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The War that Changed South America Forever


Map of land-locked Paraguay, circa 1875 (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It is commonly said that the Triple Alliance War, or Guerra Grande (1864-70) was a watershed in the Paraguayan history as it marked the death of hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans, led to significant territorial loss at the hands of the winners, put an end to an autonomous process of development, and was the start of continuous foreign intervention in the country’s political life.

The war, which pitted Paraguay against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, had devastating, long-lasting effects on the landlocked country. In fact, the conflict meant the loss of approximately 60% of the Paraguayan population and 90% of the male population. According to the 1871 census, the post-war Paraguayan population was 116,351 inhabitants, including only 28,000 men: a holocaust never seen in the Western hemisphere since independence swept through the region in the 19th century. It was also a tragedy that ended in several paradoxes.

Why the war began

Unlike many Latin American countries, in 1811 Paraguay gained independence without a war. Due to the isolation imposed by dictator Rodriguez de Francia a few years after the declaration of independence, Paraguay achieved a considerable level of economic development, based on national self-sufficiency and almost no contact with other countries. The state had a monopoly over international trade and started to play a commanding position over increasing aspects of the national life.

After the dictator’s death in 1840 and with Carlos Antonio López ruling the country (first as a member of a Consulate, and since 1844 as a president) Paraguay continued deepening the role of the public sector in economic development, while at the same time ending the traditional isolation and started a period of increasing interaction with its bigger neighbours: Brazil and Argentina. Even though both countries recognized the independence of Paraguay in 1843 and 1852 respectively, this increasing interaction brought out into the open the matter of unresolved boundary limits, which had arisen during colonial times, between the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns, and among some Spanish provinces in the New World. Carlos Antonio López was unable to solve this aspect and the situation got even worse during his son, Francisco Solano López’ government (1862-70).

Brazilian soldiers during the war (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Studies on the Triple Alliance war traditionally focused on the ‘’tangible’’ causes of the conflict, namely: the issue of frontiers inherited from colonial times; the search for a power balance in the Río de la Plata; Brazilian intervention in Uruguay to overthrow the Blanco Party (traditionally allied to López) in favour of the Colorado Party (closely linked to Argentina and Brazil); as well as Francisco Solano López’ inability to understand an increasing complex and tense regional scenario and his excessive confidence on his powerful army. But in recent decades studies have been focusing on the ‘’intangible’’ causes. Among the most important ones are: the role of Great Britain as a strong supporter of the allies against Paraguay; and the Brazilian need for Paraguay to fully guarantee free navigation of the Río Paraguay – essential for reaching and populating its vast western territory (due to the uneven and hilly Brazilian geography, it was very difficult to build railways connecting the coast of Brazil to the west).

Some historians claim that Britain played a key role in the war for very important reasons: one of them is the need to have access to the provision of cotton for its thriving textile manufacturing companies, something that had been in danger due to the outbreak of the American Civil war (1861-65). On the other hand, Paraguay, with its autonomous and self-sufficient economic model, was considered a ‘’black sheep’’ for the dominant logic of world economy based on the ideas of the free market, ideas that were supported and expanded by Britain as the hegemonic power of the time. Arguably, such a bad example against the established world order had to be destroyed and converted into the logic of the free market.

Just an international war?

Paraguayan prisoners at the end of the war (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

There is another paradox as a result of the war: The local understanding of the conflict and the long-standing period of internal Paraguayan fights that arose from 1870 on. Indeed, not only was it an international war but it also brought Paraguayans against Paraguayans. Article 7 of the Secret Treaty of the Triple Alliance said: “Being the war not against the Paraguayan people but against their government, the allies are able to admit in a Paraguayan Legion every citizen of this nation who would want to attend to the overthrowing of said government, and will provide them with the elements they would need, in the form and conditions agreed upon.”

Many Paraguayans who opposed López’ rule and were living in exile, mainly in Buenos Aires, joined the Paraguayan Legion, and with the fall of Asunción in 1869 (one year before the death of López in Cerro Corá) they gained increasing political influence in the post-war years. Nevertheless, the creation of this legion was a hub for an internal division in Paraguay among Lopiztas and antilopiztas, and for overwhelming instability and violence that the country lived during the rest of the 19th century and a great part of the 20th century.

Another Paradox: independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity

Even though Article 8 of the Secret Treaty stated that “the allies commit to respecting the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Paraguay. In consequence the Paraguayan people shall choose the government and institutions best suited for them, without incorporating themselves or requesting protection from any of the allies, as a result of the war”, the end of the conflict led in great territorial loses for Paraguay, the killing of a great a percentage of its population, the ransacking of Asunción, and the beginning of a period characterized by the military occupation of the allied forces until 1876 and the establishment of puppet governments.

This fact also opened a period of Paraguay’s pendular foreign policy towards its neighbours: according to the needs of the time and the ideological affinity of the political party in power with Argentina or Brazil (Liberals tended to be more pro-Argentina while Colorados tended to favour a closer relationship with Brazil) there were some periods in which the relationship with one of the bigger neighbours was stronger in detriment to the other one. This also helped spark the rivalry for regional influence between these former allies.

More paradoxes, even in the post-war years

Artist Victor Meirelles' rendition of a fallen Paraguayan soldier (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As it was mentioned above, the Triple Alliance war meant the devastation of Paraguay, the destruction of an autonomous economic model, the genocide against its population and a degree of political instability and violence never seen before in the country and which long standing recurrence after many decades lead to Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship (1954-89). But it also had negative consequences for the region: after the end of the conflict, Argentina and Brazil started to compete for more regional influence.

In spite of the fact that both countries had committed to supporting each other in their territorial claims against Paraguay, after the signature of a treaty in 1872 settling the limits between Paraguay and Brazil, the country put obstacles against Argentina’s aspirations over the complete Chaco. As a consequence, the Irigoyen – Machaín Treaty (1876) signed by Argentina and Paraguay, established the Central Chaco (today the Argentine province of Formosa) as an Argentine territory, being the Northern Chaco divided in two parts, one part under Paraguayan sovereignty and the other one subjected to international arbitration of the US President Rutherford Hayes, whose country remained neutral during the war. In 1878, the arbitration decision was favourable to Paraguay due to the fact that this country produced much more evidence of sovereignty than their Argentine counterparts.

This competition between Argentina and Brazil, and the subsequent distrust of the Paraguayan population towards their former enemies, led to military conflict being the golden rule to relate to the neighbours in the years to come. No economic integration was going to be possible till the end of military governments, in the last decades of the 20th centuries.

In spite of all the terrible consequences for Paraguay, it is possible to say that to some extent, and without being aware of it, the country took revenge on its former enemies:

Alfredo Stroessner, dictator in Paraguay years later as an indirect result of the war (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In early 1871 the city of Buenos Aires was ravaged by the outbreak of yellow fever epidemic. This episode is remembered as the Great Epidemic of 1871 as it killed almost 15,000 people, according to some estimates, and caused a decrease of a third of the city’s population as thousands of dwellers abandoned the place.

Some historians and sources claim that this epidemic might have been originated in Asunción due to the deplorable condition of the city and the survivors of the war, and could have been brought to the Argentine capital by war veterans who were coming back home by that time.

The war had finished the previous year, but it continued, somewhat, in the way of a sanitary catastrophe.

Another paradox of the conflict is a political one, and it was related to the end of the Empire and the foundation of the Republic in Brazil in 1889. The abolition of slavery in this country the year before is mentioned as one of the causes of the change in the political system as many fazendeiros who resented because they lost their slave workforce, stopped supporting the monarchy and were in favour of a Republican political system. But what is the relationship of the twilight of the monarchy and the Triple Alliance war? A very important one: many Brazilian soldiers were slaves who went to the battlefields with the promise to get their freedom. And with some years of delay the Imperial government honoured its promise.

There is also a paradox that has to do with Britain, the “intangible” cause of the war. Even though this country gained more influence in the region, this was not going to be for so long a time. As a consequence of the war, and with President Hayes’ arbitration, another actor was determined to play a very important role in its hemisphere, displacing the European hegemony: the United States.

The Triple Alliance war ended 142 years ago and it still remains controversial in all the countries which were part of the conflict. There are so many lessons we can learn from this conflict. However, the most important one (incredibly or not in this case) is to learn how to come to terms with the past.

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- who has written 2226 posts on The Argentina Independent.

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5 Responses to “The War that Changed South America Forever”

  1. Valerie Banton (DAVIE) says:

    Hi Guillermo

    Great article.

    I am wondering if you ever came across a Charles DAVIE (b 1831 Scotland) who was an translator to the US Embassy during the Paraguay war. He lived in Montevideo from around 1860 and died in Montevideo in 1894. He was also British Vice Consul representing the interests of HM Queen Victoria.
    I am tracing my DAVIE family tree from Scotland to Uruguay and would love to find out more about my ancestor CHARLES JAMES FRENCH DAVIE.
    Any help would be much appreciated.

    kindest regards


  2. Gwyn Williams says:

    A few years ago, I visited SE Paraguay, a panhandle of endless fields of soya and rice, farmed almost exclusively by descendants of europeans, around whose edges cowered the miserable shacks occupied by the remnants of the Guaraní indians, the original paraguayans. Here, as elsewhere, the imperial power overthrew an independant government to secure unrestricted access to a country´s natural resources, cheap labour and markets: nothing much changes does it?


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