Perhaps, 15th June will be best remembered in Paraguayan contemporary history as the date of the beginning of the end of Fernando Lugo’s presidency earlier this year. On that date, the massacre of Campos de Morombí, in Canindeyú, left 11 landless peasants and six police officers dead, and started a series of angry debates and accusations that finally led to the impeachment of the president.
However, given the massacre and its major repercussions, few recalled that 15th June 2012 was already a very important date in the Paraguayan history. It marked the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Chaco War, which pitted South America’s only two landlocked countries, Paraguay and Bolivia, against each other in the vast lowland Chaco plains that today reaches into three countries. It became the bloodiest war of the 20th century in the Americas.
Even though this conflict is mentioned with different denominations such as ‘The Chaco War’, ‘The Gran Chaco War’ or ‘The War of Thirst’ (due to the vast numbers of soldiers that died because of a lack of drinkable water in the region). In reality, the conflict might be more appropriately called ‘The War of the Poorest’ as the enemies were among the poorest countries of the Western Hemisphere.
In spite of the deep poverty suffered by both countries, there were significant differences between them, with Paraguay facing the more desperate situation. Paraguay’s population at that time was around one third of Bolivia, and though an arms race had begun in both countries in the 1920s, the Bolivian army was far larger and better equipped than its opposition. Moreover, Bolivia had more economic resources than Paraguay due to its oil and mineral wealth. Paraguay, on the other hand, was still suffering the aftermath of the Triple Alliance War (1864-70) that had slaughtered much of its male population, caused the loss of a huge part of its territory, and left the economy bankrupt.
One War, Multiple Causes
On 15th June 1932, Bolivian soldiers attacked the Paraguayan Carlos Antonio López fort which was located near the Pitiantutá Lake. Nevertheless, this attack was just only one of the many events which sparked the war.
The Chaco War emerged as a typical Latin American conflict of boundaries inherited from colonial times, owing to the fact that the Spanish Crown never cared to set clear frontiers among the different members of its American colonies. The vast Chaco region was a long-standing issue, but it only came to prominence in the last decades of the 19th century, after Bolivia had lost is Pacific Ocean coast to Chile in the Second War of the Pacific, also called La Guerra del Guano (1879-84) and became a landlocked country.
After that war, Bolivia witnessed a rise of nationalist sectors that sought an opportunity to rebuild a national pride that had been devastated by the military and territorial loss. Subsequently, the successive governments started to look southwards and eastwards to the Chaco, a land that they considered to be Bolivian and that could provide an exit to the Atlantic Ocean via the Paraguay River.
According to some sources, Bolivia had evidence supporting its de jure claim to the region saying that the Chaco had belonged to the Spanish colonial Chiquitanías. Meanwhile, if for Bolivia, it was vital to find access to the ocean, for Paraguay it was vital not to lose more territory to the hands of another country as it continued to recover and rebuild from the Triple Alliance War.
Paraguay claimed to have strong evidence supporting the de facto ownership of the land as it had been exercising sovereignty and permanent presence over the region since, in 1878, the arbitration of then US President Rutherford Hayes recognised Paraguayan sovereignty over the Chaco Boreal (the northern area of the Gran Chaco). After the Hayes ruling, which ended an territorial dispute with Argentina, the country sold hundreds of thousands of public land in the Chaco to private Argentine investors in order to develop the area. In the 1920s, the Paraguayan government also allowed the settlement of Mennonite colonies in the wild land. Both groups would play a vital supporting role for the Paraguayan army during the conflict.
The Oil Factor
After decades of fruitless negotiations and some military and isolated skirmishes, in 1928 a new factor appeared on stage, which deepened both countries’ anxiety and urgency to exercise their sovereign rights on the Chaco. It was the discovery of oil in the foothills of the Andes, in the Bolivian region of Villa Montes, not far from the disputed land, that generated expectations of significant oil reserves in the Chaco wilderness.
The military skirmishes became more frequent and tensions more serious, with the position of both countries increasingly inflexible. This eventually led to the Pitiantutá incident of 15th June 1932 and from there, to open war.
The coincidence of the oil discovery with the deepening of the diplomatic and military crisis and the arms race in the 1920s lead some to hypothesise that the real cause of the war were the vested interests of the US and Britain in securing control of this valuable resource. The historians who support this version of history argue that American Standard Oil, which was operating in the Bolivian oilfields by that time, protected the US interests, while the Royal Dutch Shell was supporting the Paraguayan side on behalf of the British interests.
Lessons From the War
The war finished on 12th June 1935, almost exactly three years after it had started, leaving both Paraguay and Bolivia even more impoverished and in political turmoil. By this time, Paraguay had been able to take control of the complete Chaco area and even reached the surrounding regions of Villa Montes and the Parapití River (today Bolivian territory) before the US, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile brokered a truce.
The Paraguayan victory was credited to multiple factors. Among the most important were the superior tactics used by the Paraguay’s military leaders; a greater familiarity with the wilderness and hot weather of the Chaco than the Bolivian soldiers sent from the high, cold Altiplano; the use of Guaraní language for communication, which was totally incomprehensible to the enemy; and the guerrilla style fight implemented by the Paraguayan strategy.
For Paraguay, the war meant an important military victory, necessary to recover the sense of the nation after the tragedy and genocide of the Triple Alliance War. However, in the 1938 Peace Protocol signed in Buenos Aires, the country was assigned two thirds of the territory under dispute, effectively handing back one third.
For a very important part of the Paraguayan society and the army, what was a military victory became a diplomatic defeat. It caused a wave of popular anger which brought internal instability and an ever increasing role and involvement of the military in politics. This ended up bringing General Alfredo Stroessner (a Chaco war veteran) to power, whose controversial regime lasted 35 years. Paraguay only returned to democracy in 1989. Adding to the lingering sense of injustice, the existence of gas and oil fields was confirmed in the part of the disputed territory assigned to Bolivia in 1938. So far, the existence of gas and oil fields for commercial exploitation in the Paraguayan Chaco remains uncertain.
For Bolivia, the loss of the war meant more frustration and discontent in the population, and the endemic instability of the country intensified. Up until the final recovery of democracy in 1982, Bolivia lived long periods of social and political unrest marked by a succession of civil and military governments.
For both countries, due to their demographic characteristics and the size of their economies, the impact of the war on them was similar to the impact of World Wars I and II on some Europeans countries. Paraguay lost about 40,000 people and Bolivia about 55,000 in the war. The economic structure of the two countries were exhausted due to the war effort, and the instability of the postwar years prevented the development of any single long-term project aiming at national recovery.
The poorest countries that once went to war remained the poorest ones for the next decades to come.