A History of Paraguay
By Baruja, Paiva & Pinto

Chapter 8

Solano López consolidated his power alter the death of his father in 1862 imposing silence on several critics and reformed aspirants after jail. Another Paraguayan congress elected López president unanimously. Solano López would have done well to consider the last words of his father who advised him to avoid aggressive acts in the foreign affairs, especially with Brazil. The political exterior of Solano López immensely undervalued Paraguay’s neighbors and granted excessive valor to the potential of Paraguay as a military power.
The observers differed greatly about Solano López. George Thompson, an English engineer who worked for the young López (the Brit was distinguished as a Paraguayan officer during the Triple Alliance War and later wrote a book on his experience) had harsh words for his former boss and commander and called him a “monster as none other.” The conduct of Solano López gave evidence to such charges. To begin with, the erroneous calculations and ambitions of Solano López plunged Paraguay in a war against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The war produced the death of half the Paraguayan population and nearly eliminated the country off the face of the earth. During the war, Solano López decreed the executions of his own brothers and had his mother and sisters tortured when he suspected them to oppose him. Thousands of people, including the best soldiers and generals also suffered death by a firing squad or had body parts cut off by order of Solano López. Others saw Solano López as a megalomaniac paranoiac, a man who wanted to be the “Napoleon of South America” only to reduce his country in ruin and convert his compatriots to beggars in his vain search for glory.

Nevertheless, the Paraguayan nationalist sympathizers of that military and the foreign revisionist historians have portrayed Solano López as a patriot who, despite his defects in conduct, resisted the Argentine and Brazilian plans in Paraguay until the last breath, giving his own life in the last battle. For them the marshal was a tragic figure trapped in a weaving of Argentine and Brazilian duplicity and who mobilized the nation to expulse its enemies and heroically rejected them during five horrific bloody years until Paraguay was completely invaded and prostrate. During the years of Stroessner, the Paraguayans considered Solano López as the greatest hero of the nation. That Stronist glorification of a vain and defeated marshal was considered by many as a maneuver to hide the fresh and brilliant memory of a decent and conquering marshal in the post Chaco War which agreed with José Félix Estigarribia’s liberal ideas.

The main failure of Solano López was that he didn’t catch the changes that had been produced in the region since the time of Francia. Under the order of his father, the prolonged, bloody and confusing signs of birth and growth in the Rio de Plata states, the bellicose politics of Brazil and the neutral politics of Francia functioned, preserving the Paraguayan independence. But the case was disfigured when Argentina and Brazil finally affirmed their identities and showed united interiors. For example, Argentina as a nation began to look at its foreign affairs and not as part of a region as the Paraguayans expected. The effort of Solano López to compare Paraguay as a regional power to the pair made up of Argentina and Brazil would only carry unfortunate consequences.

The Outbreak of the Slaughter of America

Solano López interpreted the Brazilian intervention in Uruguay in September of 1864 as a snub to the weaker nations in the region. The Paraguayan president was correct in the idea that neither Brazil nor Argentina paid any attention to Paraguay’s interest when formulating their politics. But he incorrectly concluded that the conservation of Uruguayan independence was crucial for the future of Paraguay as a nation. Continuing his plans to create Paraguay as a “third force” among Argentina and Brazil, Solano López compromised the nation to help Uruguay. While Argentina did not react to Brazil’s invasion of Uruguay, Solano López captured a Brazilian battleship in November of 1864. He continued with an invasion of Matto Grosso, Brazil, in March of 1865, which resulted in one of the few Paraguayan wins during the war. Solano López decided to hit the main force of his enemy on Uruguayan soil. But he wasn’t aware that Argentina had warily approved Brazil’s policy in Uruguay and would not support Paraguay against Brazil. When self-named marshal Solano López asked for permission for his army to cross Argentine territory to attack the Brazilian province of Río Grande do Sul, Argentina vaguely denied the request. Making up his mind, the marshal sent his forces across the Argentine province of Corrientes which lay between Paraguay and the Brazilian province. He hoped to find strong local support which had a confederate memory, used the Guaraní language and hated the Porteño dominance. Instead, the action brought Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay (now reduced to a puppet state) to sign the Treaty of the Triple Alliance in high secrecy in May of 1865. Under the treaty the nations swore to destroy the rule of Francisco Solano López and to divvy the nation between the two greater powers.

Paraguay was not prepared for a major large scale war, but the marshal decided to follow through. In terms of quantity, the Paraguayan army with 30,000 men was the most powerful army in Latin America. But the strength of the army was a mere illusion which lacked specialized direction, a trustworthy provision of arms, material, and adequate reserves. Since the days of the Supreme, the bodies of officials were abandoned for political reasons. The army suffered a critical shortage of capable personnel of rank and many of their combat units were badly trained. Paraguay lacked an industrial base to replace the arms lost in battle and the Argentine-Brazilian alliance blocked the reception of foreign-sent Paraguayan armament. The population of Paraguay only reached approximately 450,000 in 1865, a number lower than the amount of able of the Brazilian National Guard, and were equivalent to the twentieth part of the allied population combined which summed up to eleven million souls. Solano López even recruited children from ten years and up and forced the women to do non-military jobs, but even so could never unfold on the battlefield an army greater than the enemy’s.

Apart from some Paraguayan victories in the northern front, the war was a disaster for the Marshal López. The thick of the Paraguayan army entered Corrientes in April of 1865. By July of the same year, more than half the force of 30,000 men was exterminated or captured together with the best arms and artillery. The war changed into a desperate struggle for the survival of the nation. It was kill or be killed. In May of 1866, the Paraguayans liberated the Battle of Tuyutí, which was a frightful defeat.

The English journalists published the Secret Treaty of the Triple Alliance, which provoked innumerable reactions in favor of Paraguay. The famed Argentine lawyer Alberdi of confederate tendency from Europe converted into the champion of the Paraguayan cause and the American nations with a Pacific coast cried out for an immediate cease of hostility and bitterly protested on the terms of the treaty. The President of Bolivia, General Melgarejo, even offered an army of 12,000 men in favor of the Marshal López. From the moment in which the Argentine territory was free of invaders, the opinion of the Argentine provinces and important Porteño politicians judged that there was no reason left for war, asked for an immediate ceasefire and pleaded for Paraguay. The same people prevented Argentina from going on with their part of the secret treaty (which was to split Paraguay with Brazil) after the war although they accepted the annexation of Paraguayan territories to their nation.

During the middle of the world-wide controversy, the allied suffered a resounding defeat in Curupaity on September 22, 2866, in the hands of the courageous Colonel José Eduvigis Díaz and his few men in the summit of the hill of the same name. On the allied side were tens of thousands of dead while the Guaraní only lost less than a hundred. This was a sharp blow on the Argentine moral, which went even so far as to consider pulling out its army of the Alliance.

The Paraguayan soldiers unfolded an unusual valiant suicide, overall which Solano López had various shot or tortured for insignificant offenses. The cavalry units operated on foot for lack of horses. Naval infantry battalions armed with only machetes attacked armored Brazilians. The suicide attacks produced true fields of cadavers. But the cholera also took its toll. After 1867 Paraguay had lost 60,000 men in action, another 60,000 were lost to various diseases or captures. Solano López inclusively enlisted slaves and recruited even children in the infantry units. He forced the women to do support jobs behind the lines of fire. The shortage of material was so severe that the Paraguayan troops went to combat semi-naked and even the colonels were shoeless on the field of action, according to an observer. The defensive character of the war, combined with the Paraguayan determination and the ingenuity and difficulty which occasioned the mutual cooperation which the Brazilians and Argentines had, gave to the conflict a character of a heated war. Paraguay lacked the resources to continue the war against the giants of South America.

When the war neared its inevitable outcome, Solano López imagined himself surrounded by an immense conspiracy, and so ordered thousands of executions in the army and also two brothers and two brothers-in-law, ministers, military officers and around 500 foreigners, including various diplomats. It was the famous “process of San Fernando,” a dark and shameful chapter of the Guaraní history. He ordered his victims killed with spears to save ammunition. The bodies were buried in a large pit. His cruel treatment of the prisoners was famous. The Marshal López condemned his own soldiers to death if they did not fulfill even the smallest detail of their orders. “Conquer or die” was the daily motto.

The surrender behind the large site of the Humaitá fort against Argentine forces the 24th of July of 1868 was decisive for the course of the war because the fort was the key to enter Paraguay. The Paraguayan resistance was so heroic when the men went out semi-malnutritioned and almost naked, without ammunition, were refugees with high honors for the enemy’s part in recognition of their valor in combat. In Ytororó and Abay, the General Bernardino Caballero offered striking resistance up to the last man against the Brazilian advances so the Marshal could organize a decisive battle in the Lomas Valentinas where on December 17, 1868, was still attacked by large enemy forces. López could leave in retirement after seven days of combat but not before shooting his brother Benigno López, the Palacios bishops and his Chancellor José Berges.

The allied troops entered Asunción in January of 1869, but Solano López had luck because the Brazilian Marquis Caxias considered occupying the capital instead of attacking assumed the war was over. López succeeded in gathering an army of 12,000 which in reality were old men, children and women between Azcurra and Caacupé. He irritated Brazil with the almost miraculous survival of the Paraguayan tyrant and decided to continue the war even without an army. The Argentines and Uruguayans thought occupying Asunción would end the war for them and so left a few regiments in the location and returned to their countries.

The Brazilians looted and conducted rampages. August 12, 1869, they won a dramatic battle in Piribebuy and unsatisfied, set fire to the hospital full of wounded and slit the throat of the commander of the place, Major Pedro Pablo Caballero. On August 16, 1869, López arranged an integrated army of only children to confront the Brazilian hordes and the fatal combat of Acosta Ñu, of which none survived. Today the day is commemorated as Children’s Day in Paraguay with a special remembrance.
López fled even deeper into the country until he was lanced dead by a Brazilian soldier on the shores of the Aquidabán stream in Cerro Corá on March 1, 1870. With the last words “I die with my nation,” the cruel tyrant ended the bloodiest war in America.

The year 1870 marked the lowest point in Paraguayan history. Hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans were dead. Degraded and practically destroyed, Paraguay had to endure a long occupation of foreign troops and cede enormous extensions of territory to Brazil and Argentina.

According to various versions of historians of what happened between 1865 and 1870, the Marshal Francisco Solano López was not totally responsible for the war. The causes were very complex and included the Porteño anger for the aged interference of Carlos Antonio López in Corrientes. The elder López also had angered the Brazilians for not helping overthrow the Porteño tyrant Rosas in 1852 and for having forced Brazilian troops out of the territory claimed by Paraguay in 1850 and 1855 instead of trying to work out a treaty with them. Carlos A. López regretted having conceded the rights of free navigation to Brazil on the Paraguay River in 1858. Argentina argued over territory ownership of the Missions that were between the Paraná and Uruguay Rivers and Brazil had its own ideas on the Brazil-Paraguay limits. These problems were joined by the Uruguayan whirlpool that touched the ego of Solano López. Carlos Antonio López had survived thanks to a good dose of cunning and a little bit of luck, which was exactly what his unruly son lacked.

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