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Pre-Columbian history

The Pre-Columbian cultural pattern of Paraguay was more complex than in its neighbours Uruguay and Argentina. At the time of the first European contacts, Guaraní-speaking Indians inhabited eastern Paraguay, while west of the Río Paraguay in the Chaco lived several small groups of Indians. All these groups, among them Abipones, Matacos and Tobas were collectively called by the Guarani "Guaycurú". The Guarani were semi-nomadic farmers while the others were hunters and gatherers while the Chaco Indians also fished in the Pilcomayo River. The Guarani were in general a peaceful people, although there were also regular conflicts with the Guaycurú.

Spanish conquistadors and missionaries

Europeans led by Alejo García explored the upper Paraña in 1524 along with some Guarani. García found silver in the Andes, and his discoveries changed the name of the area, Río de Solís, to Río de la Plata (Silver River). The south of Paraguay was first explored by Sebastián Cabot in 1527 while sailing on the Río Paraguay. He built a fortress and named it Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. In 1537, Domingo de Irala founded the present capital Asunción. The Spaniards had a fairly good relationship with the Guarani in this area and even concluded a kind of military agreement against the hostile Chaco Indians. The relationship between the Indians and the Spaniards was already a remarkable one. The Guarani adopted several hundred Spaniards and some other Europeans into their social system. The Spaniards adopted the Guarani food, the customs and even the language. Gradually, a Spanish-Guaraní mestizo society emerged, which is still dominant in Paraguayan society today.

During the colonial period, Paraguay comprised a much larger area than it does today. Large parts of Brazil and Argentina belonged to Paraguay. In the footsteps of the explorers and the conquistadores, the Jesuit missionaries naturally followed. It was also they who started a remarkable experiment by establishing a number of well organised settlements (reducciónes) where the Guarani learned all about European culture. The experiment lasted for a century and a half, until 1767. The influence of the Jesuits on the other Chaco Indian peoples was much less effective. And when it turned out that there was little or no silver and gold to be found in the Chaco, the Spaniards left the Chaco and concentrated on the political and economic development of eastern Paraguay.

Paraguay independent!

In 1811, the Spanish governor was deposed and independence was declared. The Spaniards did not intervene due to the inaccessibility of the country and Paraguay's low economic importance. The first important ruler was the autocrat José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who ruled from 1814 to 1840 under the name "El Supremo". Francia soon realised that Paraguay could not compete, especially economically, with its neighbouring countries. He decided to close the country to foreign trade and tried to make the whole country a self-sufficient community. To achieve his goal, all private property was turned into state property so that the state had all political and economic power. It is obvious that all this went hand in hand with a lot of violence and oppression.

In 1840, de Francia died a natural death and was succeeded by Carlos Antonio López. That De Francia was not very popular became clear in 1870 (30 years after his death) when his mortal remains were exhumed and ended up in the Río Paraguay. López ended the isolation of Paraguay. He built railways, a telegraph system, a metal foundry, a shipyard but also an army of 28,000 men and another 40,000 reserves (Argentina only had 6,000 men at that time).

Paraguay pays high toll

His son, Francisco Solano López succeeded him and led Paraguay into a catastrophic war against an alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. After initial successes, the Paraguayan fleet was destroyed and after four years of war even the capital Asunción was conquered. The toll was very high, about 150,000 km2 of territory was lost to the Alliance and many Paraguayans died from fighting, famine and disease. It was thought for a long time that more than half the population had not survived the war. However, recent research has shown that "only" 20% of the population did not survive the war. Still, Paraguay never fully recovered from this blow. Solano López was killed by Brazilian troops in 1870.

After 1870, despite a new constitution, a decades-long period of political instability followed. The borders were opened again and many European and Argentine immigrants came to Paraguay. Gradually, agricultural activities also resumed. The Colorado Party, founded in 1887, re-established Paraguay as a sovereign state abroad, encouraged agricultural reform and reorganised education. The other political faction, the Liberals, came to power at the beginning of the 20th century.

Around this time, a dispute arose between Paraguay and Bolivia over the borders of the Chaco territory, which were very vaguely defined and to which both countries laid claim. In 1907, forts were already being built by both countries in preparation for a possible war. However, it was not until 1932 that the Chaco War really broke out. The fighting lasted until 1935 with no real victor.

In the peace negotiations, it was decided that Paraguay would get three-quarters of the territory. Again, the price was high; the war left Paraguay financially strapped and again there were many deaths. The real background to this war has never been fully clarified. Alleged oil discoveries and big oil companies certainly played a role in this drama. The saddest thing of all is that hardly any oil was found in the area and it is now an underdeveloped and sparsely populated area.

Stroessner dictatorship

The Chaco War was followed by a decade of unrest that even led to a five-month civil war in 1947. In 1949, the Colorado Party returned to power. A military coup in May 1954 brought General Alfredo Stroessner to power.

Stroessner would hold the country in an iron grip for 35 years, and political torture and murder were the order of the day. He established a dictatorship, supported by the Colorado party. In 1958, 1963, 1968, 1973, 1978, 1983 and 1988, Stroessner was "re-elected" as president.

Although the opposition parties united in a National Accord in 1979, the regime continued to arrest or banish political opponents, to which the Roman Catholic Church in particular protested. Mass immigration of Brazilians to the rich agricultural lands in the east led to protests by Paraguayans in 1980, which were bloodily repressed. From 1985, a deterioration of living conditions led to a revival of demonstrations against the regime. The protests were bloodily repressed; the repression was mainly aimed at peasants without their own land who had occupied fallow agricultural land. Within the Colorado party, the contrasts between the Stroessneri 'militants' and the 'tradicionalistas', who cautiously turned against the Stroessner family dynasty, increased. In 1988, Stroessner once again had himself elected as president, but his regime could no longer count on the support of the US administration and the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.

Cautious democracy in Paraguay

In 1989, Stroessner was deposed by General Andrés Rodríguez Pédotti and he also won the subsequent elections, having first been interim president. Stroessner was forced to leave the country. Positive for democratic developments in Paraguay was that the opposition parties won more congressional seats than ever before. Elections were held again in December, the fairest and most open elections to date. Rodríguez Pérez's Colorado party won with a large majority.

Juan Carlos Wasmosy, Paraguay's first elected civilian president after the first completely free legislative elections, and put forward as a figurehead by the Colorado party, soon found himself in conflict with the military led by the "coup agent" Lino Oviedo.

After the threat of a coup in 1996, Oviedo was sentenced to 10 years in a military prison, which made it impossible for him to participate in the 1998 elections.

The Colorado party then put forward the vice-presidential candidate Raúl Cubas, who won the elections without much difficulty. Cubas immediately pardoned Oviedo, which brought him heavy criticism, even from his own vice-president Luis María Argaña, who even dared to urge his resignation. In March 1999, Argaña was assassinated in Asunción, and Cubas was considered the mastermind behind this attack. With the help of the army, Luis Angel González Macchi became the new president. He formed a "government of national unity" with support from the Colorado party and the two opposition parties. Cubas joined the exiled Stroessner in Brazil and Oviedo fled to Argentina.

President Macchi's government of national unity, which united the three main parties, the Colorado Party, the Liberals Party and Encuentro Nacional, faced sharp contrasts from the outset, with Colorado and Liberals claiming the vacant vice-presidential seat.

21th century

In March 2000, the Liberals left the government with a view to the elections for the vice-presidency. These elections were won on 18 August 2000 with a small majority by the Liberal candidate Franco Julio César. The President and the Vice-President were not on speaking terms.

The government of President Macchi achieved little. Macchi was not a legitimate president and corruption scandals damaged his reputation both nationally and internationally.

In August 2003, the elections were won by Nicanor Duarte Frutos. In December 2003, he signed a standby agreement with the IMF.

Under Frutos, former President Macchi had to stand trial on charges of corruption. Oviedo was arrested in June 2004 after returning from his five-year exile in Brazil. In March 2005, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for the 1996 rebellion against President Carlos Wasmosy. Oviedo then appealed to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Since the court's ruling in 2000, Brazil has been asked to extradite former dictator Stroessner.

On 20 April 2008, a historic change of power took place in Paraguay. The centre-right Colorado party lost the presidential elections after more than 60 years in power.

The outgoing bishop Fernando Lugo received the support of 41% of the electorate in the elections. Colorado candidate Ovelar achieved a score of 31 per cent. Third place went to retired general Lino Oviedo of the right-wing Unace party. Oviedo received the support of 22 percent of the voters. He was previously a member of the Colorado Party.

Lugo's centre-left coalition includes trade unions, farmers and the traditional Liberal Party. He has said he wants to strengthen ties with socialist presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, but described himself as "independent" and moderate. Lugo was sworn in as the successor to Nicanor Duarte Frutos on 15 August. In August 2008, Lugio was sworn in as president. In July 2009, Paraguay and Brazil signed an agreement on the hydroelectric plant at their border. In April 2010, security forces launched an offensive against left-wing rebels in northern Paraguay.

In June 2012, Lugio is deposed and succeeded by Vice-President Frederico Franco. The April 2013 elections are won by Horatio Cartes. He has been head of state and prime minister since 15 August 2013. In January 2015, rebel leader Jara is killed by elite troops in the jungle. In January 2016, Paraguay became the last Latin American country to take measures against mosquito-borne diseases such as Dengue and Zika. In March 2017, there is unrest, with fires being set in the Congress. People want to prevent the president from changing the constitution in order to get re-elected again. Paraguay opens its Israeli embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018, making it the third country after the United States and Guatemala to take this highly controversial step. Former senator Mario Abdo Benítez, of the ruling Colorado party, takes office as president in August 2018. Between 2001 and 2019, six million hectares of forest were cleared in Paraguay, with the sad result that the country now ranks second in deforestation, directly behind Brazil.


Bernhardson, W. / Argentina, Uruguay & Paraguay
Lonely Planet

Kleinpenning, J. / Paraguay
Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated June 2024
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