In pre-columbian times, Paraguay was occupied by semi-nomadic Guarani-speaking tribes renowned for their fierce warrior traditions. They practiced a mythical polytheistic religion, which later blended with Christianity.
Asunción, founded by Spanish explorer Juan de Salazar in 1537, eventually became the center of a Spanish colonial province. Paraguay declared its independence by overthrowing the local Spanish authorities in May 1811.
The country's formative years saw three strong leaders who established the tradition of personal rule that lasted until 1989: Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, Carlos Antonio Lopez, and his son, Francisco Solano Lopez. The younger Lopez waged a war against Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil ( War of the Triple Alliance, 1864-70) in which Paraguay lost half its population and a quarter of its territory. A succession of presidents governed Paraguay under the banner of the Colorado Party from 1880 until 1904, when the Liberal party seized control, ruling with only a brief interruption until 1940.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Paraguayan politics were defined by the Chaco War against Bolivia, a civil war, dictatorships, and periods of extreme political instability. General Alfredo Stroessner took power in May 1954. Elected to complete the unexpired term of his predecessor, he was re-elected president seven times, ruling almost continuously under the state-of-siege provision of the constitution with support from the military and the Colorado Party. During Stroessner's 34-year reign, political freedoms were severely limited and opponents of the regime were systematically persecuted in the name of national security and anti-communism.
On February 3, 1989, Stroessner was overthrown in a military coup headed by General Andres Rodriguez. Rodriguez, as the Colorado Party candidate, easily won the Presidency in elections held that May and the Colorado Party dominated the Congress. In 1991 municipal elections, however, opposition candidates won several major urban centers, including Asunción. As president, Rodriguez instituted political, legal, and economic reforms and initiated a rapprochement with the international community.
The June 1992 constitution established a democratic system of government and dramatically improved protection of fundamental 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.
The newly elected majority-opposition Congress quickly demonstrated its independence from the executive by rescinding legislation passed by the previous Colorado-dominated Congress. Wasmosy worked to consolidate Paraguay's democratic transition, reform the economy and the state, and improve respect for human rights. His major accomplishments were exerting civilian control over the armed forces and undertaking fundamental reform of the judicial and electoral systems. With support from the United States, the Organisation of American States, and other countries in the region, the Paraguayan people rejected April 1996 attempt by the Army Chief General Lino Oviedo to oust President Wasmosy,
General Lino Oviedo was put in jail for his failed coup but Oviedo's crony Raúl Cubas Grau won the 1998 presidential election and promptly pardoned him. Cubas then defied the Supreme Court by refusing to return Oviedo to jail. Violence against demonstrators and the murder of Oviedo's rival Luis María Argana forced Cubas to resign and flee to Brazil as Oviedo fled to Argentina.in march 1999.
General elections held in April 2003 brought Nicanor Duarte Frutos to the presidency maintaining the grip of the Colorado party on power.
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Three bus companies were offering service to Paraguay. I looked them over and picked Stet Turismo that appeared to be the best one. I don't know if the other two are better or worse but I cannot recommend this one.
This was the scenery we saw after driving all night.
This savage land was the home of small bands primitive hunters and gatherers. It was completely ignored during colonial times but it became the object of a struggle between Bolivia and Paraguay early in the 20th century. Eventually the discovery of oil led to the War of the Chaco that partitioned the Chaco, two thirds to Paraguay and one third to Bolivia.
The Chaco is not a desert in the usual sense but it is endlessly desolate for hours along this bad road.
Actually much of the Chaco is now used to raise cattle. It seemed green enough
to support cattle but I did not see any.
Nor did I see any game animals, it was hot and dry hour after hour all day.
In the afternoon we came upon this roadside restaurant on the Picada 500 trail where the Paraguayan customs went through all our baggage with great care. There was not much traffic and they had nothing else to do so they took their sweet time to do it.
The bus had left at 9 PM, an hour late and border formalities had taken an eternity. Instead of going through Filadelfia where I was going, the driver decided to dump me off at Cruce Los Pioneros where I had to wait several hours to get another bus for the last 50 km to Filadelfia. I finally got there at 3 AM after a 30 hour journey.
I had paid all the way to Asunción with a stopover at Filadelfia but I had to buy another ticket to get from Filadelfia to Asunción. I don't mind delays and a little adventure but I do like to get what I pay for.
In spite of the hour, I was well received and given a 2 bed room at the Florida Hotel
Filadelfia is an oasis in the Chaco desert in more ways than one. It is also an oasis of modernity in a backward, underdeveloped country. I knew that Mennonites had been successful here but I certainly did not expect to see the Florida's fine, clean swimming pool.
The hotel dining room filled with well dressed, heavy set, German speaking business men could have been in Hamburg or Munich. It was somewhat out of character in Paraguay.
The Mennonite sect, named after the Dutch priest Menno Simons, is an offshoot of the anabaptist movement founded in 1525 by followers of the Swiss reformer Zwingli who taught that the church should be independent of the state and that only conscious adults should be allowed to join it.
They were naturally persecuted by monarchs whose authority they did not recognise in matters of faith and had to migrate several times, first to Prussia, then to Russia, to North America and finally to Paraguay. The first colony Menno, founded in 1927 by Canadian Mennonites who refused military service, was followed by Filadelfia established by refugees from Russia in 1930 and by Newland founded in 1947 by German Mennonites who were liberated from Soviet Ukraine by the 1943 German invasion.
This monument in the centre of Filadelfia honours the pioneers who founded the city in 1930.
The three colonies total no more than 15 000 people. They share the same religion but interpret it in distinct ways that reflect their different origins. It is interesting to note how the successful Filadelfia Mennonites are seen to be haughty by the other two colonies and the very conservative Menno Mennonites are judged to be backward.
Their prosperity is based on growing peanuts and cotton, on raising cattle and on dairy production. The three colonies are autonomous but they co-operate in marketing their production.
Mennonite living is structured by their "Civil Association" and their Cooperative.
The Civil Association is responsible for all collective interests including health, education, social security, roads and public services and the assignation of land for individual use. The civil association of each colony has its own hospital like this modern one in Filadelfia.
Each colony's Cooperative is responsible for the economic activities of the colony. This modern supermarket belongs to the Filadelfia Cooperative and so does the Florida Hotel, the dairy plant, and many other businesses.
The Unger museum and more particularly its curator Gundolf Niebuhr was a veritable gold mine of information about the history of the three colonies and their successful present operation.
I was impressed but I noticed indigenous people loitering in Filadelfia's main street waiting for someone to hire them. Indeed, every now and then a farmer would drive by pickup truck and choose four or five "hands" to load in the box for a day's work in the fields.
That's when I realised that the "Mennonite Miracle" was not due only to modern technology and good management but that it depended on the cheap labour of the Lengua Indians who lived here before they arrived.
An easy investigation revealed that 27 000 "Indians" living in their own "reserved areas" did most of the manual labour for the "god chosen" Mennonites who could thus concentrate their effort on "managing the economy" of the region.
I could not avoid seeing the similarity with the economic success of the religious Afrikaner "god chosen" people who "managed the economy" of South Africa at the expense of the black skinned indigenous people or with the Israeli "god chosen" people who aim to "manage the economy" of the Middle East with the help of American religious fundamentalists backed by oil companies who know fully well that the oil era is coming to an end.
I admit that being a bright gives me a bias against all supernatural beliefs but even believers can see how some religions have used faith as a tool of power (not their own religion of course).
Filadelfia was an interesting laboratory of human behaviour but the time came to move south where the wild Chaco gave way to tended pasture land and cultivated fields.
The Golodrina bus I took out of Filadelfia was much better than the Stet Turismo bus I had taken to get there.
I eventually got to Asunción where I took time to relax and digest what I had seen.
This is the "Pantheon de los Heroes" built to honour the memory of the Lopez dictators (father Carlos Antonio and son Francisco Solano) who were responsible for the catastrophic War of the Triple Alliance with Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina in 1865.
The existence of this Pantheon can be explained by the fact that most of its construction was done under the dictatorship of Francisco Solano Lopez but the dedication of the large Plaza de Los Heroes, of which this fountain is only a small part, is bizarre considering how much Paraguay has suffered under the Lopez dictators.
The Metropolitan Cathedral faces Plaza de Armas where the Senate and the Lower House are also located.
Here is the Senate building...
... and the Lower House (Camara de Diputados), also facing Plaza de Armas.
A few blocks west is the stately Palacio de Gobierno, the seat of power that has been so often in the hands of dictators.
The weather was poor and I had not been able to reach people I had hoped to meet so I needed a change and took a bus for Ciudad del Este sooner than I would have otherwise.