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Paraguay, Geopolitics of: Pivotal Position Within A Model of Geopolitics

by Phil Kelly

The article is divided into two sections, the first constructing a preliminary geopolitics model, the second enlisting that model to describe the geopolitics of Paraguay. The geopolitics model contains a definition, relevant concepts and theories, then middle-level linkages among concepts and theories. Examples from Paraguayan geopolitical traditions fill out the model, and further description and analysis follows in the final part with a focus upon the foreign policy and security strategies of Paraguay. Specific foreign policy approaches with in the geopolitical format are suggested in the conclusion.

Geopolitics is a foreign policy approach and an international relations theory that stresses an awareness of relative position among countries and a corresponding response of statesmen to advantages and vulnerabilities that territorial and maritime space may bring to foreign affairs and national security. Within this focus, above all geopolitics provides a practical guide to diplomacy, albeit, without yet a coherent theoretical framework that may plausibly link the impact of a nation's geographic placement to a predictable international strategy.

Accordingly, the intent of this chapter is two-fold. In Part One, I will sketch out the primary facets that seem necessary to designing a preliminary theory of geopolitics. Then, in Part Two, within these facets of theory the main features of Paraguayan geopolitics will be exhibited. That both points intersect, that is, the requirement for theory and the example of Paraguay, appears reasonable since the geopolitics of Paraguay reflects most of the traditional factors that writers for the past century have attributed to geopolitics (Kelly and Whigham 1990). And correspondingly, the country's foreign relations are sufficiently simple to afford an easier drawing of a conceptual framework relative to geopolitics.


A model provides a method of defining particular happenings, and, with use of concepts and theories that fit that definition, of facilitating the interpretation of such happenings. Hence, a model helps us to select, test, and apply responses to the phenomena of interest. Such a technique, to be complete, requires four inter-related steps: defining the topic, locating concepts and theories that match the topic's definition, likewise spotting common linkages among concepts and/or theories, and lastly, constructing a prototype or model that will group all of the defined features within one whole process of decision making.

A Geopolitical Definition

For a designation that will identify what is, and what is not, geopolitics, the following statement defines geopolitics as it will be utilized within this chapter (Kelly 1997:1):

"the impact of certain geographic factors on a country's foreign policy. . . [,] on the position and location of . . states; their access to resource wealth; and a country's space, size, terrain, climate, and demography as these influence national diplomacy and . . . international affairs."

As such, what encompasses geopolitics reflects the effects of national position, location of resources, and other geographic factors, upon a state's foreign relations and defense strategies.

Geopolitical Concepts and Theories

For a geopolitics model, we also want concepts and theories that closely match the definition given above, i.e., foreign policies that are guided by national geographic placement, resources, and the like. For instance, the geopolitical concept of "buffer" state agrees with the position of Paraguay, a small country's location astride the two larger and rival republics of Brazil and Argentina. The theory of a "balancing" foreign policy depicts the smaller buffer country playing one larger neighbor against the other as a means of gaining more security and influence, again a geopolitical tradition in Paraguay's foreign relations as a buffer state and one that corresponds to geographic arrangement.

In addition, one could visualize Paraguay as a "pivotal" and a "lintel" state, or one whose interior and central location in the upper Plata watershed, and in particular its locality adjacent the strategic hydroelectric complex at Itaipú, exerts both a stabilizing and a strategic impact well beyond its boundaries. Here again, we can extend this focal concept to other notable theories of geopolitics (for description of many geopolitical concepts and theories that pertain to South America, see Kelly 1997:23-47), including the "checkerboard" phenomena (in mandala fashion of concentric circles, the leap-frogging formula of "my immediate neighbors are my enemies, their neighbors beyond are my allies;" Seckinger 1976; Burr 1955), and the "heartland" thesis (Kelly 1991), where interior continental core countries or regions may hold advantages for eventual continental dominance because they are sheltered from maritime penetration, they enjoy a spatial unity, they command the resources of continental interiors, and they can expand outwardly where they please. Paraguay as a centrally-positioned state in both cases is seen by some (Kelly and Whigham 1990:56-60; Velilla de Arréllaga 1988, 1982; Tambs 1965) as impacting within the wider checkerboard and heartland patterns in several ways that will be discussed below in Part Two.

Geopolitical Linkages

Constructing more expansive conceptual and theoretical linkages or constellations on the way to a general model of geopolitics involves formulating statements that combine a variety of analogous concepts and theories into a wider complex of elements, all of these, again, conforming to the set definition of geopolitics as national position and other geographic factors impacting upon foreign affairs. For instance, certain concepts and theories appear to be clustered within the checkerboard phenomenon, and accordingly these can be painted into a wider middle-range framework:

In checkerboard fashion, countries tend to fear their immediate neighbors and to align themselves to the more distant neighbors beyond. Paraguay, too small, weak, and isolated to be a significant checkerboard actor, must appeal to the protection of the broader South American checkerboard phenomena (Kelly 1997:37-39) by balancing Brazil against Argentina or by drawing itself more closely to the more powerful neighbor of the moment, most recently, Brazil. More distantly, Paraguay also sought help from the United States during the 1920s-1930s Chaco War (Wood 1966:35). In addition, Paraguay wants to avoid the possibility of another attack from Bolivia, its opponent in the war. Hence, construction of modern road systems through the Chaco expanse from Asunción to the Bolivian frontier has lagged.

The likelihood of escalation or spread of border conflict throughout a region and beyond appears typical to checkerboards. Paraguay's two war involvements (the Triple Alliance War, 1865-1870 and the Chaco War, 1932-1935), both partly frontier or territorial conflicts in origin, did spread at least across the Southern Cone. In the first instance, Paraguay faced not only troops from Uruguay but from Brazil and Argentina as well in the Triple Alliance War. Not surprisingly, Paraguay lost. In the second war, against Bolivia for the Chaco territory, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and the United States became diplomatic participants (Wood 1966:33-35).

At least in the South American case, buffer states have lost territory within the checkerboard structure. Five of the six major South American wars were fought in buffer states. The traditional buffer republics of the continent (Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay) all have lost territory through arbitration, sale of territory, or peace settlement. In the Triple Alliance war, Paraguay sacrificed one-quarter of its territory to Brazil and Argentina. Had it lost substantially more land during the Chaco conflict, Paraguay might simply have disappeared as a sovereign Latin American state, its remaining space divided among neighbors.

Checkerboards stalemate regional integration. Once rapprochement between Brazil and Argentina became evident during the 1980s, and the two nations' checkerboard rivalry diminished, the Southern Cone Common Market (MERCOSUR) emerged and has prospered since. A charter MERCOSUR member, Paraguay participates fully in this trade expansion.

Peace and stability may reign in regions because of factors inherent to checkerboards. Reflective of the escalation potential found in checkerboards, political leaders fear being faced with the possibility of the two-front wars that may be intrinsic to checkerboards. Their countries may lack the resources for extensive conflict, and they hope as well to avoid the creation of shatterbelts or the wider strategic rivalries that become connected to regional struggles (Kelly 1997:171-172,209-211). In contrast, the smaller buffer nations within checkerboards, like Bolivia and Paraguay, may play the roles of stabilizer and of peace-extender, in "lintel" or "shim" fashion, such that the larger nations may be stymied in their aggressiveness. More on this in a later section.

In all five cases, as well as for other examples that could be given, each corresponds to the checkerboard concept and related theories within the geopolitics definition and each combines strands that can be woven into a more general geopolitical model.

Geopolitical Model

Here, we complete our composition, with all geopolitical elements present and interlacing, i.e., all concepts, theories, linkages, and events that pertain to the geopolitics definition are contained within our geopolitical "basket." Such a model is an abstract way of putting together everything that is geopolitical, and excluding what is not geopolitical. The composition operates as a practical and a theoretical system for testing geopolitical interrelationships within specifically-defined boundaries, and it helps to interpret events placed within the model according to a geopolitical format and perspective. In sum, this complete model weaves disparate elements into a coherent fabric, a textile labelled geopolitics.

For this conceptual sketch, the geopolitical definition constitutes both the warp or horizontal ribs of our basket analogy as well as the weft or vertical filler components. International happenings, or perhaps a segment of each of them (because normally no event can be interpreted completely according to only one theory), to enter the inner confines of the basket through its outer membrane must conform to the geopolitical description. Parts of or whole events that are not geopolitical in nature would not enter the basket. Within our container are assembled all of the extant geopolitical concepts, theories, and linkages, and these will assist toward translating international events according to a geopolitical perspective and will direct statesmen toward formulating appropriate policies and actions within a regional and strategic context. Finally, out from the basket will come the policies and/or actions available to statesmen.

Once more, we enlist an example from Paraguay to demonstrate the completed geopolitical model, in this case, the world's largest hydroelectric dam at Itaipú on the frontier Paraná River. Here, the factors of pivotal location and strategic resources come into play, causing this event to adhere, at least to some extent, to the geopolitical descriptions above. With construction initiated under authority of the 1966 Act of Foz de Yguazú between Brazil and Paraguay, followed in 1973 with the Treaty of Itaipú (Chacón, Enríquez Camón, and Canese 1989:275-283,299-315), the Itaipú dam began producing electricity in 1986, with revenues from the energy divided evenly between the two republics, although most electricity was directed to the Brazilian industrial heartland and much less to Paraguay.

The Brazilian general, Carlos de Meira Mattos, has asserted (interview with the author, Ottawa, September 28, 1984) that the government of Brazil intentionally placed the dam on Brazil's frontier with Paraguay as a means of controlling and stabilizing its weaker neighbor and as a means of separating Paraguay from Argentina. The available and cheap labor pool was another reason for bringing the Paraguayans into the agreement. This statement reflects the importance of the Itaipú complex to the Brazilians in particular, making the dam perhaps the most strategic place in South America.

Many parts of the Itaipú experience correspond to the geopolitical definition. Its geographic placement is pivotal within the Plata valley, and its impact extends beyond the Southern Cone. It provides a strategic resource vital to the Brazilians, and it reveals a diplomatic balancing between Paraguay, the buffer, and Brazil and Argentina, the two larger and competing nations. And it figures within the heartland and checkerboard configurations. Hence, the relevant parts of the Itaipú event enter within the confines of the geopolitical model, to be interpreted and utilized according to the various concepts, theories, and linkages that may pertain to its position.

The Geopolitics Model within a Decision-Making Process

Once woven, the geopolitical model becomes part of a greater decision-making process in foreign policy and international relations. This process comes as a series of abstract compartments that show the various phases, seven in all, in making decisions, a slow-motion view of actions and non-actions taken by leaders of countries in response to their perceptions of events. Our need is to break down the flow of decision making so that we may learn more about what stimulates a geopolitical impact upon policy, where the geopolitical model becomes influential, which events are perceived as geopolitical, and how geopolitical actions link themselves to a longer-term perspective within a country's traditional foreign affairs.

In outline form, the following seven steps or panels pertain to the decision-making process of geopolitics:

1) Descriptions of international events: We gather all relevant depictions of an event - its features, participants, causes, threats to peace, level of importance, pivotal effects, etc.

2) Perceptions of decision makers: Events perceived as lacking importance, and hence, not acted upon, stop here. Notable happenings are those that gain leaders' attention and are processed into policy and action.

3) Geopolitical model: The match between an event and the geopolitical perspective: how much are policy actions motivated by geographic elements, i.e., position, resources, distance, and so forth; will the event fit into the perception and interpretation of the broader geopolitical linkages?

4) Other international relations models: Whole events or parts of events that correspond to other foreign affairs models and not to the geopolitics definition need explanation according to other conceptual perspectives. For, instance, the theory of realism, sometimes mistaken as parallel to or even analogous to geopolitics, emphasizes the need for power to achieve security in an anarchic international system, the requirement of a consensual world order for peace, and the reliance on great statesmen and skillful diplomacy to keep national objectives in line with national power and resources. But, realism's focus is not upon geographic position, and hence, it is not identical to geopolitics. Henry Kissinger's frequent references to "power politics" as interchangeable with geopolitics is misleading also and more associated to realism than to geopolitics. Dependency theory, with a neo-colonial thrust and ideology, concentrates on the unequal and "unfair" flow of resources from "peripheral" areas of the world to the wealthier "core" regions. But this approach likewise is not geopolitical, in the main because it is polemical, although it does contain the elements of position, distance, and resources. Finally, political economy, in the words of Mark R. Brawley (1998:135) "is the analysis of the interaction of power and the processes of wealth creation. The subject matter could thus be described as the distribution of wealth and power." However, power and creation of wealth appear far from the spatial essence of geopolitics. Other theories could be described, but these three suffice. In short, among foreign affairs approaches geopolitics is unique in stressing geographic factors, including position, distance, and the like and their impact upon foreign affairs, as its primary standard of interpretation.

5) Immediate actions and decisions that are geopolitically-related: We consider only those foreign affairs actions and decisions that connect to geographic position and hence to the geopolitical definition. These factors reach into the "basket" model's inter-sanctum, tie into the various geopolitical concepts, theories, and linkages, and conform to geopolitically-relevant actions and policies that spill out from the processing done within the model.

6) Comparisons between a country's immediate geopolitical actions and decisions and its long-term geopolitical traditions. Every state holds a wide variety of geopolitical traditions. For example, in the case of Paraguay, its role as a buffer state, its pivotal and stabilizing characteristics, its fear of absorption by larger neighbors, its isolation, and so forth. Do immediate geopolitical actions/decisions concur with these traditions?

7) A feedback facility: Decision makers' perceptions of future conditions that may pertain to an event, based on the impact of immediate geopolitically-oriented decisions and actions in comparison to the impact of geopolitical traditions.

The causes for the Chaco War (1928-1938) between Bolivia and Paraguay, as an international event, provide a good example for illustrating this decision-making process that envelopes the geopolitics model. Briefly outlined below, seven important aspects of the war, some geopolitical and some not, follow (Wood 1966:19-41):

1) Descriptions of the war's causes:

a) The initial Paraguayan attack on Fort Vanguardia, December 5, 1928, was planned to coincide with the Washington Inter-American Conference on Conciliation and Arbitration.

b) Denied coastal access to the Pacific by defeat in the War of the Pacific (1879-1882), Bolivia sought to annex by force the entire Chaco region, to extend its territory to the west bank of the Paraguay River as a means of gaining a river port that would provide entry to the Atlantic Ocean.

c) The Bolivian army threatened the civilian government with military revolt unless war against Paraguay were pursued aggressively.

d) "To the Paraguayan citizen the war was a question of national existence; for the Bolivian it was a distant war" (González 1941:205 in Wood 1966:24).

e) Oil had been extracted in the western Chaco since the early 1920s by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. This drew the interest of neighboring countries to the conflict.

f) The United States strove to locate an "American solution" to the dispute, highlighting the Monroe Doctrine that aimed to exclude involvement in the Chaco of the League of Nations and of the major Asian and European powers.

2) Perceptions of leaders: All of the six war sources outlined above were understood by Bolivian and/or Paraguayan leaders as important. Each appeared to represent crucial events in the conflict.

3. Geopolitical model: Four of the six Chaco War causes match the definition of geopolitics: (b) Bolivian access to the west bank of the Paraguay River, and hence, to the Atlantic Ocean; (d) the distance component, a "loss of strength gradient," whereby spatial closeness brings more power and greater national interest; distance translates to weakness and lower interest (Boulding 1962: Chapter 4); (e) oil and concern of neighbors, both factors of geographic resources and of a checkerboard competition among adjoining countries; and (f) an "American solution" of prohibiting non-American states from participation in hemispheric affairs, the Monroe Doctrine being very much a geopolitical concept.

4. Other international relations models: The first (a) and third (c) causes listed above adapt to other models, the former probably to realism and the latter to the influence of domestic politics upon foreign policy. Neither take on a predominately spatial or geopolitical description.

5. Immediate actions and decisions that are geopolitically-related: In the case of (b), the Paraguayans moved to block Bolivian attempts to annex the Chaco, in large part fearing an end to their own sovereignty if Bolivia succeeded. The distance factor, i.e., closeness to the Chaco, (d) increased Paraguayan determination to retain the Chaco and gave advantages to its military forces. The coveting of oil (e) helped escalate the conflict beyond the Chaco and exposed the checkerboard phenomenon in hemispheric diplomacy. The United States pressed for a solution to the dispute (f) to prevent participation by extra-continental actors.

6. Comparisons between a country's immediate geopolitical actions and decisions and its long-term geopolitical traditions. Actions and decisions by both Bolivia and Paraguay during the Chaco conflict seemed to parallel long-term geopolitical traditions. In the case of Bolivia, its persistent seeking of an ocean port and its geographic isolation preventing such access. For Paraguay, national fear of extinction because of weakness and isolation. For neighboring states and the United States, the escalatory nature of the South American checkerboard in the first instance, and the policy of North America to insulate the Western Hemisphere from extra-continental entry.

7) A feedback facility: The Bolivian's continued devotion to attaining a maritime outlet, and both countries' dread of national extinction for reason of weakness, isolation, and encroachment by powerful neighbors.

With a geopolitical framework sketched out and available for further insight, we now turn to a specific focus on the geopolitics of Paraguay.


Several geopolitical aspects of Paraguay's foreign affairs receive attention in Part Two: the country's geographic setting, its traditional foreign affairs, recent changes in the diplomacy of Paraguay and of the Southern Cone, general themes of Paraguayan geopolitics, and certain foreign policy recommendations taken from the geopolitical milieu of Paraguay and its surroundings.

All of these aspects fit the geopolitical definition as drawn above in Part One. Concepts, theories, and linkages described below likewise adhere to the definition; all can enter into the geopolitical model for testing, analysis, and policy consideration. For instance, the descriptions that follow come into the conceptual "basket" or model of Paraguayan geopolitics, and once there, a variety of linkages coalesce from within and among the traditional and contemporary themes of the republic's geopolitical history. Examination of these facilitates the formulation and application of foreign and security policies that might enhance the safety and prosperity of Paraguay.

Paraguay's Geographic Setting: Defined largely by rivers, Paraguay separates into two very different national sections: the humid and fertile eastern land between the Paraná River on the Brazilian frontier and the Paraguay River that divides the country through its middle, and the barren Gran Chaco between the Pilcomayo River and the Paraguay River. The northern and northwestern land frontiers are largely vacant. Ninety-five percent of Paraguayans live in the eastern part.

Whereas Paraguay rests between Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina, Asunción is distant from populated areas of neighbors. Traditionally an isolated backwater nation, with the republic's only access to the Atlantic extending through Argentina and the Plata river, modern roads built since the 1970s across southern Brazil to Paranaguá and other maritime ports now offer the best surface contact to the outside world. Someday, one could assume a variety of new continental highways through Paraguay would diminish this solitude further.

In general, Paraguay exists as poor, isolated, landlocked but centrally-located within the Plata River basin, not well-integrated as a nation, racially distinct with the Guaraní, underdeveloped, and ill-governed. Natural wealth is not available for a major industrial and exporting base, and its single resource of distinction, the electricity produced at Itaipú and elsewhere along the Paraná, is largely commanded by Brazil and Argentina.

Paraguay's interior position gives geopolitical advantage also. Isolation has contributed to national unity, and distance from the primary core regions of Brazil and Argentina increases security and autonomy. Placement between Brazil and Argentina renders additional maneuverability, as seen in the balancing foreign policy opportunity. Two Southern Cone writers, Bernardo Quagliotti de Bellis (1986, 1975) and Julia Velilla de Arréllaga (1982, 1977) see in Paraguay a "hinge" role or a pivotal position that could wield a stabilizing influence on the South American checkerboard and a contribution toward hemispheric integration. I will expand upon this idea in a later section.

Traditional Paraguayan Foreign Affairs: As a Spanish colony, distant Asunción, founded in 1537, enjoyed considerable autonomy, being administered first from Lima and later from Buenos Aires. Though some economic activity in tobacco and yerba mate attracted a limited immigration (no gold, silver, or Indian empires arose to catch the Spaniards' attention), the province of Paraguay stood very separated from the cosmopolitan affairs of the viceregal centers. Three primary threats appeared, however, that still hold relevance today: the westward encroachments of the Portuguese (then as slave raiders, now as aggressive businessmen and as legal and illegal immigrants), the ability of Buenos Aires to obstruct the 1,000 mile Plata river passage from Asunción to the ocean, and the continued aspirations of Argentina to regain its former colonial ascendancy of the upper Plata basin that includes Paraguay (Kelly and Whigham 1990:45-46).

The first sixty years of independence (1810-1870) showed the vulnerability of Paraguay's geopolitical position and its consequent threat of territorial dismemberment and national extinction. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who governed until 1840, well understood this peril. Lacking power to open the Plata river to free navigation, he instead enforced a strong nationalist quarantine by restricting trade with outsiders (except for weapons), imposing a low profile by avoiding involvement in regional affairs, and repressing domestic dissent and establishing authoritarian rule.

Francia's successor, Carlos Antonio López (1844-1862), opened the country to significantly greater international contact, made possible by the Argentine's lifting of river tariffs and by domestic turmoil in both Brazil and Argentina.

He continued a cautious and low-profile policy toward neighbors; yet, he bolstered national security by importing technology and by negotiating frontier disputes where possible.

Unfortunately, Francisco Solano López, the son of the first López, ignored the cautious geopolitical tenets of his two successful predecessors, and instead initiated an unrestrained, aggressive foreign policy that almost brought national expiration in the Triple Alliance War (1864-1870). Thinking in geopolitical terms, Solano López envisioned an alliance with Uruguay against Brazilian expansion. He sent troops against Brazil when Brazil invaded Uruguay, provoking both Uruguay and Argentina into coalition with Brazil against Paraguay. Consistent with the geopolitical model sketched above in Part One, other factors not geopolitical influenced this conflict also, including López' megalomania and recklessness, political and economic instability in Brazil and Argentina, and both countries' expansionist ambitions against Paraguay.

Despite its soldiers' valor on the battlefield, the country's defeat was inescapable and fully twenty-five percent of national domain was ceded to the larger neighbors. Happily, the worst case scenario did not happen, the complete disappearance of Paraguay as an independent state, although Paraguay's foreign relations for the next eighty years, until 1940, became controlled by either Brazil or Argentina. Domestic instability persisted for years after. In sum, Paraguay, from most perspectives, ceased being a fully-sovereign national entity.

The country devastated, and largely de-nationalized until its victory in the Chaco War, several geopolitical traits characterized the period, and these have lingered and even intensified into the present time. Foreigners started to control the national economy, buying huge sectors of land. We see this continuing today in the nation's business sector and in the Brazilian penetration of eastern Paraguay. Likewise, exorbitant frontier smuggling began during these decades and has become a thriving profit for many, including the military. National insecurity caused by defeat encouraged the army to enter more confidently into politics. Finally, outside interference in politics drew parallel political alliances, the Colorado Party establishing ties to Brazil and the Liberal Party aligning with Argentina, a pattern continuing presently.

War over the Chaco (1928-1935) brought a stimulus for change in Paraguay, with a gradual lessening of foreign control in the affairs of state and the introduction of domestic authoritarianism, chiefly in the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner or Stronato (1954-1989). Stroessner inherited a nation slowly moving away from its former stagnation and international weakness but also in political and economic disarray and uncertain of its future (Lewis 1982). An adroit strategist and administrator, the dictator installed a personalist repressive state supported by a one-party system, manipulation of the armed forces, governmental patronage and corruption (for instance, in contraband and in contracts such as with construction of Itaipú), and brutal subjugation against internal opposition.

Six Stronato initiatives of a geopolitical description originated in the foreign affairs of Paraguay (Kelly and Whigham 1990:50-53), all initially successful because they tended to fit the climate of the 1950s and 1960s, but many losing their effectiveness after external changes ensued in the 1970s and beyond.

• The dictator lessened the country's subserviency toward Brazil and Argentina and was adroit at balancing one against the other. Stroessner proved able to conduct cordial relations with both of his important neighbors throughout the period.

• Yet, Stroessner clearly favored Brazil over Argentina, based on his personal preference as well as on the growing prosperity and economic expansion of Brazil and the political chaos and stagnation of Argentina. Such alignment profited Paraguay immensely, in particular the agreement to build Itaipú and the broadened trade and investment that stimulated a notable domestic modernization during the 1970s and early 1980s.