The Republic of Paraguay (República del Paraguay in Spanish or Tetã Paraguái in Guarani), is a landlocked country in central South America, bordered by Argentina to the south and southwest, Brazil to the east and northeast, and Bolivia to the northwest. Paraguay lies on both banks of the Paraguay River, which runs through the center of the country from north to south. Due to its central location in South America, it is sometimes referred to as Corazón de Sudamérica (“Heart of South America”). Paraguay is one of the two landlocked countries (the other is Bolivia) that lie outside Afro-Eurasia. The terrain consists mostly of grassy plains and wooded hills in the eastern region. To the west are mostly low, marshy plains.
The indigenous Guaraní had been living in Paraguay for at least a millennium before the Spanish conquered the territory in the sixteenth century. Spanish settlers and Jesuit missions introduced Christianity and Spanish culture to the region. Paraguay was a peripheral colony of the Spanish Empire, with few urban centers and settlers. Following independence from Spain in 1811, Paraguay was ruled by a series of dictators who generally implemented isolationist and protectionist policies. Following the disastrous Paraguayan War (1864–1870), the country lost 60 to 70 percent of its population through war and disease, and 54,054 square miles (140,000 square kilometers), one quarter of its territory, to Argentina and Brazil.
Through the twentieth century, Paraguay continued to endure a succession of authoritarian governments, culminating in the regime of Alfredo Stroessner, who led South America’s longest-lived military dictatorship from 1954 to 1989. He was toppled in an internal military coup, and free multi-party elections (plus the legalization of communist parties) were organized and held for the first time in 1993. A year later, Paraguay joined Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay to found Mercosur, a regional economic collaborative.
As of 2009, Paraguay’s population was estimated to be at around 6.5 million, most of whom are concentrated in the southeast region of the country. The capital and largest city is Asunción, of which the metropolitan area is home to nearly a third of Paraguay’s population. In contrast to most Latin American nations, Paraguay’s indigenous language and culture, Guaraní, remains highly influential. In each census, residents predominantly identify as mestizo, reflecting years of intermarriage among the different ethnic groups. Guaraní is recognized as an official language alongside Spanish, and both languages are widely spoken in the country.
There is no consensus for the derivation or meaning of the name Paraguay, although many versions are similar. The most common interpretations include:
- “Born from water” (derived from para “water” and guay “born” in the Guarani language)
- Fray Antonio Ruiz de Montoya (1585–1652) said that it meant “river crowned.”
- The Spanish officer and scientist Félix de Azara (1746–1821) suggests two derivations: the Payaguas (Payaguá-ý, or “river of Payaguás), referring to the indigenous tribe who lived along the river, or a great chief named Paraguaio.
- The French-Argentine historian and writer Paul Groussac (1848–1929) argued that it meant “river that flows through the sea (Pantanal).”
- Paraguayan poet and ex-president Juan Natalicio González (1897–1966) said it meant “river of the inhabitants of the sea.”
Indigenous peoples have inhabited this area for thousands of years. Pre-Columbian society in the region which is now Paraguay consisted of semi-nomadic tribes that were known for their warrior traditions. These indigenous tribes belonged to five distinct language families, which was the basis of their major divisions. Differing language groups were generally competitive over resources and territories. They were further divided into tribes by speaking languages in branches of these families. Today 17 separate ethnolinguistic groups remain.
The first Europeans in the area were Spanish explorers in 1516. The Spanish explorer Juan de Salazar de Espinosa founded the settlement of Asunción on August 15, 1537. The city eventually became the center of a Spanish colonial province of Paraguay.
An attempt to create an autonomous Christian Indian nation was undertaken by Jesuit missions and settlements in this part of South America in the eighteenth century, which included portions of Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil. They developed Jesuit reductions to bring Guarani populations together at Spanish missions and protect them from virtual slavery by Spanish settlers, in addition to seeking their conversion to Christianity. Catholicism in Paraguay was influenced by the indigenous peoples; the syncretic religion has absorbed native elements. The reducciones flourished in Eastern Paraguay for about 150 years, until the expulsion of the Jesuits by the Spanish Crown in 1767. The ruins of the two eighteenth-century Jesuit missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue have been designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
Paraguay overthrew the local Spanish administration on May 14, 1811. Paraguay’s first dictator was José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia who ruled Paraguay from 1814 until his death in 1840, with very little outside contact or influence. He intended to create a utopian society based on the French theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract.
Rodríguez de Francia established new laws that greatly reduced the powers of the Catholic church (Catholicism was then an established state religion) and the cabinet, forbade colonial citizens from marrying one another and allowed them to marry only blacks, mulattoes or natives, in order to break the power of colonial-era elites and to create a mixed-race or mestizo society. He cut off relations between Paraguay and the rest of South America. Because of Francia’s restrictions of freedom, Fulgencio Yegros and several other Independence-era leaders in 1820 planned a coup d’état against Francia, who discovered the plot and had its leaders either executed or imprisoned for life.
After Francia’s death in 1840, Paraguay was ruled by various military officers under a new junta, until Carlos Antonio López (allegedly De Francia’s nephew) came to power in 1841. López modernized Paraguay and opened it to foreign commerce. He signed a non-aggression pact with Argentina and officially declared independence of Paraguay in 1842. After López’s death in 1862, power was transferred to his eldest son, Francisco Solano López.
The regime of the López family was characterized by pervasive and rigid centralism in production and distribution. There was no distinction between the public and the private spheres, and the López family ruled the country as it would a large estate.
The government exerted control on all exports. The export of yerba mate and valuable wood products maintained the balance of trade between Paraguay and the outside world. The Paraguayan government was extremely protectionist, never accepted loans from abroad and levied high tariffs against imported foreign products. This protectionism made the society self-sufficient, and it also avoided the debt suffered by Argentina and Brazil. Slavery existed in Paraguay, although not in great numbers, until 1844, when it was legally abolished in the new Constitution.
Francisco Solano López, the son of Carlos Antonio López, replaced his father as the President-Dictator in 1862, and generally continued the political policies of his father. Both wanted to give an international image of Paraguay as “democratic and republican”, but in fact, the ruling family had almost total control of all public life in the country, including Church and colleges.
Militarily, Carlos Antonio López modernized and expanded industry and the Paraguayan Army and greatly strengthened the strategic defenses of Paraguay by developing the Fortress of Humaitá. The government hired more than 200 foreign technicians, who installed telegraph lines and railroads to aid the expanding steel, textile, paper and ink, naval construction, weapons and gunpowder industries. The Ybycuí foundry, completed in 1850, manufactured cannons, mortars and bullets of all calibers. River warships were built in the shipyards of Asunción. Fortifications were built, especially along the Apa River and in Gran Chaco. The work was continued by his son Francisco Solano.
On October 12, 1864, despite Paraguayan ultimatums, the Brazilian Empire (sided with Argentina and the rebellious Gen. Venancio Flores) invaded the Republic of Uruguay (which then was an ally of the Lopez’s Government), thus starting the Paraguayan War. The Paraguayans, led by the Marshal of the Republic Francisco Solano López, held a fierce resistance, but were ultimately defeated in 1870 after the Death of Solano López, who was killed in action. The real causes of this war, which remains the bloodiest international conflict in Latin American history, are still highly debated.
About the disaster suffered by the Paraguayans at the outcome of the war, William D. Rubinstein wrote: “The normal estimate is that of a Paraguayan population of somewhere between 450,000 and 900,000, only 220,000 survived the war, of whom only 28,000 were adult males.” Paraguay also suffered extensive territorial losses to Brazil and Argentina.
During the pillaging of Asunción in 1869, the Brazilian Imperial Army packed up and transported the Paraguayan National Archives to Rio de Janeiro. Brazil’s records from the war have remained classified. This has made Paraguayan history in the Colonial and early National periods difficult to research and study.
In 1904, the Liberal revolution against the rule of Colorados broke out. The Liberal rule started a period of great political instability. Between 1904 and 1954, Paraguay had thirty-one presidents, most of whom were removed from office by force. Conflicts between the factions of the ruling Liberal party led to the Paraguayan Civil War of 1922.
The unresolved border conflict with Bolivia over Chaco region finally erupted in early 1930s in the Chaco War. After great losses Paraguay defeated Bolivia and established its sovereignty over most of the disputed Chaco region. After the war military officers used popular dissatisfaction with the Liberal politicians to grab the power for themselves. On February 17, 1936, the February Revolution brought colonel Rafael Franco to power. Between 1940 and 1948, the country was ruled by General Higinio Moríñigo. Dissatisfaction with his rule resulted in the Paraguayan civil war of 1947. In its aftermath Alfredo Stroessner began involvement in a string of plots, which resulted in his military coup d’état of May 4, 1954.
A series of unstable governments ensued until the establishment in 1954 of the regime of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who remained in office for more than three decades until 1989. Paraguay was modernized to some extent under Stroessner’s regime, although his rule was marked by extensive civil right abuses. He oversaw an era of economic expansion, but also had a poor human rights and environmental record. Torture and death for political opponents was routine. After his overthrow, the Colorado Party continued to dominate national politics until 2008.
PLRA leader Domingo Laino served as the focal point of the opposition in the second half of the 1980s. The government’s effort to isolate Laino by exiling him in 1982 had backfired. On his sixth attempt to re-enter the country in 1986, Laino returned with three television crews from the U.S., a former United States ambassador to Paraguay, and a group of Uruguayan and Argentine congressmen. Despite the international contingent, the police violently barred Laino’s return.
The Stroessner regime relented in April 1987, and permitted Laino to return to Asunción. Laino took the lead in organizing demonstrations and reducing infighting among the opposition party. The opposition was unable to reach agreement on a common strategy regarding the elections, with some parties advocating abstention, and others calling for blank voting. The parties held numerous ‘lightning demonstrations’ (mítines relámpagos), especially in rural areas. Such demonstrations were gathered and quickly disbanded before the arrival of the police.
In response to the upsurge in opposition activities, Stroessner condemned the Accord for advocating “sabotage of the general elections and disrespect of the law.” He used national police and civilian vigilantes of the Colorado Party to break up demonstrations. A number of opposition leaders were imprisoned or otherwise harassed. Hermes Rafael Saguier, another key leader of the PLRA, was imprisoned for four months in 1987 on charges of sedition. In early February 1988, police arrested 200 people attending a National Coordinating Committee meeting in Coronel Oviedo. Laino and several other opposition figures were arrested before dawn on the day of the election, February 14, and held for twelve hours. The government declared Stroessner’s re-election with 89% of the vote.
The opposition attributed the results in part to the virtual Colorado monopoly on the mass media. They noted that 53% of those polled indicated that there was an “uneasiness” in Paraguayan society. 74% believed that the political situation needed changes, including 45% who wanted a substantial or total change. Finally, 31% stated that they planned to abstain from voting in the February elections.
On February 3, 1989, Stroessner was overthrown in a military coup headed by General Andrés Rodríguez. As president, Rodríguez instituted political, legal, and economic reforms and initiated a rapprochement with the international community. Reflecting the deep hunger of the rural poor for land, hundreds immediately occupied thousands of acres of unused territories belonging to Stroessner and his associates; by mid-1990, 19,000 families occupied 340,000 acres (137,593 ha). At the time, 2.06 million people lived in rural areas, more than half of the 4.1 million total population, and most were landless.
The June 1992 constitution established a democratic system of government and dramatically improved protection of fundamental human rights. In May 1993, Colorado Party candidate Juan Carlos Wasmosy was elected as Paraguay’s first civilian president in almost 40 years, in what international observers deemed fair and free elections.
With support from the United States, the Organization of American States, and other countries in the region, the Paraguayan people rejected an April 1996 attempt by then Army Chief General Lino Oviedo to oust President Wasmosy.
Oviedo was nominated as the Colorado candidate for president in the 1998 election, however, when the Supreme Court upheld in April his conviction on charges related to the 1996 coup attempt, he was not allowed to run and was detained in jail. His former running mate, Raúl Cubas, became the Colorado Party’s candidate, and was elected in May in elections deemed by international observers to be free and fair. One of Cubas’ first acts after taking office in August was to commute Oviedo’s sentence and release him. In December 1998, Paraguay’s Supreme Court declared these actions unconstitutional. In this tense atmosphere, the murder of Vice President and long-time Oviedo rival Luis María Argaña on March 23, 1999, led the Chamber of Deputies to impeach Cubas the next day. On March 26, eight student anti-government demonstrators were murdered, widely believed to have been carried out by Oviedo supporters. This increased opposition to Cubas, who resigned on March 28. Senate President Luis González Macchi, a Cubas opponent, was peacefully sworn in as president the same day.
In 2003, Nicanor Duarte Frutos was elected as president.
For the 2008 general elections, the Colorado Party was favored in polls. Their candidate was Minister of Education Blanca Ovelar, the first woman to be nominated as a candidate for a major party in Paraguayan history. After sixty years of Colorado rule, voters chose Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic Bishop and not a professional politician in civil government. He had long followed liberation theology, which was controversial in South American societies, but he was backed by the center-right Liberal Party, the Colorado Party’s traditional opponents.
Lugo achieved a historic victory in Paraguay’s presidential election, defeating the ruling party candidate, and ending 61 years of conservative rule. Lugo won with nearly 41% of the vote, compared to almost 31% for Blanca Ovelar of the Colorado party. Outgoing President Nicanor Duarte Frutos hailed the moment as the first time in the history of the nation that a government had transferred power to opposition forces in a constitutional and peaceful fashion.
Lugo was sworn in on 15 August 2008. The Paraguayan Congress continued to be dominated by right-wing elected officials. The Lugo administration set its two major priorities as the reduction of corruption and economic inequality.
Political instability following Lugo’s election and disputes within his cabinet encouraged some renewal of popular support for the Colorado Party. Reports suggested that the businessman Horacio Cartes became the new political figure amid disputes. Despite the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s strong accusations against Cartes related to drug trafficking, he continued to amass followers in the political arena.
On January 14, 2011, the Colorado Party convention nominated Horacio Cartes as the presidential candidate for the party. However, the party’s constitution didn’t allow it. On June 21, 2012, impeachment proceedings against President Lugo began in the country’s lower house, which was controlled by his opponents. Lugo was given less than twenty-four hours to prepare for the proceedings and only two hours in which to mount a defense. Impeachment was quickly approved and the resulting trial in Paraguay’s Senate, also controlled by the opposition, ended with the removal of Lugo from office and Vice President Federico Franco assuming the duties of president. Lugo’s rivals blamed him for the deaths of 17 people — eight police officers and nine farmers — in armed clashes after police were ambushed by armed peasants when enforcing an eviction order against rural trespassers.
Lugo’s supporters gathered outside Congress to protest the decision as a “politically motivated coup d’état”. Lugo’s removal from office on June 22, 2012, is considered by UNASUR and other neighboring countries, especially those currently governed by leftist leaders, as a coup d’état. The Organization of American States, which sent a mission to Paraguay to gather information, concluded that the impeachment process had been carried out in accordance with the Constitution of Paraguay.
Paraguay operated an internal postal service from 1769 to 1811. Mail traveled from Buenos Aires via Santa Fe and Corrientes to Candelaria and Asuncion.
The Republic of Paraguay issued its first stamps on August 1, 1870, three imperforate values featuring a “vigilant lion supporting liberty cap”, lithographed by R. Lange of Buenos Aires.
Between 1900 and 1902, three series of stamps featuring the “seal of the Treasury” were released, These can cause confusion amongst collectors due to the very similar designs. The first and second sets (six recess-printed stamps in 1900 — Scott #51-56 — and three lithographed stamps in 1901 — Scott #57-59) feature “small figures”. Eight further stamps issued in 1901-1902 (lithographed — Scott #60-67) have “larger figures.” The stamps issued in different colors don’t present any problems but other stamps were released in the same color. Unfortunately, Scott doesn’t define the differences. To my eye, the “small figure” stamps have the numerals more “squared-off” than rounded and also appear to be narrower. Also, the word CENTAVOS appears fatter in the “small figure” stamps and the lion in the seal is a bit smaller.
Scott #54 is the 8-centavo denomination of the first “small figures” set, engraved in dark brown and perforated 12. It was released in September 1900.
The “seal of the Treasury” is the reverse side of Paraguay’s national coat of arms (Escudo de Armas) and appears on one side of the country’s unusual two-sided national flag (bandera de Paraguay). Officially adopted in 1842 (following the Confederación que la Junte gouvernante d’Asunción), each side of the flag contains a horizontal tricolor of red, white and blue with an emblem centered on the white band. The emblem on the obverse side is the national coat of arms of Paraguay: a yellow five-pointed star surrounded by a green wreath of palm and olive leaves tied with ribbons of the color of the stripes, and capped by the words REPÚBLICA DEL PARAGUAY, all within two concentric circles). The emblem on the reverse side is the seal of the Treasury: a golden lion in front of a staff topped by a red Phrygian cap (symbolizing liberty) and the words PAZ Y JUSTICIA (“Peace and Justice”). The differences in the obverse and reverse sides comes from the period when José de Francia was in power (1814–1840).
The seal of the Treasury is also used by the Supreme Court of Paraguay (Corte Suprema de Justicia del Paraguay), and is featured alongside the obverse on banknotes of the national currency, the guaraní.
The first design of the coat of arms dates to the year 1820, from the time of the dictatorship of Francia. The colors of the flag are believed to be inspired from the flag of France to show independence and liberty, and the coat of arms represents the independence of Paraguay. In 2013, the flag was revised. The coat of arms was simplified and the design was brought closer to its original form.