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Paraguay - History & Background

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceParaguay - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


A relatively small, poor, under populated, subtropical, landlocked country located near the geographical core of South America, Paraguay was originally inhabited by numerous Amerindian tribes, semi nomadic peoples linked by the Guaraní language. The modern country traces its origins to sixteenth-century settlements by Spanish explorers, accompanied by Catholic priests; these two groups introduced the Spanish language and early patterns of parochial education that have remained influential throughout Paraguay's history.

Juan de Salazar founded Asunción, the capital and major city, in 1537. Independence from both Spain and Argentina, Paraguay's larger neighbor to the southeast and southwest, came in 1811. During its postcolonial epochs, Paraguay has struggled with social, political, and economic problems that have inhibited the establishment of an effective educational system. The coup of 1989 that ended dictatorial government has brought the promise of reform, but unsettled politics have delayed substantive improvements in an underdeveloped educational system.

Economic & Demographic Influences: Paraguay, with no coastline, has commercial access to the outside world only by means of the Parana-Paraguay River system. The country's historical backwardness reflects in part its geographic isolation. In addition to Argentina, Paraguay's other contiguous neighbors are Brazil, to the north and east, and Bolivia, to the west and northwest. Other important towns are Encarnación, Ciudad del Este, Pedro Juan Caballero, Concepción, Coronel Oviedo, and Villarrica.

Slightly smaller than California, the country has geographic borders that are mainly rivers. The Paraguay River divides it into two dissimilar regions—the Oriental (East), or Paraguay proper, and the Occidental (West), a mostly inaccessible region called the Chaco, inhabited by 5 percent of the population. With just 6 percent arable land, Paraguay is 55 percent pasture and 32 percent forest. It remains one of South America's least populated areas, second only to Bolivia; historically its rate of urbanization (35.7 percent in 1965) has also been the continent's second lowest. Over half the economically active population in 1950 was involved in agriculture, and about 70 percent of the land was in holdings of small plots, 10 hectares or less. A tiny 1.1 percent of the population, as large landholders, held 87 percent of utilized land at mid-century. By the late 1990s, with a labor force of 1.8 million workers, 45 percent of the workers were still involved in agriculture. The only large city, Asunción, had by then a population of over a half million. Urban and rural population in Paraguay were roughly equal, and migrations into and out of the country roughly canceled each other out.

About 60 percent of the people still live in small country villages, but about 70 percent of all citizens reside within 120 miles (193 kilometers) of Asunción—a pattern of population clustering that assures the city's cultural dominance and has made it the natural site for the country's universities and major high schools.

During much of the twentieth century, Paraguay of all South American countries recorded the lowest rate of auto possession, the fewest miles of road, the second fewest miles of railroads, the lowest rate of telephone ownership, and the lowest use of electrical energy. Parts of the country are still inaccessible by phone or auto. In the 1990s, modern urban systems of waste disposal were still not fully adequate, and water pollution remained a problem. A 1996 estimate of urban unemployment was 8.2 percent, and rural unemployment was a great deal higher.

Paraguay's deficit economy, agrarian with a large informal sector including active traffic with Argentina and Brazil in illegally recycled imported goods, and with the prevalence of various kinds of underground micro businesses, has also hindered educational progress—as has economic dependence upon neighboring Argentina. In earlier eras Europeans and Argentines acquired vast land holdings, and before 1930 foreign owners had drained off money. At the time of World War II Asunción had no water or sewer system, no fire department, and no paved streets.

The feudal system of ownership, with fewer than one half of one percent of landholders holding three-quarters of the farmlands, has retarded democracy and progress.

The Populace: Historically, at various times, the government of Paraguay has encouraged the settlement of Mennonites from Canada and the United States and of Germans, Russians, and Middle Europeans. Nonetheless, Paraguayans have remained remarkably homogeneous, with at least 90 percent being mestizo (a mixture of Spanish and Guaraní-speaking Amerindian) and the rest mostly a mix of other white and Amerindian backgrounds. The country's estimated population of 5,300,000 in 1998—up from 4,120,000 in 1989 and 1,817,000 in 962—comprised 39 percent children ages 1 to 14; 56 percent adults ages 15 to 64; and 5 percent seniors ages 65 and older. The population growth rate in 1998 was 2.68 percent annually, with 32 births and 5 deaths per 1,000 people—and with an infant mortality rate of about 37 deaths per 1,000 live births. Average life expectancy in the country was 72.23 years in 1998, when the average Paraguayan female bore 4.26 children. This high birth rate and relatively young population, statistically speaking, have strained resources for schools.

During the period 1870-1928, between the wars, a debilitated country that had lost much of its male population and had many orphaned children withstood a succession of about 40 mostly corrupt dictators. The egregious numeric gender imbalance after 1870 triggered a pattern of family organization that put women in charge of households, with few marriages; though a numeric balance of the sexes has been restored, the country still has a 50 percent illegitimacy rate, with many unstable family structures.

Political History: Though independent since 1811, Paraguay has endured nearly two centuries of political instability marked by intermittent civil strife. Until 1870 dictators controlled the country, and thereafter, into the 1930s, elite cadres, both Conservatives and Liberals, ruled. Since 1939, a succession of autocratic presidents holding five-year terms has governed. This pattern of personal rule lasted until 1989. General Alfredo Stroessner, the durable "elected" chief of state after 1954, was a virtual dictator who saw Paraguay as defenseless and thus in need of constant military readiness. As an ardent opponent of Communism—a label that he used to brand almost any opposition—Stroessner had the economic and political support of the United States. President Nixon praised him in 1958. During his regime, the government in the name of anticommunism restricted personal freedoms and largely isolated Paraguay from the outer world. The Stroessner government censored the press but did allow opposition papers wide latitude. More than half the public treasury went to support the military, with the education budget running a distant second.

A 1989 military coup ended Stroessner's 34-year period of control. The military itself remained a strong force throughout the 1990s, and an attempted military coup was suppressed on May 18, 2000.

The Stroessner regime did make some material progress, building some schools as well as stabilizing the currency, increasing exports, and improving public services and roads. Most rural areas in Paraguay still had no effective formal patterns of public education as late as the 1960s, when one scholar called the state "a poor and frightened land." Perhaps a quarter of its people were then still unable to read or write at even a minimal level.

Overshadowed by the country's militarism and confused politics, the educational history of Paraguay has always effectively been pushed into the background.

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