Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Monday, December 12, 2005

Dispatches from Latin America #3: Paraguay

Paddington's Latin American adventure continues. After losing his wallet and losing in love on a visit to Argentina, you'd think he'd send us some good news - but instead he decides to mention Ipswich Town FC in his latest post - the recent performances of which are hardly likely to bring any 'Christmas cheer' to anyone except Norwich fans (who are now above us in the Championship). However, there is some good news - he has finally made to to Paraguay, and so I'll let him describe that country in all its beauty to you:

'On Saturday, I left the comparative security of
Argentina behind to take an 18 hour bus journey to
Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. The Lonely Planet
reckons that in Paraguay travellers are less common
than jaguars. P.J. O'Rourke said that "Paraguay is
nowhere and is famous for nothing." After Bolivia, it
is South America's poorest country, and is certainly
the least visited by gringos. So, to try and explain
why this might be, and why Paraguay is considered by
the rest of the world to be so obscure and
unappealing, here is another of Paddington's
under-researched history lessons.


In my first post about Argentina, I outlined a rough
template into which the histories of most Latin
American countries seem to fit. It went roughly like

- Indigenous tribes cultivate the land, creating
small-scale agricultural and fishing communities, or
otherwise were nomadic hunter-gatherers.
- During the 16th century, the continent is invaded by
- During the 19th century, republican movements spring
up across the continent and independent states are
- During the late 20th century, partly induced by the
fear of Castro´s Cuban Revolution spreading
southwards, much of the continent comes under the rule
of right-wing repressive military dictatorships.
- These have now all but disappeared, but the
governments of the continent are under great pressure
from the US to sign up to radical free-market policies
- policies which have thus far been strongly resisted
by the continent´s people.

Conveniently (though not for Paraguayans), Paraguay
follows this template fairly closely. Paraguay
achieved independence five years before Argentina in
1811, and was governed by Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de
Francia (or El Supremo, as he was known in porn
films) until 1840. Francia was a child of the French
Revolution, studied Rousseau, and was determined that
his republic should be ruled with an iron rod. He was
universally accepted as being honest, personally
disciplined, and dedicated to developing his country -
in other words, the total opposite of today´s career
politicians, who are intent only on lining their own
pockets and those of their chums in the
multinationals. Francia even returned his unspent
salary to the Treasury´s coffers - can you imagine any
of the current UK Cabinet doing that? I think not.

In building up the power of the State, Francia seized
land from landowners and expropriated property from
the Church. But wait a second - before I make Francia
out to be some sort of redistributive left-wing saint,
let´s have a wee look at his political methods. His
policy of shutting Paraguay´s borders was borne more
out of xenophobic prejudice than promoting Paraguayan
autonomy. He was by nature a suspicious character:
suspicious of foreigners and suspicious of his own
people. After an assassination attempt in 1820, he
forbade his subjects from standing less than six paces
away from him. Anyone caught looking at his Palace in
Asuncion was shot on sight (I took a photo of it
yesterday and felt quite the rebel), and at the end of
his reign he ordered that all dogs in Paraguay should
be shot. Some must have escaped Francia´s doggie
death-squads, for Asuncion is now generously populated
with stray mongrels.

Francia died in 1840 and his body was fed to caimen in
the Rio Paraguay. During his reign he had
simultaneously terrorised, tortured and killed his own
people, and turned his country from an undeveloped
infant state into one with highly successful
nationalised internal industries.

In 1865, Francisco Solano Lopez, whose father had
opened Paraguay´s borders, decided he would go one
further and invade Paraguay´s neighbours. All of
them. At the same time. Because Paraguay´s internal
growth required trade with the outside world, and
because Paraguay was landlocked, Lopez decided that
Paraguay needed to capture land with a seaport
attached to it. Meanwhile, Brazil and Uruguay had
been wrangling over disputed lands, so Lopez offered
himself up as a honest broker between the two states.
This plan went badly wrong and on 18 March 1865,
Paraguay declared war on Brazil and Argentina; Uruguay
aligned itself with its two neighbours. By the end of
the five-year conflict, up to 300,000 Paraguayans were
killed - or up to 90% of the male population. In
1870, less than 10% of Paraguay´s population were men.
For more information on the War of the Triple
Alliance, Wikipedia has a decent page

In the 1930s, Paraguay was once more at war, this time
with another neighbour, Bolivia, over the border lands
of the Chaco. Chaco became an area of dispute because
of its suspected oil reserves (plus ça change). Rival
oil companies sided with each of the two countries:
Standard Oil with Bolivia, Shell with Paraguay. In
1938, after 38,000 lives had been lost on both sides,
Paraguay was granted 225,000 square kilometres of the
Chaco land. To this day, oil has never been found

After a brief civil war during the 1940s and a coup in
1954, General Alfred Stroessner came to power.
Francia-style terror-politics resumed for another 35
years, supported by the US who found favour in
Stroessner´s rampant anti-Communism. Up to 3000
people were tortured, "disappeared" or were killed
during his reign, and Paraguay became something of a
haven for ex-Nazis.


Although Stroessner was deposed by a coup in 1989, his
Colorado Party have maintained power ever since.
There have been elections on a fairly regular basis
during the 90s and 00s, but they seem to be fairly
meaningless - the government always wins, as the
expression goes, and besides there have been
widespread allegations of fraud and other dodgy
goings-on (assassinations of a vice-president and a
president's daughter, attempted coups etc). On
several occasions since the turn of the century,
peasants and workers have taken to the streets
demanding that the government stops its free-market
policies and pursues a policy of land redistribution.

Actually, the government has recently been involved in
land redistribution, selling off a forest which was
home to the Ayoreo Indian tribe. It is not the first
time that an indigenous group has been forcibly
removed from its home, giving rise to an increase of
home-grown refugees. Unfortunately, Paraguay's
peasants and indigenous groups do not seem to have the
leadership of next-door Bolivia's Evo Morales.

Oh, and Paraguay - unlike most of the Southern Cone of
South America - is still best buds with that nice
Señor Bush. In July 2005, US special forces began
military operations in Paraguay, though both
Washington and the US Ambassador in Asuncion deny that
there are plans to set up a permanent base in the
Chaco region. In exchange for letting 400 US Marines
stay in the area for 18 months, Paraguay receive
$585,000 in "aid" (actually, only 2 of the 13 military
exercises planned are humanitarian). Some
commentators believe that the US are there partly to
counter FARC 'terrorists' from Columbia, but most
reckon the main reason for their presence is to deal
with neighbouring Bolivia if Evo Morales wins the
upcoming election.

As I say, the reason I have come to Paraguay is that
nobody else does. Every other country in Latin
America has its fans, but Paraguay sits there, hemmed
in by its more popular neighbours, semi-tropical,
loved by nobody. I scoured the Lonely Planet and the
Internet for things to do in Asuncion before I came
here, and found very little. I have now scoured
Asuncion personally, and think that LP and the web are
probably right. There really is nothing to do here.
I have never been to a capital city that behaves less
like a capital city. I have seen the Palacio de
Gobierno, the Camara de Diputados and the Museo del
Barro, and I have a cheap porn flick pencilled in for
this afternoon (v popular in downtown Asuncion cinemas

And yet I will be as sorry to leave this place
tomorrow as I was to leave Buenos Aires last weekend.
There is something highly seductive about Asuncion´s
laziness. Nobody rushes anywhere, a few people walk
from one block to another, and most people sit in the
local plaza or on their doorsteps or on street
corners, sipping their iced maté and chilling out.
Since my favourite cities in South America have been
the ones where it is easiest to spend quality time
doing nothing, I can see why Asuncion has found a fan
in this gringo. The negligible pace must be something
to do with heat - it is approaching 40ºC here and
humid as hell, making it physically impossible to do
anything particularly energetic. But let´s not
over-romanticise: Paraguay is seriously poor, and
there are simply not the opportunities for its 5.5
million people to do much to improve their lot. The
people here have been as fabulous as the guidebooks
promised: warm, funny, inquisitive (the question of
why the hell I would want to visit Paraguay has come
up over and over) and incredibly helpful. They are
also rightly proud of their country, and especially of
their football (and incidentally, South Americans are
SERIOUSLY knowledgable about football - several
Argentinians and one Paraguayan knew more about
Ipswich Town than I do, and I was born there!) - but
nonetheless, the country is poor and is getting
poorer. Although they are less vociferous in their
protests than the Argentinians, the graffiti on
Asuncion´s walls gives a strong hint of what
Paraguayans think is at the heart of their sinking

¡Suerte! y hasta Brasil,


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At 12:22 am, Blogger Red Menace said...

Snowball, I note you have linked to my site.


I'll link right back to you this weekend.


At 12:23 am, Blogger Red Menace said...

By the way, that was me, Rosa!

At 9:36 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Is that the Anti-Dialectics one? It is interesting - I want to set aside some time to properly read it at some point and then think about it - perhaps over the break.

At 5:35 pm, Blogger Red Menace said...

OK, but only about 10% of the material I have ready to post has been posted yet! [Another two long essays going up in the next week or so; one on Logic, and one on Abstraction.]

And I am continually ammending it.

And, there is very little on Historical Materialism. I explain why in the Introduction and Background.


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