Corporatism Comes to Paraguay Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A regime came to power in Paraguay that offered a program with recognizably corporate elements. Corporatism accorded more power to small, often professional groups, but internal struggles made the experiment short-lived.

Summary of Event

Colonel Rafael Franco’s takeover of the Paraguayan government on February 17, 1936, was a response to Paraguay’s long history of dictatorial regimes and disregard for the needs of the peasant class. Franco and his Febrerista party represented themselves as nationalist socialists ready to introduce democratic reforms, and Franco’s military coup was a step in the turbulent progression of Paraguayan politics. [kw]Corporatism Comes to Paraguay (Feb. 17, 1936) [kw]Paraguay, Corporatism Comes to (Feb. 17, 1936) Corporatism, Paraguay Paraguay;corporatism [g]Latin America;Feb. 17, 1936: Corporatism Comes to Paraguay[09160] [g]Paraguay;Feb. 17, 1936: Corporatism Comes to Paraguay[09160] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 17, 1936: Corporatism Comes to Paraguay[09160] Franco, Rafael López, Carlos Antonio López, Francisco Solano Francia, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Estigarribia, José Félix Morínigo, Higinio Stefanich, Juan Caballero, Bernardino

When Paraguay emerged as an independent nation in 1811, it was as an isolated buffer state separating Argentina and Brazil. At the time, Paraguay was under the despotic control of one man, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, and it continued to have essentially one-man rule until the last decade of the twentieth century. Francia, called “El Supremo,” was the driving force behind both Paraguayan independence and the establishment of Paraguay’s political parameters. Francia became indispensable to the governing of the state and ensured that no reasonable alternative to his rule existed. Those few individuals who dared to suggest otherwise found themselves in prison or the cemetery.

As Paraguay’s leader, Francia focused the nation’s resources on the creation and maintenance of a strong army to defend the borders of his hermit kingdom. The state drafted not only the manpower of the nation but also its economy. The peasants worked as sharecroppers on land leased from the state, state-controlled industries supplied the military and civilian markets, and production and trade were closely regulated. Francia’s policies brought a considerable measure of prosperity to Paraguay, but they also denied the people fundamental political freedoms.

El Supremo designated no political heir, but ultimately Carlos Antonio López seized control in 1844, after a period of political chaos following Francia’s death in 1840. The political autocracy and state-run socialism initiated by Francia continued, but López did moderate the regime’s rigor. After the death of Carlos Antonio López in 1862, the government of Paraguay was entrusted to his son, Francisco Solano López, whose character and intentions remain a subject of historical controversy. He is variously viewed as a barbaric egomaniac who sacrificed his countrymen in pursuit of grandiose schemes and as the quintessential patriot who bravely fell in battle against foreign imperialism.

The true Francisco Solano López is obscure, but the consequences of the war he presided over—and was killed in—are not subject to dispute. The end of the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) Triple Alliance, War of the (1864-1870) found more than half the population of Paraguay dead and the economy in ruins. The struggle between Brazil and Argentina for regional supremacy almost destroyed Paraguay, but the process allowed Paraguay to avoid absorption. Moreover, the government imposed by Brazil and Argentina was, within a short time, overthrown by Bernardino Caballero’s successful appeal to antiforeign sentiments engendered by the postwar occupation.

Unfortunately, General Caballero inherited an empty treasury from his predecessors. He saw little choice but to continue the sale of the extensive state enterprises begun by the occupation governments. Foreign corporations established feudal enclaves (latifundios) throughout the nation and subjected the peasantry to merciless exploitation. As a result, the prospects of a broadly based representative political system that surfaced at the end of the war vanished without a trace.

The Chaco War, Chaco War (1932-1935) a boundary dispute with Bolivia, lasted three bloody years(1932-1935), diverted enormous amounts of manpower and resources from Paraguay’s economy, and caused significant numbers of casualties. Although the peace treaty confirmed Paraguay’s control of twenty thousand square miles of the Chaco, the victory cost the nation two dead per square mile, a casualty rate that many Paraguayans attributed to the failure of the Paraguayan government to adequately prepare for war.





The government was further indicted for its inability to sponsor meaningful reforms in the structure of Paraguayan society. Land reform was first on the list of demands, followed by improvements in the standard of living, the public welfare services, and working conditions, in addition to the reform of an educational system that was probably the poorest in Latin America. As was the case throughout most of Latin America in the period before World War II, the landowning aristocracy reaped the benefits of governmental power, and the middle class was largely nonexistent. Paraguay, in short, was in need of renovation and redemption, if not revolution.

Colonel Rafael Franco, a prominent figure in the Chaco War, organized a group within the Paraguayan military to stage a coup that took place on February 17, 1936. Once in power, the revolutionaries deemed it necessary to present themselves as more than simply another junta of discontented officers. Therefore, the nation was informed that Paraguay would adopt a more democratic version of the nationalistic socialism of the Francia-López era. A serious attempt to encourage the growth of small and medium-sized landholdings was undertaken, and regional agricultural schools, agricultural experiment farms, and a bank for low-cost agricultural loans were proposed. Equally important, a labor department was created, and a moderately progressive labor code was promulgated.

The official goal of the revolution was a “natural democracy” of peasants and workers, a regime that would identify and utilize the best parts of individualistic democracy, corporatism, and socialism in order to provide benefits to the whole of the Paraguayan people. Colonel Franco repeatedly indicated his opposition to the total transplantation of any foreign system to Paraguay. His Mussolini-like speeches from a balcony in Asunción, however, led some to characterize his government as the first manifestation of fascism in Latin America.

The ideological hero of many in the new regime was Juan Stefanich. Stefanich found little appeal in either laissez-faire capitalism or Marxist socialism. He saw the former as at fault for the worldwide depression and the latter as a path to a totalitarian, Soviet-style state. Like countries as diverse as Portugal, Ireland, and Italy, Stefanich’s Paraguay sought salvation in what he termed democracia solidarista, which was an attempt to organize the state along corporate models and thereby accord power to professional and occupational groups. Stefanich espoused corporatism, but the Franco regime remained a mixture of political and ideological opposites. These diverse elements (corporatism, socialism, and traditional political partisanship) struggled for control of a revolution that came to power without a central theme, and this internal conflict assisted those who supported a counterrevolution. The Febreristas, Febreristas as supporters of Colonel Franco were later named, were replaced on August 15, 1937, by a group who gave only lip service to the new governmental programs.

The Febreristas were overthrown for several reasons. They promised land and better social conditions but were unable to undertake anything more than symbolic implementation. Labor was “liberated” through the creation of the National Department of Labor, which defined labor’s rights and privileges, but there was only enough time for strikes and turmoil, not the requisite negotiations between the workers and management. A decree authorizing the expropriation of land was promulgated, but the land reform program was only a beginning and was not continued by the new regime. Effective land reform—indeed, reform of almost any kind—would be difficult as long as the country was dominated by foreign capital in league with an upper class wedded to the status quo. Despite the renewed power of the old order, the promises of the Febreristas continued to attract support, a circumstance that explains the emergence of José Félix Estigarribia. General Estigarribia, a hero of the Chaco War, ran for and won the presidency in 1939. He was a popular candidate whose speeches indicated a decided preference for many of the Febrerista ideas.


Traditionally, most Latin Americans insisted that unity, not diversity, was key to political success. Latin American governments thus generally eschewed attempts to balance competing centers of power and attempt to integrate or eliminate them in the name of collective harmony. The idea that two competing ideologies might barter or negotiate for anything less than total victory was anathema.

Paraguay was operating under two vastly different concepts of legitimate government: the Francia-López tradition of autocratic state socialism and the democratic free enterprise liberalism of the postwar decades. Febrerismo attempted to fuse these opposing principles by recourse to corporatism. The objective of the Febreristas was not a totalitarian state but a “perfected” democratic regime. The state was not to serve as a policeman; instead, it would regulate and defend society. The state would intervene to solve political, social, and economic problems, and national interests would take precedence over individual interests. Thus democracia solidarista differed from totalitarianism in that the latter places the state first and fits individuals into a pattern that subordinates and even denies their liberties. The Febreristas, however, recognized individual liberties and tried to reconcile them with collective or group rights.

The Febrerista experiment was cut short, but the pressure for reform remained undiminished. Thus the new Estigarribia government scrapped the Constitution of 1870 and replaced it with a new instrument approved by plebiscite on August 4, 1940. The new constitution envisaged a powerful chief executive assisted by an advisory council composed of representatives from business, banking, the church, education, the government, agriculture, processing industries, and the military. The council was designed to oversee an “orderly democracy,” in which the government had extensive powers to intervene in the economy. Furthermore, the president might declare a state of siege and thereby acquire virtual dictatorial powers. Corporatism fell into disrepute at the end of World War II, because it was often confused with fascism. They are, however, very different: The latter involves a leadership principle, a mass political party, and an aggressive foreign policy that are not characteristic of the former. Colonel Franco and those elected in accord with the Constitution of 1940 might have resembled the fascist dictators of the prewar decades, but they owed more to Francia and the Lópezes than to Hitler or Mussolini.

Despite their reverence for ideological accord, some Latin American governments ruled in the name of the whole by integrating diverse interests. Others governed in the name of a privileged part of that whole by excluding or eliminating representatives of the less privileged. The government of Paraguay, despite its corporate pretensions, adhered more to the latter model than to the former. These general patterns of Latin American politics persisted until the last quarter of the twentieth century, when, beginning around 1980, the trend shifted toward the emergence of a more pluralist political life, competitive parties and elections, and the resolution, in Central America, of long-standing civil wars, which permitted the exploration of more stable democratic forms of government. From Mexico to Chile, a more vibrant and competitive party politics emerged, and the old-style authoritarian governments of the past, although not everywhere eclipsed, were no longer the norm. Democratization gradually spread throughout Latin America, as it had during the same period in the world at large. Paraguay was one of the countries that joined this democratic bandwagon, and although it later experienced some political turmoil (including the assassination of its vice president in March of 1999 and the 2003 impeachment of President Luis González Macchi), the country has been able to operate under a democratic constitution and maintain a lively and very competitive multiparty system that demands coalition government. Corporatism, Paraguay Paraguay;corporatism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Robert J. A History of Organized Labor in Uruguay and Paraguay. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. A thorough analysis of the historical relationships among labor, political leaders, and the economy in these South American countries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolinski, Charles J. Historical Dictionary of Paraguay. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973. The only reference work of this type on Paraguay. It is not encyclopedic in its coverage, but it does contain a useful multilingual bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Independence or Death: The Story of the Paraguayan War. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965. The only work in English on this important event in the history of Paraguay. Essential to any understanding of the country’s political history or prospects for the future.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leuchars, Chris. Paraguay and the Bitter End: Paraguay and the War of the Triple Alliance. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Focuses on Paraguay’s role in the war, its direction under the leadership of Francisco Solano López, and the war’s long-term effects on Paraguay’s relations with Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Paul. Paraguay Under Stroessner. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. Although this monograph is primarily concerned with a political analysis of the long regime of Alfredo Stroessner (president from 1954-1989), the author places considerable emphasis on discussion of Paraguayan politics in the decades before Stroessner’s rise to power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Politics of Exile. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965. A behavioral analysis of the Febrerista party’s organization. The only work in English on the topic, it analyzes the workings of the party, its ideology, its formal organization, and the pattern of relationships among the leaders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rouguié, Alain. The Military and the State in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. This comparative analysis places Paraguay within the context of the entire continent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warren, Harris G. Paraguay: An Informal History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949. The seminal work in English on the subject. The bibliographic essay is basic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Political Aspects of the Paraguayan Revolution, 1936-1940.” Hispanic American Historical Review 30 (February, 1950): 2-25 . This is the only historical treatment of this event in English. It is heavily footnoted and invaluable, although dated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zook, David H. The Conduct of the Chaco War. New York: Bookman Associates, 1960. The definitive English monograph on a conflict that influenced twentieth century Paraguay to the same degree as the War of the Triple Alliance affected the previous century.

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