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Project Paraguay Foundation
PEOPLE AND POLITICS
Paraguayans today bear a mixture of Guarani and Spanish blood and heritage. Although Paraguay saw its share of atrocities perpetrated by Spanish settlers, especially against early Guarani Christians, most of Paraguayan history tells of a peaceful integration between the two peoples. The native Paraguayan population gradually absorbed the Spanish settlers, who in turn adopted Guarani food, language, and customs, so that today the majority of the Paraguayan population can speak some variant of Guarani, their native language, with pride--which isn't the case in most Latin American countries overtaken by the Spaniards. Colonization meant that Jesuit missionaries were sent to evangelize the native population, who sometimes gained a classical education along the way, and often used the Jesuits for protection from more invasive, pro-slavery elements of Spanish society. After the expulsion of the missionaries in 1767, the settlements quietly withered as the indigenous people left or were employed by different masters. Over time, a Spanish-Guarani society emerged, with the Spaniards dominating politically and the mestizo offspring adopting Spanish many cultural values.
In 1811, Paraguay quietly declared independence--which Spain did not oppose. In 1864 the catastrophic War of the Triple Alliance against Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil began. In 1870 the war ended with Paraguay losing over 150,000 sq km (58,500 sq mi) of territory and almost a quarter of its population--leaving the nation with a male to female ration of one to ten and a demographic scar that continues to haunt Paraguayan family structure and encourage "dime-a-dozen" abuse of women today. At the turn of the century, cross-border tensions arose after Bolivia occupied disputed parts of the Chaco, the large dry plains that make up nearly 60% of Paraguay's area. The prospect of vast deposits of oil in the region (which proved non-existent) catapulted the two countries into war in 1932. Afterward a treaty awarded Paraguay three-quarters of the territory.
A military coup in 1954 saw General Alfredo Stroessner installed as president. Stroessner was overthrown in 1989 and replaced by another brasshat, General Andres Rodriguez. Despite considerable skepticism about his intentions--Rodriguez was Stroessner's former right-hand man--the country's perennial state of emergency was cancelled, censorship was eliminated, opposition parties were legalized, and political prisoners released. Since Stroessner's demise, Paraguay has been managed by a parliamentary democracy, with universal suffrage and freedom of speech. Unfortunately most of the recent administrations, fraught with corruption, have abused Paraguayan resources and limited Paraguayan dreams. Despite its political problems, Paraguay continues to provide a haven for a wildly diverse mix of peoples, including a significant population of Korean-Paraguayans descended from immigrants fleeing Japanese occupation pre-World War II; an ethnically-isolated German population of Mennonites who escaped religious persecution decades ago; and even modern Al Qaeda operatives and former Nazis. Many unreached people groups inhabit Paraguay's untouched jungles, struggling to maintain autonomy despite land disputes with encroaching settlers. This diversity makes Paraguay an excellent place to reach out to all kinds of different people. The country remains ripe for political improvement and change.
The culture of Paraguay is quite unique from that of other Latin American countries, as demonstrated in the fact that 95% of the inhabitants speak the indigenous language. Theater is a popular medium, with occasional offerings in Guarani as well as in Spanish. Visual arts of startling unconventionality can be seen in many galleries. Paraguay's pre-eminent literary figure, the poet-novelist Augusto Roa Bastos, received the 1989 Cervantes prize. A sector of the pop-culture tends to imitate the pop culture of the US, but Paraguayans still hold tightly to their own cultural emblems in art and literature.
Musically, Paraguayan folk music tends to be nationalistic, spirited, and varied. Dances, such as the polka and the bottle dance (so-called because the performer will swing around with a jar on her head), are often lively expressions of the themes of love, home, and cultural unity. Popular instruments include the guitar and the harp, often used to produce slow and lachrymose songs. The musical style is historically European-derived, with little or no traces of African, Brazilian, or Argentinean influences. Famous folk musicians include Luis Alberto del Parana (1926 - 1974), who distinguished himself worldwide as one of the best tenors in Latin America as he traveled publicizing Paraguayan cultural music.
Meat dishes as well as tropical and subtropical foodstuffs play an important role in the Paraguayan diet. Grains and the potato-like manioca (yucca) are incorporated into almost all meals. Dishes include locro (a maize stew), mazamorra (corn mush), mbaipy so-o' (a hot maize pudding with meat chunks), and sooyo sopy (a thick soup made of ground meat and served with rice or noodles). Desserts include mbaipy he'e', a mix of corn, milk, and molasses.
On of the most noticeable social customs is relaxing with a cup of herb tea, terere (cold) or mate (hot). The specially designed cup, a guampa, is filled with crushed herbs and passed from person to person around in a circle. Every one shares the same bombilla, the special filtered straw, and drinks all the liquid in the cup before passing it back to the server. The youngest person in the circle normally has the duty of keeping the cup supplied with water for each person who drinks from it. This social tea provides a chance for community bonding and deep relaxation, and the yerba also has medicinal qualities. Terere breaks are frequent, so the people take in so much water that serving water at a meal table can be an insult.
Paraguay is a developing nation of polarities between the very rich and the poor, the young and the old. The nation needs a vision for growth, especially in education, technology, and medicine.