Latin American Wars: The Chaco War (1932-35)


Figure 1.--Clashes in the Chaco began before the war broke out. This press photo shows Bolivian Scouts forming military brigades. The caption read, "Bolivian Boy Scouts form military brigades in possible clash with Paraguay: Even the Boy Scouts of Bolivia have demonstrated desires to be recognized as ailitary unit should the war clouds hovering ver their country burst into war over the surprise attack by Paraguasyan forces. Their request follows the call to covers of the 1929 [age] class by the GeneralmStaff. Photo shows a Boy Scout brgade drilling at La Paz Bolivi." The photo was taken Secember 12, 1928. The war would break out 4 years later. Scouts in both countries served among other duties as postal mail carriers and litter bearers for the wounded. As a result, there were very young boys at or near the frnt lines. One Paraguayan source reports the boys resisting being moved to the rear.

The Gran Chaco is the large plain in the heart of South America. At the time of the War it was shared by the conttinent's two land-locked countries--Bolivia ans Paraguay. The primary reason for the War was the desire of both countries to obtain better access to the River Paraguay. This is one of the primary rivers in South America. The Paraguay River drained the Chaco Boreal. Bolivia's efforts to regain a sea outlet turned east and attempted to gain a port on the Paraná-Paraguay river system which led to the Atlantic. The Bolivians attempted to seize the the Paraguayan portion of the Chaco Boreal which included the Paraguay River (1932). This would have given Bolivia an Atlantic port. The Bolivians also believed there were valuable oil deposits in the Chaco Boreal. Smaller Paraguay put up a determined resistance. The resulting war desestated both countries. There were more than 0.1 million casualties, an horendous number for small countries. Paraguay emerged the victory with almost all of the Chaco Boreal. The Brazilian seizure of Bolivian territory (1904) was followed by the debilitating Chaco War with Paraguay. This cost Bolivia its area of the Gran Chaco. Modern Bolivia is now less than half of the poorly defined territory of Alto Peru at the time of independence. Bolivia and Peru before the War were two of the poorest countries in the Hemisphere. Both were devestated by the War.

The Gran Chaco

The Chaco Boreal is a largely uninhabited, 250,000 square mile area located in the heart of South America. It is the area between the foot hills of the Andes east to the Paaguay River. The Chaco Boreal is perhaps the most inhospitable area of South America with the exception of the Atacama Desert. The Gran Chaco is the most inhospitable part of the Chaco Boreal. It encompased a 100,000 square-mile area pf southeastern Bolivia, northern Paraguay, and northern Argentina. Most of it was shared by the continent's two land-locked countries--Bolivia and Paraguay. The Gran Chaco is arid, semi-desert, not suited for agriculture. It can also be very hot, especially in the west, near the mountains. The Chaco is covered by scrub. Much of it is very sparsely vegetated as it is so arid. There were also wooded areas. As one moves east, the Chaco becomes a thick, impassable thornbrush jungle. The most destinctive feature are dense stands of quebracho trees and grassy clearings. The primary economic resource was the tannin extracted from its quebrachos and the limited grazing for cattle. There are also large numbers of biting, stinging insects as well as tropical diseases that the Bolivians motly from the Andes were especially suceptable. The Bolivians came to believe that there were valuable oil deposits in the Chaco Boreal. International oil companies, such as Standard Oil, were exploring southern Bolivia and were interested in the Chaco.

National Claims

The Gran Chaco historically was part of the same Spanish colonial district (audiencia) as Bolivia (Alto Peru). Bolivia was the the Spanish administration's successor government for Alto Peru. Thus based on the accepted principles around which Latin American states were formed and international law, Bolivia had a strong de jure claim. Bolivia at the time was a deeply stratified society. The governing class was descended from the conquistadores and other Spanish immigrants. The great bulk of the people were Native Americans desceded from Quecha-speaking tribes. The popultion was centered in the Bolivian Altiplano. The Bolivians had little in common with the sweltering lowlands and made no effort to develop it. While the Paraguayans did not have a legal claim to the Chaco, the did have a de facto claim. The small population of the Gran Chaco was composed mostly of Native Americans, but not the Andean Quecha people, but the Guarani, related culturally and ethnically to Paraguay. Paraguan society was much less stratified than Bolivian and the Spanish in Paraguay had inter-mingled and inter-married extensively with the Guarani. Thus the tannin-quebracho industry and the cattle ranching was conducted largely by the Paraguayan Guarani. The Paraguyan government had permitted the industrious Mennonites from the United States to settle in region. The Government also sold large land tracts to Argentinian developers and cattle companies. Thus while Bolivia had legal claims to the Chaco, the population and economic development was almost all Paraguyan.

Population

The Chaco was very lightly settled. Neither Paraguay nor Bolivia had made any major effort to settle the Chaco because it was poorly watered and not seen as valuale agricultural land. Most of the small population was Guarani Indians. The largest ton was Mayor Pablo Lagerenza. The Guarani agriculture was primarily subsistnce. One of their more valuable items produced in the area was the quebracho tree.

Paraguay River

The primary reason for the War was the desire of both countries to obtain better access to the River Paraguay. This is one of the primary rivers in South America. The Paraguay River drained the Chaco Boreal. Bolivia's efforts to regain a sea outlet turned east and attempted to gain a port on the Paraguay river system which joined with the Paraná to form a navigable water way to the Atlantic. Bolivia had lost its access to the sea in the War of the Pacific with Chile (1879-84). The Paragusy River originates in southeastern Bolivia, but it was not navigable by ships of any size. Thus to obtain a port that could accomodate ships of any size, Bolivia needed a port further down the river where is larger and deeper. And this was the area of the Chaco controlled by Paraguay.

Border Incidens

The border in the Chaco because it was o lightly settled was not well defined. This led to occassional border inceidents. They begn to become more freuent and hostile (1920s). Bolivian politicians still smarting from theloss of their Pacific-coast ports and not daring to attack Chile began to see Paraguay as a military target they could overcome. Some reports suggest that international oil men encouraged them.

The War

The Bolivians attempted to seize the the Paraguayan portion of the Chaco Boreal which included more southern streaches of Paraguay River. This would have given Bolivia what a amonted to an inland Atlantic port. Bolivia declared water and launched an attack on the Paraguayan border town of Vangaurdia where the Paraguyans had afortified position (June 15, 1932). Bolvia had made no secret of it intentions. It deployed a substantial army in the Chaco. It was larger and better equipped than the Paraguyans. Bolivia also had a small airforce and until the last year of the War Paraguay had virtually no airforce. Praguay anticipating a Bolivian invasion, deployed much of its army in the Chaco, braced for a Bolivian attack. Smaller Paraguay put up a determined resistance. Paraguayan President Eusebio Ayala, assigned General Jose Felix Estigarribia to direct the Paraguyan resistance to the Bolivian invasion. Paraguayan soldiers idebtifiied more with the struggle as a natinal effort. Many Bolivian soldiers saw theeir conscription as a kind of servitude and had little interest in the struggle. Paraguay won nearly all the important battles of the War. The tactics they used were to encircling Bolivian formations. Usually the Bolivians were both numerical and materially superior to the Paraguayans. As the War continued the material differential closed because the Paraguyans acquired so much Bolivian equipment (trucks, artillery, machineguns, and small arms). The Paraguyans proved to have superior leadership. They also were more familiar with the terraine. Paraguyan forces the Brazilians back, north and west. By the timean armistice was agreed to, the Parauyans had taken almost all of he Gran Chaco and were approaching the Bolivian oil fields (1935). The potential loss of those fields was astrong enducement to settle.

Results

The resulting war devestated both countries. It was the bloodiest war fought in South America during the 20th century. There were more than 0.1 million casualties, an horendous number for small countries. Paraguay emerged the victor with almost all of the Chaco Boreal. The Brazilian seizure of Bolivian territory (1904) was followed by the debilitating Chaco War with Paraguay. This cost Bolivia its area of the Gran Chaco. Modern Bolivia is now less than half of the poorly defined territory of Alto Peru at the time of independence. Bolivia and Paraguay before the War were two of the poorest countries in the Hemisphere. Both were devestated by the War. We note a Jewish doctor, Ludwig Popper, that the Bolivian Army recruited to work with their forces in the Chaco after the War.









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Created: 6:27 PM 2/7/2009
Last updated: 5:24 PM 9/8/2014