Because It’s There!

A Tree in the Center of the Road? Yes, This Is Paraguay!

My mind keeps returning to Paraguay, and this without having done my Guatemala trip yet. There is something attractive to me about a country with such a screwed-up history. And yet, at the same time, the country fascinated Graham Greene and kept appearing, albeit peripherally, in his books, such as Travels with My Aunt (1969), A Sort of Life (1971), and The Honorary Consul (1973). It is also the country which gave birth to one of South America’s greatest (and most unsung) authors, Augusto Roa Bastos, who wrote The Son of Man (1960).

I want to go to Asunción, learn how to speak Guaraní, and drink endless glasses of iced tereré infused with herbs. I will read more about the sad history of the place and enjoy myself thoroughly. It will give me great pleasure to hear people ask me, “Why Paraguay?” I will, of course, answer them by saying, “Because it’s there!”

Palo Borracho Trees by Filadelfia in the Gran Chaco

Or, if I were someone other than who I am, I could take a gigantic passenger ship to some Caribbean isles where the sun will scorch the skin off my back and my fellow passengers will bore me into catatonic rage.

 

La Guerra de la Sed

Translation: “The War of Thirst”

Paraguay has given the world two horrendous wars over the last two centuries. Yesterday, I posted about the War of the Triple Alliance. Today, we will see one of the most horrendous wars of the Twentieth Century: The Chaco War of 1932-1935 between Paraguay and Bolivia. The Grand Chaco is a desert area comprising most of Paraguay’s territory (in an area the size of Poland) but with only 3% of the population. In its earlier war, Paraguay lost big. The Chaco War was actually fought to a draw, with heavy casualties on both sides.

The Bolivians were hampered by the fact that their supply line was so much longer, and most of their troops were from the altiplano and were not used to lowland deserts, especially truly horrible ones like the Chaco. Here there were few water holes, cockroaches that ate human hair, poisonous snakes, jaguars, giant lizards, vampire bats, and a wilderness of thorns and sharp spines. Also, Paraguayans could intercept messages in Spanish meant for the Bolivians, while the Paraguayans communicated over radio lines in Guaraní, the other official language of the country.

In his book At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay, John Gimlette wrote:

A pattern emerged. The Bolivians would be separated from their water and then the Guaranís would cut round the back to offer them dehydration or surrender. Behind these moves was a man with chilly blue eyes who played the war like chess, not theatre. General Estigarribia is often credit with genius, and later he would stand for [the] presidency. Had his propeller not come off over Altos, he might have spared Paraguay the Stronato [the nickname for the long presidency of dictator General Alfredo Stroessner] and the uncomfortable years ahead….

Bolivian morale slithered. The myth of Paraguayan invincibility took shape: the Guaranís lived on palm hearts and thin air, fought like wilcats and were everywhere.

PARAGUAY: a Stamp Printed in Paraguay shows Heroes of the Chaco War


When the war was over, the general thinking was that the war was fought for oil instead of a useless chunk of desert. In fact, there was no oil in the Chaco. The war was fought over a desolate area of no major import to either of the war’s participants.

Curupayty

The Only Battle the Paraguayans Won

Here is a trick question for you: What was the most deadly war fought in the Western Hemisphere? What, the American Civil War? Not even close. Just as we were fighting our Civil War (which I don’t think is quite over yet), the tiny country of Paraguay decided to invade Brazil. Soon, Argentina and Uruguay joined in against Paraguay, in what is called the War of the Triple Alliance. By itself, Brazil had the resources and the manpower to crush Paraguay. But the war went on from 1865 to 1870, during which 80% of the total population of the little inland country lost their lives.

The man behind the war was dictator Francisco Solano López (shown below), better known for his obesity and rotten teeth than for his military prowess. Oddly, this was a war on which there were heavy casualties on both sides. Who knew that the starving Paraguayans fought like the devil and wouldn’t just play dead. They also had one self-trained military genius, a young railway engineer named George Thompson. He designed the Paraguayan fortifications at Curupayty to take his adopted country’s weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

The Fomentor of the War

I am re-reading one of the best travel books I have ever encountered, John Gimlette’s At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay. Here is Gimlette describing the aftermath of an abortive allied attack on the positions so skillfully designed by Thompson:

The Allies took Curupayti as a terrible blow. Argentina lost any remaining enthusiasm for the war, and the greater share of the fighting now fell to the Brazilians. Allied strength was built up to 80,000, but even the Brazilians struggled to find the numbers. Brazilian rural life was fractured by violent recruiting gangs, and eventually the plantation slaves of Bahía were drummed into the ranks on the promise of freedom and land. The cost was debilitating at £14,500,000 a year, of which £2,000,000 went on maintaining the horses of the imperial cavalry. All sides were now desperate for a conclusion.

Curupayty held out for another year. At first the Allies were paralyzed with shock, and then the ranks of both armies were liquefied by cholera. López was so terrified by the disease that he forbade anyone to mention it by name, and it was only known simply as “the Chain.” It claimed fifty men a day for six months…..

When Curupayty was finally abandoned, Thompson mounted the earthworks with one last, sullen garrison. The wary Allies shelled them for three days before mustering the courage to advance. They were in for a bitter surprise.

The last defenders of Curupayty were merely scarecrows, stuffed with straw.

I highly recommend Gimlette’s book for anyone interested in learning about events that are unknown to 99.9% of Americans. When the War of the Triple Alliance finally sputtered to an end, there were ten Paraguayan women to one man. The war continued on to levels of craziness not often seen in battle:

Meanwhile, the Allies poured fire down on to the defenders. The Paraguayans responded with all they had left, often just blowing their túrútútús—or trumpets—and infuriating the Allies with their stoicism. They dug themselves fox-holes with names like the Hotel Français, de Bordeaux and Garibaldi fed their gallows humour.

“If a Paraguayan in the midst of his comrades was blown to pieces by a shell,” wrote Thompson, “they would yell with delight, thinking it a capital joke, in which they would have been joined by the victim himself had he been capable.”

Do you wonder why I want to visit Paraguay?

 

Trans-Chiquitano

A Bolivian Passenger Train Between Santa Cruz and Quijarro

As I sit here in L.A. in the middle of a heat wave—and getting no younger in the process—a new vacation trip emerges from the depths of my mind. I have already written about the 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions in South America. The anti-clerical Voltaire in his Candide appeared to be impressed by the enlightened rule of the Jesuits who controlled Paraguay.

You can find out even more by reading the forgotten classic history by R. B. Cunninghame Graham entitled A Vanished Arcadia: Being Some Account of the Jesuits in Paraguay 1607 to 1767.

Back then, before the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) and the Chaco War (1932-1935), Paraguay included territory which now belongs to Argentina (Misiones Province) and Bolivia (Santa Cruz Province). There are ruins of Jesuit communities in all three countries.

This set my mind to thinking. There is a famous train route called the Trans-Chiquitano—still in existence as of a year or two ago—between Santa Cruz, Bolivia and Quijarro, just before the border with Brazil. Midway between the two termini and somewhat to the north are the ruins of Jesuit missions. I was thinking of touring the missions in Bolivia, then busing from Corumbá, Brazil (just across the border from Quijarro, Bolivia) to Asunción, Paraguay. There I could hook up with a tour to the Jesuit missions east of Asunción (if such a tour exists). Thereafter, it is a short up across the border to Argentina, where there are well-organized tours of the Jesuit missions such as San Ignacio Mini. From there, it is an easy bus ride to Buenos Aires, from which I can return to the States.

It would be a wild trip, with a long, comfortable train ride and easy stays in Santa Cruz and Buenos Aires. Asunción is a different story, but still quite doable.

 

A Vanished Arcadia

Historical site of Encarnacion and Jesuit ruins in Paraguay, South America

The following is a lightly edited repeat of a post I made back in March 2013.

It is interesting to me that, for the first time in its history, the papacy is in the hands of a Jesuit, from South America no less. In southeastern Paraguay and in the Argentinean state of Misiones, there are numerous ruins attesting to the 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions—missions that were so powerful that they were, in effect, the government of Paraguay. If you ever saw Roland Joffe’s 1986 movie, The Mission, with Robert DeNiro, Liam Neeson, and Jeremy Irons, you have some idea of what this Jesuit government was like.

You can find out even more by reading the forgotten classic history by R. B. Cunninghame Graham entitled A Vanished Arcadia: Being Some Account of the Jesuits in Paraguay 1607 to 1767.

It even finds its way into Voltaire’s Candide, but its author being such an anticlerical cuss, he has his hero kill the Jesuit commandant of one of the missions. Yet he writes in Histoire Politique et Philosophique des Indes:

When in 1768 the missions of Paraguay left the hands of the Jesuits, they had arrived at perhaps the highest degree of civilization to which it is possible to conduct a young people, and certainly at a far superior state than that which existed in the rest of the new hemisphere. The laws were respected there, morals were pure, a happy brotherhood united every heart, all the useful arts were in a flourishing state, and even some of the more agreeable sciences: plenty was universal.

Poster for Roland Joffe’s Film The Mission (1986)

I have long thought that, if my thoughts had ever taken a turn toward the Catholic priesthood, I would have become a Jesuit. My teachers at St. Peter Chanel in Bedford, Ohio, wanted me to become one of them, a Marist. But, in the end, I became neither.

So now Pope Francis is a Jesuit from Argentina. He, I am sure, is quite aware of the history of the Jesuits in the southern cone of South America. It would be nice if he did for the Catholic Church what the Jesuits did for the Guarani in Paraguay and Argentina. Benedict XVI was a good man, but not strong enough for the task of making his faith relevant to a world that is falling away from the Church.

A Jesuit Paradise?

Stamps Commemorating the Jesuit Missions of Paraguay

Stamps Commemorating the Jesuit Missions of Paraguay

It is interesting to me that, for the first time in its history, the papacy is in the hands of a Jesuit, from South America no less. In southeastern Paraguay and in the Argentinean state of Misiones, there are numerous ruins attesting to the 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions—missions that were so powerful that they were, in effect, in control of the Guarani Indians of the area. If you ever saw Roland Joffe’s 1986 movie, The Mission, with Robert DeNiro, Liam Neeson, and Jeremy Irons, you have some idea of what the Jesuit government of Paraguay was like.

You can find out even more by reading the forgotten classic history by R. B. Cunninghame Graham entitled A Vanished Arcadia: Being Some Account of the Jesuits in Paraguay 1607 to 1767.

It even finds its way into Voltaire’s Candide, but its author being such an anticlerical cuss, he has his hero kill the Jesuit commandant of one of the missions. Yet he writes in Histoire Politique et Philosophique des Indes:

When in 1768 the missions of Paraguay left the hands of the Jesuits, they had arrived at perhaps the highest degree of civilization to which it is possible to conduct a young people, and certainly at a far superior state than that which existed in the rest of the new hemisphere. The laws were respected there, morals were pure, a happy brotherhood united every heart, all the useful arts were in a flourishing state, and even some of the more agreeable sciences: plenty was universal.

I have long thought that, if my thoughts had ever taken a turn toward the Catholic priesthood, I would have become a Jesuit. My teachers at St. Peter Chanel in Bedford, Ohio, wanted me to become one of them, a Marist. But, in the end, I became neither.

So now Pope Francis is a Jesuit from Argentina. He, I am sure, is quite aware of the history of the Jesuits in the southern cone of South America. It would be nice if he did for the Catholic Church what the Jesuits did for the Guarani in Paraguay and Argentina. Benedict XVI was a good man, but not strong enough for the task of making his faith relevant to a world that is falling away from the Church.