“How The War Against Paraguay Wrecked The Only Successful Attempt at Independent Development,” a small but profound section in Chapter 4 of Open Veins of Latin America which unfurls the critical story of Paraguay’s destruction by imperialism, begins not with an abstract theoretical discussion, but with a narrative: “the man sat beside me in silence” (188). The man sitting next to Eduardo Galeano is later identified as “a Guaraní-speaking peasant,” who says to Galeano “we Paraguayans are poor and few.”
Galeano tells us that “poverty drives out the inhabitants of what was, until a century ago, South America's most advanced country.” Galeano has begun with the conclusion: the present state of Paraguay, “wrecked” as he says, is easily evinced in the fate of this individual peasant. But how his people ended up this way, he asserts, was not the natural course of history. The destruction of Paraguay’s endogenous development was instead the product of a sordid conspiracy, which Galeano reveals in stark detail, whereby “Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay joined in committing genocide,” but “it was in the pockets of British merchants, bankers, and industrialists that the loot ended up.” The motivations behind this genocidal demolition of Paraguay are found in Britain’s imperialist desire to crush an alternative development project. As Galeano notes, Paraguay, by 1865 “had incubated an autonomous, sustained development process in the womb of isolation”; “there were no great private fortunes . . . and Paraguay was the only Latin American country where begging, hunger, and stealing were unknown” (189). This had been achieved by an active intervention by the state, which had “used the peasant masses to crush the Paraguayan oligarchy . . . expropriations, exilings, jails, persecutions, and fines had been used—not to consolidate the internal power of landlords and merchants—but for their destruction.”
The Paraguayan “state virtually monopolized foreign trade”; it had “a strong and stable currency,” leading Paraguay to be “wealthy enough to carry out great public works without recourse to foreign capital.” Paraguay’s economic surplus thus did not “pass into the pockets of middlemen and loan sharks, or swell the profits of the British Empire's freight and insurance men. The imperialist sponge, in short, did not absorb the wealth the country produced” (190).
This situation obviously had to change; Britain and its neocolonial puppets had “to cut short the scandal of this odious country, which was sufficient unto itself and objected to bowing down before British merchants.” Galeano details how “Britain's minister in Buenos Aires, Edward Thornton, played a substantial role in preparing for the war . . . he participated as a government advisor in Argentine cabinet meetings” (191). He also notes how pro-imperialist press demanded that the President of Paraguay, Solano López “must be killed like a reptile” (192). Commenting on the “War of the Triple Alliance,” Galeano concludes that
the invaders came to redeem the Paraguayan people, and exterminated them. When the war began, Paraguay had almost as large a population as Argentina. Only 250,000, less than one-sixth, survived in 1870. It was the triumph of civilization.
Worse, Britain’s imperial rule and neocolonial domination was furthered:
the victors, ruined by the enormous cost of the crime, fell back into the arms of the British bankers who had financed the adventure...the financial bankruptcy of the three countries deepened their dependency on Britain (193).
A century later, in Galeano’s time and ours, Paraguay is in the same ruined state, but now under American imperial rule. Under the US-backed dictator Alfredo Stroessner, “the only triumphs proudly displayed by the government are the Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola plants, installed at the end of 1966 as a U.S. contribution to the progress of the Paraguayan people” (196).
Paraguay’s demolition at the hands of imperialism is a warning tale to all other endogenous development projects: reading Galeano’s description of Paraguay and the fate that befell it feels eerily reminiscent of the American warmongering against Cuba’s autonomous development. But that project continues on; Paraguay, meanwhile, remains only as a horrific example of the suffering imperialism will inflict on anyone who dares resist. It is an example we should all familiarize ourselves with.
By Joseph Mullen