HISTORY LESSON PARAGUAY


Paraguay is South America's 'empty quarter,' a country little known even to its neighbors. For much of its history it has distanced itself from the Latin American mainstream, and for a substantial period of this century was South America's most notorious and durable police state. PJ O'Rourke summed it up bluntly when he wrote 'Paraguay is nowhere and famous for nothing,' and then, on a short visit to cover elections, promptly fell in love with the place. You might do the same since Paraguay has taken steps to overcome its political, economic and geographic isolation and now welcomes visitors. The country has a relaxed riverside capital, impressive Jesuit missions, several national parks and the vast, arid Chaco - one of South America's great wilderness areas.

Map of Paraguay

 

History

The original inhabitants of eastern Paraguay were the semi-nomadic Guaraní. Several hunter-gatherer groups, known as Guaycurú, populated the Chaco. In 1524, Alejo García became the first European to cross Paraguay, with the aid of Guaraní guides. Three years later, Sebastián Cabot sailed up the Río Paraguay but founded no settlements. This was left to Pedro de Mendoza, whose expedition settled at Asunción after fleeing Buenos Aires. The colony flourished, becoming the nucleus of Spanish settlement in southeastern South America and sparking an era of intriguing socialization. The native Indian population gradually absorbed the Spaniards, who in turn adopted Guaraní food, language and customs. Over time, a Spanish-Guaraní society emerged, with Spaniards dominating politically, and the mestizo offspring adopting Spanish cultural values.

Colonization also meant that Jesuit missionaries were sent to civilize the Indians. This they did with alacrity and skill. The Indians were induced to leave their lands and settle in reducciones, theocratic communes, where they helped build churches, grew deft at masonry, sculpture and painting, and sometimes gained a classical education along the way. After the expulsion of the missionaries in 1767, the settlements quietly withered as the Indians skedaddled or were employed by different masters.

Paraguay declared independence in 1811 - which Spain did not oppose - and within a few years it was under the thumb of the xenophobic José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, also known as 'El Supremo.' He sealed the country's borders, promoted a policy of self-sufficiency (even forcing the Spanish upper class to intermarry with the mestizo) and expropriated the properties of landowners, merchants and the Church. He died in 1840 and his remains were later disinterred and flung into a river. Francia's successor, Carlos Antonio López, ended Paraguay's isolation and began modernization. Unfortunately, he also spawned a megalomaniacal son who set about destroying the country by starting the catastrophic War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70) against Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. When the smoke had settled, Paraguay had lost over 150,000 sq km (58,500 sq mi) of territory and almost a quarter of its population, including López junior.

After the war, Paraguay's agricultural sector was resuscitated by a new wave of European and Argentine immigrants, but political instability continued. At the turn of the century, cross-border tensions arose after Bolivia occupied disputed parts of the Chaco. The prospect of vast deposits of oil in the region (which proved non-existent) catapulted the two countries into war in 1932. The Bolivian army was pushed out of most of the Chaco and a subsequent treaty awarded Paraguay three-quarters of the territory.

Paraguayan politics became even more turbulent following the Chaco War, until a brief civil war brought the Colorado Party to power in 1949. A military coup in 1954 saw General Alfredo Stroessner installed as president. A vainglorious man with a firebrand temper, Stroessner employed torture, murder, political purges and bogus elections to remain in power for the next 35 years. The inimical dictator was overthrown in 1989 and was replaced by another brasshat, General Andrés Rodríguez. Despite considerable scepticism about his intentions - Rodríguez was Stroessner's former right-hand man - the country's perennial state of emergency was cancelled, censorship was eliminated, opposition parties were legalized and political prisoners released.

Paraguay enjoyed increasing political stability until the 1993 election of Juan Carlos Wasmosy, a free-market zealot and former member of Stroessner's faction, whose presidency inspired a disturbing number of nationwide strikes. Wasmosy himself came under scrutiny for shady business dealings associated with Paraguay's massive hydroelectric projects.

In May 1998, the Colorado Party reconfirmed its staying power with the election of President Raul Cubas, an electrical engineer who assumed the party's candidacy after former army General Lino Oviedo, their original nominee, was imprisoned mid-campaign on charges of rebelling against Wasmosy in 1996. Just when things again began to look rosy, Cubas too came under fire, accused of abusing his powers by freeing Oviedo from prison despite Supreme Court orders to keep him there. When Vice President Luis Argaña was gunned down by assassins in March 1999, popular sentiment linked Cubas and Oviedo to the murder and Cubas was forced to resign from office. Luis Gonzalez Macchi, who had been president of the Senate, was sworn in, while Cubas and Oviedo sought asylum in neighboring countries.

 Off the record

Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Républica del Paraguay
Area: 407,000 sq km (158,730 sq mi)
Population: 4.8 million
Capital city: Asunción
(pop 500,000)
People: 95% Mestizo
Language: Officially Spanish, but Guaraní is widely spoken
Religion: 97% Roman Catholic, 3% Mennonite and other Protestants
Government: Republic
President: Luis Gonzalez Macchi

 Environment

Paraguay is a landlocked country surrounded by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. The country is divided into two unequal portions by the Río Paraguay, the third largest river in the western hemisphere. To the west of the river is the Chaco, a largely infertile and sparsely populated tract of land that makes up nearly 60% of the country's area. To the east, where almost all the population is concentrated, is a well-watered, elevated plateau of grasslands, with patches of subtropical forest stretching all the way to the Río Paraná on the Brazilian and Argentinian borders.

Wildlife is diverse and includes a number of parrot and parakeet, wood stork, hyacinth macaw and the once-thought-to-be-extinct Chacoan peccary, plus large reptiles such as caiman, anaconda and the boa constrictor. However, due to the dense human population of rural eastern Paraguay, mammals such as the giant anteater, maned wolf, Brazilian tapir and jaguar are fast disappearing.

The climate in eastern Paraguay is humid, with rainfall evenly distributed throughout the year. Temperatures are almost universally hot in summer (January to March), averaging 35°C (95°F), but can drop as low as 5°C (41°F) in winter (July to September). Frosts at this time are not uncommon, but there is little or no snowfall. Temperatures are higher in the Chaco and the rainfall is more erratic.

 Economic Profile

GDP: US$6 billion
GDP per head: US$1340
Annual growth: 2%
Inflation: 20%
Major industries: Soybeans, cotton, timber, hides & skins, meatpacking, sugarcane (and contraband)
Major trading partners: Brazil, Netherlands and Argentina

 Culture

Theater is a popular medium, with occasional offerings in Guaraní as well as in Spanish. Visual arts of startling unconventionality can be seen in many galleries. Paraguay's pre-eminent literary figure is the poet-novelist Augusto Roa Bastos.

Paraguayan music is something of a curiosity - despite the fact that the majority of the population still speak the native tongue, the music is European in origin, with little or no traces of Black, Brazilian or Argentinian influences. The guitar and harp are popular instruments and songs are usually slow and lachrymose. Dances, such as the polka and bottle dance (so-called because performers swing around with a jar on their head) are, however, much livelier. Agustín Barrios (1885-1944), one of Latin America's most revered composers for the guitar, often performed his music in full Guaraní costume, promoting himself as the Paganini of the guitar from the Paraguayan jungles.

Roman Catholicism is officially the country's religion, but the influence of the church is less pronounced than in many other Latin American countries. Other religious groups include fundamentalist Mennonites and the controversial New Tribes Mission, an evangelical group which operated with the collusion of Stroessner's dictatorship.

Meat dishes as well as tropical and subtropical foodstuffs play an important role in the Paraguayan diet. Grains, particularly maize, and manioc (cassava) are incorporated into almost all meals. Try tucking into locro, a maize stew, mazamorra, corn mush, mbaipy so-ó, a hot maize pudding with meat chunks, and sooyo sopy, a thick soup made of ground meat and served with rice or noodles. Desserts include mbaipy he-é, a delicious mix of corn, milk and molasses. Tea or mate is consumed in vast quantities while mosto (sugar-cane juice) and caña (cane alcohol) are also frequently imbibed.

Events

Prominent celebrations in addition to Christmas, New Year's Day and Easter include: Día de San Blas (Patron Saint of Paraguay) in February; Paz del Chaco (End of the Chaco War) in June; and the Fundación de Asunción (Founding of Asunción) in August.

 Facts for the Traveler

Visas: Most foreigners require visas for a stay of up to three months, except those from neighboring countries (who only need national ID cards), most Western European countries and the USA. Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders also need a spotlessly clean police record, a bank statement and a US$10 fee.
Health risks: Cholera, cutaneous leishmaniasis, hepatitis, hookworm, malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid
Time: GMT/UTC minus 3 hours
Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz
Weights & measures: Metric (see the conversion table.)

Money & Costs

Currency: Guaraní

Relative costs:

  • Budget room: US$5-10

  • Moderate hotel: US$10-20

  • Top-end hotel: US$20 and upwards

  • Budget meal: US$2-5

  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$5-10

  • Top-end restaurant meal: US$10 and upwards

Paraguay is cheaper for the traveler than Argentina or Uruguay but more expensive than Bolivia. Budget travelers can get by on US$10 a day; those looking for a bit more comfort and nutrition should expect to spend between US$15-30 a day.

Cambios in Asunción and at border towns change both cash and travelers' checks (with small commissions); try banks in the interior. Some travelers have reported that cambios will not cash travelers' checks without the bill of sale. Street changers give slightly lower rates, and for cash only, but can be helpful on weekends or evenings. Better hotels, restaurants and shops in Asunció accept credit cards, but their use is less common outside the capital. Paraguayan ATMs generally do not recognize foreign credit cards.

In restaurants, it's customary to tip about 10% of the bill. Taxi drivers do not require tips, although you may round off the fare for convenience.

When to Go

Evenly distributed throughout the year, rainfall in Paraguay is at its heaviest near the Brazilian border and July is the coldest month.

Paraguay's celebration of Carnival in February is liveliest in Asunción. The religious center of Caacupé is the most important site for the Roman Catholic Immaculate Conception.

 Attractions

Asunción

Asunción, the capital and largest city, is built on unassuming hills above the east bank of the Río Paraguay. Most of the city's key sights are found within an area bound by the riverfront, Avenida Colón in the west, calles Haedo and Luis A Herrera in the south, and Estados Unidos to the east. There are few colonial remains and little attempt at zoning, so the city has become a jumble of new, eclectic buildings and squatter settlements along the riverfront and the railway.

It's now safe to approach and photograph the Palacio de Gobierno, which is a major improvement on the situation which existed during El Supremo's rule - he ordered anyone gazing upon the palace to be shot on sight. Nearby is the Casa Viola, one of the few surviving colonial buildings, which is now a museum. Other city sights include the Casa de Cultura Paraguaya, the 19th-century Cathedral and its museum, and the Casa de la Independencia, Asunción's oldest building (1772) and site of the declaration of independence. There are also excellent parks, such as the Jardín Botánico, and the Museo del Barro, the city's foremost repository of modern art. Asunción's zoo - once a wretched, dingy place of small, smelly cages filled with unkempt animals - has reportedly improved under a new management plan and is seeking to properly house the unique flora and fauna of Paraguay.

Budget accommodation and cheap eats are mostly to be found in the city center, towards the riverfront, or in neighborhoods to the east. Porn flicks and kung-fu extravaganzas dominate cinema viewing but there's good live theater or music at a number of cultural centers. The shopping is best along calles Colón, Pettirossi, Palma and Estrella.

Eastern Paraguay

Many of Paraguay's finest attractions are just a short hop from the capital and include the weaving capital of Itaguá, where the famous ñandutí or spiderweb lace is made, and the lakeside resorts of Areguá and San Bernadino, both on Lago Ypacaraí. West of here is Caacupé, Paraguay's most important religious center and the site of an annual pilgrimage. The tranquil and undeveloped Parque Nacional Ybycuí, preserving one of the few remaining areas of rainforest in the country, is to the south.

Southeast of the capital is Trinidad, a hilltop site of a Jesuit reduccíon, which was built between 1706-60. Its centerpiece, a church, has been beautifully preserved. Other interesting Jesuit ruins are found at San Ignacio Guazú and Santa María.

Something a little more contemporary is the Itaipú Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project (1350 sq km/526 sq mi), which is well worth a visit. Another sight not to be overlooked is the Parque Nacional Cerro Corá, an area of dry tropical forest and savanna nestled among steep, isolated hills. It possesses many important cultural and historical features such as pre-Columbian caves, petroglyphs and the site of Francisco Solano Lopez's death at the end of the War of the Triple Alliance.

The Chaco

The Chaco is a remarkable area of almost featureless plain, with a substantial population of Indian peoples. Its only paved highway, the Ruta Trans-Chaco, leads to the religious community of Filadelfia, which was settled by the Mennonites in the late 1920s. Other Mennonite colonies include Loma Plata, the oldest and most traditional settlement, and Neu-Halbstadt, which is a great place to purchase Indian handicrafts. Towards the Bolivian border is the Parque Nacional Defensores del Chaco, a wooded alluvial plain whose major feature is the 500m (1640ft) Cerro León. The dense thorn forest harbors some of Paraguays most endangered wildlife, and there's an excellent chance of spotting large cats like jaguars, pumas and ocelots.

 Off the Beaten Track

Piribebuy

During the War of the Triple Alliance, the village of Piribebuy, east of Asunción, served as the national capital. Today it is a quiet backwater, notable only for an excellent church, a strong local drink called caña, and an interesting museum that is opened on request by a Chaco War veteran. Wounded three times by Bolivian bullets, the man will gingerly take you around a number of deteriorating exhibitions - then lead you to his own bloodied and torn uniform on display.

Fortín Toledo

Fortín Toledo was the site of trench warfare during the Chaco War and is now host to a reserve nurturing a small population of Chacoan peccary, a Pleistocene relic thought extinct until its rediscovery in 1975. The reserve, sponsored in part by the San Diego Zoo, welcomes visits by interested onlookers but only if schedules permit. Nearby lies a string of abandoned fortifications and a Paraguayan military cemetery.

Nueva Australia

The frequently renamed Nueva Australia in eastern Paraguay was a short-lived socialist experiment founded by late-19th century Australian immigrants. Named Hugo Stroessner (after the dictator's father) on some maps, this dissension-riddled colony attracted a number of settlers thanks to ambitious propaganda about the area's economic potential. However, the colony failed to meet expectations and finally splintered in 1896.

 Activities

There are several hiking trails in Ybycuí and nature trails in the Parque National Cerro Corá. The fishing and camping are good at Villa Florida, while swimming and water sports are popular at Lago Ypacarí, whose waters are thought to have heady curative powers. If you want to bust a gut, try climbing the 500m (1640ft) Cerro León or take an expedition into the Chaco wilderness (remember to bring plentiful supplies of food, water and fuel).

 Getting There & Away

Asunción is a convenient center for Southern Cone air traffic. The international departure tax is US$15. There are only a few overland crossings: three from Argentina, two from Brazil and a difficult border crossing from Bolivia. From Asunción, a passenger boat takes irregular trips on the Río Paraguay to and from the Brazilian city of Corumbá.

 Getting Around

Líneas Aéreas de Transporte Nacional (LATN) and Transportes Aéros Militares (TAM), the airforce passenger service, have reasonably cheap flights to destinations in northern Paraguay and some parts of the Chaco. Bus services run frequently to most destinations around the country. Paraguay's antiquated, wood-burning trains are extremely cheap but sluggish, except for the 28km (17mi) line from Asunción to Areguá, on Lago Ypacaraí. Driving can be dangerous (especially at night), with wooden oxcarts and livestock among the more obvious road hazards. There are also passenger boats from Asunción up the Río Paraguay to a number of river ports. An extensive bus system and metered taxis operate in the capital.

 Recommended Reading

  • Son of Man and I the Supreme by celebrated Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos are enthralling novels focusing on Paraguay's history and politics.

  • Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul and Travels With My Aunt are both partly set in Paraguay.

  • Norman Lewis visited the country more recently and there are good descriptions of it in The Missionaries.

  • Historical accounts include Elman & Helen Service's Tobatí: Paraguayan Town, an exploration of rural themes and directions; and Gaylord Warren's Rebirth of the Paraguayan Republic, which highlights the country's incomplete recovery from the War of the Triple Alliance.

  • For general works on authoritarian nastiness, see Rule by Fear: Paraguay After Thirty Years Under Stroessner published by Americas Watch; and The Stroessner Era by Carlos Miranda.