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?

 

“History Never Really Says Goodbye”

We Lost Another Great One Today

We Lost Another Great One Today

There are many great writers who have written powerfully about Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and Brazil—but only one who saw Latin America as a whole, saw to the core of its myriad tragedies, and wrote a great body of work analyzing it. That was Eduardo Galeano, who died today in Montevideo, Uruguay, at the age of 74.

I loved what he wrote in Children of the Days: “History never really says goodbye. History says ‘See you later!’”

My favorite of his works is the trilogy Memory of Fire (1982-1986), an anecdotal history of Latin America from before 1492 to the present day, liberally interlarded with quotations and observations. Perhaps, however, he is most famous for The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971).

As you may know, I have had a love affair with Latin America since my first visit to Mexico in 1975. In addition to Mexico, I have also visited Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay. And as long as the blood is flowing in my veins, I am planning yet more trips.

In The Open Veins of Latin America, Galeano wrote:

The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing. Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations. Centuries passed, and Latin America perfected its role. We are no longer in the era of marvels when face surpassed fable and imagination was shamed by the trophies of conquest— the lodes of gold, the mountains of silver…. Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others.

Galeano’s life has been a stressful one. Always a lover of liberty, he fled Uruguay for Argentina in 1973 when a military coup took over his country. Three years later, when the rightist generals rose to power in Argentina, he was off to Spain, from whence he did not return until 1985, when Uruguay restored civilian rule.

At a speech he delivered at the University of Wisconsin, he said, “I tried, I try, to be stubborn enough to go on believing, in spite of all evidences that we humans are badly built, but we are still unfinished.”

The question is: Will we as a species be undone before we are ever finished? If so, we need more writers like Galeano.

 

 

 

 

The World’s Poorest Head of State

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

When he leaves office as President of Uruguay next month, “El Pepe” Mujica will continue to live humbly on his little flower farm and continue to drive a 1987 VW Bug. For years, he has refused to take more than the average Uruguayan’s salary of $775 a month, depositing the rest of his $12,000 a month salary to charities benefiting single mothers and others.

Once a leftist Tupamaro guerrilla, Mujica spent 14 years in prison. Upon his release, he went into politics with the Broad Front Party and saw his country through a spurt of growth and prosperity.

We don’t think much about Uruguay, but one time it was a very rich country, along with Argentina. The Societe de Fray Bentos Giebert & Cie. along the Rio Uruguay was one of the main sources of canned meat that sustained troops of both sides in the trenches of World War I.

There’s something going on in South America that I like. First there was Pope Francis, who continues to astonish me, and now there is José Mujica, about whom you should read this excellent article by Natasha Hakimi on Truthdig.Com.