Donate SIGN UP

Everything you ever wanted to know about Paraguay

01:00 Tue 28th May 2002 |

All I know about Paraguay is that they've qualified for the World Cup

Don't worry, you're not alone. If Paraguay gets mentioned at all in the UK, it's usually because of their football team and in particular their controversial captain Jose Luis Chilavert, the penalty-taking goalkeeper who allegedly picks the team and fancies a go as President of his country when he retires from the game. (He's also a great goalkeeper, by the way). Football apart, Paraguay seldom makes waves outside...well, outside Paraguay.

Where exactly is it

Paraguay is wedged between two much larger neighbours - Brazil to the North and East, and Argentina to the South, as well as Bolivia to the West.

Paraguay is landlocked and isolated, even in this modern day and age - the few international flights in and out of the country are mostly to nearby Sao Paolo or Buenos Aires and road links are poor. Early European arrivals found their way 1000 miles up the Paraguay River from the sea, but that's not really an option these days. ('Paraguay' actually means 'place with great river').

A brief history lesson, please

The Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1537 to find several local tribes in the area we now know as Paraguay. True to form, it didn't take the invaders long to establish control at great cost to the indigenous peoples. Jesuit missions competed with some decidedly unholy landowners for control of the local population.

Initially, Spain had high hopes for Paraguay, and the capital Asuncion was larger, richer and more powerful than the likes of Buenos Aires. But a lack of natural resources meant it was soon overlooked in favour of Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Paraguay descended deep into poverty. When the local elite declared independence in 1811, Spain wasn't too concerned.

Did independence make things better
Not for the people who had planned it. The rich, who'd fancied a change, quickly found themselves under the authoritarian rule of Doctor Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, who would lead the country in classic dictatorial fashion until his death in 1840.

'El Supremo' cut the country off from the outside world (he executed anyone who attempted to leave the country), tortured and killed political opponents, suppressed the Church and prohibited whites from marrying whites - in one stroke putting an end to the families that had traditionally run the place. He singlehandedly controlled all aspects of the life of the nation.

How did he survive in power for so long
The majority of the country benefited from his strict control, so they were prepared to overlook the odd abuse of human rights. And although he was monstrous in many ways, he was also frugal and utterly honest in others. The country prospered, albeit in singular fashion. His enemies hated him with a passion, but he is still fondly remembered today.

Did things get better after he died
Francia was succeeded by the fat and ruthless Carlos Antonio Lopez, who also ruled alone. He did little right, but the single worst thing he did was bequeth the Presidency to his son. Francisco Solano Lopez fancied himself the ruler of the whole continent, which is why he dragged Paraguay into the unwinnable War Of The Triple Alliance.

Solano Lopez
Paraguay took on - and lost heavily to - Brazil and Argentina and (for good measure) Uruguay. That's 450,000 Paraguayans versus 11 million Brazilians, Argentines and Uruguayans. Guess who lost It's been calculated that there were just 28,000 adult men left alive in the country when peace was finally declared in 1870.

But the country survived
Somehow, Paraguay emerged in one piece though there were no fewer than 20 political coups between 1870 and 1954. Another exhausting war with Bolivia over disputed border territory kept the country on the edge of poverty and readied the political landscape for another strongman. Enter General Alfredo Stroessner, who seized power in 1954.

Another dictator
Stroessner was cut from the same cloth as his predecessors, repressing opposition politicians through terror, murder and harassment, and relying on his military powerbase. The USA was happy to see a staunch anti-Communist running the country. He also turned his personal fiefdom into a safe hideaway for fleeing Nazi war criminals. Stroessner lasted until 1990 and now lives in exile in Rio de Janeiro.

So all's well now
Stroessner was overthrown by a military coup led by his former right-hand man Major General Andres Rodriguez. (To make matters even more tangled, Rodriguez' son was married to Stroessner's daughter).

Not promising, but despite initial suspicions, democracy has more or less arrived in Paraguay - finally - provided you overlook the fact that in March 1999 newly-elected President Raul Cubas was hounded from office accused of arranging the murder of his own Vice-President!

I'm intrigued. In fact, I'd like to see this place for myself
Fortunately, foreigners entering Paraguay are no longer obliged to stay in the country for the rest of their lives (another of Francia's laws). And no-one is shot (as in Francia's day) or even arrested (Stroessner) for having the temerity to look at the Presidential palace!

Asuncion, the capital city on a bluff overloking the Paraguay River, is fairly well geared for handling tourists who like something out of the ordinary, though some of the attractions are basic to say the least. The Pantheon Of The Heroes is ironically named - not much heroic about Francisco Solano Lopez, one of the long-term residents of its crypt.

What else is there to see
Outside the capital, expect a bumpy ride and long journeys, all richly rewarded. To the west, the Chaco is home to a unique selection of flora and fauna: ostrich, jaguars, ocelots, brown wolves, waterhogs and pumas amongst others. The region contains 60% of the country's land and just 2% of the people, including significant German-speaking Mennonite communities. These refugees from religious persecution in Europe still dress, speak and live in a distinctive, centuries old fashion.

To the south of the country are the ruins of the Jesuit missions or reducciones (remember Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro in The Mission ) which have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

And in the east of Paraguay, take a deep breath and plunge into the swirling masses of Ciudad Del Este, less than 30 years old but already the second largest city in the country. It's close to the Itaipu Dam (the world's largest, shared with Brazil) and the unbelievable Iguassu waterfalls - two miles wide, 262 feet high and one of the great natural wonders of the world. Ciudad Del Este is also the centre of Paraguay's contraband industry. What is politely called a 'large informal sector' is a hive of money laundering, smuggling and drug-running.

Anything else of note
Paraguay is the home of 'yerba mate', more than just a hot drink, it's something of an obsession across the south of South America. People will sip from their hot flask all day long.

Paraguay's World Cup footballers will doubtless use Guarani (like Spanish, a national language) to discuss tactics when playing against Spanish-speaking players.

Ah yes, the World Cup. How will Paraguay do
Group B - they face Spain, Slovenia and South Africa in the opening round - is hardly the Group of Death. Chilavert expects progress, but the bookies rate them at 80-1 to win the Cup.

Best save your money for a holiday to the country instead.

Do you have a question about History?