views updated


LOCATION: Paraguay
POPULATION: 6,831,306 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; Guarani
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism 89% (official). Protestant 6.2% Christian 1.1%


An isolated, landlocked country, Paraguay has for much of its history deliberately kept itself apart from the rest of Latin America. Tucked away in the south-central part of the continent, it is a sparsely populated country, hot, subtropical lowland that has been dubbed "the empty quarter" of South America.

When the first Europeans arrived in the 16th century, Guarani-speaking people inhabited most of what is now eastern Paraguay, while west of the Rio Paraguay many other Amer-indian tribes, known collectively as Guaycuru to the Guarani, lived in the Chaco territories. The Paraguayans threw out their Spanish governor in 1811 and proclaimed independence. But, because the colony was regarded as being so isolated and economically unimportant, the Spanish authorities did not bother to do anything about it and left the new country to its own devices.

Paraguay's recent history has been characterized by wars, political and economical instability, and authoritarian regimes. The country has been involved in two of the three major wars on the continent: the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870) against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay and the Chaco War (1932–1935) against Bolivia. During the War of the Triple Alliance in 1864, Paraguayan forces were badly defeated and the country lost 150,000 sq km (58,000 sq mi) of territory. But far worse, it lost much of its population through combat, famine, and disease. One estimate indicates it lost nearly all its males between the ages of 15 and 70. It was a blow from which the country has never completely recovered.

In 1932 a series of hostilities occurred between Bolivia and Paraguay over the Chaco boreal territory, a region located to the west of Paraguay. The conflict was rooted in the War of the Pacific (1879–1884), during which Chile annexed the entire coast of Bolivia. After having lost its maritime condition, Bolivia attacked Paraguay with the intention of ending its land-locked situation while seizing the strategic territory that goes from Rio de la Plata to the Atlantic coast. Paraguay formally declared war on Bolivia in 1933. After two years of conflict that took the lives of about 100,000 men, the Chaco Peace Conference Treaty ended the war, and Paraguay made impressive gains in territory.

After the civil war of 1947, Paraguay underwent a 35-year military regime. In 1954, Alfredo Stroessner seized power through a military coup. During more than three decades (1954–1989) this son of German immigrants governed the country with an iron fist, becoming one of the most repudiated dictators in South America during the 1970s. Economically, Stroessner's administration stabilized the currency and controlled inflation. In addition, the Paraguayan dictatorship improved the country's infrastructure with the construction of schools, public health facilities, and roads. However, the military government spent huge sums of the national budget on paramilitary forces to repress political opposition. Stroessner's supporters dominated the nation's legislature and courts. The constitution was modified in 1967 and 1977 to legitimize his six consecutive elections to the presidency. Moreover, Stroessner's human rights record was heavily damaged by its participation in the so-called Operation Condor, a clandestine campaign coordinated by several South American rulers to eliminate their opponents. This illegal organization was responsible for numerous extralegal arrests, extraditions, and other human rights abuses.

In 1989 the brutal dictatorship was overthrown by General Andres Rodriguez, who was elected to the presidency. In the same election, more opposition party members gained congressional seats than ever before. Democratic elections were held in 1991 and General Rodriguez's Colorado Party won a legislative majority. An era of political debate and activity was opening up for the first time in Paraguay's history. However, Paraguayans continued to experience violent political events. In 1999 Vice President Luis Maria Argana was assassinated. Later, the first and second civilian elected presidents, Juan Carlos Wasmosy (1993-1998) and Luis Angel Gonzalez (1999-2003), were indicted on charges of corruption.

Since 2003, Nicanor Duarte has ruled the country, focusing on ending corruption and drug trafficking. In pursuing these goals, purging and modernizing the national police force, as well as deep reform processes in the judiciary system—especially oriented to renovate the Supreme Court—have remained the main goal of the current administration.

Economically, Paraguay relies on agriculture for much of its export industry, and the most important crops grown are cassava, sugarcane, maize (corn), soybeans, and cotton, as well as cattle products. It remains one of the most industrially undeveloped countries in South America. The development of the world's largest hydroelectric project at Itaipu, situated in eastern Paraguay, brings the hope of economic change. Mineral resources, including petroleum, are almost nonexistent.


Lying within the heart of South America, Paraguay is surrounded by the huge, neighboring countries of Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. With an area of 407,000 sq km (157,000 sq mi), it is slightly larger than Germany and almost exactly the size of California. Although half the country is covered by timber, much of it has little commercial value.

Dividing the country into two unequal halves is the Rio Paraguay. This river connects the capital, Asunción, with the Rio Paraná and the Atlantic Ocean. The great majority of the population lives in the eastern section of this divide, making up about 40% of the whole country.

Contraband has become one of Paraguay's major sources of currency. Electronic goods and agricultural produce find their way through Ciudad del Este to and from Brazil. There is also a substantial trade in stolen cars and illegal drugs, including cocaine.

Paraguay's population of 6.8 million is approximately one-seventh the size of that of the state of California, which has about the same area. Asunción is the largest city, with 577,000 residents, but only 43% of Paraguayans live in urban areas, compared with 80% in Argentina and Uruguay. Most people can claim to be native Paraguayans, and 90% are mestizo, of mixed Spanish and Guarani blood. Many Paraguayans are peasant farmers, who make a living by selling their small surplus of crops.

About 20% of Paraguayans are of European stock, including about 100,000 Germans. In the 1930s, German Mennonites, a pacifist, religious sect similar to the Amish sects of North America, were allowed in by the government to establish agricultural settlements in central Chaco. Despite the harsh, challenging conditions of the region, the Mennonites have been very successful, although there have been problems with a number of local Amerindian tribes. Japanese immigrants have also settled in parts of eastern Paraguay, along with Brazilian agricultural colonists, many of German origin, who have moved across the border in recent years. Paraguay's Amerindians represent 3% of the population, and most of them live in the Chaco region.


Both Spanish and Guarani are Paraguay's official languages. Guarani is spoken by nearly nine-tenths of the population; however, government and business use the Spanish language almost exclusively. This co-existence of both languages is a reflection of its colonial history, for when the Spaniards settled in the country they were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Guarani native Amerindians. As a result, intermarrying became the norm. Today, almost 90% of Paraguayans are mestizos, of mixed Spanish-Guarani heritage, many of them preferring to speak Guarani.
Several other Amerindian languages are spoken in the Chaco and in isolated parts of eastern Paraguay, including Lengua, Nivacle, and Ache. Contact with the Mennonites has also meant that for many Amerindians, German has become their second language, rather than Spanish.


The historical merging of Spanish and Guarani blood over the centuries has created a Spanish-Guarani culture, which is reflected in the folklore, arts, and literature of the country.


The state religion of Paraguay is Roman Catholicism, although the Catholic Church is weaker and less influential than in most other Latin American countries. Two of the reasons for this are Paraguay's traditional isolation from mainstream South America and the fact that the government has shown less interest in religion as an institution. As a result, a number of irregular religious practices have grown up over the years. In fact, in some rural areas, priests are seen as healers and men of magic, rather than as official representatives of the Catholic Church.

At the same time, fundamentalist Protestants have not had as much success in finding converts in Paraguay as they have in other Latin American countries, although the Mennonites have had some influence among Chaco Amerindians since they arrived in the 1930s.


Christmas and Easter are major Christian holidays, as well as the Día de la Virgen, on December 8, celebrating the Immaculate Conception. The War of the Triple Alliance in the 1860s is commemorated on March 1, and February sees the celebration of the popular Latin American festival, Carnival.


Because of the influence of the Catholic Church, baptisms, first Communion and saints' days play an important part in the lives of many families.


As in the rest of South America, Paraguayan social life revolves around the family. For example, padrinos, or godparents, are particularly important because if parents become unable to provide for their children, godparents are expected to assume responsibility for them.

A popular social pastime is the drinking of mate, Paraguayan tea made from holly leaves. It is regarded as being more significant than a simple drink like tea or coffee and is, in fact, seen as an important ritual to be shared among family, friends, and colleagues. In other words, the whole purpose of drinking mate is the act of sharing. At each sitting, one person is responsible for filling a gourd almost to the top with the tea. Water is heated, but not boiled, in a kettle and poured into the vessel. The liquid is then sipped by each person from a silver tube, which has a bulbous filter at its lower end to prevent the leaves from entering the tube.


Asunción has preserved much of its 19th-century architecture, with narrow streets full of low buildings. Meanwhile, a steady flood of rural poor has caused large shantytowns to mushroom in open spaces by the river and close to the railway. Some 40% of the population still survives in rural areas, enduring poor sanitation and malnutrition. Paraguay has one of the highest infant mortality rates in South America, and its levels of welfare place it very low by world and South American standards. Paraguay's social welfare system, however, does provide cash and medical care for sickness, maternity, and injury at work, as well as pensions for old age.

Most rural Paraguayans live in one-room houses, called ranchos. Most have earthen floors; reed, wood, or brick walls; and a thatched roof, sloped to carry off the heavy rains. A separate or attached shed serves as a kitchen. Few houses have indoor plumbing. Urban dwellers—over 40% of the population—occupy small, pastel-colored houses of brick or stucco, with tiled roofs and iron grillwork covers on the windows. The urban poor live in shacks, although, unlike other large Latin American cities, Asunción does not have sprawling slum areas.

Paraguay's geographical isolation has led to high transport costs, which have driven up the price of its exports in comparison with other Latin American countries.


Population growth is encouraged, although child abandonment and high rates of maternal mortality are problems. However, between the 1970s and the mid-2000s, the total population increased from 2.4 million to more than 6 million as a result of a decreasing death rate and a continued high birth rate. This explosive growth has resulted in a relatively young population.

There is also a high level of illegitimacy, particularly in rural areas. This is often blamed on the great distances that separate rural dwellings from the nearest towns, as well as the extreme poverty of the peasants who cannot afford the expense of the wedding ceremony. Marriage itself may be performed both as a civil and a religious ceremony.


In urban areas, Paraguayans dress as people do in America or Europe. Many rural women wear a shawl, called a rebozo, and a simple dress or a skirt and blouse. The men generally wear loose trousers, called bombachas, a shirt or jacket, a necker-chief, and a poncho. Rural people generally go barefoot.


Paraguayan cuisine reflects traditional Guarani cooking styles. Beef dishes and freshwater river fish are popular. Typical foods are soups, often with meat and different types of breads, especially chipa, which is flavored with cheese and eggs. In general terms, Paraguayan food is similar to that of Argentina and Uruguay, although there are significant differences. People eat less meat than in either of the other River Plate republics, although parrillada, grilled meat, is still a popular item on restaurant menus. At the same time, the influence of Guarani tastes in tropical and subtropical ingredients can often be seen in Paraguayan recipes.

A common part of almost every meal is grain, particularly maize (corn), and tubers such as cassava. Locro is a maize stew, while mazamorra is a maize mush.

The national dish and dietary staple is sopa paraguaya, which is not a soup but rather a cornbread with cheese and onion. Cassava dishes are the mainstay of the rural poor, for the vegetable thrives abundantly on thin to mediocre soils.

Corn (maize) is a staple ingredient in many dishes, including sopa paraguaya, a pie made from corn, eggs, and milk; avatí mbaipy, a corn soup; and mbaipy he-é, a dessert made from corn, milk, and molasses. Beer and caña, a cane sugar spirit, are popular drinks. Yerba mate, the local herbal tea, is consumed year-round—chilled in summer, hot in winter. A common pastime is drinking tereré (a bitter tea made from the same type of leaves that are used to brew yerba mate) from a shared gourd or from a hollowed cow's horn, or guampa, which often is beautifully carved.


Education is only compulsory up to the age of 12. Although the official enrollment figures are high, the dropout rate is also high. The literacy rate is 94%, making it the lowest of the River Plate republics, although it is higher than all the Andean countries except Ecuador. There is higher education at the Universidad Nacional and the Universidad Católica in Asunción, both of which also have branches throughout the country. Since the return to democracy, beginning in the 1990s, the number of private universities has increased. At least half of all university graduates are female.


In general, very little Paraguayan literature is available to English-speaking readers, but novelist and poet Augusto Roa Bastos introduced Paraguay to the international literary stage by winning the Spanish government's Cervantes prize in 1990. Although he was forced to spend much of his life in exile from the Stroessner dictatorship, Roa Bastos uses Paraguayan themes and history, intertwining them with the story of his country's politics.

Works by other important Paraguayan writers, such as novelist Gabriel Cassaccia and poet Evio Romero, are not readily available in English.


Most people in rural areas survive on subsistence crops on small landholdings, selling any surplus at local markets. They then supplement their incomes by laboring on the large estancias and plantations.

There are still small, but important, populations of Amerindians in the Chaco and in scattered areas of eastern Paraguay. Until very recently, some of them relied on hunting and gathering for their livelihood. The Nivacle and Lengua are the largest groups, who both number around 10,000 people, and many of them work as laborers on the large agricultural estates.

Many Paraguayans, either for political or economic reasons, live outside the country, mostly in Brazil and Argentina. Between 1950 and 1970, more than 350,000 Paraguayans migrated to Argentina to find work. Although the official minimum wage in Paraguay is approximately 200 dollars per month, the Ministry of Justice and Labor is unable to enforce its regulations, and it is estimated that about 70% of Paraguayan workers earn less than the minimum wage.


Soccer, like elsewhere in this part of Latin America, is the most popular sport, both for watching and playing. Asuncion's most popular team, Olímpico, is on a level with the best Argentine and Uruguayan teams.

Paraguayans also enjoy basketball, volleyball, horseracing, and swimming.


Theater is popular in Paraguay, and productions are staged in Guarani as well as Spanish. The visual arts are also very important and popular. Asunción offers many galleries, the most important being the Museo del Barro, which mounts a wide range of modern works. Classical and folk music are performed at venues throughout the capital.

Religious holidays are celebrated with festivals that include music, dancing, and parades, as well as athletic contests.


Paraguay's most famous traditional craft is the production of multicolored spider-web lace in the Asunción suburb of Itaugua, where skilled women from childhood to old age practice the cottage industry. Paraguayan harps and guitars, as well as filigree gold and silver jewelry and leather goods, are made in the village of Luque, while the Amerindian communities of Chaco produce high-caliber craft items of their own.


When Juan Carlos Wasmosy was elected as Paraguay's first civilian president, the then-ruling Colorado Party, nominated him merely as a figurehead. Since then, however, he has clashed with the still-powerful military establishment, particularly General Lino Oviedo, who led the coup against the previous military dictatorship.

Meanwhile, the military's position is being challenged as it comes under scrutiny for its treatment and abuse of conscripts, from groups like the Movimiento de Objeción de la Conciencia. At the same time, President Wasmosy is also being investigated for his business dealings connected with Paraguay's major hydroelectric projects.

So far, Paraguayan industry, which is mainly concerned with the processing of agricultural products, has seen little benefit from the hydroelectric boom. The economic growth of the 1970s has been almost wiped out by the long delays in finishing two major hydroelectric projects. In 1994 the economic growth rate was only 3.6%, while inflation has been running at roughly 45%.


According to the UNDP Gender Development Index, Paraguay does worse than most of its neighbors in terms of gender equality. Women continue to have lower educational levels than men and 6 out of 10 illiterate persons in the country are women. In addition, the country has one of the highest rates of maternal death in the Latin America and Caribbean region, with abortion being the second most common cause of maternal death. Teenage pregnancies are also high for regional standards. About 28% of the women aged 15 to 24 have been pregnant at least once and, among these, the majority has given birth to their first child when they were 18 years old or younger. Th is figure goes up to 32% among the poor. Single mothers, separated women, and widows comprise 23% of Paraguay's poor population.

A new generation of gender-based organizations began to activate in Paraguay in the mid-1980s and have been able to successfully pursue several legal and institutional reforms, including the creation of the Women's Secretariat in 1992, a state agency responsible for coordinating gender policies.

However, women are still heavily underrepresented at all levels in the Paraguayan political structure. Women represent slightly less than 16% of all elected officials and less than 3% of those voted to positions of executive authority. There are no women governors and only seven women had been elected as town mayors as of 2008. The percentage of women in the Chamber of Deputies in 2004 was 2.5%, which makes Paraguay one of the worst countries in the world for female representation in parliament. The share of women in congress is not only very low, but also decreased from 4.2% in the 1989–1993 period.


Bernhardson Wayne. Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit. 2nd ed. Lonely Planet Publications, 1996.

Colazo, Carmen. "Public Policies on Gender and Education in Paraguay: The Project for Equal Opportunities." The Comparative Education Reader. Edward R. Beauchamp, ed. New York: Routledge Falmer, 2003.

Franks, Jeffrey. Paraguay: Corruption, Reform, and the Financial System. Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund, 2005.

Harder Horst, René D. The Stroessner Regime and Indigenous Resistance in Paraguay. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.

Warren, Harris Gaylord. Paraguay and the Triple Alliance. Austin: University of Texas, 1978.

———. Rebirth of the Paraguayan Republic. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Williams, John Hoyt. The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic. Austin: University of Texas, 1979.

—revised by C. Vergara