Understanding South America through its History of War

Posted by on April 14th, 2013

It pays to know at least a little bit about the history of a place before you visit it, and wars are a good place to start. They shape fortunes and borders but they also form memories and national grudges. Here are three post-independence wars in South America that are still important today.

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Falklands War (1982)

This war lasted less time, killed fewer people and resulted in a smaller exchange of territory than any of the other wars I considered for this list. As wars go, it is a slightly absurd impostor. The ailing Argentine military junta decided to invade the Falkland Islands to buoy patriotic feelings, safe in the belief that Britain would not bother to retaliate. They hadn’t bargained for the fact that Margaret Thatcher was also struggling politically and she saw the invasion as a chance to rekindle British jingoism. The conflict lasted 72 days and just over 900 people lost their lives.

After the war The Falklands went back to being British but to this day every Argentinean border post features a sign which reads ‘LAS MALVINAS SON ARGENTINAS’ (‘The Malvinas are Argentinean’). Many Argentines still harbor a strong hatred of the Brits, and never is this more evident than when the two countries meet on the soccer pitch; the major distinction being that Argentine footballers possess more impressive artillery than their military. Whatever your beliefs, when in Argentina, don’t discuss the war with locals unless you know them well and never refer to them as the Falklands…they’re Las Malvinas.

  • In Buenos Aires the Madres de Plaza de Mayo gather every Thursday afternoon to honor their children who were lost during the military dictatorship. They have said publicly that it is “impossible to disassociate the Malvinas war with the dictatorship”.
  • The most comprehensive Malvinas museum is in Cordoba – El Museo Nacional de Malvinas.
  • If you want to visit the islands themselves you can fly from Chile or the UK (flight info) but it’s neither cheap nor easy.

The War of the Pacific (1879 – 1883)

Like many wars before it, this one was about money: nitrate and guano deposits in the Atacama desert, in this case. Although Peru and Bolivia owned the land where most of the nitrate mines were, the mines themselves were owned and operated by Chile. This lead to disputes about taxes, which in turn resulted in a full blown war between Chile on the one side and Peru and Bolivia on the other. It started off slowly, but once Chile had mobilized their navy they quickly established supremacy over the less advanced Peruvian and Bolivian forces. The subsequent land battle was short-lived, especially for Bolivia who surrendered as early as 1880. Peru hung on for longer, and Chilean forces got as far as Lima, which they occupied in 1881. Two years of guerrilla warfare followed, but eventually a treaty was signed in 1883.

Not only were 13 000 lives lost, but both Peru and Bolivia ceded huge swathes of territory to Chile. Chile gained enormously from the war and Peru suffered badly but perhaps the biggest losses were Bolivian – they gave up all of their coastal territories in the war and have been landlocked ever since.

  • One of Chile’s biggest heroes of this war, Arturo Prat, has the honour of being the man with the most Chilean streets named after him: there are 162 communes in Chile which have a street bearing his name,
  • In Lima, the Parque de la Reserva was built to commemorate the occupation of Lima and boasts a small on-site museum.

The War of the Triple Alliance (1864 – 1870)

This is widely regarded as the most proportionally destructive war of the modern era, killing somewhere in the vicinity of 60% of the Paraguayan population, including as many as 90% of Paraguay’s men. It also saw the cession of 60,000 square miles of Paraguayan territory to Brazil and Argentina. In short, Paraguay was lucky to even retain its sovereignty after the war, and it left a mark on Paraguay which is still evident today.

Paraguay was one of the first independent republics in South America, and although it was not economically or politically very important, it did prosper modestly in the first half of the 19th century. This all changed under the leadership of Francisco Solano López. He followed his father as ruler of the country, and as such had no legitimate claims to the role.

This showed in his decision making: declaring war on Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay at the same time was not a wise move, especially considering the Brazilian army had more soldiers than the whole of Paraguay had people. From the very outset the conflict was one-sided, and it was made worse by Lopez’s paranoid distrust of those around him: thousands of his men were put to death on suspicion of treason, among them his own brother. Asunción fell in January 1869, but Lopez and his men hung on for another 14 months of crippling guerrilla warfare before he died in battle.

Paraguay elected its first democratic government in 1993 – a staggering 123 years later. I doubt there is a worse case study of the ills of war anywhere in the world, although I guess Cambodia comes close.

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