Growth and Structure of the Economy

Growth and Structure of the Economy

Until the Spanish established Asunción in 1537, economic activity in Paraguay was limited to the subsistence agriculture of the Guaraní Indians. The Spanish, however, found little of economic interest in their colony, which had no precious metals and no sea coasts. The typical feudal Spanish economic system did not dominate colonial Paraguay, although the encomienda. System was established. Economic relations were distinguished by the reducciones (reductions or townships) that were established by Jesuit missionaries from the early seventeenth century until the 1760s. The incorporation of Indians into these Jesuit agricultural communes laid the foundation for an agriculture-based economy that survived in the late twentieth century.

Three years after Paraguay overthrew Spanish authority and gained its independence, the country's economy was controlled by the autarchic policies of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1814- 40), who closed the young nation's borders to virtually all international trade. Landlocked, isolated, and underpopulated, Paraguay structured its economy around a centrally administered agricultural sector, extensive cattle grazing, and inefficient shipbuilding and textile industries. After the demise of Francia, government policies focused on expanding international trade and stimulating economic development. The government built several roads and authorized British construction of a railroad.

The War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70) fundamentally changed the Paraguayan economy. Economic resources were employed in and destroyed by the war effort. Paraguay was occupied by its enemies in 1870; the countryside was in virtual ruin, the labor force was decimated, peasants were pushed into the environs of Asunción from the east and south, and the modernization of the preceding three decades was undone. Sleepy, self-sufficient Paraguay, whose advances in agriculture and quality of life had been the envy of many in the Southern Cone, became the most backward nation in that subregion.

To pay its substantial war debt, Paraguay sold large tracts of land to foreigners, mostly Argentines. These large land sales established the base of the present-day land tenure system, which is characterized by a skewed distribution of land. Unlike most of its neighbors, however, Paraguay's economy was controlled not by a traditional, landed elite, but by foreign companies. Many Paraguayans grew crops and worked as wage laborers on latifundios (large landholdings) typically owned by foreigners.

The late 1800s and the early 1900s saw a slow rebuilding of ports, roads, the railroad, farms, cattle stock, and the labor force. The country was slowly being repopulated by former Brazilian soldiers who had fought in the War of the Triple Alliance, and Paraguay's government encouraged European immigration. Although few in number, British, German, Italian, and Spanish investors and farmers helped modernize the country. Argentine, Brazilian, and British companies in the late 1800s purchased some of Paraguay's best land and started the first large-scale production of agricultural goods for export. One Argentine company, whose owner had purchased 15 percent of the immense Chaco region, processed massive quantities of tannin, which were extracted from the bark of the Chaco's ubiquitous quebracho (break-axe) hardwood. Large quantities of the extract were used by the region's thriving hide industry. Another focus of large-scale agro- processing was the yerba maté bush, whose leaves produced the potent tea that is the national beverage. Tobacco farming also flourished. Beginning in 1904, foreign investment increased as a succession of Liberal Party (Partido Liberal) administrations in Paraguay maintained a staunch laissez-faire policy.

The period of steady economic recovery came to an abrupt halt in 1932 as the country entered another devastating war. This time Paraguay fought Bolivia over possession of the Chaco and rumors of oil deposits. The war ended in 1935 after extensive human losses on both sides, and war veterans led the push for general social reform. During the 1930s and 1940s, the state passed labor laws, implemented agrarian reform, and assumed a role in modernization, influenced in part by the leadership of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina and Getúlio Dornelles Vargas in Brazil. The 1940 constitution, for example, rejected the laissez-faire approach of previous Liberal governments. Reformist policies, however, did not enjoy a consensus, and by 1947 the country had entered into a civil war, which in turn initiated a period of economic chaos that lasted until the mid-1950s. During this period, Paraguay experienced the worst inflation in all of Latin America, averaging over 100 percent annually in the 1950s.

After centuries of isolation, two devastating regional wars, and a civil war, in 1954 Paraguay entered a period of prolonged political and economic stability under the authoritarian rule of Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda. Stroessner's economic policies took a middle course between social reform, desarrollismo, and laissez-faire, all in the context of patronage politics. Relative to previous governments, Stroessner took a fairly active role in the economy but reserved productive activities for the local and foreign private sectors. The new government's primary economic task was to arrest the country's rampant and spiraling price instability. In 1955 Stroessner fired the country's finance minister, who was unwilling to implement reforms, and in 1956 accepted an International Monetary Fund ( IMF) stabilization plan that abolished export duties, lowered import tariffs, restricted credit, devalued the currency, and implemented strict austerity measures. Although the sacrifice was high, the plan helped bring economic stability to Paraguay. Labor unions retaliated with a major strike in 1958, but the new government, now firmly established, quelled the uprising and forced many labor leaders into exile; most of them remained there in the late 1980s.

By the 1960s, the economy was on a path of modest but steady economic growth. Real GDP growth during the 1960s averaged 4.2 percent a year, under the Latin American average of 5.7 percent but well ahead of the chaotic economy of the two previous decades. As part of the United States-sponsored Alliance for Progress, the government was encouraged to expand its planning apparatus for economic development. With assistance from the Organization of American States (OAS), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), in 1962 Paraguay established the Technical Planning Secretariat (Secretaría Técnica de Planificación--STP), the major economic planning arm of the government. By 1965 the country had its first National Economic Plan, a two-year plan for 1965-66. This was followed by another two-year plan (1967-68) and then a series of five-year plans. Five-year plans--only general policy statements--were not typically adhered to or achieved and played a minimal role in Paraguay's economic growth and development. Compared with most Latin American countries, Paraguay had a small public sector. Free enterprise dominated the economy, export promotion was favored over import substitution, agriculture continued to dominate industry, and the economy remained generally open to international trade and market mechanisms.

In an economic sense, the 1970s constituted Paraguay's miracle decade. Real GDP grew at over 8 percent a year and exceeded 10 percent from 1976 to 1981--a faster growth rate than in any other economy in Latin America. Four coinciding developments accounted for Paraguay's rapid growth in the 1970s. The first was the completion of the road from Asunción to Puerto Presidente Stroessner and to Brazilian seaports on the Atlantic, ending traditional dependence on access through Argentina and opening the east to many for the first time. The second was the signing of the Treaty of Itaipú with Brazil in 1973. Beyond the obvious economic benefits of such a massive project, Itaipú helped to create a new mood of optimism in Paraguay about what a small, isolated country could attain. The third event was land colonization, which resulted from the availability of land, the existence of economic opportunity, the increased price of crops, and the newly gained accessibility of the eastern border region. Finally, the skyrocketing price of soybeans and cotton led farmers to quadruple the number of hectares planted with these two crops. As the 1970s progressed, soybeans and cotton came to dominate the country's employment, production, and exports.

These developments shared responsibility for establishing thriving economic relations between Paraguay and the world's sixth largest economy, Brazil. Contraband trade became the dominant economic force on the border between the two countries, with Puerto Presidente Stroessner serving as the hub of such smuggling activities. Oblservers contended that contraband was accepted by many Paraguayan government officials, some of whom were reputed to have benefited handsomely. Many urban dwellers' shelves were stocked with contraband luxury items.

The Paraguayan government's emphasis on industrial activity increased noticeably in the 1970s. One of the most important components of the new industrial push was Law 550, also referred to as Law 550/75 or the Investment Promotion Law for Social and Economic Development. Law 550 opened Paraguay's doors even further to foreign investors by providing income-tax breaks, duty-free capital imports, and additional incentives for companies that invested in priority areas, especially the Chaco. Law 550 was successful. Investments by companies in the United States, Europe, and Japan comprised, according to some estimates, roughly a quarter of new investment. Industrial policies also encouraged the planning of more state-owned enterprises, including ones involved in producing ethanol, cement, and steel.

Much of Paraguay's rural population, however, missed out on the economic development. Back roads remained inadequate, preventing peasants from bringing produce to markets. Social services, such as schools and clinics, were severely lacking. Few people in the countryside had access to potable water, electricity, bank credit, or public transportation. As in other economies that underwent rapid growth, income distribution was believed to have worsened in Paraguay during the 1970s in both relative and absolute terms. By far the greatest problem that the rural population faced, however, was competition for land. Multinational agribusinesses, Brazilian settlers, and waves of Paraguayan colonists rapidly increased the competition for land in the eastern border region. Those peasants who lacked proper titles to the lands they occupied were pushed to more marginal areas; as a result, an increasing number of rural clashes occurred, including some with the government.

In the beginning of the 1980s, the completion of the most important parts of the Itaipú project and the drop in commodity prices ended Paraguay's rapid economic growth. Real GDP declined by 2 percent in 1982 and by 3 percent in 1983. Paraguay's economic performance was also set back by world recession, poor weather conditions, and growing political and economic instability in Brazil and Argentina. Inflation and unemployment increased. Weather conditions improved in 1984, and the economy enjoyed a modest recovery, growing by 3 percent in 1984 and by 4 percent in 1985. But in 1986 one of the century's worst droughts stagnated the economy, permitting no real growth. The economy recovered once again in 1987 and 1988, growing between 3 and 4 percent annually. Despite the economy's general expansion after 1983, however, inflation threatened its modest gains, as did serious fiscal and balance-of-payments deficits and the growing debt.

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