Paraguay remains the least known, least understood and least researched country in Latin America. A landlocked country situated in the heart of the subcontinent and slightly larger than Japan, 98 percent of its 7.2 million people (as of 2021) live in the eastern region, which occupies only one-third of the total land area. An unusual history sets it apart from the subcontinent, in that an untypical form of colonialism has turned Paraguay into the only genuinely bilingual country in Latin America, where a ‘repressed’ language, Guaraní, is spoken by the majority of the overwhelmingly mestizo population. The springboard for the Spanish conquest of the southern half of the subcontinent, Paraguay later became embroiled in two of the three postindependence wars of Latin America, a fact that is indelibly marked on the country’s psyche to the present day. Defeat in the Triple Alliance War (1865–1870), the bloodiest war in the history of Latin America, in which around 75 percent of the adult male population died, has left deep psychosocial scars. Victory against Bolivia in the Chaco War (1932–1935) ensured control over the enormous but hardly populated western region of the country. Together these two wars gave rise to a militaristic and xenophobic form of “heroic nationalism” that was adroitly embedded by the dictatorship of the Alfredo Stroessner (1954–1989), whose rule was the longest of any head of state in Latin American history. This long period of political repression also saw the construction of the Itaipú hydroelectric plant, still the largest in the world. Although jointly owned with Brazil, Paraguay’s benefits from the enterprise have been extremely meager. The country’s road to democratization since 1989 has been rocky, with three attempted coups (1996, 1999, and 2000); the assassination of a vice-president (1999); and the burning of Congress (2017). Yet despite endemic corruption and extremely weak rule of law, economic change has been dramatic in the new millennium. For though long geographically and culturally isolated, the democratization process has coincided with the rapid introduction of mechanized agriculture, which has catapulted the country into becoming the fourth-largest world exporter of soybean, which now occupies 22 percent of the total land area of eastern Paraguay. Meanwhile, a weak state is striving to deal with the attendant problems that this economic transformation is creating in the form of deforestation and environmental destruction, expulsion of small farmers and Indigenous peoples from their land, the spread of narcotic-related crime, and worsening inequality in income distribution. This article aims to provide an insight into the wide range of fascinating issues that come together in Paraguay’s turbulent history.
The following works provide a general introduction to the history of Paraguay. The edited volume Telesca 2020 offers by far the best contemporary work, incorporating much of the latest research on each historical period. The political and economic history up to World War Two is succinctly covered in Warren 1982 while Pastore 2013 traces the history of land ownership prior to the controversial land sales of the Stroessner regime. Borda and Caballero 2020 covers the more recent economic history of the country, including the growth spurt in the new millennium. The general introduction Roett and Sacks 1991 picks up many perennial themes in Paraguayan history and debunks several myths. For key annotated primary texts on all historical periods, see the anthology Lambert and Nickson 2013. Creydt 2007 is the first attempt to interpret Paraguayan history in the Marxist tradition, an approach later followed up in Schvartzman 2017. The monumental bibliography Jones 1979 and the historical dictionary Nickson 2015 are both useful tools for researchers.
Borda, Dionisio, and Manuel Caballero. Crecimiento y desarrollo económico en Paraguay. Asunción, Paraguay. CADEP, 2020.
Excellent introduction to the Paraguayan economy and the challenges that it faces. The authors analyze the three stages of its economic history since 1960, covering the perennial problems of institutional weaknesses, low-quality employment, poverty, and inequality. They use the lessons learned from their analysis to make a range of proposals for economic policy reforms in the direction of sustainability and social inclusion.
Creydt, Oscar. Formación histórica de la nación paraguaya. Asunción, Paraguay: Servilibro, 2007.
Influential Marxist interpretation of Paraguayan history from the Spanish conquest. Creydt (b. 1907–d. 1988) was the leader of the pro-Chinese Paraguayan Communist Party. He rebuts Service 1971 (cited under The Colonial Period) that the culture of Paraguay is essentially Hispanic with the exception of the Guaraní language. Instead, he argues that its history has been characterized by a permanent class conflict interwoven with the cultural subordination of the mainly Guaraní-speaking population. This is a reprint of the 1963 (n.p.) original.
Jones, David Lewis. Paraguay: A Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1979.
Best bibliography with 4,431 nonannotated entries covering all aspects of Paraguayan history up to the 1970s. Citing books, periodicals, articles, and government publications, the volume is arranged by subject categories and includes an author index. Most citations cover history and literature. Other categories cover religion, anthropology, geography, economics, law, education, arts and music, science, and medicine. The scrupulous attention to detail makes it an indispensable research tool for scholars of Paraguay.
Lambert, Peter, and Andrew Nickson, eds. The Paraguay Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.
Anthology comprising 91 selections including testimonies, journalism, scholarship, political tracts, and illustrations. Arranged in seven chronological sections and weighted toward recent history, it nevertheless covers major historical events. The final section on national identity and culture addresses ethnicity, language, and gender. Most selections are by Paraguayans and many appear in English for the first time. Introductions by the editors precede each of the sections and all of the selected texts.
Nickson, R. Andrew. Historical Dictionary of Paraguay. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Comprehensive historical dictionary of Paraguay from the earliest times, containing over 3,600 cross-referenced entries and a 45-page bibliography. A Spanish translation appeared as Diccionario Histórico del Paraguay (Asunción, Paraguay: Intercontinental, 2017).
Pastore, Carlos. La lucha por la tierra en el Paraguay. Asunción, Paraguay: Intercontinental, 2013.
Classic study of the land tenure system of Paraguay from the colonial period to the 1960s. It includes a wealth of statistical data to demonstrate the persistence of a highly unequal distribution of land ownership since the massive land sales of the 1870s. There is exhaustive treatment of the many ill-fated attempts at land reform during the first half of the 20th century. This is a reprint of the 1972 original (Montevideo, Uruguay: Antequera).
Roett, Riordan, and Richard Scott Sacks. Paraguay: The Personalist Legacy. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.
General introduction to Paraguay with chapters covering its early and modern history, the economy, culture and society, politics and government, and international relations. The text is illustrated by photographs, graphs, tables, and maps. The chapter on culture and society incorporates recent research that has debunked many cozy myths propagated by Asunción ‘men of letters’ about the status of the Guaraní language, the role of women, and pride in the Indigenous heritage of the nation.
Schvartzman, Mauricio. Contribuciones al estudio de la sociedad paraguaya. Asunción, Paraguay: Secretaría Nacional de Cultura, 2017.
Sweeping and influential assessment of the whole of Paraguayan history. The author argues that its development has been stymied by powerful groups controlling the state that have inhibited the growth of a national bourgeoisie. Despite the wealth of detail, the analysis suffers from a rather dogmatic materialist perspective that makes no distinction between the situations in the colonial, nationalist, liberal, or post-1945 period. This is a reprint of the 1989 (Asunción, Paraguay: CIDSEP).
Telesca, Ignacio, ed. Nueva historia del Paraguay. Nueva historia del Paraguay. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Sudamericana, 2020.
By far the best introduction to Paraguay which first appeared in 2010 and is now in its fourth edition. It comprises thirteen chronological chapters and eight thematic chapters (women, Afro-Paraguayans, small farmers and their struggle for land, art, literature, music, Indigenous peoples, and hydroelectricity). Each chapter is written by a leading Paraguayan or foreign specialist in the subject.
Warren, Harris Gaylord. Paraguay: An Informal History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.
Excellent introduction to the history of Paraguay by one of the foremost academic specialists on the subject. Of special interest is the chapter on precolonial history and culture. There is also rare information on the extent of foreign investment in the aftermath of the Triple Alliance War, which the author obtained during his stay in Paraguay as a member of the US diplomatic service. Originally published in 1949 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press).
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