The War of Paraguay: Chapter XXXIV, The Defense of Paraguay. — Mariano Varela

We have already seen Nabuco’s attitude when, on 27 September 1867 before the Council of State, he gave a speech for the first time on the topic of Paraguay. His second speech is on 26 April 1870. The reason for the inquiry to the Council is explained in its summons; earlier, however, a sizable dissent had occurred between our plenipotentiary—the Itaboraí cabinet’s Minister of Foreign Affairs himself, Paranhos (later Viscount of Rio Branco)—and the Argentine Republic’s Minister of Foreign Relations—Mariano Varela. On 12 October 1868 General Bartolomé Mitre surrendered the presidency to Domingo Sarmiento, and all of Argentine politics changed hands and changed direction; Paranhos had left for Buenos Aires on a special mission at the beginning of 1869, and as there would be attempts to start an interim government in Asunción (act of March 31st), he sent a memorandum to the allied governments, in which he defended that provisional government’s ability to execute peace treaties.

From the discussion of this issue, there arises the first appearance of a diplomatic rivalry, truly a game of hide and seek, destined to last more than eight years. Paranhos maintains that the provisional government “should immediately accept the conditions of peace determined by the May 1st treaty.” (First memorandum from Paranhos, 30 April 1869) He examines the question of whether or not that government has moral and legal authority to fulfill the treaty’s subsequent stipulations, and he concludes affirmatively, declaring himself opposed to any postponement as well: “The current war was the work of a government born from its own will and which, because of this, followed no rule other than that absolute will itself. Can the allied governments be asked to have the magnanimity to wait for the election of sovereign assemblies, and for the organization of an executive power, more or less limited, before signing with this power definitive conditions of peace between the allies and the Republic of Paraguay? Surely no one can find a reason of State, or an example in the history of the great wars that have been humanity’s scourge, which would recommend such a dangerous and harmful policy of deferment to the allied and Paraguayan governments, much less make them consider it mandatory.” (Same memorandum, 30 April 1869)

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Photo of Mariano Varela, courtesy of Editorial Ateneo.

The Argentine Republic objected, claiming that, according to the May 1st treaty, the war was waged not against the Paraguayan people but against their government; the allies were solemnly committed to respect the sovereignty, integrity, and independence of the Paraguayan Republic, and as such, “to allow Paraguay the freedom to organize itself once López is defeated,” stipulating that they would sign the peace treaty with the government that formed after his fall. “The moment of Paraguay’s reorganization, foreseen by the treaty, has still not arrived … As such, if the allies are committed to respecting the sovereignty and independence of Paraguay; if, as we ourselves have offered, the men of Paraguay—the few who escaped the barbaric destruction to which that unfortunate nation’s dictator condemned them—have the right to choose the government they desire, we cannot today demand from the government, which we have appointed, the execution of treaties involving Paraguay’s permanent rights and interests, treaties which should only be negotiated by powers established either through fundamental law or the people’s sovereignty … Almost every nation on Earth has expressed horror at the Paraguayan War, due to a distrust of our intentions. We should not, as such, provide pretexts to potentially confirm such suspicions …”

He goes on: “The very fact that the war has lasted longer than foreseen is a warning, a warning that events should not be hurried, events which had their time set, when we supposed that we were dealing with a short and easy campaign, after whose victory we would meet a people who would concede to us the guarantees we demanded for the future. Today Paraguay is exhausted. Everything has been desolated and leveled by the barbarous dictator we are fighting. After the definitive victory, the allies will find themselves facing a cadaver.” (Memorandum from Mariano Varela on 8 May 1869)

For these reasons, in 1869 the Argentine Republic’s Minister of Foreign Relations objects to the idea of immediately entering into peace treaties with Paraguay’s provisional government, which treaties would necessarily fix Paraguay with the borders indicated in the alliance treaty. The motives claimed are those of public law and generous compassion for the defeated nation; however, these may conceal a certain distrust toward their ally; suspicion that the provisional government in Asunción was the empire’s handiwork; disdain for the May 1st treaty, Mitre’s policy, even when it acquired the republic vast territories; opposition to the protocol prohibiting fortifications on the riverbanks; a disdain, as Varela himself says, for the Paraguayan War. If all of the Chaco between Pilcomayo and Bahía Negra is not Argentine territory today, the Argentine Republic probably owes this to Sarmiento and Mariano Varela, who did not wish to take advantage of the opportunity Paranhos offered them in 1869. Was this a policy of generosity, or distrust? Was it merely a whim, a spiteful act against Mitre and the alliance? Only an Argentine historian could say. The fact is that if Paraguay maintained possession of the Chaco, it owed it to president Sarmiento’s Minister of Foreign Affairs renouncing the right to conquest in 1869, and to the persistence with which Paranhos, who had offered to fulfill the treaty, in light of this renunciation, enforced it in Paraguay’s favor.

It is Paranhos who insists that the provisional government accept the treaty of 1 May 1865 right away, with all its consequences.

“What does this Brazilian diplomat propose, aside from the conditions explained in the most excellent señor Minister of Foreign Relations’ memorandum? That the Paraguayan government accept the Triple Alliance Treaty as a preliminary condition of peace; that is, that it accept the conditions the allies established in that pact as legitimate compensations and indispensable guarantees of an honorable, secure peace between the allies and the Republic of Paraguay. Can the allies not, and should they not, include that condition in the provisional agreement?” (Memorandum from Paranhos, 17 May 1869)

The Argentine government pushes back, in the name of Paraguay: “It was not long ago that the Argentine government maintained, in discussions with the Brazilian emperor’s representative, that victory does not give the allied nations the right to consider the borders indicated in the treaty their own. Today as then, my government believes that these borders should be discussed with the government Paraguay forms, and that their delineation will be made in treaties drawn up after each signatory party has displayed the deeds on which they base their claims.” (Note from Mariano Varela to the provisional governor of Paraguay, 27 December 1869.) So if the agreement of 2 June 1869 did not definitively resolve the problem of borders, a problem still not discussed, it was because of the Argentine veto. As well, the ministry in power was the Itaboraí cabinet, whose only aspiration was to finish the war and smother the spark of any other that could arise. The Argentine government, then, could not have been offered a riper opportunity to unite with Brazil than the one found in the May 1st Treaty (art. 16); what it did instead, although it probably did not plan on extricating itself from the treaty, was loosen the tie to which the treaty subjected it.

Varela’s unexpected position was fitted so well to Paranhos’s deepest desires and to the spirit of the Conservative school, protective of Paraguay, that the Argentine minister’s insinuation that he had no aim to compel Paraguay by force was enough to leave the Brazilian plenipotentiary convinced of his position, appearing animated by the same generous sentiments. This occurred at the time of Varela’s proclamations (December 1869), affirming that the Argentine Republic, occupying the Chaco, had not resolved the question of borders, which should be discussed with Paraguay’s definitive government and resolved according to deeds displayed. But in March of 1870 the war had been finished; a definitive peace settlement was being discussed between the allies, and Paranhos had profited from the useful lesson that Varela provided. As La Nación (1) said, it took a year of soliciting the Argentine government for it to finalize peace on the basis of the May 1st treaty. It was the Argentine government that pushed back, unable to determine a reason, in its own interest, to cooperate in an endeavor which would later demand a casus foederis. The alliance had lost the character it would’ve had a year before, when Paranhos characterized it as “perhaps unique in all of history for the cordiality and prudence with which it was maintained, despite the mishaps of the war and the intrigues of its adversaries …” (Memorandum 17 May 1869) This was the situation when the Council of State was convened in April of 1870, via the following summons from the interim Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Baron of Cotegipe:

“The Brazilian minister on special mission in the Río de la Plata, Councilor José Maria da Silva Paranhos, has instructions from the imperial government to negotiate and sign preliminaries of peace between the allied governments and the Republic of Paraguay’s provisional government.

“The events of March 1st (2) having now occurred, Councilor Paranhos invited the allies to meet in Asunción with this goal.

“The points to be discussed in this negotiation were indicated in a letter addressed to the Argentine Republic’s minister. These points were:

“1st. Declaration of peace between the allied nations and the Republic of Paraguay.

“2nd. The provisional government’s acceptance of the conditions of peace indicated by the May 1st 1865 treaty and additional protocols, except any modification, in the interest of Paraguay, agreed upon by the allies themselves.

“3rd. Freedom of navigation on territorial waters of the republic, imposing on it the condition that it not raise fortifications which may hinder navigation.

“4th. The allied governments pledge to raise no obstacle to the election of a definitive government in Paraguay.

“5th. Moral and material support for the cause of public order and the legal regime of the republic, as long as any portion of the allied armies remains in the territory.

“6th. Stipulation of security, regarding the military leaders who accompanied General López in his final defeat, and who may be a danger to the internal peace of the republic and the allied nations.

“These foundations having been communicated to the imperial government, they were approved with some small modifications or exceptions, in the following manner:

“1st. That the material support promised will not be obligatory, reserving our agency to evaluate and act if and when it is requested.

“2nd. In reference to the guarantee of Paraguay’s independence, the form of said guarantee will not be determined in the preliminary agreement.

“3rd. That no term be fixed for the withdrawal of our forces, only declaring that this will take place as soon as possible.

“4th. That the Paraguayan government, be it provisional or permanent, not be dealt with separately, except in the event that the allies cannot arrive at a reasonable agreement at all. Before arriving at this hypothetical, the imperial government should be consulted with, and its express order to proceed given.

“The allied governments will immediately appoint plenipotentiaries, which will convene in the capital of Paraguay.

“One could suppose, knowing the Brazilian plenipotentiary’s plan, that they had only been convened to enact this plan in complete, or to do so with small alterations.

“Unfortunately, the Argentine minister not only refused to discuss the proposed framework, but he even declared that he lacked instructions to accept it after being modified, and returned right away to Buenos Aires, claiming ill health as his pretext.

“However, he requested that our minister and the Eastern Republic’s minister present another plan of agreement, in which the difficulties which prevented him from granting assent did not exist, offering to make an effort were it accepted by his government.

“Accepting his desires, and in the interest of the alliance, the two plenipotentiaries presented another proposal based on those same principles expounded above, but in which greater space was allowed for the definitive peace treaty.

“A communication from the resident Brazilian minister in Buenos Aires, dated the 11th of this month, makes it clear that the Argentine government was not prepared to accept Councilor Paranhos’s proposal, standing by its refusal to deal with the provisional government; however, on the 14th, said minister communicates that that government has decided to put forth some modifications to the proposal, having vested General Vedia (3) with the power to finalize the negotiation, in the event that the Brazilian and Eastern plenipotentiaries accepted the modifications proposed.

“Although our resident minister was familiar with the proposal, he has not made the contents of said modifications known.

“The Argentine government was always opposed to entering negotiations with the provisional Paraguayan government. We never accepted its opinion on this matter; rather, we fought it, refusing to have it documented in the June 2nd accord of the year before, despite that government’s express desires. As such, it seems to me that by proposing modifications to the negotiation framework, it is now parting from the argument it has maintained; but, given the possibility of these modifications being inadmissible to us, the government believes it should consult the Council of State regarding the following points:

“1st. In the event that the Argentine government continues to refuse to deal with the Republic of Paraguay’s provisional government, or the event that the Brazilian and Eastern plenipotentiaries find Argentina’s requested modifications unacceptable, can and should Brazil discuss the preliminaries of peace separately with the provisional Paraguayan government?

“And if so:

“2nd. Should Brazil demand, through preliminary negotiations, more or less of the conditions indicated above?

“3rd. Should it, in these negotiations, guard not only its claims but also those of the allies?

“4th. Should the alliance be considered broken because of this act, or can the allies, in spite of it, once again endeavor to complete the definitive treaty?

“5th. If for this reason, or any other, the Argentine government declares the alliance broken, should Brazil simply accept this declaration?

“6th. Accepting this, do our obligations contracted with the Argentine Republic, in the treaty of 1 May 1865, cease?”

Here is Nabuco’s ruling during the Council of State’s meeting, in full, observed on 16 April 1870:

“Regarding the first point, I believe the opposite: Brazil’s government should not discuss the preliminaries of peace separately with the provisional Paraguayan government.

“It was the allies who made war, it is the allies who must make peace; this peace is a condition of the alliance treaty, art. 6.

“Having been stipulated in this pact that the definitive treaties be collective, it is a necessary consequence of said clause that the preliminary treaty also be collective, because this serves as the base of the definitive treaties, which are the sanctioning and completion of the preliminary treaty.

“I find the Argentine government’s refusal to deal with the provisional government justified to a certain point. This provisional government was a good means of forming resistance against López, and inspiring trust in the Paraguayan population; but it does not hold the conditions of legitimacy necessary to represent Paraguay in a treaty.

“If Brazil were separated from Argentina, and negotiated peace by itself, very serious and unforeseen diplomatic difficulties could arise.

“And it is not necessary to resort to such an extreme.

“Peace with the Paraguayan people is a thing agreed upon, a morally consummated act, from the 2 June 1869 agreement, accepted by the provisional government on June 11th of the same year.

“In the alliance treaty it was agreed that peace would be made as soon as López fell; it is an act that has been consummated since Aquidabán.

“What preliminaries does a completed act need?

“The preliminary treaties are fundamentally aimed to suspend hostilities, avoiding bloodshed while an agreement is reached on the definitive treaty.

“Well, hostilities have been suspended; the troops have been withdrawn; the conditions for peace are in the alliance treaty, virtually comprised in the agreement of June 2nd; peace has been proclaimed before the world by means of the imperial government’s diplomatic circulars.

“As such, the preliminary treaty has no reason to exist.

“2nd. Concerning the foundations of said treaty, I agree with what Councilor of State São Vicente has expressed.

“3rd. If Brazil drafts a preliminary treaty independently, without our allies, we should not discuss their claims, which are tertiary. Anything stipulated under such conditions would have against it the maxim Res inter alios acta.

“4th. This issue can only be resolved by the Argentine government.

“Brazil will maintain that the treaty does not implicate a break-up. The Argentine government’s argument will be, naturally, the reverse.

“5th. However, the government of Brazil will not accept the Argentine government’s declaration breaking the alliance without protest.

“The international principles laid down in the Treaty of the Triple Alliance, such as the independence and sovereignty of Paraguay, free navigation of rivers, and other similar foundations, are a thing agreed upon between the allies, and, as such, inviolable and independent of other treaties.”


Meanwhile, Paranhos, Varela, and the Eastern plenipotentiary, Adolfo Rodríguez, draft a new protocol (9 May 1870), in which they agree to negotiate the preliminaries of peace, in Asunción, with the provisional government, and to declare the war ended, subsequent to the Paraguayan government’s submission to the May 1st treaty, except any modification which, by our assent and in the interest of the Republic of Paraguay itself, may be adopted in the definitive treaty. On June 29th Paranhos, Julio de Vedia, and the members of the provisional government sign the agreement, accepting Paraguay’s proposed modification, according to which Paraguay “fundamentally and substantially accepts the Treaty of the Triple Alliance, while leaving it to the definitive government to propose any modifications that the republic’s interests may dictate.”

It is impossible to say who was left more satisfied with this victory, Argentina or Brazil. Argentina, for its perseverance to achieve it. Brazil because it ended up avoiding a more serious challenge, the Argentine occupation of the right shore of the Paraguay, which, in the general opinion of our statesman, would be an insult to the passing of Humaitá and the painful campaign that had cost us so many sacrifices, and would reduce to a fiction the very independence that we aspired to guarantee for Paraguay.

The record says: “the Argentine plenipotentiary appeared to agree with this exemption, declaring that his government’s honorable and friendly intentions could not be better explained than they have been already in his notes on the occupation of Villa Occidental (4), in which it is expressed with total clarity that the Argentine government does not wish to resolve the problem of borders using its right of conquest, but rather it desires to do so amicably, after an examination of the deeds presented by both parties.” In turn the Brazilian plenipotentiary “confirmed the later interpretation of the replaced 2nd art., the conquest of territories being absent from the allied government’s intentions, desiring rather to demand only that to which they have perfect claim, respecting equally the territorial integrity of the republic, as they already solemnly declared in said treaty of 1 May 1865.”

Translator’s Notes

1. An Argentine newspaper based in Buenos Aires and founded in 1870 by Bartolomé Mitre.
2. That is, the death of López and ipso facto the end of the campaign.
3. Julio de Vedia was an Argentine military officer who fought in the Paraguayan War, and the brother-in-law of Mitre.
4. Today Villa Hayes, a settlement on the right bank of the Paraguay, occupied by Argentine during and after the War. If Argentina had obtained all the territory it desired, Villa Hayes would today be Argentinian, not Paraguayan.

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