PARAGUAY IS A MIDDLE-INCOME COUNTRY that changed rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of hydroelectric development, agricultural colonization, construction, and cash crop exports. Nevertheless, the country's gross domestic product (GDP) in 1986 was approximately US$3.4 billion, or roughly US$1,000 per capita, ranking Paraguay only ahead of Bolivia among the Spanish-speaking countries of South America. Paraguay was the most agricultural economy of South America, and that sector influenced the performance of virtually every other sector of the economy.
Traditionally isolated and underpopulated, Paraguay was one of the last countries in Latin America to enjoy the region's rapid growth in the post-World War II period. Paraguay entered a phase of sustained economic growth in the late 1950s. Its economy grew at the fastest pace of all the Latin American countries during most of the 1970s as the Paraguayan-Brazilian project, Itaipú, the world's largest hydroelectric plant, was constructed. During that decade, cotton and soybeans came to dominate agriculture, mostly as a result of high export prices and agricultural colonization. Paraguay's economy also was characterized by a large underground sector, in which smuggling and contraband had become normal features by the 1970s.
The Paraguayan economic miracle of the 1970s came to a halt in 1982 because of the completion of construction at Itaipú, lower commodity prices for cotton and soybeans, and world recession. The economy recovered in 1984 and 1985, stagnated in 1986, and continued to expand in 1987 and 1988. Despite its rapid growth, the Paraguayan economy became increasingly dependent on soybeans and cotton for exports and overall economic dynamism. These two crops, however, remained subject to external price fluctuations and local weather conditions, both of which varied considerably.
Economic growth in the post-World War II period occurred in the context of political stability characterized by authoritarian rule and patronage politics. Government economic policies deviated little from 1954 to the late 1980s, consistently favoring a strong private-enterprise economy with a large role for foreign investment. Unlike most Latin American economies, in Paraguay import tariffs were generally low, fiscal deficits manageable, and exchange rates not overvalued. These trends faltered in the 1980s as the government took a more active part in industry, deficits rose, and the national currency was generally overvalued and devalued numerous times. Throughout the post-World War II era, Paraguay had no personal income tax, and government revenues as a percentage of GDP were among the lowest in the world.
Despite the sustained economic growth that marked the postwar period, the distribution of economic benefits was highly inequitable. Although GDP expanded rapidly in the 1970s, most economists estimated that income distribution worsened during the decade. Government spending on social services was particularly lacking. Paraguay's poverty was mostly a rural phenomenon, which increasingly involved competition for land in the eastern region near the Brazilian border, especially in the departments (administrative divisions) of Alto Paraná, Canendiyú, and Caaguazú. Nonetheless, land tenure was not generally the acute social problem it was in many developing countries.
Although Paraguay faced significant obstacles to future economic development, it displayed extraordinary potential. Paraguay contained little oil and no precious metals or sea coasts, but the country was self-sufficient in many areas and was endowed with fertile land, dense forests, and swift rivers. The process of opening up the eastern border region to economic activity and continued agricultural expansion was expected to effect rapid changes in once-isolated Paraguay. Likewise, the development of a series of hydroelectric plants along the Río Paraná linked Paraguay to its neighbors and provided it access to cherished energy resources and badly needed export revenues. Finally, road construction united different departments of Paraguay and provided the country its first access to the Atlantic Ocean via Brazil. These processes of infrastructure development, hydroelectric expansion, agricultural colonization, and a cash crop explosion allowed Paraguay by the late 1980s to begin to tap its potential.
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