The War against Paraguay

Image: Tom D'Arby


A war of conquest and extermination of an oppressed nationality

The conflict between Paraguay and the Triple Alliance ended 152 years ago with the last shot fired at Cerro Corá, but the dispute between historiographical interpretations continues on paper and in the tribunes. Although, in recent decades, the hegemonic historiography in academic circles[I] proclaiming the advent of a “historiographical renewal” and trying to convince us that it is possible to write a neutral and strictly “objective” history of the greatest warlike dispute in South American history, war remains “the continuation of politics by other means”, as sentenced Carl von Clausewitz.

For those who intend to associate the Marxist method with Paraguayan bourgeois nationalism or Argentine historical revisionism, it is necessary to clarify what, in our opinion, is not up for debate.



An exceptional combination of external and internal factors made the tasks inherent to the anti-colonial bourgeois-democratic revolution – without becoming social, as in Haiti or the process that resulted from the Grito de Dolores in Mexico in 1810 – advance relatively more in Paraguay than nineteenth century than in other areas of the American Southern Cone.

In order to defend itself against threats to its independence from its powerful neighbors, to counterbalance the economic power of internal opponents of political sovereignty and to consolidate its own accumulation, a faction of the incipient Paraguayan bourgeoisie implemented an agrarian policy based on the nationalization of 90% of the lands and granting leases at moderate cost to the poor, mestizo, Guarani-speaking peasantry; establishment of state control of the main export items (yerba mate, tobacco, wood suitable for construction, etc.) and public regulation of around 80% of the domestic market; and strengthening of the armed forces for the defense of national independence, that is, of the internal market and, evidently, for its own protection in the face of possible social questioning by the exploited classes.

The recognition of the country's independence by the Empire of Brazil (1844) and by the Argentine Confederation (1852), with the consequent opening of free navigation on inland rivers, inaugurated an unprecedented situation, highly favorable for Paraguayan foreign trade.[ii] A portion of the income from this growth in foreign trade, completely controlled by the López family, was invested in a modernization program (iron foundry, railroad, shipyard, arsenal, telegraph, etc.) completely financed by the State, with the aim of improving the export capacity and the military potential of the Republic.

It is important to understand that this material and cultural progress, although impressive, was based on productive forces that were far behind compared to other countries in the region. Paraguay had been one of the poorest and most marginal dependencies of the former Spanish colonial system. A common mistake is to lose sight of this starting point when analyzing the true economic development of the country in the independent period.

Therefore, without denying the merits of the advances materialized through a statist and protectionist policy, we do not adhere to the myth of Paraguay as an economic and military power. On the contrary, we consider that Paraguay, despite these advances, maintained the character of an oppressed nation, importer of manufactured goods and exporter of primary products, dependent on the intermediation of regional submetropolises – a position inherited from the colonial period.


personality cult

In this context, the personality cult of Rodríguez de Francia and the López family is unacceptable, considered “popular governments” and, in certain left-wing circles, promoters of an alleged “protosocialist” project. This is an anachronism caused by the nationalist fever that, unfortunately, infected most of the so-called “progressive sectors”. A raving that Marxism cannot endorse.

Although we identified that the statist model was superior to the free-trade model that was applied in the rest of the Rio de la Plata and in the then Empire of Brazil, we cannot hide that José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1814-1840) and the López (1844- 1870) promoted this model not to improve the living conditions of the exploited classes – their governments maintained the submission of the indigenous, the “hitch” of the pawns in the herbs[iii] and black slavery – but for the benefit of the embryonic Paraguayan bourgeoisie.

Furthermore, the political regime that supported modernization in the capitalist sense not only made use of these archaic (pre-capitalist) production relations, but was also consolidated in the form of personal dictatorships, based on the growing strength of militarism.

In summary, we reject the conception of pre-War Paraguay as a “social paradise” for the common people. Neither Francoist protosocialism nor Lopista anti-imperialism: both are anachronistic readings, without foundation, indefensible in the face of the critique of neoliberal historiography on the War. The history of Paraguay between 1811 and 1870 is that of capitalism “in the making”, which started from a long way back.

The Paraguayan national state, like any other, was at the service of strengthening a bourgeoisie that mercilessly exploited the local labor force, but which, due to its own convenience and fragility, maintained a politically independent path of accumulation – which must be understood as marginal, but not entirely “isolated” –, statist, protectionist, without external debt, opposed to the model of laissez-faire who ruled the region. The weakness of the Paraguayan bourgeoisie, and not its strength, made the state machine fulfill the role that would correspond to a consolidated dominant class.

Having cleared the ground of these possible misunderstandings, let's point out what, among other topics, is up for debate: (1) the character of the war; (2) the discussion about whether or not there was a genocide; and (3) supposed British neutrality.


The Character of War

The fundamental controversy resides in the definition of the nature of war, because not all wars are the same: was it civilizing or reactionary – more precisely, the conquest of an oppressed nation? In other words, the political objective –translated into the military field– of the Triple Alliance was to free the Paraguayan people from oppression or “destroy the monopolies” and end indeed with the political independence of the Paraguayan State, even if that meant the extermination of a nationality that defended its sovereignty and way of life?

The facts demonstrate that it was a war of conquest and extermination of an oppressed nationality. By 1870, two-thirds of the Paraguayan population had disappeared; about 40% of the territory was annexed by the victors; the economy was completely ruined; the use of the Guarani language was prohibited by the governments imposed by the Allies, in the name of liberal civilization; all state assets would be auctioned off to a handful of foreign companies, etc. Allied governments were never interested in the fate of the Paraguayan people. Its objective was to impose, by force, free trade for the benefit of their respective bourgeoisies, dependent on capital and trade with the United Kingdom, the hegemonic power of the time.

General Miter himself acknowledged this in an article written on December 10, 1869, in the context of a public polemic: “The Allied soldiers, and particularly the Argentine ones, did not go to Paraguay to overthrow a tyranny […but] to claim the free navigation of rivers, reconquering their de facto and de jure borders [...] and we would do the same if instead of a monstrous and tyrannical government like López's we had been insulted by a more liberal and more civilized government [...] a people, their homes are not set on fire, their territory is not watered with blood, giving as the reason for such a war the overthrow of a tyranny in spite of its own children who sustain or support it”.[iv]

As jurists would say: confession dispenses with proof.

The Triple Alliance waged a reactionary war to conquer a poor and oppressed country. On the part of Paraguay, despite the dictatorial regime and the mediocre military leadership of Solano López, it was a just, defensive war, the struggle of an oppressed nation for its right to exist.

However, understanding the nature of cause of Paraguay does not mean supporting its political-military leadership, embodied in Solano López and his entourage of “one hundred property owners”. If there was a “hero” in this war, it was the Paraguayan people, not its ruling class.


Was there genocide?

Let's move on to discussing the problem of genocide. Numbers are always controversial, but if we assume the figures presented by historian Francisco Doratioto, the Brazilian Empire mobilized 1,52% of its total population; the Argentine Confederation, 1,72%; and Uruguay, 2,23%.[v] These proportions, today, would be equivalent to an invasion of more than four million soldiers in Paraguay. Furthermore, the allied troops were equipped with the most modern weapons and, above all, they had the powerful imperial battleship fleet.

The Paraguayan army faced this colossal force with flintlock rifles, smoothbore cannons and a “war fleet” composed of wooden-hulled merchant vessels. The officers had no military experience, starting with Solano López, who was appointed general at the age of 18 with the sole merit of being the president's son. The soldiers fought barefoot, many of them with only bladed weapons. What “terrible threat” to regional security are neoliberal historians referring to when they repeat that the Triple Alliance did nothing more than “defend” itself from this almost unarmed Paraguay?

In the case of Paraguay, at least from 1866 onwards, the conflict turned into a total war, with the mobilization of all the nation's resources to repel the invaders. The result answers the question of genocide: between 60 and 69% of the population, estimated at 450.000 people before the outbreak of hostilities, disappeared in less than six years.[vi] In contrast, the three allied countries lost 0,64% of their total population.[vii] In other words, more than 80% of the deaths fell to the Paraguayan people.

How to qualify such a degree of mortality, which the liberal historian Thomas Whigham himself admits to represent “an enormous percentage, practically without precedent in the history of a modern nation”?[viii]? There is no better definition than that of “genocide”.

Article 6 of the secret Treaty of the Triple Alliance established “(…) not to negotiate with the common enemy separately nor to sign a peace treaty, truce, armistice, or any convention to end or suspend the war”.[ix] This was thought to take the war to its last consequences.

This continued, in large part, due to the inflexible stance of the Brazilian Emperor. The Argentine authorities, in turn, recorded their racist and xenophobic prejudices against Paraguayans, which were impossible to ignore when analyzing the nature of the War. Domingo Sarmiento, the Argentine president who succeeded Miter in October 1868, qualified the war as “necessary, legitimate and honorable”, at the same time that he bragged about the extermination committed.

In a letter written on September 12, 1869 to Mrs. Mary Mann, he expressed the concept he had of the Paraguayan people: “Don't think I'm cruel. It is providential that a tyrant caused all these Guarani people to die. It was necessary to purge the land of all this human excrescence.”[X]. In another missive, dated September 25, 1869 and addressed to his friend Santiago Arcos, in Chile, Sarmiento sentences that the War ended “for the simple reason that we killed all Paraguayans over ten years old”[xi].

Neoliberal historians, especially Brazilian ones, do not accept the term “genocide” or prefer softer categories. This is not surprising. Expecting recognition by the Brazilian or Argentine State and its notaries that there was a genocide would be as naive as expecting the Turks to assume the genocide against the Armenian people.

The so-called “New historiography” assures that it is not appropriate to use the term “genocide” because, even though this was the result of the War, such a degree of mortality was not a “deliberate” action on the part of the Allies, that is, there was no “intentionality”. In other words, they admit that there was a huge extermination, but they tremble when calling things by their name.

Would it be, let's say, a kind of “culpable extermination”, with no intention (intent) to exterminate? How is it possible to kill two-thirds of a nation without intent to kill? In light of the facts, is it reasonable to assert, emphatically, that there was no “deliberate” action to prolong the War until the “purge” was carried out, advocated by political leaders of Sarmiento's stature?

Doratioto says that the high number of deaths was mainly due to “[…] hunger, disease or fatigue as a result of the forced march of civilians into the interior”.[xii] This argument is echoed by other academics. However, even if that were the case, is it possible to separate these hardships from the very existence of War? Do they suggest that this could happen without there being an all-out war in the country?

Note that attributing the cause of mortality to factors external to strictly military actions implies appealing to logic and reproducing the same argument that the deniers of the genocide of native peoples in the XNUMXth century used to exonerate the European conquerors.

Genocide is an unquestionable fact. Any pretense of denying the atrocities committed against the Paraguayan people with the argument that no official documentation was found with explicit orders to annihilate the civilian population, or anything like that, is nothing more than an abuse of patience and, above all, an unacceptable underestimation of the intelligence of any critical individual.

Nevertheless, it is evident that the substance of the debate lies in the nature of war. The terminological discussion is another one of its consequences.


The UK's role

Finally, on the subject of British interference, it is not possible to understand those who deny it on the grounds that “there is no evidence”. There are facts that sufficiently prove that the United Kingdom was not neutral. Not your bankers or your government or your parliament.

To the facts: (1) between 1863 and 1871, the Brazilian monarchy received 14.278.520 pounds sterling from the House of Rothschild, mainly to fund the War; (2) Miter's government received £1,25 million in 1866 and £1,98 million in 1868 from Baring Brothers for the same purpose; (3) There are records of complaints by Candido Bareiro, Paraguayan representative in Europe, to the English government for the violation of the “neutrality” declared by that State – sending arms, building warships, transporting war material on ships flying the British flag to equip allies, etc.; (4) if to financing – to a single belligerent side – we add the unconcealed sympathy and measures of British diplomacy in the River Plate, evidently favorable to the allied cause, what “lack of evidence” are we talking about?

Undoubtedly, the English influence is not the only or even the fundamental explanation of the guasu war[xiii]. It is unequivocal that the War was triggered as a result of contradictions between the interests of the national States involved. But it cannot be said that the British Empire was neutral in this conflict. London took one side in the War, the Triple Alliance side. This does not mean maintaining that the rulers of the allied countries did not have interests of their own or that they acted as simple puppets of London, much less exempt them from their crimes. One thing does not exclude the other.


An internationalist perspective

One last thought. The memory of the 152 years since the end of the War against Paraguay should serve to draw lessons from history, not for chauvinist demonstrations or to boast of a supposed “regional integration” after “redemocratization” – which never existed, since asymmetries of all kinds persist in the Southern Cone.

Paraguay was destroyed a century and a half ago. This defeat conditioned its historical development. Its character as an oppressed nation was reinforced, not only by the exploitation of hegemonic imperialism, but also by the most powerful bourgeoisies in the region, the Brazilian and Argentine ones. Territorial penetration through agribusiness, the increase in the number of Brazilian companies that operate under a maquila regime and the scandalous theft in the case of hydroelectric plants are just examples of this problem.

This reality requires, on the part of the Brazilian, Argentine, Uruguayan and, why not, Latin American working classes, an appropriation of the study of this historical episode to express full solidarity with the Paraguayan people. On the other hand, it requires the Paraguayan working class to identify in their class brothers from the countries that made up the Triple Alliance not potential enemies - because the guasu war it was not the work of these peoples, but of their dominant classes –, but allies in the common struggle for the second independence – an inseparable task of social liberation – in their own country and in the rest of Latin America.

*Ronald Leon Núñez He holds a PhD in Economic History from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (sundermann).



[I] DORATIOTO, Francis. damn war. New history of the Paraguayan War. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2002; MENEZES, Alfredo. War is ours: England did not provoke the Paraguayan War. São Paulo: Context, 2012; IZECKSOHN, Victor. The Heart of Discord. The Paraguayan War and the Army's Professional Nucleus. Rio de Janeiro: Army Library, 1998; between others.

[ii] Between 1810 and 1852, Paraguayan foreign trade was seriously affected by successive blockades of navigation on the Paraná River and by the imposition of exorbitant taxes on products leaving Asunción by the authorities of Buenos Aires and other provinces on the Argentine coast, which denied the independence of the small Mediterranean country.

[iii] Hitch: Peons, many of them semi-proletarians – who, in addition to working a plot of land, occupied an annual part of their time in the yerba mate production process –, mainly from the second half of the XNUMXth century onwards, constituted the embryo of the free work". These rural workers normally did not receive a salary in cash, but an amount of goods (clothes, tools, food) that they would have to pay later with their own production. Such goods were evidently overvalued in such a way that the peon was indebted even before being interned in the bush; in other words, in practice it was “hooked” to the yerba mate entrepreneurs.

[iv] MITER, Bartolomé; GOMEZ, Juan. Polemic of the Triple Alliance: correspondence between the Gral. miter and the Dr. Juan Carlos Gomez. La Plata: Imprenta La Mañana, 1897, pp. 4-5.

[v] DORATIOTO, Francis. damn war…, op. cit., pp. 458-462.

[vi] WHIGHAM, Thomas; POTHAST, Barbara. The Paraguayan Rosetta Stone: New Insights into the Demographics of the Paraguayan War, 1864-1870. Latin American ResearchReview, v. 34, no. 1, pp. 174-186, 1999.

[vii] DORATIOTO, Francis. damn war…, op. cit., pp. 91, 458, 461, 462.

[viii] Paraguayan Holocaust in the War of the 70s. ABC Color. Available in:

[ix] Treaty of the Triple Alliance [1865]. Available in:

[X] BARATTA, Maria. Representations of Paraguay in Argentina during the War of the Triple Alliance [1864-1870]. SURES Magazine. Foz do Iguaçu: UNILA, n. 4, 2014, p. 50. Mary Mann was the translator of Domingo Sarmiento's book, Facundo, to english.

[xi] POMER, Leon [1968]. The War of Paraguay: State, politics and business. Buenos Aires: Colihue, 2008, p. 227.

[xii] DORATIOTO, Francis. damn war…, op. cit., p. 456.

[xiii] guasu war ou Great War is the term by which the conflict in Paraguay is popularly known.

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