant trees and beautiful views of the Paraguay River, it became a place of respite from Asunción’s notorious tropical heat. The Jardín Botánico also housed the agricultural school in Paraguay which contained experimental gardens and crops. In the end, the Jardín Botánico was much more than a place of relaxation and pleasure; it was a place of inquiry and learning.

Yet another German, Dr. Professor Max Schmidt, was responsible, along with Andrés Barbero, for the creation of the Sociedad Científica del Paraguay and the Museo de Historia and Antropología (later renamed the Museo Andrés Barbero). Dr. Andrés Barbero was one of the first graduates in 1904 of the newly established medical school in Asunción and quickly became one of Paraguay’s most distinguished scientists and philanthropists founding the Paraguayan Red Cross, which was active during the Chaco War. He also worked closely with the Liberal government in helping to create the Department of National Hygiene and Public Assistance. He was, along with Moises Bertoni, a Swiss naturalist, one of Paraguay’s most published scientists in the early 20th century. The Sociedad Científica dedicated its efforts to documenting and publishing the ethnographic history and realities of Paraguay while simultaneously documenting the flora and fauna of the nation. Significantly, the museum collection grew throughout the early years of the 20th century with the support of many of Paraguay’s most illustrious scientific and political figures who made large and important donations of pieces to the collection. The result is that today, the Museo Andrés Barbero houses the most important collection of indigenous objects and art in Asunción.

Immigration and Settlers

Although Paraguay was never a popular destination for European settlers, the nation did receive some important immigrant groups, including a large contingent of Canadian Mennonites who began arriving in the country in 1926. The Mennonites who arrived in Paraguay were looking to escape what they believed was intrusion of the Canadian government into the education of their children. Looking to make new lives in the vast Chaco frontier, these hardy settlers desired to establish new farming and ranching communities in the inhospitable Chaco far from any government control. The Mennonite settlers significantly altered the environmental landscape of the Chaco frontier with their efforts to grow peanuts and the introduction of livestock to the region. These pacifists were certainly not interested in the growing tension between Bolivia and Paraguay over the Chaco frontier, although their presence, according to intellectuals and politicians in Asunción, helped to assert Paraguayan authority over the region.

Italian, German, and other European immigrants also made their way to Paraguay, although not in large numbers as in either Argentina or Brazil. A small group of Germans made their homes in the colony of San Bernardino. Moreover, a sizable Italian community established itself in Concepción, upriver from Asunción. In 1936, a good-sized Japanese colony was founded in La Colmena. Many immigrants and their children became prominent and successful merchants and political leaders and found themselves part of a small but important middle class becoming doctors, lawyers, merchants, military officers, and politicians.

These immigrant classes were the first to form as mutual aid societies in the 1880s. Italian, French, Brazilian mutual aid societies were the first of such associations. The first purely labor organization in Paraguay was La Sociedad Artesanos del Paraguay (The Society of Paraguay Artisans) founded in 1882.13 By the 1890s many other unions and mutual aid societies were founded in Asunción and other smaller-sized metropolitan areas in Paraguay. The power of the labor movement was felt in full force in the early 1920s when unionized Paraguayan sailors halted trade throughout the Río de la Plata. Tailors, railroad workers, bakers, and other artisans were able to ally themselves with various political factions throughout the era to make their voices heard. This was most significant toward the end of Liberal Party rule in the 1930s when a group of student and union activists overran Encarnación, a small city on the banks of the Paraná River, without a single shot and declared the city the capital of the Socialist Republic of Paraguay on February 20, 1931. They held the city for sixteen hours. Those in Encarnación believed that others would join them in such places as Villarrica, Asunción, and Concepción. But lack of coordination meant that the rebels in Encarnación were alone in their attack. Realizing their failures the leaders of the expedition headed to Brazil seeking asylum.14 Although a failure, the “toma de Encarnación” showed the weakness of the Liberal Party rule in Paraguay and led directly to a revolt among military officers in March 1931 that was quickly crushed. Numerous leaders of this uprising were arrested or transferred to other units, but the damage was done. Major Rafael Franco, one of the leaders of this revolt would become a leading voice of the Febrerista Revolution only five years later.

The Chaco War

By the 1920s it was becoming increasingly clear that the disputed Chaco region would not be settled through peaceful negotiations. The Chaco region today occupies two-thirds of Paraguayan territory from the left bank of the Paraguay to the foothills of the Andes, but in the early decades of the 20th century the boundary between Bolivia and Paraguay was unclear. Various attempts at arbitration between the two nations led to three treaties: the Decoud-Quijarro (1879), Aceval-Tamayo (1887), and Benítez-Ichazo (1894), none of which were ever fully ratified by both parties. As a result, both Bolivia and Paraguay built small fortíns (forts) in the region in order to strengthen their conflicting claims. Tensions occasionally simmered over as during the Fort Vanguardia incident when Paraguayan troops attacked the fort in 1928. Luckily for both parties, war was averted when the International Conference of American States on Conciliation and Arbitration decided that the Paraguayans were responsible for the encounter and demanded that the Paraguayans rebuild the fort. It was however, becoming increasingly clear that war was the inevitable outcome in the Chaco.

For most Paraguayans, the region remained an enigma. Paraguayans knew little about the region and feared venturing into, let alone settling in, a place that was notorious for its “hostile” indigenous population and environment. Although the aforementioned Carlos Casado had built a small railroad into the interior of the Chaco for the purposes of harvesting quebracho, for most of this period Paraguayan knowledge of the region was relatively limited.

As a result of this limited knowledge, the Paraguayan military, in preparation for future conflict with the Bolivians, hired the White Russian Juan Belaieff for scouting purposes. This project, where he was joined by several of his fellow countrymen who had also escaped the Russian Revolution, helped to secure a Paraguayan victory in the Chaco. The efforts of Belaeiff most notably helped secure a source of fresh water during the Chaco War, Lake Pitiantuta, for the Paraguayans. Moreover, Belaeiff established friendly relations with several indigenous groups in the Chaco, most notably the Ma’ká, who served as guides for the Paraguayans during the conflict. As a result of his efforts on behalf of the Paraguayan military, Belaeiff was named as an honorary general.

It would be this lake, one of the few sources of year-round fresh water in the Chaco that would lead to the outbreak of war. In June 1932 a skirmish between Bolivian and Paraguayan troops on the shores of Lake Pitantuata led to the full mobilization of Bolivian troops. Most observers at the time fully believed that the Bolivians had the upper hand as they had more economic resources, a larger standing army, and overwhelming firepower, both on the ground and in the air. Significantly, the Bolivians also hired a foreign military leader, Prussian General Hans Kundt, to aid in their success.

In the end, the war took the lives of approximately 52,000 Bolivians and Paraguayans. It was fought in a hostile environment where securing supplies became even more challenging the further west Paraguayan troops advanced from the Paraguay River. However, under the competent leadership of José Felix Estigarribia, the Paraguayan military performed well against its Bolivian adversary. Paraguayan solders, much to the surprise of many observers, performed well under fire and Paraguayan homegrown leadership proved surprisingly able. Paraguayans were also able to keep their troops both better fed and hydrated and in the end this proved decisive.

The Febreristas

At the end of the Chaco war, the Liberal Party was overthrown in a coup led by Major Rafael Franco, who had been reinstated in the Paraguayan military by Estigarribia after being removed from the military after the March 1930 revolt. Franco promised returning soldiers land reform and economic stability in return for their support of his revolution. His populist rhetoric quickly gained support among Paraguay’s displaced veterans. He successfully capitalized on what he viewed as the failures of the Liberal Party and especially what he believed was their biggest letdown: ending the war before reaching the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and their failure to address land reform. According to Franco and his followers, Estigarribia and the President of Paraguay, Eusebio Ayala, ended the conflict before conquering all of the Chaco. Estigarribia, however, struggling to move supplies and men far from the western bank of the Paraguay River decided that the war needed to come to a close before the weakened Bolivians could rise again.

For Franco and his followers these actions were paramount to treason and he found willing followers in unemployed veterans who were demanding land reform. In the end, the Febrerista Revolution of 1936 promised much more than it could deliver in terms of land reform and political change. Eighteen months after coming to power, and as Chaco War veterans returned to their rural homes, the leaders of the Febreristas found themselves ousted and living in exile. As a direct result of demobilization and the veterans’ return to the countryside, the Febreristas were unable to hold power. The historian Bridget María Chesterton attributes this to the Febreristas’ inability to hold elections quickly to legitimize their power. Nonetheless, the cultural and social changes implemented by the Febreristas ended the liberal era. The Febreristas restored the memory of Solano López. They also secured a place for the Guaraní language in the Paraguayan national identity.

Discussion of the Literature

The historiography of the interwar period and the liberal era is notoriously weak. This is because of the lack of primary sources available and the continued interest of historians in the early War of the Triple Alliance. After the war, each ministry was charged with keeping its own archive. However, the reality was that few bothered to do so and those that did suffered from many moves and a lack of funding that made maintaining an archive nearly impossible. In recent years, historians have begun to turn their attention to the era as events in the period have proven pivotal to understanding the later Chaco War and Paraguay’s national and cultural identity in the 20th century. Early studies of the period include Harris Gaylord Warren’s book that highlights the major political and economic moments of the period of rebuilding immediately following the War of the Triple Alliance.15 Paul H. Lewis’s work is one of the only studies in English about the complicated nature of the post-war politics.16 It is a detailed study of the internal working of both the Liberal and Colorado parties. More recent work about the politics of the era can be found in Ignacio Telesca’s text.17 Of note are chapters 9 and 10 that clearly outline the political uncertainties and various coups of the era. Economic studies of the period in question include the classic work of Diego Abente which studies the changes in export commodities in Paraguay from yerba mate in the late 19th century, to quebracho and tannin in the early 20th century, followed by meat packing and cotton in the 1920s and places great emphasis on the foreign nature of Paraguay’s major enterprises.18 The work of Kleinpenning is by far the best study of economics and land in Paraguay for this period with a detailed analysis of politics, policy, and land distribution.19 A must read for anyone interested in Paraguay, Milda Rivarola’s text is an outstanding and detailed study of Paraguayan politics of the era. It outlines the various causes and results of Paraguay’s civil wars, and demonstrates how Paraguay’s small working and middle classes influenced politics and economics. Although Gomez Florentin’s work is based on secondary sources, it is rich with detail and provides a strong foundation to understanding post-war Paraguayan culture and society.20 Dalla Corte Caballero’s work is a strong study of the Casado company and its history in both Argentina and Paraguay, highlighting the growing importance of foreign capital in Paraguay during the era.21 Although Scavone Yegros’s work is mostly about the 19th century, the text highlights the complicated nature of the relationship between Bolivia and Paraguay leading to the Chaco War.22 It also contains a long list of primary documents related to the topic. Chesterton’s (2013) work is an overview of the cultural and political shifts in Paraguay after the rise of the Liberal Party in 1904 through the Febrerista Revolution.

Primary Sources

Government archives in Paraguay about this era are notoriously difficult to find. After the War of the Triple Alliance, each government ministry in Paraguay was charged with keeping its own archive instead of sending material to a centralized archive. Because of lack of funds and moves most ministries today do not have any archives of the period. Nonetheless, there are some exceptions. The Archivo Nacional de Asunción, located at Avenida Mariscal Estigarribia esq. Iturbe, does contain a few sources. For example, Carlos Gomez Florentin was able to find a few educational sources for the period in the Archivo Nacional. The Biblioteca Nacional located at De la Residenta 820 casi Perú in Asunción, has a much more extensive collection of newspapers from the era, including El Diario, El Liberal among others. The library at the Museo Ethnográfico Andrés Barbero, located on Avenida España 217 c/Mompox in Asunción, contains many scientific, social, and cultural journals. This private collection is well organized, easily accessible, with a well-trained and helpful staff. Other important collections of books and resources can be found at the Centro Paraguayo Japonés-Paraguayo. The Archivo del Instituto de Historia y Museo Militar del Ministerio de Defensa located on Aveida Mariscal López and Vicepresidente Sánches in Asunción contains a great deal of material from the era.

The Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut (IAI), located at Potsdamer Straße 37 in Berlin, Germany contains the most complete resources outside of Paraguay for the era. The IAI’s resources include, but are not limited to, scientific journals, literary sources, and other hard to find primary sources. The IAI’s online catalog is accessible in English, Spanish, and German. The University of California, Riverside also has a rich collection of papers and photographs from the era, including a photographic collection from 1910–1926, the Nicolás and Viriato Días Pérez papers (the latter a well-known educator in Paraguay), and the Juan Silvano Godoi Collection. Godoi ran many libraries in archives in Paraguay from 1902 to 1926. These resources at UC Riverside have been little used by historians.

Published primary sources include the works of the Spanish journalist Rafael Barrett who lived in Paraguay for many years documenting life in the Paraguayan countryside. Titles include El dolor Paraguayo (Caracas, Venezuela: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1979); Obras completes (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Tupac, 1954), volumes 1–4. The literary magazine Ocara poty cue-mí contains many songs and poems documenting the cultural lives of Paraguay’s rural population. Complete collections are difficult to find as they are all in private hands. Nonetheless, the library at the Catholic University has a few issues. Many sources are in private hands in Asunción. Many private collectors have rich collections of postcards, letters, books, and obscure publications. The best way to access these materials is through personal connections. Researching the late 19th and early 20th century in Paraguay requires building networks of trust to access private archives. Paraguayans are, however, generally eager to share their material, once it is located.

Further Reading

Abente, Diego. “Foreign Capital, Economic Elites, and the State in Paraguay during the Liberal Republic.” Journal of Latin American Studies 21.1 (1989): 61–88.Find this resource:

Chesterton, Bridget María. The Grandchildren of Solano López: Frontier and Nation in Paraguay, 1904–1936. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Chesterton, Bridget María. “Performing Populism in Paraguay: Febrerismo in the Works of Ruffinelli and Correa, 1933–43.” In John Abromeit, Bridget María Chesterton, York Norman and Gary Marotta, eds., Transformations of Populism in Europe and the Americas: Histories and Recent Tendencies, 212–227. London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2015.Find this resource:

Dalla Corte Caballero, Gabriela. Empresas y tierras de Carlos Casado en el Chaco Paraguayo, Historias, negocios y guerras, 1860–1940. Asunción, Paraguay: Intercontinental, 2012.Find this resource:

Gomez Florentin, Carlos. El Paraguay de la post-guerra, 1870–1900. Asunción, Paraguay: El Lector, 2010.Find this resource:

Kleinpenning, Jan M. G. Rural Paraguay. Vols. 1 and 2. Amsterdam: CEDLA, 1992.Find this resource:

Lewis, Paul H. Political Parties and Generations in Paraguay’s Liberal Era, 1869–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Rivarola, Milda. Obreros, utopías y revoluciones: Formación de las clases trabajadoras en el Paraguay liberal. Asuncion, Paraguay: ServiLibro, 2010.Find this resource:

Scavone Yegros, Ricardo. Las relaciones entre el Paraguay y Bolivia en el siglo XIX. Asunción, Paraguay: ServiLibro, 2004.Find this resource:

Telesca, Ignacio, ed. Historia del Paraguay. Asunción, Paraguay: Taurus, 2010.Find this resource:

Warren, Harris Gaylord. Rebirth of the Paraguayan Republic: The First Colorado Era, 1878–1904. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.Find this resource:


(1.) Thomas Whigham, The Paraguayan War: Causes and Early Conduct (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 118.

(2.) Thomas L. Whigham and Barbara Potthast, “The Paraguayan Rosetta Stone: New Insights into the Demographics of the Paraguay War,” Latin American Research Review 34.1 (1991): 184.

(3.) Carlos Gomez Florentin, El Paraguay de la Post Guerra, 1870–1900 (Asunción: El Lector, 2010), 26.

(4.) See, for example, Paul H. Lewis, Political Parties and Generations in Paraguay’s Liberal Era, 1869–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

(5.) Lewis, Political Parties and Generations, 144.

(6.) Harris Gaylord Harris, Rebirth of the Paraguayan Republic: The First Colorado Era, 1878–1904 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 53, 58.

(7.) Ibid., 76.

(8.) For more see: Harris Gaylord Warren, “Brazil and the Cavalcanti Coup of 1894 in Paraguay,” Luso-Brazilian Review 19.2 (Winter 1982): 221–236.

(9.) Jan M. G. Kleinpenning, Rural Paraguay, 1870–1963, Vol. 1 (Amsterdam: CEDLA, 1992).

(10.) See for example, Joan Rubin, National Bilingualism in Paraguay (The Hague: Janua Linguarum, 1968); and Robert Andrew Nickson, “Governance and the Revitalization of the Guaraní Language,” Latin American Research Review 44.3 (2009): 2–26.

(11.) Lewis, Political Parties and Generations in Paraguay, 123–124.

(12.) Theodore Child, “The Republic of Paraguay,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 83 (June–November 1891): 239.

(13.) Milda Rivarola, Obreros, utopías y revoluciones: Formación de las clases trabajoras en el Paraguay liberal (1870–1931) (Asunción: ServiLibro, 2010), 90.

(14.) Ibid., 295.

(15.) Harris Gaylord Warren, Rebirth of the Paraguayan Republic: The First Colorado Era, 1878–1904 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985).

(16.) Lewis, Political Parties and Generations.

(17.) Ignacio Telesca, ed., Historia del Paraguay (Asunción, Paraguay: Taurus, 2010).

(18.) Diego Abente, “Foreign Capital, Economic Elites, and the State in Paraguay during the Liberal Republic,” Journal of Latin American Studies 21.1 (1989): 61–88.

(19.) Kleinpenning, Rural Paraguay, Vols. 1 and 2.

(20.) Carlos Gomez Florentin, El Paraguay de la post-guerra, 1870–1900 (Asunción, Paraguay: El Lector, 2010).

(21.) Gabriela Dalla Corte Caballero, Empresas y tierras de Carlos Casado en el Chaco Paraguayo, Historias, negocios y guerras, 1860–1940 (Asunción, Paraguay: Intercontinental, 2012).

(22.) Ricardo Scavone Yegros, Las relaciones entre el Paraguay y Bolivia en el siglo XIX (Asunción, Paraguay: ServiLibro, 2004).