Jul 17

History Wednesday: The Pioneering Dictator

Latin America is well-known for its history of military strongmen, caudillos and other dictators. That may be the most obvious thing I’ve said all day. Yet it had to start somewhere.

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Specifically, here.

Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, also known as “El Supremo,” ruled Paraguay with an iron fist nearly a century before the rise of the so-called “banana republics.” His methods were brutal, and his motivations were often … shall we say, odd.

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Apr 10

History Wednesday: A South American Cautionary Tale

You’d be hard-pressed to find a nation with a more bizarre history than Paraguay. I could easily write about it for the next month’s worth of History Wednesday installments. That would get tedious though, and we don’t want that.

Some years ago noted satirist P. J. O’Rourke infamously commented Paraguay is “nowhere and famous for nothing.” O’Rourke eventually recanted his remark. Paraguay may be remote, but it’s definitely not boring.

Today’s journey takes us to 1860s. By this point Paraguay had been independent of Spain for a little over 50 years. Those years were dominated by the dictatorships of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia – a guy commonly known by the modest title of El Supremo – and Carlos Antonio Lopez, who was primarily interested in beefing up the country’s military. Both Francia and Lopez pursued extremely isolationist foreign policies, which would prove to be very detrimental in the coming years.

In 1862 Lopez died and power passed to his son, Francisco Solano Lopez. Clearly groomed for leadership, without any noteworthy talent or training the younger Lopez became a general when he was 18 and was the country’s vice president by the time he was 30.

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He was also a big Bonaparte fan.

Within a few years of taking power Lopez became embroiled in a dispute with neighboring Brazil over Uruguay. Lopez was an ally of Uruguay’s government at the time, while Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II supported an ongoing revolution there. This came to a head in October 1864, when Brazil invaded Uruguay to support its revolutionary allies.

Two months later, Paraguay retaliated by declaring war on Brazil. A short time later Lopez asked Argentina to allow him to cross their territory to get to Brazil. The Argentinians refused, but Lopez went and did it anyway. Meanwhile, the Brazilians and Uruguayan rebels succeeded in bringing down the pro-Lopez government and set up a Brazilian puppet state there. The result was the Triple Alliance between Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. How … original. The alliance vowed to not only defeat Paraguay, but to crush it so it couldn’t cause problems again.

In other words, a country which endured many years of a repressive, isolationist cult of personality and a massive military buildup found itself ruled by the relatively inexperienced son of the previous leader, who then proceeded to go out of his way to pick fights with much larger powers.

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Sound familiar?
Image credit: petersnoopy

At first things went well for the Paraguayans. They started out with the largest military in Latin America at the time. They also caught all three of their enemies by surprise. Lopez invaded the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Rio Grande do Sul, as well as Argentina’s Corrientes Province. However by summer 1865 the tide began to turn against Lopez after the Brazilians decisively defeated the Paraguayan Navy.

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Seriously. To this day landlocked Paraguay has a navy.

Unfortunately for Paraguay, Lopez didn’t understand the concept of “quit while you’re ahead.” As the war dragged on through the rest of the 1860s, Paraguay’s military might was gradually sapped away by the Triple Alliance’s war of attrition. Both sides employed weapons and tactics similar to those used in the recently-concluded American Civil War, and experienced the same sort of horrific casualties. However unlike the alliance, isolated Paraguay was unable to replenish its resources and munitions.

On New Year’s Day 1869 the alliance captured the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. Even that didn’t convince Lopez to throw in the towel, who by then was conducing a guerrilla campaign in the mountains northeast of the city. By this point resources were so scarce among the Paraguayans that the few soldiers remaining were occasionally forced to fight unarmed – in the hopes of picking up a firearm from a fallen comrade – as well eat their horses.

Finally on 1 March 1870 Lopez was killed in battle, effectively ending the Paraguayan War. It’s estimated Paraguay lost anywhere between 50 to 90 percent of its population due to war and disease, including the vast majority of the country’s adult males. To put that in perspective, even the grimmest estimates place Cambodia’s national death toll at “only” around 40 percent during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

In addition to the human cost, Paraguay permanently lost a significant amount of its territory. The war also affected the victorious Triple Alliance in unintended ways. Notably, it’s widely believed it helped end slavery in Brazil, as the country was forced to free many to fight.

If Lopez had a redeeming quality, it was his tenacity. Because of this and despite the massive losses inflicted upon Paraguay during his rule, many Paraguayans today consider him a national hero.

Yeah, things have been brutal in the Corazon de America, but they’ve never been boring.

Mar 06

History Wednesday: The Central American Footy Fracas

If you live in the United States, you know football is a big, big deal to a lot of people. For some it’s a matter of civic pride. For others, a favorite player. Or perhaps just because it’s a tradition. However no matter how partial fans may be towards their teams, you’ll never see an NFL game devolve into a regional shooting war. American football fans are more civilized than that.

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Although I sometimes wonder about Steelers fans.
Image credit: Steelcityhobbies

The rest of the world is another matter. Their football rivalries – what we silly Americans know as “soccer” – are on another level entirely. If you don’t believe me, wear an Argentine kit in a rough São Paulo neighborhood. If you’re actually foolhardy enough to do this, have your next of kin let me know how it turned out.

With that in mind, today History Wednesday travels back to July 1969. During that month the moon landing was staged at a location near Worland, Wyoming. Also, El Salvador and Honduras fought a brief war against each other, ostensibly over a soccer match. One of these ridiculous statements is actually true.

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And that’s the last time I listen to Alex Jones.

In 1969 neither Honduras nor El Salvador were particularly pleasant places to live for the average person. Both countries were run by right-wing military governments. El Salvador was horribly overcrowded, prompting many to emigrate to neighboring Honduras. However, much of Honduras was owned by a relatively small number of landowners and corporations, notably the United Fruit Company. The Honduran leader, Gen. Oswaldo Lopez Arellano, was both very cozy with United Fruit and decidedly anti-Salvadorian. Together they did their best to push the Salvadorian refugees out of Honduras.

None of this was new. These issues had plagued both countries for most of the 20th Century. Needless to say they weren’t on the best of terms to begin with. In many ways corporate interests supplying America with sweet, sweet tropical fruit were making a bad situation worse.

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Hence the term “banana republic.” Remember that next time you wear those capris.
Image credit: Ed Yourdon

And so with this backdrop Honduras and El Salvador met in the best-of-three semifinal round of the tournament to represent CONCACAF in the 1970 World Cup. The home team won the first two matches in Tegucigalpa and San Salvador respectively. Both games were followed by significant fan-on-fan violence which only served to bring the two nations closer to war. On 26 June 1969, the rubber match was played on neutral turf in Mexico City. El Salvador won in extra time and moved on to the final, which it would later win.

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Haiti clobbered the United States in the other semifinal. Seriously.

The same day El Salvador eliminated Honduras from World Cup contention, citing Tegucigalpa’s treatment of Salvadoran refugees it severed diplomatic relations with its neighbor.

Taking his nation’s win over its hated rival a bit too far, on 14 July 1969 Salvadorian President Gen. Fidel Sanchez Hernandez decided bitches needed to go down. Despite being hilariously ramshackle, comprised mainly of World War II-era Corsairs, P-51 Mustangs and passenger aircraft hastily converted into bombers, that afternoon the Salvadoran Air Force caught the Hondurans by surprise, bombing the Tegucigalpa airport. However El Salvador failed to neutralize the similarly equipped but much larger Honduran Air Force, so Honduras responded by bombing several targets in El Salvador, including the San Salvador airport.

Salvadorian ground troops fared much better. Within hours they captured several western Honduran towns, including the departmental capital of Nueva Ocotepeque. Salvadorian newspapers soon boasted they were within striking distance of Tegucigalpa itself.

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And they looked damn smooth doing it.

Fearing an invasion of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran government petitioned the Organization of American States to intervene in the matter. With both running low on ammunition, the two sides quickly agreed to a cease-fire, but Salvadorian troops remained in Honduras until early August.

The war’s outcome was inconclusive at best. While El Salvador was the clear winner on the ground, Honduras won the air battle. However, the fallout of the war contributed to continued political instability in Honduras and a brutal civil war which engulfed El Salvador in the 1980s. The border dispute inflamed by the war wasn’t entirely settled until 1992. Today both countries have normalized relations with each other and are relatively stable, although Honduras was the victim of a military coup d’etat as recently as 2009.

Remember this next time your team loses an overtime heartbreaker. It could be worse, a lot worse.