The first inhabitants of Paraguay were the indigenous people. The Guaraníes were the largest indigenous group inhabiting what is now eastern Paraguay. They lived as semi-nomadic hunters who also practised subsistence agriculture. Other groups of indigenous tribes lived in the Chaco region, such as the Guaycurú and the Payaguá, who survived by hunting, gathering and fishing.
In the 16th century, Paraguay, once called “the giant province of the Indies”, emerged as a result of the encounter of the Spanish conquistadors with the indigenous groups. The Spaniards started the colonisation, which lasted for three centuries. Since the founding of Asunción in 1537, Paraguay has managed to preserve much of its indigenous character and identity. Today, mestizos (Spaniards + Amerindians) make up more than 80% of the country’s 6.6 million inhabitants and Guarani is the official language, along with Spanish.
In the past, Franciscan and Jesuit missions were intertwined with the Guaraní dream of Yvy maraë’y, a land without evil, producing unique societies. The ruins of the Jesuit missions of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and several villages throughout the country bear witness to this peaceful past. On 15 May 1811, a revolution ended Spanish colonial rule and this day is celebrated as Paraguayan Independence Day.
Shortly after independence, the paranoid dictatorship of Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1814-1840), who was convinced of assassination attempts against him, declared that Asunción’s buildings had to be low enough that he could see who was on the roof when he was riding, and that he had to be able to see in all four directions around every corner, so that potential assassins would have nowhere to hide. The destruction of colonial buildings that did not fit this scheme deprived Asunción of some architectural gems.
But Paraguay also has a history of wars, having fought with all its neighbours. It was one of the richest countries in the mid-19th century (the only one in the Americas with railways at the time) before the disastrous Triple Alliance War of 1865-70. Paraguay was invaded by the allied forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. After 5 years of fierce fighting and complete destruction, the country surrendered. The result was the loss of two thirds of all adult males and a large part of its territory.
A unique event saw the first ever attempt at communism when 700 people left Balmain, Sydney, Australia in 1893 to form the ‘New Australia’. Shortly after their arrival, a split occurred when some of the arrivals began to mingle with the local ladies who were suffering from a shortage of men due to the Triple Alliance War. Two-thirds of the immigrants eventually returned to Australia, but about 2,000 Paraguayans can trace their ancestry to Australia.
To add to the disputes with its neighbours, another war broke out in the 1930s, the Chaco War of 1932-35, in which Paraguay fought with Bolivia over ownership of the Chaco region. At the end of the war, large economically important areas of the Chaco that belonged to Paraguay were ceded to Bolivia under the 1938 peace treaty.
After the Second World War, Paraguay received many immigrants who fell in love with the hospitality of the people and decided to stay and call Paraguay home. New colonies of Germans, Russians, Italians, Ukrainians, Japanese and Mennonites were established in different parts of rural Paraguay.
The 35-year military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner was overthrown in 1989 and, despite a significant increase in political conflict in recent years, democratic governments have been in power since then. Modern Paraguay is largely characterised by political uncertainty and economic difficulties. Since the early 1980s, Paraguay has made the difficult decision to move to a more modern market economy. In recent years, the economy has developed and democratic elections have been held. While Asuncion is full of new economic opportunities and construction projects, much of the country remains underdeveloped and consists of poor infrastructure.