The war against Paraguay in debate

Candido Lopez, Battle of Tuiuti


Commentary on the book by Ronald León Núñez

The war of the so-called Triple Alliance – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay – against Paraguay between 1864 and 1870 was, without a doubt, the main military confrontation in the history of South America, both due to the intensity of the conflict, which culminated in the destruction of the defeated nation and with a true genocide of its population, as well as putting into conflict two distinct models of development adopted at the time by the countries involved.

An event of such magnitude could not fail to generate a series of extreme interpretations. From the official speech of the allied states against Paraguay, firstly, a true history of the victors, nationalist and liberal, was constructed. This vision presented the war as the clash between the “civilization” of the Triple Alliance and the Paraguayan “barbarism”, thus seeking to attribute the blame for the conflict to Paraguay itself and the choices made by its government.

At the same time, this narrative exempted the governments, especially those of Brazil and Argentina, including England, the hegemonic colonialist power at the time, from any responsibility, even going so far as to attribute the massacre of the Paraguayan people not to the invading armies, but to the heroic tenacity of popular resistance.

In contrast to this view, which, by the way, continues to be defended to this day, albeit with variations, including in academic circles, another interpretative line was formed, defended both by Paraguayan nationalist sectors and by some currents of the populist and developmentalist left that, while correctly highlighting the issue of the genocide of the Paraguayan people and the participation of England, praised the Paraguayan rulers, building the myth of the “Paraguayan power”, whose autonomous development, sometimes Qualified even as “protosocialist”, it would threaten the project of domination of the region by England, presented as the main responsible for the conflict, to the point of minimizing, even if implicitly, the responsibility of the Brazilian and Argentine governments.

It is, therefore, in this debate that Ronald León Núñez seeks to intervene, without hiding behind a fictitious neutrality, but from an engaged position. Rigorously using the Marxist method of analysis, the author seeks to settle accounts both, firstly, with the defenders of the “history of the victors”, and with those authors, who, in the fair defense of the Paraguayan side, ended up creating a mistaken interpretation of the reality, whether about the country's development project or about its rulers.

 To this end, Ronald León Núñez, as a skilled historian, reconstructs the history of Paraguay from the Spanish colonization of the region, through independence and the analysis of the governments of the period before the start of the war, to, in conclusion, deal with the war itself. After all, to address all the issues under debate, it was necessary to construct a “long-term” analysis of regional history. In this process, the highlight of the book and of great historiographical interest, the author develops a thesis: the Paraguayan war would be the conclusion of the process opened with the crisis of the Old colonial system.

Articulating the regional process with global history, Ronald León Núñez demonstrates that the fight for independence was not only – through denial – the fight against Spain, the former metropolis, and its defenders, but also – through affirmation – the fight between different projects organization of new nations, based on different interests and social sectors, also involving external projects, notably in the case of England and Portugal (whose court was then based in Rio de Janeiro).

 As will be seen, the history of Paraguay is inseparable from the history of the Rio de la Plata region and its articulation with the world market, a fundamental meaning of the colonization process of America. With the collapse of the old metropolis and its monarchy captured by Napoleon Bonaparte's troops, the crisis of colonialism opens and new political and economic organization projects enter the scene to organize the colonial space, culminating in the creation of new Latin American nations.

In the case of the Rio de la Plata region, the key was control of the port or, in other words, which port would fulfill the role of “internalizing” the metropolis, subordinating the other areas to the interests of the mercantile groups established there, articulated with the governmental apparatus and associated, as minor partners, with the interests of European powers, notably England at the time.

In this sense, the project of the sector of the possessing classes that controlled Buenos Aires was to configure the new nation based on the territorial landmarks of the former Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata, under its hegemony, but to do so it would be necessary to defeat other projects for organizing the new nation.

The victory of the centralizing project, however, would be slow and incomplete. Buenos Aires managed to impose its rule on only a part of the viceroyalty, defeating other “federalist” projects. It can be said that, by pursuing this objective, centered on their own material interests, the group that led the process contributed to the independence of Uruguay and Paraguay, areas that they were unable to dominate.

In the case of Paraguay, Buenos Aires' retaliation was not only the non-recognition of independence, but also a fierce economic blockade, supported by control of the mouth of the River Plate. Failing to overcome a federalist model in the region, the Paraguayan government led the country towards independence and, due to the Buenos Aires blockade, which fundamentally affected the sector focused on the foreign market, began to develop another development model, autonomous and initially centered in the domestic market.

The difficulties of imposing the centralizing process, starting from Buenos Aires, forced the recognition of the independence of Paraguay, until then considered a “rebellious province”, in 1852, reopening Paraguayan foreign trade, especially yerba mate. The commercial “boom” of that moment favored the bourgeois sectors articulated with the Lopes family, which appropriated the advantages of State control, thus taking advantage of state monopolies, but without completely dismantling the statist and protectionist development model that had been established over the decades. previous ones.

The new situation, however, would exacerbate tensions, whether with the action of external powers, such as England and the USA, or regional powers such as Brazil, which with their “gunboat diplomacy” sought to impose their interests or those of their subjects. The autonomous model, with its state monopolies, the issue of borders and control of river navigation were points of tension with the large neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, who sought to impose subordination on Paraguay. In this context, the civil war in Uruguay, with the intervention of the Empire of Brazil and the government led by Miter in favor of the “colorados”, and the positioning of Solano López in favor of the “whites”, would provide the pretext for the start of hostilities , with the formation of the Triple Alliance, which, however, had already been articulated in previous years.

The Paraguayan defeat in the war in 1870 would thus close the period that began in 1813 with the Proclamation of the country's Independence. Thus, from the outside in, the model of development subordinated to the central powers was imposed, with the reign of free exchange, external loans and concessions for foreign companies, at the same time that territorial limits, among other obligations, were imposed by the winners. The rivalry between Brazil and Argentina would, however, prevent the complete extinction of Paraguay and its incorporation into Argentina as a province, an old Buenos Aires project.

Another fundamental aspect of the work is that the author does not subordinate the results of his research to a specific policy, escaping the errors of left-wing historiography linked, to a greater or lesser extent, to Stalinist parties. This current in defense of the policy of subordination of the working class to the interests of a “mythical” bourgeois revolution, ended up reconstructing Latin American history in search of a “national bourgeoisie”, which would be willing to face imperialism and the interests of reactionary sectors. internal, notably the latifundium.

If this orientation produced grotesque errors in the historiographical field, in the concrete political dispute it produced and continues to produce to this day the greatest defeats for the working class and for the other exploited sectors of the population, thus benefiting the “national” bourgeois sectors, smaller partners of big capital. international, and justifying even the exploitation of the most oppressed nations on the continent by their own bourgeoisie.

Ronald León Núñez's book, available to the Brazilian public, in translation into Portuguese, is from any point of view an exceptional book, contributing in a decisive way both to the history of Paraguay and the platinum region, and to the construction of a new Marxist historiography.

*Rodrigo Ricupero He is a professor at the History Department at USP. Book author The formation of the colonial elite (Almedina).


Ronald Leon Nuñez. The war against Paraguay in debate. Translation: Débora Manzano. São Paulo, Sundermann, 2021, 472 pages. []

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