The diplomatic and political fallout of Paraguay’s war with the “Triple Alliance” 147 years ago still has implications on its foreign policy in Latin America.
The war, known in Paraguay as the “War of ’70” or the “Great War”, was among the worst military defeats ever inflicted on a modern nation state. According to Thomas Whigham of the University of Georgia, as much as 60% of the population and 90% of Paraguayan men died from combat or, more often, from disease and starvation. Other researchers put the figure considerably lower—but still atrociously high. Federico Franco, Mr Lugo’s successor, recently called the war a “holocaust”. Yet it is little known outside the region. Even in Paraguay its moral ambiguities have caused generations of leaders to shroud it in myth.
But the diplomatic backlash against the impeachment has revived debate about this national trauma. After 142 years Paraguay is grappling with the mixture of hubris and heroism that plunged it into self-immolation, a tragedy that still defines the country.
But it wasn’t always so that Paraguay was a third-tier operator:
Modern Paraguay—flat, landlocked and steamy—is a geopolitical pipsqueak. Its foreign influence is limited to two giant dams on its borders, soyabean exports that feed Chinese livestock and the free-for-all bazaar of Ciudad del Este, a border town where vendors of cut-rate electronics and clothes operate in public, and arms dealers and Hizbullah fund-raisers do so in private.
In the mid-1800s, however, Paraguay was a middling regional power. It began a breakneck industrialisation during the presidency of Carlos Antonio López, who imported European experts to build a shipyard, a foundry and one of South America’s first railways. He also beefed up the army to deter Paraguay’s twitchy neighbours: Argentina considered the country a rebel province until 1852, while Pedro II, the Brazilian emperor, claimed lands that Spain and Portugal had disputed.