POPULATION: 4.1 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; Guaraní
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism (official)
Paraguay is a lone, landlocked country. For much of its history, it has deliberately kept itself apart from the rest of Latin America. Tucked away in the south-central part of South America, it is sparsely populated. It is a hot, subtropical lowland that has been dubbed "the empty quarter" of the continent.
When the first Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century, Guaraní-speaking people inhabited most of what is now eastern Paraguay. West of the Río Paraguay (Paraguay River), many other American Indian (Amer-indian) peoples, known collectively as "Guaycuru" to the Guaranís, lived in the Chaco territories. The Paraguayans threw out their Spanish governor in 1811 and proclaimed independence. Because the colony was so distant and economically unimportant, the Spanish government did not bother to do anything about it. The new country was left on its own.
Today, Paraguay is a democratic country. (For decades in the past, it was run by a series of brutal dictators.) Paraguay relies on agriculture for much of its export industry. The most important farm products are cassava, sugarcane, corn, soybeans, and cotton, as well as cattle products. It still is one of the least economically developed countries in South America.
Lying within the heart of South America, Paraguay is surrounded by the much larger neighboring countries of Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. In area, it is about the same size as California. Although half the country is covered by timber, most of the wood has little commercial value.
Paraguay's population is 4.1 million. Asunción, the capital, is also the largest city, with 500,000 residents. Only 43 percent of Paraguayans live in cities and towns. Most people can claim to be native-born Paraguayans. Ninety percent are mestizo, of mixed Spanish and Guaraní ancestry. Many Paraguayans are peasant farmers and make a living by selling their extra crops.
Spanish and Guaraní are Paraguay's official languages. This is a reflection of its colonial history. When Spaniards settled in the country, they were far outnumbered by the Guaraní people. As a result, the two peoples intermarried. Although many Paraguayans prefer to speak Guaraní, Spanish is the official language of government and business.
Several other American Indian languages, including Lengua, Nivacle, and Ache, are spoken in the eastern parts of Paraguay. Through contact with the Mennonite missionaries, German has become the second language of many of the American Indians.
The historical merging of the Spanish and Guaraní peoples over the centuries has created a unique culture. This is reflected in the folklore, arts, and literature of the country.
The official religion of Paraguay is Roman Catholicism. However, the Roman Catholic Church is weaker and less influential there than in most other Latin American countries. As a result, a number of irregular religious practices have developed over the years. In fact, in some rural areas, priests are seen as healers and men of magic, rather than as official representatives of the church.
The Mennonites have converted many Chaco Indians since they arrived in the 1930s.
Christmas and Easter are major Christian holidays, as well as the Día de la Virgen , on December 8, celebrating the Immaculate Conception. The War of the Triple Alliance (fought in the 1860s) is commemorated on March 1. The popular Latin American festival of Carnival is celebrated just before Ash Wednesday (in February), the beginning of Lent.
Through the influence of the Catholic church, baptisms, first communion, and saints' days play an important part in the lives of many families.
A popular social pastime is the drinking of maté, a tea made from the leaves of a plant related to holly. It is an important ritual, shared among family, friends, and colleagues. Each time, one person is responsible for filling a gourd almost to the top with the tea. Water is heated, but not boiled, in a kettle and poured into the vessel. Each person then sips the liquid through a silver tube.
Paraguay's capital city Asunción has preserved much of its nineteenth-century architecture. It has narrow streets full of low buildings. Meanwhile, a steady stream of rural poor people has arrived and caused large shantytowns to develop. Some 40 percent of the population still live in rural areas, where poor sanitation and malnutrition are common.
Paraguay has one of the highest infant mortality rates (the percentage of babies who die in infancy) in South America. Its government aid to the poor ranks very low by both world and South American standards. But the social welfare system does provide some cash and medical care for sickness, maternity, and injury at work, as well as pensions for old age.
Most rural Paraguayans live in one-room houses. Most have dirt floors; reed, wood, or brick walls; and a thatched roof, sloped to carry off the heavy rains. A separate or attached shed serves as a kitchen. Few houses have indoor plumbing.
City dwellers—over 40 percent of the population—have small, pastel-colored houses of brick or stucco, with tiled roofs and iron grillwork on the windows. The poor in the cities live in shacks.
Population growth is encouraged, although the abandonment of children and high rates of maternal mortality (the percentage of mothers who die while giving birth) are problems. There is also a high level of births outside of marriage, particularly in rural areas.
Marriage may be performed as both a civil and a religious ceremony.
In cities and towns, Paraguayans dress as people do in North America and Europe. Many rural women wear a shawl, called a rebozo, and a simple dress or a skirt and blouse. The men usually wear loose trousers called bomachas, a shirt or jacket, a necker-chief (neck scarf), and a poncho. Rural people usually go barefoot.
Paraguayan food is similar to that of Argentina and Uruguay, although Paraguayans eat less meat. Parrillada, grilled meat, is a popular item on restaurant menus. The influence of Guaraní tastes in tropical ingredients can be seen in many Paraguayan recipes.
A common part of almost every meal is grain, particularly corn (maize), and tubers such as cassava. Locro is a corn stew, and mazamorra is a cornmeal mush.
The national dish and dietary staple is sopa paraguaya, which is not a soup, but a kind of corn bread with cheese and onions. Cassava dishes are the main food of the rural poor.
Education is compulsory (required) only to the age of twelve. The literacy rate (proportion of people who can read and write) is 81 percent.
The Universidad Nacional (National University) and the Universidad Católica (Catholic University) are located in Asunción. Both also have branches throughout the country.
Novelist and poet Augusto Roa Bastos introduced Paraguay to the international literary stage by winning the Spanish government's Cervantes prize in 1990. Other important Paraguayan writers are novelist Gabriel Cassaccia and poet Evio Romero. Very little Paraguayan literature is available in English translations.
Most people in rural areas survive on subsistence crops (raising just enough to live on), which are cultivated on small landholdings. They sell any extra produce at local markets. They also add to their incomes by laboring on the large plantations.
There are still small, but important, populations of American Indians in the Chaco and in scattered areas of eastern Paraguay. Until very recently, some of them relied on hunting and gathering for their livelihood. The Nivacle and the Lengua are among the largest groups. Both groups number about 10,000, and many of their members work as laborers on the large agricultural estates.
Many Paraguayans, for either political or economic reasons, live outside the country. They are mainly in Brazil and Argentina. Between 1950 and 1970, more than 350,000 Paraguayans migrated to Argentina to find work. Although the official minimum wage in Paraguay is approximately $200 per month, the Ministry of Justice and Labor is unable to enforce the law that requires this minimum. It is estimated that about 70 percent of Paraguayan workers earn less than the minimum wage.
As in other parts of Latin America, soccer is the most popular sport, for both playing and watching. Asunción's most popular team, Olímpico, is on a level with the best Argentinian and Uruguayan teams.
Paraguayans also enjoy basketball, volleyball, horse racing, and swimming.
Theater is popular in Paraguay. Productions are staged in Guaraní as well as Spanish.
The visual arts are also very important and popular. Asunción has many galleries; the most important is the Museo del Barro. It has a wide range of modern works.
Classical and folk music are performed throughout the capital.
Religious holidays are celebrated with festivals that include music, dancing, and parades, as well as athletic contests.
Paraguay's most famous traditional craft is the production of multicolored spiderweb lace in the Asunción suburb of Itaugua. This cottage industry is practiced by skilled women from childhood through old age. Paraguayan harps and guitars, as well as gold and silver jewelry and leather goods, are made in the village of Luque.
The American Indian communities of the Chaco produce fine crafts of their own.
When Juan Carlos Wasmosy was elected in 1993 as Paraguay's first civilian president after many years, he was nominated by the ruling party only as a figurehead, or symbolic leader with little power. Since then, however, he has clashed with the military. The country's democracy is still fragile.
Bernhardson Wayne. Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit. 2nd ed. Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1996.
Warren, Harris Gaylord. Paraguay and the Triple Alliance. Austin: University of Texas, 1978.
Warren, Harris Gaylord. Rebirth of the Paraguayan Republic. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.
Williams, John Hoyt. The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic. Austin: University of Texas, 1979.
Ruiz-Garcia, Pedro (The Latino Connection). [Online] Available http://www.ascinsa.com/LATINOCONNECTION/paraguay.html , 1998.
World Travel Guide. Paraguay. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/py/gen.html , 1998.