The study of the independence period in Paraguay has often been overshadowed by other monumental events of the nation's turbulent nineteenth century, including the dictatorship of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1813–1840) and the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870). However, this oversight is corrected by Jerry W. Cooney, who has taken the opportunity to explain the events of 200 years ago with clarity and precision. While arguing that the social fabric of Paraguay changed little during the eighteen months of struggle, Cooney points out that the political position of the provincial gachupines (peninsular Spaniards) on the one hand and the designs of porteños (the peoples of Buenos Aires) on the region were displaced by a new Paraguayan-born governing elite led by Fulgencio Yegros and Pedro Juan Caballero.
Placing the Paraguayan independence movement in the larger context of the tumultuous events of Río de la Plata, Cooney adroitly narrates the challenges facing the province. After the events of May 25, 1810, in Buenos Aires, the porteño leadership decided that it had the right to govern all of the former viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, including Paraguay, and sent Manuel Belgrano to ensure that the Paraguayans submitted to porteño rule. Belgrano was surprised when the Paraguayans bravely resisted the assault, winning the battles of Paraguarí and Tacuarí. However, when the Paraguayan governor, Bernardo de Velasco y Huidobro, fled the battlefield at Paraguarí his position with the Paraguayan people deteriorated so severely that in May 1811 Pedro Juan Caballero mounted a coup that forced Velasco to concede to a power-sharing agreement with Francia and Juan Valeriano Zevallos, a Spaniard who was partial to the revolution. The triumvirate of Velasco, Francia, and Zevallos ruled until a congress could be convened in the middle of June, when the leaders of the coup placed Velasco under house arrest because of his continued conspiring with the Portuguese. When the congress opened, the first Paraguayan ruling junta was formed, with Fulgencio Yegros, hero of Paraguarí, as president. The junta would remain in power until 1813. [End Page 567]
Beyond contextualizing the confusing political situation of the Río de la Plata and Portuguese Brazil, Cooney's contribution to our understanding of the events of 1810–1811 is to illuminate the lives of those responsible for independence. For example, when considering the leaders of the governing junta after 1811, Cooney does more than give the biographical facts surrounding its leaders, such as Fernando de la Mora; he explains the personal motivations for their involvement and in the case of Mora, the reasons for his ultimate failure in challenging the growing influence and power of Francia. According to Cooney, while Mora was an intellectual equal to Francia, he lacked an understanding of the Paraguayan "popular mentality" (p. 120). Herein is my only quibble with the text: Cooney does not clearly address what this "popular mentality" was. While doing so might have required some speculation on his part, it nonetheless would have aided in understanding nascent Paraguayan nationalism. That said, the text benefits from an excellent translation from English to Spanish by the Paraguayan historian Guido Rodríguez Alcalá, whose translator notes add depth and clarity.
Cooney's examination of official correspondence, pronouncements, and speeches led him to archives not only in Paraguay, but also Argentina, Brazil, and the United States. His research demonstrates that while in some ways the Paraguayan independence period was similar in character to that of other regions in Latin America (for example, in Paraguay's "mask of allegiance" to Fernando VII), it was in many other ways unique, for example, in its relatively peaceful nature apart from the battles of Paraguarí and Tacuarí. While interest in Paraguay's bicentennial inspired the publication of the book, for historians of the region at large the text is a lively introduction to the national period and is fundamental to understanding the background of Paraguay's isolation and its fight to escape foreign domination in later decades.