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     The Chaco War
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The Chaco War: 1932-1935

The Gran Chaco is a huge arid low-lying plain, in which savanna grasses and scrub are interspersed with regions of saline swamp. It is an unenticing area, but discoveries of oil in the early 20th century raise hopes (later unfulfilled) of great wealth in the region.

It has never been considered necessary to define any exact border here, but now both Bolivia and Paraguay begin building small military outposts (almost every place name here begins with 'Fortín', a humble word in the Spanish military lexicon sometimes equivalent to little more than pillbox or bunker). From 1928 there are occasional clashes between these outposts, in a process which escalates by 1932 to outright war.


The first major engagement is at Fortín Boquerón, taken by the Bolivians in June 1932 and recaptured by Paraguayan forces in September. There is subsequent fighting over an eight-month period around Fortín Nanawa. The likely advantage seems on the side of Bolivia, a larger nation with a better equipped army. But the Bolivian troops, from highland regions, prove less well adapted to fighting in the lowland swamps. More of them succumb to disease and snakebite than to bullets.

By 1935, at the end of an inconclusive war, 100,000 men have died. A peace signed in Buenos Aires in 1938 gives Paraguay most of the disputed region but brings within the borders of Bolivia the port of Puerto Suarez, with access to the Paraguay river.


Attempts at reform: 1936-1954

The upheavals of the Chaco war pave the way for fresh political departures in Paraguay. The Febreristas, a newly formed left-wing group, seize power in 1936 and impose measures which win wide public support. Paraguay's major enterprises are nationalized; land reforms include the distribution of small holdings to veterans of the war; and steps are taken to introduce a degree of social welfare.

The commander-in-chief during the war, José Félix Estigarribia, is elected president in 1939 and introduces a new constitution in 1940. This does not prevent him granting himself the official powers of a dictator. But Febrerista policies suggest that the stranglehold of Paraguay's land-owning oligarchy may at last be broken.


However Estigarribia dies in a plane crash later in 1940. Power is recovered by the Colorados, representing the conservative interests of the land-owners. The reforms are cancelled, military rule is reimposed. The revived conservative dictatorship is threatened in 1947 by an armed uprising of Febreristas and Liberales, but after an initial success the rebels are suppressed.

Paraguay forms close links with Argentina during the Perón period, first under Federico Chávez (president from 1947 to 1954) and then in the early years of Stroessner - a caudíllo who proves himself capable of dominating Paraguay to a degree not seen since Francia and the López family.


The Stroessner years: 1954-1989

Alfredo Stroessner, grandson of a German immigrant, is head of Paraguay's armed forces when he seizes power in 1954. He immediately imposes an extremely repressive regime with scant regard for human rights. In the manner of dictators he also engages in an impressive programme of public works - in particular the vast hydro-electric Itaipú project, a shared undertaking with neighbouring Brazil.

Under Stroessner elections are held every five years, sometimes with opposition parties given a genuine chance to compete, but in the prevailing political climate the Colorados are always safely returned. In 1983 Stroessner is elected for a seventh presidential term. Then, in 1989, he is at last deprived of power in the same way as he took it.


Democracy: from1989

In February 1989 Andrés Rodríguez, a senior commander in the army, leads a coup which topples Stroessner. Rodríguez promises to bring democracy to Paraguay. In an election in May 1989 he himself wins the presidential race - and since he is a military candidate standing for the Colorado party, the immediate impression is that little has changed. But the new president frees all the political prisoners, legitimizes political parties, introduces freedom of the press and brings in a new constitution effective from 1992.

Little is introduced in the way of much needed social and economic reforms. But Rodríguez duly steps down at the end of his term as president.


The presidential election of 1993 is won by Juan Carlos Wasmosy, a rich businessman rather than a soldier. He is admittedly the candidate of the Colorado party. But the elections are freely contested between rival parties, and are generally agreed to have been fairly held.

Civilian government survives a serious threat in 1996 when Wasmosy attempts to dismiss one of his senior generals, Lino César Oviedo, for engaging in political activity. Oviedo refuses to go, whereupon Wasmosy arrests him and charges him with insurrection. In a success rare in Paraguayan history, the legitimate government prevails.


In elections held in May 1998 another civilian candidate, Raúl Cubas, wins the presidency for the Colorado party. In the two houses of the legislature the Colorados retain a majority over the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, but only by a relatively narrow margin - 24 seats to 20 in the Senate, and 45 to 35 in the Chamber of Deputies.

The real circumstance may be even less favourable to the Colorado party, which has held continuous power in Paraguay since the death of Estigarribia in 1940. The elections in 1998 are marred by widespread allegations of fraud.


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