The war against Paraguay in debate

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Sculpture with Colors (Deep Blue and Red), 1943


Commentary on the recently released book by Ronald León Nuñez

On December 26, 1864, the Empire of Brazil intervened in Uruguay against the White Party, whose president was an ally of the Paraguayan government. With the rise of the Colorado Party, allied with Brazilian and Argentine interests, Paraguayan sovereignty was put at risk. The Paraguayan government found itself geographically isolated, without access to the Port of Montevideo to carry out much of its international trade. In addition, it was under threat of suffering an intervention like the one that Uruguay had suffered.

Thus, Paraguay attacked Mato Grosso in 1865. The biggest war in the history of Latin America began. The country confronted Uruguay (now under enemy administration), the Argentine government of Mitre, and the Brazilian slave monarchy. The result was the genocide that exterminated almost 2/3 of the Paraguayan population, numbers that are questioned by Brazilian historians of the left and right, but confirmed by the Paraguayan historian Ronald León Nuñez in his book The war against Paraguay in debate.

Ronald León Nuñez did his doctoral thesis in economic history at USP and, in part, his book takes up the thesis, adding an assessment of the historiographical debate on the war against Paraguay. The title is already important for Brazilians, since we all learned in school that it was a war do Paraguay provoked by Solano Lopez, treated even by great historians like Sérgio Buarque de Holanda as megalomaniac and crazy.


historiographical debate

Immediately after the end of the conflict in 1870, a conservative liberal historiography emerged that justified the war against Paraguay in the name of civilization against barbarism and freedom against the authoritarianism of a mad and bloodthirsty dictator.

Against it, the nationalist historiography favorable to Paraguay rose. In its first version, it took on patriotic tones, mythologizing the attacked country as a model of autonomous economic development and the dictator Solano López as a hero. In its second version, now informed by theses of Marxist, developmentalist and third worldist inspiration, it inserted the war in the international context and explained the actions of the Triple Alliance in terms of British imperialism. However, without proper mediation, that historiography produced a mechanistic interpretation and reduced historical characters to puppets of the British government.

More recently, conservative liberal historiography has been renewed with research into primary sources. It also modified its image by allying itself with media outlets and publishers, proposing itself as neutral and having the sympathy of the Armed Forces of Brazil. It emphasized an empiricist approach and, by refusing the notion of totality, reduced the war to a regional conflict with no ties to international capitalist interests. The absence of a declared theory hides eclecticism and the conscious or unconscious option for postmodernism. Nuñez lays bare the supposed neutrality of liberal historiography.


Long term

Ronald León Nuñez innovated by adopting a long-term perspective that allows us to explain the war against Paraguay as the closing of a cycle of Latin American independences under the aegis of the new economic dependence on imperialism, as stated by historian Rodrigo Ricupero in the preface. The end of the Paraguayan semi-autarchy model destroyed the only country that opposed the persistence of the sense of colonization and a cycle of conservative liberal independence.

The author goes through a good discussion about the mode of production and production relations, rescues our classic Caio Prado Júnior and the remarkable Argentine historian Milcíades Peña, revealing traces of permanence from geography to economic, social and cultural aspects. The colonization of a region without precious metals or tropical genres demanded by the European market made geographic isolation a fundamental element of Paraguayan historical formation. Despite sharing black slavery with other areas of Hispanic colonization, compulsory indigenous labor[I] and other forms of exploitation, Paraguay exhibited a peripheral situation within the colonial space. Production for subsistence corresponded to almost 60% of the cultivated surface, according to Ronald León Nuñez. Ethnic miscegenation was also a characteristic of the majority of the population since the beginning of the Spanish colonization process.

In its independence, Paraguay had to fight against the bourgeoisie of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (both unitary and federalist) and began a process of capital accumulation in conditions of relative isolation. José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia exercised power since the proclamation of the Republic in 1813, being replaced by Carlos Antonio López and this one in 1862, by Francisco Solano López.

Without a strong bourgeoisie associated with foreign capital like the Buenos Aires one, which led the formation of Argentina, the fragile Paraguayan bourgeoisie relied on the State that controlled the trade in yerba mate, tobacco and leather, the country's main products. Nuñez demonstrates mastery of the dialectical method when he argues that political power served the business sector focused on the internal market and that “the weakness of the national bourgeoisie, still in formation, made the [bourgeois] state machine, to compensate for this state fragility, comply with a role that would normally fall to a consolidated ruling class”.[ii] It combines very well the structural determinants and historical circumstances that allowed a different kind of development of the productive forces under the command of a protectionist bourgeoisie.

According to the author, 80% of land in 1840 had been nationalized and the State controlled foreign trade, authorized each imported lot, imposed taxes and a large part of exports were state products. The government prohibited the exit of precious metals in the same way as the European mercantilist policy of the past. Alongside the private sector, both small and large properties, there were lands leased directly by the State, Estancias da República and communal or municipal lands.

Although Paraguay officially abolished slavery in 1869, it was residual. The Paraguayan “free womb law” dates from 1842 and there were state slaves. Paraguay was not a slave state like Brazil. Even so, the author does not fall back on the anachronistic thesis that his country was a plebeian, proto-socialist, industrialized or anything like that. Even if slavery was not the fundamental axis of the extraction of economic surplus, its very legal existence reveals that the rulers did not have any leftist ideological trait.

The state monopoly on the production and sale of yerba mate, the country's main production, did not prevent the favored from being mainly the Lopez and their allies. If there has been an undeniable advance in productive and even cultural forces, the starting point was long overdue. Paraguay was not a regional power and never militarily threatened the existence of its neighbors.

The geographic problem of a landlocked country demanded freedom of navigation on the Paraná River. With the fall of Rosas in Argentina and the recognition of Paraguayan independence by that country, foreign trade grew, but state control did not wane, which greatly bothered British businessmen. There were high import tariffs on items that had national counterparts. The German theorist List, criticized by Marx for being a defender of the German bourgeoisie, would have felt at home in the López's Paraguay. In summary, an anomaly emerged in South America: a protectionist model of bourgeois development amidst the hegemony of economic liberalism.

The Paraguayan bourgeoisie, in an isolated situation, had to use the State as a source of accumulation and, therefore, was forced to adopt a statist and independent system, contrary to what prevailed in the rest of South America, which was free-trade and semi-colonial. As the author shows, this did not make Paraguay a developed and industrialized country, nor did its bourgeoisie a group interested in another social order. It was a bourgeoisie that sought to open up foreign trade routes to increase the export of primary products and import European technology.


To war

The author does not deny the role of the bourgeoisie in the Paraguayan resistance, but shows that it defended an economic model that was confused with its class interests. In that strict sense it was national. But the real resistance was popular. Contrary to what the liberal-conservative historiography declared, the population did not stand firm for fear of a dictator, but because it defended material interests that it enjoyed in its country and realized that it would lose everything when it saw itself reduced to a people conquered by foreigners.

León Nuñez manages to put the Paraguayan bourgeoisie back in its proper place and size, without denying it its role in the national resistance, but without hiding its incurable contradiction with its own people. Furthermore, the author does not project a nationalist and proto-socialist leader into the past as did the communist and nationalist historiography, which needed to find in history a justification for the stage strategy of alliance with the bourgeoisie and support for popular front governments. López was not an Allende and neither was Paraguay a pre-socialist and developed country.

Ronald León Nuñez is an internationalist militant and explicitly opposes his historiographic position to the current neoliberal trend. Obviously, the latter claims to be neutral and accuses the former of being ideological. It would not be neoliberal if I said otherwise. The author did not give much importance to the prefix “neo”, but it involves a significant change: in the XNUMXth century Conde D'Eu, Miter, Flores, Caxias and the British representatives were not afraid to say that they defended material interests and that it was not in cause to free the Paraguayan people from a dictatorship. They weren't neutral.



The new liberal historiography questioned left-wing historiography, denied any link between the war and imperialism and reduced it to the territorial consolidation of South American countries. After all, Brazil and England did not even maintain relations from 1862 to 1865 due to the Christie question.[iii] And, in fact, the Brazilian border problems and Argentine national consolidation were under discussion.

Julio Chiavenato, who in 1979 wrote an important work breaking with Brazilian patriotic historiography, did not pay much attention to local interests in the conflict. For him, Brazil and Argentina were puppets of English imperialism. The Argentine Leon Pomer, the main representative of left-wing historiography, stated in an article published 30 years after his book war of paraguay: “The war was not promoted by the English government, and I personally have no evidence that British statesmen wished it (outside the scope of their personal feelings) as part of a policy on the Plata. It is evident that the Paraguayan economic policy (...) did not please everyone, and much less those who, in Europe (mainly in Great Britain) and in the Plata region, professed liberal ideals. The war demanded financial resources, (…). The British bank loans must have had the British Cabinet's assent."

To the argument that Paraguay did not represent anything for the British economy, Pomer replied that: “If Paraguay did not mean much for the British government or economy, the eventual diffusion of its “model” was a risk to which the statesmen of London they could not remain indifferent. (…) The British minister in Buenos Aires, Edward Thornton, attended meetings of Miter's cabinet”.[iv]

The critique of the thesis of English imperialism as an agent of the conflict had already been made by Milcíades Peña, but without specific deepening. And Pomer does not establish the mediations between imperialism and war with the interpretative deepening of Ronald León Nuñez. One of the contributions of Nuñez's book was to theoretically recalibrate the interpretation of the role of British imperialism in the war, placing the processes in a totality. To do so, he got rid of the mechanism of some leftist statements, discussed the relations between capital and the State and presented irrefutable facts and arguments that demonstrate British interest and participation in the conflict.

It is worth reading in the book the narrative about financing, loans, free arms sales in Brazilian ports, foreign participation in Argentine government meetings, etc. For the author, capital not only has an ideology but chose the side that was most favorable to it in the conflict, since it did not want to do business with Paraguay. And this was not restricted to private interests, but had the tacit authorization of Great Britain.

The Paraguayan economic model did not favor the penetration of British capital. After the war, the British snapped up much of the state land that was privatized. Most of the workers were reduced to the status of landless. Foreign capital appropriated natural resources and national companies and the victorious countries imposed a colossal and unpayable debt on Paraguay. Even the state railway was privatized.



Ronald León Nuñez did not write a patriotic work. His sympathies, of course, are with the oppressed nation. But he does not hide López's tyranny or the nature of the Paraguayan bourgeoisie. And he reveals that there was resistance against the war in the populations of the countries of the triple alliance, although he mentions this in passing. He reproduces the racist speeches of Brazilian generals, although he does not pay attention to the specific resistance of Brazilian “homeland volunteers” against forced recruitment.[v]

The author also discussed the massacre of the Paraguayan population. First, he showed the reasons why historiography still denies that there was a genocide, which would imply economic and historical reparations to the Paraguayan people. Second, it informs how the politicians and military of the time faced that war. Sarmiento, who replaced Miter, left unbelievable words about the supposed racial inferiority of the Guaranis. He simply advocated its extermination. Caxias was fully aware that he was promoting the extermination of the Paraguayan population. Third, the author revisits Paraguayan demography to reaffirm that there was a genocide.[vi]

A War against Paraguay under debate it is a turning point in historiography and distributes the theoretical weapons that the left needs to overcome, in practice, the greatest crime ever committed by the independent bourgeoisies of South America with the support of imperialism.

*Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of The Carnation Revolution and the crisis of the Portuguese colonial empire: economies, spaces and awareness (Mall).



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



[I]A entrust was the extraction of surplus in the form of labor income. The crown contracted for two generations by encomendero the right to exploit indigenous labor and pay the metropolis a fee annually for each worker in its service. O commandment it was forced recruitment for public works or personal interests of royal authorities. These are compulsory labor analogous to slavery.

[ii]Nuñez, Ronald L. The war against Paraguay. São Paulo: Sunderman, 2022, p. 231.

[iii]The new liberal historiography quickly gained support on educational internet sites. British representative William Christie demanded compensation for goods taken from an English ship that sank in Rio Grande do Sul. The Brazilian monarchy paid, but English officials caused rows and the diplomat made a series of humiliating demands, leading D. Pedro II to break off diplomatic relations. This in no way stopped commercial relations between the two countries and, during the war against Paraguay, diplomatic relations were normalized.

[iv]Pomer, Leon. “The Key to the British Vaults”, in Consultation on May 4, 2022. Which is equivalent to asking liberal historians: why does the United States promote an embargo on Cuba?

[v]On this subject, see Tavares Alves e Silva, Beatriz. The Impacts of the War against Paraguay in the Province of São Paulo (1864-1870). São Paulo: USP, master's thesis, 2021.

[vi]In Brazil, it was the journalist Julio Chiavenato who called attention to the theme in the title of his book American Genocide: The Paraguayan War. It was the formative book of a post-dictatorship critical generation. The work, which had 32 editions, was supported by Caio Prado Junior who published it by Editora Brasiliense in 1979. Queiroz, Silvânia de. Revising the Review: JJ Chiavenato's American Genocide. University of Passo Fundo, master's dissertation, 2010. The dissertation was supervised by Mario Maestri.

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