Little is known of the history of Paraguay prior to the arrival of the Spanish, other than the land was occupied by the Guarani people for at least 1,000 years prior to the Spanish conquest.
The Spanish came to the land now known as Paraguay in the early 1500s. Several expeditions were completed up various rivers and tributaries from the Rio de la Plata or River Plate. All the expeditions were driven by the hope of finding treasures but it was Juan de Salazar de Espinosa and Gonzalo de Mendoza who settled the area when they started a fort on 15th August 1537 on the north bank of the Rio Paraguay, the date of the Feast of the Assumption, and called it Asunción, the modern day capital of Paraguay. Asunción subsequently became the centre of Spanish exploration for this central southern part of South America and was a major transcontinental shipment point for silver.
Domingo Martínez de Irala was to become the first governor of Río de la Plata Province, a region which covered present day Paraguay, Argentina, parts of Chile, Uruguay and chunks of Brazil and Bolivia. In 1542, the province became part of the newly established Viceroyalty of Peru. Apart from a brief interlude Irala went on to rule the region until his death in 1556 and left a largely peaceful and prosperous region.
For the next two hundred years or so the country became dominated by Jesuit missions called reducciones which were settlements of the Guarani who had converted to Catholicism. During this time, in 1617, the region was divided into two with one region being called the River Plate government ruled from Buenos Aires and the other covering Paraguay which was ruled from Asunción.
There were attempts to break away from Spain, such as the uprising of 1721 which was led by José de Antequera y Castro; he failed, was shot, beheaded and his head was publicly displayed. In 1754 there was a further uprising, this time by the Jesuits in what became known as the Jesuit War or the War of the Seven Reductions; they lost and in 1767 the Jesuit missionaries were expelled by King Carlos II of Spain.
In 1806 the British attempted to invade Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Paraguayan troops helped in the fight against them and in the process gained many valuable lessons. By 1811 Paraguay felt confident enough to declare independence from Spain and did so on 14th May.
The first ruler of the new nation was José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia who went on to rule, as a dictator, from 1814 until his death in 1840. Although he trampled over human rights and created a police state, Francia left a more prosperous and peaceful country albeit one which had a policy of national isolation.
After the death of Francia, Carlos Antonio López became president and opened up the country to the outside world. Interested in enriching himself and creating a dynasty, López was not an attractive character, although the country continued to prosper under his rule. He died in 1862 and was immediately replaced by his son Francisco Solano López.
The younger López tried to build an empire and eventually led his country into an ill-conceived war against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay known as the Triple Alliance War. Paraguay lost, López was killed on the battlefield in 1870 and around 60% of the Paraguayan population were killed in the conflict. The country remained occupied by Brazil until 1876 and was economically and materially devastated by the war.
Inevitably the three countries, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay each took a portion of land from Paraguay and they continued to interfere in the internal politics of the country as multi-party democracy led to the establishment of the “Colorados” and “Liberals”. The National Republican Association-Colorado Party (Asociación Nacional Republicana-Partido Colorado) went on to rule with Brazilian support from the 1880s until 1904 when it was defeated by the Liberal Party with support from Argentina.
The next thirty or more years were politically unstable; some 21 government came and went in 36 years whilst the country saw 15 presidents between 1904 and 1922.
Meanwhile, Paraguay decided to remain neutral during the First World War and was able to build up its prosperity once more but the peace deteriorated with Bolivia in the 1920s and in 1932 there was full scale war between the two countries. Despite Bolivia being the stronger nation Paraguay won the war over who occupied the resource rich Gran Chaco region and was granted around two thirds of the disputed territory in a 1938 peace deal.
The war, however, had not been kind to the incumbent president, Eusebio Ayala, who nearly lost the war by agreeing to a truce just as the Bolivians looked defeated. On February 17 1936 a military coup d’état took place, Ayala was forced to resign and 32 years of Liberal rule was ended.
The Liberals were quickly replaced by the Revolutionary Febrerista Party (Partido Revolucionario Febrerista, PRF) which was led by Colonel Rafael Franco. Although his presidency only lasted a year, Franco’s government made many social changes that benefitted ordinary people.
The Liberals came back into power in 1937 and Marshal José Félix Estigarribia was elected as president. Although he started well and completed land reforms which benefitted many poor Paraguayans, Estigarribia introduced a new constitution in 1940 which would, in effect, create a presidential dictatorship.
Estigarribia was not to see his constitution come into force because he was killed in a plane crash in 1940, but his constitution lived on until 1967. Estigarribia was succeeded by Major General Higinio Moríñigo who abolished political parties and ruled as a dictator until 1948 when he was deposed and a new president, Juan Natalicio González, from the Colorado Party was elected. Including González there were then five presidents up to August 1954 with Federico Chávez lasting the longest, from September 1949 to May 1954.
In the August of 1954 Brigadier Alfredo Stroessner of the Colorado Party became president after a military coup; and then followed an election in which he was the only candidate. Stroessner was to rule for 36 years most of which has been described as repressive and in which no opposition was tolerated.
Stroessner, in turn, was ousted in 1989 in another military coup led by General Andrés Rodríguez, a long standing friend who turned against the oppressive ways of Stroessner. Andrés Rodríguez abolished many of Stroessner’s dictatorial laws and allowed for free elections in the May of 1989. He stood for the presidency and was elected with 75.9% of the vote.
In 1991 Paraguay joined Mercosur (Mercado Común del Sur or Southern Common Market). Rodríguez also introduced a new constitution in 1992 which established a democratic system of government and in 1993 Juan Carlos Wasmosy was elected the first civilian president in forty years. But Wasmosy struggled against a Congress which was opposition controlled and which overturned a number of Colorado Party laws. A brief attempt by General Lino Oviedo to oust President Wasmosy in 1996 failed.
Raúl Cubas was to become the next President, again from the Colorado Party, in 1998. Vice President Luis María Argaña was assassinated on March 23, 1999 and soon after Cubas fled the country and the Senate leader Luis González Macchi assumed the presidency.
Macchi remained until 2003 but left office as he was about to be charged with embezzlement. Nicanor Duarte, again from the Colorado Party won the 2003 presidential election with just 38.3% of the vote. After his election Duarte made a serious effort to stop tax evasion and smuggling which had become rampant.
2008 turned out to be a momentous year for Paraguay when, for the first time in sixty years the people elected a candidate who was not from the Colorado Party. Former Roman Catholic Bishop, Fernando Lugo of the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), a centre-left coalition of more than seven parties, was elected with 42.3% of the vote. Lugo’s running mate, Federico Franco of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA) was elected as Vice President.
Although the Colorado Party was defeated in the presidential election they were still the largest party in the upper house of Congress, the Senate and the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.
Over the next few years Lugo managed to alienate a number of his former allies, including the PLRA and Federico Franco as well as the army. When, in May 2012 six police officers and eleven farmers were killed in a bungled operation to evict 150 landless farmers occurred it was the spark for an impeachment of the president.
In June 2012 both houses of Congress voted to impeach President Fernando Lugo and replaced him with his Vice-President, Federico Franco. The reaction of neighbouring countries in South America was immediate, with most withdrawing their Ambassadors and Paraguay was suspended from Mercosur.
Fresh elections have been called for 21st April 2013.
The President and Vice President are elected on the same ticket by popular vote for a single five year term.
The bicameral Congress consists of the Chamber of Senators or Camara de Senadores which has 45 members elected by popular vote to serve five year terms. The lower house Chamber of Deputies or Camara de Diputados has 80 members elected by popular vote to serve five year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Paraguay at joint 123rd out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 30 (where 100 is least corrupt).