Latin America’s bloodiest war ended with a single gunshot fired on the lonely banks of the Aquidabán Niguí – a stream flowing through dense subtropical forest in what is now the Cerro Corá national park in north-eastern Paraguay.
After a cross-country chase lasting months, Brazilian troops had finally caught up with Paraguay’s president and military commander, Marshal Francisco Solano López, and shot him dead on 1 March 1870.
He final words were supposedly: “I die with my homeland!” – and it was no exaggeration.
The six-year War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), in which Paraguay confronted the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, had inflicted apocalyptic damage on the landlocked nation.
Roughly two-thirds of Paraguay’s population perished during the conflict, including around 90% of its men. Brazil and Argentina would go on to annex enormous swaths of Paraguayan territory.
As Paraguay prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the conflict with book launches, conferences and concerts – and official commemoration ceremonies on Sunday in Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, and at the Cerro Corá national park – the impact of the war is still strongly felt.
“I don’t think any other Latin American country has gone through what Paraguay experienced,” said historian Herib Caballero. “That’s why it has left such a strong, mark on the Paraguayan collective consciousness.”
One legacy of the conflict is a continuing national obsession with buried treasure.
Known as plata yvyguy in Jopará – the mixture of Spanish and native Guaraní widely spoken in Paraguay – caches of gold were supposedly left behind by families fleeing the foreign invaders and are still eagerly sought by modern treasure hunters.
The war also left a lasting impact above ground. After the conflict, tracts of public land were sold off to foreign companies to pay off war debt imposed on Paraguay, said Ernesto Benítez, a leader in the small-scale farmers’ movement.
“From 1870 onwards, the dominant economic system has been that of large estates,” he said. “This has greatly excluded small-scale farmer and indigenous populations. It’s a historical problem that still affects us.”
Paraguay still has the highest inequality of land ownership in the world – about 85% of agricultural land is held by just 2.5% of owners – and small-scale farmer and indigenous groups face widespread landlessness.
“The war greatly affected our diplomatic relations; we’ve almost never been able to stand up to the Brazilians,” said Jorge Rubiani, an architect and historian.
Further evidence of this imbalance is seen in the joint Paraguayan-Brazilian ownership of the Itaipú dam – the world’s most productive hydroelectric facility. The dam, in theory, should provide equal benefits to the two countries, but one recent study found that due to skewed terms in the Itaipú Treaty, Paraguay lost $75.4bn to Brazil from 1985 to 2018.
While they have historically done little to address these unequal relations with their giant neighbour, Paraguay’s politicians still frequently refer to the War of the Triple Alliance to rally nationalist sentiment.
“It’s a massive blessing for politicians,” said Caballero. “It’s excellent for them because someone else is always responsible for whatever happens – someone else from 150 years ago.”
After a long period of ignominy after the war, López was eventually co-opted as a figure of heroic resistance by the military dictator Gen Alfredo Stroessner (who ruled from 1954 to 1989), who legitimised his violent regime by positioning himself as López’s successor, said Rubiani.
“The figure of Stroessner emerges as the great strongman who was going to put an end to the anarchy and politicking of the political parties,” he said.
Even today, López remains ubiquitous: his image appears on the currency, he lends his name to cities’ main avenues, and the president holds office in the López Palace.
But perhaps one of the war’s most lasting legacies is its contribution to the extremely strong machismo and gender violence seen in modern Paraguay.
After the conflict, the few remaining men are said to have held a position of special privilege as the surviving women bore the brunt of Paraguay’s reconstruction.
Sofía Espíndola, a gender specialist, said that this male privilege, accompanied by the impunity enjoyed by occupying Brazilian soldiers, contributed to setting the course for gender relations as they stand today.
“In the postwar period, there was an excessive emphasis on women’s role as carers for men,” she said. “It’s far from being the only factor – Paraguay’s other wars and a power structure that has always been centred on men are also key – but it made a strong contribution to the machismo that is seen today.”
Abortion remains illegal in all circumstances except for rare cases when it is recognised that the mother’s life is at risk – resulting in rape victims as young as 10 being forced to carry pregnancies to term.
As cases of sexual abuse proliferate, 584 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were recorded to have given birth in 2018. However, these official figures are criticised for offering an incomplete picture. Elsewhere, recent emblematic cases of sexual harassment towards women in public institutions have been dismissed as “courtship”.
Despite the treasure hunts, the monuments and the superficial references in nationalistic speeches, Paraguay has yet to hold an honest national conversation about the deep economic, social and political legacy left by a war that almost wiped the country from the map, said Rubiani.
“You can only cure an illness when we know what is wrong with your body. The same is true of Paraguay and the War of the Triple Alliance,” he said. “The hot iron of the war has left its mark on everything that has happened since. It’s going to keep affecting us for as long as we are ignorant about it.”