Britain was not the secret instigator of the Paraguay war, book claims

image of Paraguay attracts investments from Uruguay

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The notion that South American neighbors had a ‘fourth ally’ in the 19th-century War of the Triple Alliance is a myth, the author says

The deadliest war ever fought between Latin American states saw Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay team up to invade Paraguay, kill its headstrong ruler Francisco Solano López and wipe out nearly half its people.

Allegations are still voiced across the region – in schoolbooksnewspapers, and documentaries, and by politicians and journalists – that a “fourth ally” was pulling the strings behind the 1864-70 war of the Triple Alliance: Britain.

But a book by a Brazilian historian recently published in Paraguay has concluded that the theory is a “historic lie” and that the conflagration’s causes lay entirely within the region – provoking a fresh row with those convinced that Britain played a role.

In researching The War Is Ours: England Didn’t Cause the Paraguayan War, Alfredo da Mota Menezes trawled through volumes of correspondence between British diplomats in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and London.

Battle of Curupayty, Argentine troops launching an attack, September 22, 1866, by Candido López (1840-1902). Photograph: DEA/G Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images

“There’s not a single line that proves that England encouraged or took part in the war,” said Da Mota Menezes. “There’s absolutely nothing.”

Instead, his book points to a series of fatal blunders made by South American leaders.

In 1864, Brazil invaded Uruguay and installed a puppet government. But López, Paraguay’s president, had promised to come to its aid if attacked and marched his armies into Brazil – and across Argentinian territory – in response.

Pedro II of Brazil, President Bartolomé Mitre of Argentina, and López’s enemies in Uruguay then signed a pact agreeing to overthrow Paraguay’s bellicose strongman.

It took five long years of bloody trench warfare, urban bombardments, and river battles between canoe-borne warriors and ironclad steamships for Paraguay to be conquered. As many as half a million lives were lost to disease, starvation, and bullets.

But the idea that Britain was behind López’s downfall comes from the “erroneous conception that Paraguay was a superpower before the war”, said María Victoria Barrata, a historian and professor at the University of Buenos Aires.

According to this “conspiracy theory” – which started gaining force among revisionist historians in Argentina in the 1950s – London bankers plotted to flood Paraguay’s surging, the self-sufficient economy with British goods, or to plant cotton for Lancashire textile mills in its fertile, red soil.

“The certainty came first. Then they looked for the sources to back it up,” said Barrata – despite the role played by British engineers in sustaining Paraguay’s war effort.

During the cold war, as the United States helped topple leftist governments across the region, Latin American writers projected the same scenario backwards onto the British Empire – itself notorious for multiple atrocities around the world.

The 1982 conflict over the Falkland Islands, claimed by Argentina as Las Malvinas, further strengthened “the idea of the English as pirates and the enemy”.

“In the public imagination, England is evil and orchestrated the war,” agreed Ana Barreto Vallinoti, a Paraguayan historian and biographer of Madame Lynch, the Irish courtesan-turned-consort of López.

“It’s repeated and repeated,” she added, pointing to the huge influence of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (1971) and American Genocide (1979) by Júlio José Chiavenato, a Brazilian journalist.

Da Mota Menezes suggested that the thesis of British responsibility dies hard for psychological reasons: it salves the conscience of the victors and massages the ego of the loser.

“For Paraguay, it’s like a consolation prize,” he said, adding that he has already received complaints from aggrieved readers. “It tells them they held out for five years against three countries and the greatest power in the world.”

“The oligarchies of Brazil and Argentina” were directed by “English and extractivist interests,” insisted Ricardo Canese, a Paraguayan member of the regional parliament, Parlasur. “If they hadn’t had British financing, the history would have been different.”

In May, Parlasur voted to create a truth and justice commission to examine “crimes against humanity” committed during the conflict. Canese has pointed to Queen Victoria as one of the main culprits.

“It was a genocide,” he argued. “The Paraguayan people resisted to the very end.”

Source: Laurence Blair The Guardian

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