The revolution of August 1904 began as a popular movement, but
Liberal rule quickly degenerated into factional feuding, military
coups, and civil war. Political instability was extreme in the
Liberal era, which saw twenty-one governments in thirty-six years.
During the period 1904 to 1922, Paraguay had fifteen presidents. By
1908 the radicales had overthrown General Ferreira and the
cívicos. The Liberals had disbanded Caballero's army when
they came to power and organized a completely new one.
Nevertheless, by 1910 army commander Colonel Albino Jara felt
strong enough to stage a coup against President Manuel Gondra.
Jara's coup backfired as it touched off an anarchic two-year period
in which every major political group seized power at least once.
The radicales again invaded from Argentina, and when the
charismatic Eduardo Schaerer became president, Gondra returned as
minister of war to reorganize the army once more. Schaerer became
the first president since Egusquiza to finish his four-year term.
The new political calm was shattered, however, when the
radicales split into Schaerer and Gondra factions. Gondra
won the presidential election in 1920, but the schaereristas
successfully undermined him and forced him to resign. Full-scale
fighting between the factions broke out in May 1922 and lasted for
fourteen months. The gondristas beat the
schaereristas decisively and held on to power until 1936.
Laissez-faire Liberal policies had permitted a handful of
hacendados to exercise almost feudal control over the countryside,
while peasants had no land and foreign interests manipulated
Paraguay's economic fortunes. The Liberals, like the Colorados,
were a deeply factionalized political oligarchy. Social conditions-
-always marginal in Paraguay -- deteriorated during the Great
Depression of the 1930s. The country clearly needed reforms in
working conditions, public services, and education. The stage was
set for an anti-Liberal nationalist reaction that would change the
direction of Paraguayan history.
Paraguay's dispute with Bolivia over the Chaco, a struggle that
had been brewing for decades, finally derailed the Liberals. Wars
and poor diplomacy had prevented the settling of boundaries between
the two countries during the century following independence.
Although Paraguay had held the Chaco for as long as anyone could
remember, the country did little to develop the area. Aside from
scattered Mennonite colonies and nomadic Indian tribes, few people
, ch. 2).
Bolivia's claim to the Chaco became more urgent after it lost its
seacoast to Chile during the 1879-84 War of the Pacific. Left
without any outlet to the sea, Bolivia wanted to absorb the Chaco
and expand its territory up to the Río Paraguay in order to gain a
river port. In addition, the Chaco's economic potential intrigued
the Bolivians. Oil had been discovered there by Standard Oil
Company in the 1920s, and people wondered whether an immense pool
of oil was lying beneath the entire area. Ironically, South
America's two greatest victims of war and annexation in the
previous century were ready to face each other in another bout of
bloody combat, this time over a piece of apparently desolate
While Paraguayans were busy fighting among themselves during the
1920s, Bolivians established a series of forts in the Paraguayan
Chaco. In addition, they bought armaments from Germany and hired
German military officers to train and lead their forces.
Frustration in Paraguay with Liberal inaction boiled over in 1928
when the Bolivian army established a fort on the Río Paraguay
called Fortín Vanguardia. In December of that year, Paraguayan
major (later colonel) Rafael Franco took matters into his own
hands, led a surprise attack on the fort, and succeeded in
destroying it. The routed Bolivians responded quickly by seizing
two Paraguayan forts. Both sides mobilized but the Liberal
government felt unprepared for war so it agreed to the humiliating
condition of rebuilding Fortín Vanguardia for the Bolivians. The
Liberal government also provoked criticism when it forced Franco,
by then a national hero, to retire from the army.
As diplomats from Argentina, the United States, and the League
of Nations conducted fruitless "reconciliation" talks, Colonel José
Félix Estigarribia, Paraguay's deputy army commander, ordered his
troops into action against Bolivian positions early in 1931.
Meanwhile, nationalist agitation led by the National Independent
League (Liga Nacional Independiente) increased. Formed in 1928 by
a group of intellectuals, the League sought a new era in national
life that would witness a great political and social rebirth. Its
adherents advocated a "new democracy" that might sweep the country
free of petty partisan interests and foreign encroachments. An
amalgam of diverse ideologies and interests, the League reflected
a genuine popular wish for social change. When government troops in
October 1931 fired on a mob of League students demonstrating in
front of the Government Palace, the Liberal administration of
President José Guggiari lost what little legitimacy it retained.
The students and soldiers of the rising "New Paraguay" movement
(which wanted to sweep away corrupt party politics and introduce
nationalist and socialist reforms) would thereafter always see the
Liberals as morally bankrupt.
Data as of December 1988