In June of last year the Paraguayan Congress removed Fernando Lugo from the presidency. This red bishop and so-called ‘liberation theologian’ was impeached for various offences. Predictably the move was immediately denounced by the leftist regimes in
who described it as a ‘coup.’ Paraguay was immediately expelled
from Mercosur, a local trading block, the recommendation being made that it
should also be expelled from the Organisation of American States (OAS).
That same month Hugo Saguier,
Paraguay’s ambassador to the OAS,
came out fighting. Speaking directly to the representatives of Argentina, Brazil
he said “If you want to form a new Triple Alliance go ahead.” In a moment
of passion he had conjured up one of the blackest spectres in South American
History – the War of the Triple Alliance.
I don’t suppose there were too many people in that hall who knew what the ambassador was on about; I don’t suppose there are too many people outside of
who know what he was on about. But inside that country that dreadful war
has left a lasting memory, a war that came close to destroying a nation, a war
that continues to shape its modern destiny.
It began in 1865, just as the American Civil War was coming to an end. Like that conflict, it was to last for five bloody years, years which saw the decimation of
Paraguay. Federico Franco, Lugo’s successor as
president, recently referred to the war as a ‘holocaust.’ This is a word
that has suffered from a serious dilution of meaning, but in Paraguay’s case
it may very well be justified.
The country’s enemies were the same as today -
and Brazil. Today Paraguay is of little importance in
international and regional power politics. It was different in
1865. Then the country was rapidly emerging as a dominant economic and
political force. Unfortunately it was governed by one Francisco Solano
López, a vainglorious individual with a Napoleonic ego, one far too big for his
little land-locked nation. For the greater glory of López the country
found itself at war with a trio of local enemies, Brazil leading the way.
This was a David and Goliath struggle but the victor was not David. For the participants the conflict rested on a single point of honour: for the allies López had to go; for López López had to stay.
Unfortunately for him
Paraguay could not match its
opponents, either in soldiers or in modern armaments. But even after Asuncion, the capital,
fell in 1868 López would not give up. Facing external enemies, he also
imagined enemies within. In a mood of paranoia, he had thousands of
supposed opponents imprisoned and tortured, including his own mother and
sister. His brother was among the hundreds executed, many cut down by
lance to save ammunition.
Every man who could be mobilized was mobilized. No work was done in the fields, mass starvation along with disease being added to the country’s misery. In a last desperate attempt to stave off defeat López recruited an army of children. In a move that would be bizarrely comic if wasn’t so tragic he armed them with sticks painted to look like guns and made them wear false beards. With their uniforms worn to nothing, the child army fought naked. In one battle 2000 perished, the anniversary of which is celebrated in modern
as Children’s Day.
The war finally came to an end in March 1870, when López was cornered and killed. “I die with my fatherland”, he is alleged to have shouted, arguably the most honest statement in his entire life. For
all but dead. Although it cannot be established with certainty it is
estimated that 90% of the country’s male population had perished in the course
of the conflict. By 1870 only 29,000 males over fifteen were left.
According to one observer the survivors were “living skeletons…shockingly
mutilated with bullet and sabre wounds.”
Oddly enough, given the suffering he had inflicted on the country, López eventually rose from the grave as
Paraguay’s national hero, a symbol
of indomitable resistance. In the 1930s, after a victorious war with Bolivia, the country’s other neighbour, his
remains were moved to a shrine in Asuncion.
The celebration of López reached new heights during the lengthy presidency of Alfredo
Stroessner, a sort of modern incarnation of the country’s single-minded
cuadillo. In the recent Mercosur conflict López was invoked as a symbol of
national pride and independence. “We won’t accept foreign tutelage”, said
President Franco. “This is a poor but dignified country”, he
continued. “It’s poor as the result of an unjust war.”
The depopulation of
Paraguay had interesting
consequences. Various post-war governments tried to attract immigrants,
offering free passage and land. Utopian colonies sprung up, including
Nueva Germania, established by Bernhard Förster and his wife Elisabeth
Förster-Nietzsche, the sister of the philosopher. It was here in 1931
that the descendents of the settlers founded the first Nazi Party outside Germany.
Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz camp
doctor, was later to find temporary refuge in a colony that, despite its German
associations, had long since merged into mainstream Paraguayan culture.
The chief legacy of the War of the Triple Alliance is a prevailing mentality of victimhood, of a country and a people subject to the vagaries of circumstances, of forces beyond their control. This finds an echo in Guarani, Paraguay's main language. In this future time is uncertain. The word for tomorrow, for example, simply means “if the sun rises.” Let’s hope that the sun continues to rise on