Estigarribia, José Félix (1888–1940)

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Estigarribia, José Félix (1888–1940)

José Félix Estigarribia (b. 21 February 1888; d. 5 September 1940), president of Paraguay (1940) and soldier. Born at Caraguatay, Estigarribia came from a poor but distinguished family of Basque extraction. His ancestors included Colonel Antonio de la Cruz Estigarribia, who had surrendered his army at Uruguaiana during the War of the Triple Alliance.

Young José Félix passed his early years in the countryside, and there was reason to think he might choose farming as a career. In 1903 he enrolled in the Agricultural School at Trinidad and then moved on to attend the Colegio Nacional at Asunción. The revolutions of the first decade of the new century, however, propelled Estigarribia into the ranks of the army. In 1911, he was sent to Chile for further military training, from which he returned two years later, becoming a first lieutenant in 1914. Estigarribia remained loyal to the government during the disturbances of 1921–1922, a fact that provisional president Eusebio Ayala never forgot. As a partial reward, the young captain was sent to France for further military study under Marshal Foch. When he returned to Paraguay in 1927, he became chief of the general staff.

During Estigarribia's absence, the dispute with Bolivia over the Chaco Region had provoked a series of ugly incidents. These, in turn, developed into a full-scale war by 1932. In August of that year Estigarribia was given command of 15,000 men, with which he forged a powerful fighting force.

Estigarribia gained a legendary status in the Chaco. Though his troops were regularly outnumbered by the Bolivians, still they boasted certain advantages over their counterparts from the Altiplano: they were closer to home bases, they were more accustomed to the terrain and climate, and, in Estigarribia, they had a commander who had a clear goal, who was a master tactician, and who understood his men. Over the next three years, Colonel Estigarribia went from victory to victory fighting on some of the roughest land in South America. After his exhausted troops gained the foothills of the Andes in 1935, a truce was signed. It was affirmed three years later in a boundary treaty generally favorable to Paraguay.

Meanwhile, President Eusebio Ayala had been removed by restive army officers and young radicals. Ayala's ally Estigarribia went on an extended tour abroad, teaching for a time at the Montevideo War College. In 1938 he became ambassador to Washington, and in 1939, though still in the United States, he ran unopposed as the Liberal candidate for president. When he returned for his inauguration at Asunción, however, Estigarribia discovered that radicals were demanding more far-reaching action than the Liberal program called for. Compromising, the new president proposed a semi-authoritarian constitution that had socialist, democratic, and fascist elements. Despite some inner doubts as to the wisdom of this document, Estigarribia ruled under it as dictator. Two months after its ratification, he died in an airplane crash outside Asunción. By executive decree, the Chaco hero was posthumously promoted to field marshal.

See alsoAyala, Eusebio; Basques in Latin America; Chaco Region; Chaco War; War of Triple Alliance.


Harris G. Warren, "Political Aspects of the Paraguayan Revolution, 1936–1940," Hispanic American Historical Review 30 (February 1950): 2-25.

Pablo Max Ynsfrán, ed., The Epic of the Chaco: Marshal Estigarribia's Memoirs of the Chaco War, 1932–1935 (1950).

Michael Grow, The Good Neighbor Policy and Authoritarianism in Paraguay (1981), esp. pp. 50-58.

Additional Bibliography

Castillo, Jorge Celio. Los dos últimos presidentes austeros del Paraguay. Asunción, 2003.

Filártiga, Joel, and Luis Agüero Wagner. Un Napoleón de hojalata. Asunción: Fundación "Joel Filártiga" Ediciones, 2002.

Llano, Mariano. Estigarribia: el león del desierto. Asunción, 1999.

Seiferheld, Alfredo M. Nazismo y fascismo en el Paraguay: los años de la guerra, 1939–1945. Asunción: Editorial Histórica, 1986.

                                    Thomas L. Whigham