Paraguay: Victim of the most destructive war in modern times
Wars aren't much fun but they define nations, shape borders and leave indelible memories and scars on populations. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at a few of the wars which made South America what it is today.
The War of the Triple Alliance ((1864 – 1870) is widely regarded as the most proportionally destructive war of the modern era, killing somewhere in the vicinity of 60% of the Paraguayan population, including as many as 90% of Paraguay's men. It also saw the cession of 60 000 square miles of Paraguayan territory to Brazil and Argentina. In short, Paraguay was lucky to even retain its sovereignty after the war, and it left a mark on Paraguay which is still evident today.
Paraguay was one of the first independent republics in South America, and although it was not economically or politically very important, it did prosper modestly in the first half of the 19th century. This all changed under the leadership of Mariscal Francisco Solano López.
He followed his father as ruler of the country, and as such had no legitimate claims to the role. This showed in his decision making: declaring war on Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay at the same time was not a wise move, especially considering the Brazilian army had more soldiers than Paraguay had people. From the very outset the conflict was one-sided, and it was made worse by Lopez’s paranoid distrust of those around him: thousands of his men were put to death on suspicion of treason, among them his own brother. Asunción fell in January 1869, but Lopez and his men hung on for another 14 months of crippling guerrilla warfare before he died in battle.
Paraguay elected its first democratic government in 1993 – a staggering 123 years after the war ended – making it the textbook case study on the ills of war. If this blog has piqued your interest, read more about the war’s impact in this fascinating article.
The cover photograph is of the monument to the dead in the Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires. It was taken by Brian Allen.