Why did the Chaco War Between Bolivia and Paraguay from 1932-1935 take place
The Chaco war is a war that was fought between Bolivia and Paraguay from 1932- 1935. Despite the fact that the Chaco war was very devastating to the protagonists, it remains one of the most obscure events in history. The war was fought over control of the Gran Chaco. As with all armed conflicts, there was a price to pay in terms of deaths and destruction not to mention damage to infrastructure. The Chaco war, like any other war must have had certain causes. It is the contention of this paper that the Chaco war resulted from a tussle over the natural resources in the Chaco, desire for access to the sea since both countries were landlocked, nationalism in Paraguayans, desire to establish sovereignty over the Chaco and foreign interference by countries and business interests.
In order to understand the reasons why the Chaco war took place, it is important to look at the nature of the Chaco region and see if there are any reasons anyone would want to fight over it. The Gran Chaco lies within the Chaco boreal (Garner 45). It is a very inhospitable area, which is devoid of any habitation. The area measures approximately 250,000 square meters and is located west of the Paraguay River and east of Bolivia, Argentina and the Andes (Chasteen 175). The Chaco is a desert, which has recorded some of the highest temperatures in South America. According to Chasteen (175), the area is very dry and sparsely vegetated except for some thorn brush, Quebracho trees and limited amounts of grassy vegetation. The unwelcoming terrain is made worse by the dangerous insects and tropical diseases.
Understandably, no serious commercial activity thrived in the area. In fact, before 1928, the only economic value derived from the Chaco was tannin obtained from the Quebrancho trees and some limited grazing for cattle (English 120).
With this picture in mind, it is difficult to imagine why anyone would wage a bloody war over such a desolate territory. It is important to delve a little deeper into the history of the Gran Chaco, to understand why. During the Spanish colonial days, the Gran Chaco belonged to the same colonial district as Bolivia, that is according to Morales (63) and Chasteen (177). Therefore, to the Bolivians, it was only logical that the region reverts to the control of the Spanish colonial government??™s successor in La Paz when the Spanish colonial rule collapsed in 1810 (Morales 65). Interestingly though, the people of Bolivia, comprising of Quecha Indians and descendants of Spanish conquistadores, had little interest in the sweltering lowlands of Chaco or the indigenous people who lived there (Morales 66).
Bolivians did not inhabit the Gran Chaco nor did they pursue its meager resources. Bolivian investors explored the prospects of building a port on the Paraguay River but generally ignored the rest of the territory (Farcau 206). This obvious disinterest would later, according to Farcau (209) and Johnson (125) compromise the Bolivian claim to the territory.
At the same time, the indigenous people of Paraguay called the Guarani were closely linked to the Chaco people by language and culture (Raine 117). Settlers had since moved in from Paraguay with their cattle and built a tannin industry based on the Quebracho tree. The Paraguayans who settled in the Chaco improved the region. The government of Paraguay even brought in very industrious Mennonite settlers from North America into the Chaco (Warren 231, Raine 122). The same government also sold large tracts of land to Argentinean land developers and cattle ranchers.
As the situation was then, both countries had claim over the Gran Chaco but in different ways. The Paraguayans claim was de facto based on the fact that they had settled in and utilized the resources of the area (Pendle 66). Bolivia??™s claim on the other hand was de jure, based on the fact that it had legitimate claim over the territory in spite of the fact that it did not show any real interest in the territory (Morales 77).
This state would have probably remained undisturbed. Bolivia would have continued to ignore its de jure territory while Paraguay continued its quiet exploitation of the Gran Chaco. But as Scheiner (341) and Zook (155) state, that was until 1884 when Bolivia lost the Pacific war. The outcome of the war was that Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile. This tragic outcome was devastating to the nineteenth century aspirations of Bolivia. If Bolivia was to develop great power and influence it had to have access to the sea through which it could carry out trade and also develop a navy to conquer new territory. Bolivia had to either forfeit its aspirations or find an alternative route to the sea (Morales 200).
To the Bolivians, as Zook (172) asserts, the idea of finding an alternative route to the sea was unacceptable because it was the same as accepting defeat. Nationalistic politicians, press and students fiercely opposed this idea. They were simply not ready to accept the reality of defeat. Therefore, the Bolivians turned their sights to the only option left; the Chaco boreal with its navigable border, the Paraguay River (Zook 175). The Paraguay River runs through the Chaco boreal, which meant that for Bolivia to take control of the river, it had to capture the Chaco area. Paraguay is also landlocked and as such, it also had the same ambition as Bolivia concerning the river. Thus, as (Scheiner 349) states, access to the sea was for the landlocked neighbors a major factor that contributed to the Chaco war.
In the beginning, both parties pursued their claims to the Chaco by peaceful means. There was a series of internationally mediated arbitrations and settlements brokered by various parties like Argentina, the United States and Belgium (Garner 60). Peace prevailed for a time amidst the status quo. In the meantime, both countries dug out documents from their respective archives to support their claims.
The situation would change when in 1928 oil was discovered in the foothills of the Andes at the western end of the Chaco. This attractive discovery, as Johnson (176) states, jolted Bolivia out of its indifference over its supposed territory and Bolivia decided to come out and assert its authority. It appeared as if an oil boom was imminent especially as it was hoped that further reserves could be found beneath the arid plains.
Even more important to Bolivia, was the possibility of a Bolivian controlled oil pipeline and oil port. Bolivian logic was that without control of the pipeline and port, the massive profits from shipping the oil would go to Argentina instead and they in turn would have a monopoly (Johnson 177). Besides, the Bolivians were afraid that foreigners would siphon off the benefits from the oil find.
Paraguay was predictably indignant to the Bolivian sudden onslaught. The Guarani were not particularly welcoming towards the Bolivians because they did not see how the latecomers would enjoy what they, the Guarani had toiled for simply because of a thoughtless colonial error in boundary demarcations (Pendle 35). They were therefore strongly opposed to sharing the territory with any one.
Paraguay was further incensed by the possibility of losing territory. When Paraguay gained its independence from Spain in 1811 that is, according to Dozer (201), it was one of the largest countries in South America. However, as a result of the War of The Triple Alliance, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina seized more than half of Paraguay??™s land. Paraguay, which was once very prosperous was now impoverished as a result of the war. As part of its economic endeavors, Paraguay had developed the lower lying areas of the Chaco for production of a traditional Paraguayan tea called mate (Dozer 204). This mate was actually the most important agricultural crop for Paraguay. Therefore, the land in contention was of massive economic benefit to Paraguay. Now that Bolivia was threatening to take away its last hope for economic development, Paraguay was not going to let go so easily. Besides, Paraguayans were still sore from the loss of the war. Therefore as Scheiner (352) contends, Paraguay??™s economic well being was an important reason that drove them into the war.
Another important issue concerning the origins of the Chaco war is the social and cultural makeup of both countries (Scheiner 354). In Paraguay, the native Indians and Europeans had mixed culturally and ethnically such that there was a more homogenous society (Raine 205). At the same time, there were a smaller number of indigenous tribes than was the case in Bolivia. The citizens strongly identified with their homeland and there was a strong sense of national pride and national unity. This devotion to country made them more wiling to fight for their country and keep the Bolivians at bay (Box 130).
The cultural disposition of Bolivia was quite different from that of Paraguay. Majority of Bolivians were of Indian ancestry tracing their roots to the Incas. After independence, the majority of Indians were sidelined as it happened in many Latin American countries (Chasteen 188). Indians were subjected to servitude and manual labor. As a result, a sense of national unify did not exist among most Bolivians and they had little interest in the Chaco region. Bolivians were apathetic to the war but the political leaders forced most of the Indians to fight in the war
Bolivia??™s attempt to establish an outlet to the sea through the Paraguay River in 1928 marked the beginning of hostilities between the two countries although it would be four years before the full-blown war started.
Aside from the internal interests of the two countries, another factor that contributed to the war was the various interests of other countries and foreign companies. Mendez (57) traces the roots of the Chaco war to the economic situation in Bolivia after the First World War. Bolivia enjoyed a very lucrative mining industry. Gold, silver and tin provided wealth (Mendez 57).
During the war, demand for tin went up drastically. Tin earned 70% of Bolivia??™s income and about half of its national revenue. Bolivia with its tin became a very important country considering the demand for tin. A great deal of profiteers found the country irresistible and in the process, they had to dislodge the Indians from their communal lands. To provide cheap labor, they forced the Indians to work in the mines under harsh conditions with the excuse that only Indians could work in those altitudes (Mendez 57). To ensure success of their exploits, the foreign firms realized that they had to control the government. A struggle broke out between the various capitalists representing American and British interests in the mines.
Apart from the metals, oil was also found in Bolivia. According to Mendez (58), the Standard Oil of America was granted 7.5 million acres of land covering a section of Bolivia bordering the western edge of the Chaco boreal. To send the oil to the pacific, the company would have to send it over the Andes, a prohibitively costly undertaking. The alternative was to build a pipe across the Chaco to the Paraguay River and then ship it downstream to Buenos Aires. This prospect aggravated the tussle over the Chaco. For Bolivia, this arrangement would mean possession of an oil port. To Paraguay on the other hand, this would mean having Bolivian ships traveling right through their country. At the same time, Paraguay and Argentina also had oil, which was controlled by the Royal Dutch Shell of Britain. Royal Dutch Shell was not particularly eager to have its chief rival, Standard Oil of America succeed in its oil ventures (Mendez 58).
Bolivia also found itself in a dire economic position as a result of meddling by foreign powers. For instance, as Mendez (58) states, Bolivia was heavily indebted to foreign banks. To safe guard their loans; the banks had forced the government to literally mortgage all its assets to them. The government had signed a deal which pledged all its revenue except taxes and oil revenue towards repaying the loans. In 1930, an attempted revolution failed and General Blanco Gallindo??™s military government seized power. His cabinet interestingly included lawyers representing Standard Oil and the tin interests.
In 1932, puppet president Daniel Salamanca took power. This new government represented the Imperialists??™ interests and was firmly under their control. Thus, the war was started under this impartial government. According to Mendez (58), the government was a tool for fleecing the poor nation of its resources. The government was broke and without any significant source of income left, it had to find a way to earn some revenue out of the wealth in Chaco. Besides, the government was firmly in the hands of American bankers who stood to profit handsomely from the proceeds if any.
Mendez (58) also adds that Chilean-American interests controlled a lot of oil and tin interests in Bolivia. Bolivia also relied on Chile for its exports and imports. These interests stood to lose a great deal if Bolivia lost the war. Hence, the American oil and tin interests provided support for Bolivia in the war. Mendez (58) notes that Paraguay was in a similar position in relation to British ??“ Argentinean interests. The British together with their Argentinean partners stood to lose if Paraguay lost and so they funded their side.
It is clear then that the foreign companies had a big role in the war that resulted. On the one hand, they sought to exploit the local resources and at the same time, they stood to benefit handsomely from the war itself.
According to the above discussion, it is possible to see how two neighboring countries descended into a war that was not necessary in the first place. The war, as discussed resulted from a struggle over resources coupled with feelings of national pride. The political systems were weak and foreign interests easily embedded themselves and further fueled the conflict. This is a scenario that is endemic to the poor nations that are rich in resources. One can only hope that important lessons have been and will continue to be learned from this piece of history.
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1 Johnson, Craig. The Gran Chaco War: Fighting for Mirages in the Foothills of the Andes. 1996. 28 April 2010.
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