Then there’s the crummy timing. It’s hard for any American to focus on some foreign war that started in 1864. We have our own war, maybe the best ever, to study up on.
But credit where it’s due, boys: Paraguay, of all people, took on Brazil and Uruguay, then Argentina, and kicked all their asses until it lost a big naval battle—which you can forgive pretty easily when you consider that Paraguay has no coastline. That’s the one thing it has in common with my other favorite South American country, Bolivia. Losing its coast broke Bolivia’s big oxygen-rich high-altitude heart, but Paraguay had it worse: never had a coastline to begin with. Bolivia moans “Queremos nuestro mar”; Paraguay goes, “Cual mar?” It’s jammed like a fat tampon way up the estuary of the Rio de la Plata, and all it has to float around on is a big dirty jungle river, the Parana.
The one good thing about not having a coast is you can keep to yourself, get all weird, and from the start Paraguay rolled with the isolation, went with it big-time. To reach the place you had to cross disgusting malaria swamps or deserts or jungles with spiders the size of laptops, or all of the above. So it was a unique breed of Spaniard who came calling on the Guarani, the big Indian tribe in those parts. They were Jesuits, genuine religious fanatics, and right from the start they decided their little commune was going to be different from the get-rich-quick strip mines their conquistador pals had set up in the rest of Latin America.
For generations these Jesuits ran Paraguay like one of Oprah’s charity schools, only bigger and without the horny dyke teachers buying sex from the pupils. No whips, no mass burnings, none of what your average conquistador considered good healthy fun. The Jesuits in those days were a hardcore outfit, like commissars in the 1930s, and they tried like hell to turn the Guarani into a country of pious, obedient little nation-state builders: gave them universal education, everything owned in common (some kind of Catholic communism, an idea I don’t get at all) and all that “respect for local customs” business that got popular a couple hundred years later. By the time the Jesuits got booted out of Paraguay by the Spaniards around the time of the American Revolution, they’d done some weird transformation of the locals. Naturally, after the Spanish retook control, Paraguay got a lot more like your typical Spanish colony—you know, rape, forced labor, some nice looking-churches built out of Indian bones—but the Guarani were different.
There was a 19th-c. dictator of Paraguay who was so honest he wouldn’t even accept his salary, returned every penny to the treasury. You get a lot of dictators south of the border, but not the kind that hand back money. That was Paraguay: crazy, but in a pretty impressive way. Even the local Indians, the Guarnai, had been warped in a good way by their time in the Jesuits’ commune; they had pride and they mixed with the whites on something kind of close to equal terms. That made them natural recruits for an effective army, and more than a match for the average Latin conscript, the kind of cannon fodder Santa Ana spent at the Alamo. The Paraguayans believed in their country, fought by choice, and even had a bigger army than their three opponents’ armies put together: at the start of the war in1864, Paraguay had 50,000 men in uniform, whereas Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay combined only had about half that.
Paraguay was ruled by the Lopez family, and they ran the place like a small business, keeping the money but investing most of it back into growing the place. And the kind of growth that mostly interested the Lopezes was military. Like Japan, another 19th-century up-and-comer, Paraguay spent a lot of foreign exchange on hiring the best military technicians and advisers Europe had to sell. And they did it smart, too, putting money into basic infrastructure like telephone lines and rail track, not just chrome bayonets.