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Itaipu's Forgotten History: The 1965 Brazil–Paraguay Border Crisis and the New Geopolitics of the Southern Cone



This article chronicles the fifteen-month border conflict between the military regimes of Brazil and Paraguay that occurred between March of 1965 and June of 1966 – a stand-off that paved the way for the Itaipu project that would become the largest dam in the world. In the context of the 1960s Cold War, both governments saw a large-scale dam on the Paraná River as a means to catalyse industrialisation and strengthen the political legitimacy of their respective authoritarian regimes. Yet the border crisis was not a stand-off between equal powers. Brazil was the much stronger force, and, with the backing of the United States, the Brazilian dictatorship brought Paraguay firmly under its sphere of influence while also marginalising neighbouring Argentina. The border question at Guaíra served as a springboard for Brazil's rising power, and subsequently transformed the geopolitical landscape of the Southern Cone.

Este artículo detalla el conflicto limítrofe de quince meses entre los regímenes militares de Brasil y Paraguay que se dio entre marzo de 1965 y junio de 1966 – una confrontación que allanó el camino al proyecto Itaipu que habría de convertirse en la represa más grande del mundo. En el contexto de la Guerra Fría de los años 60, ambos gobiernos vieron la gran represa sobre el río Paraná como una forma de promover la industrialización y con ello reforzar la legitimidad política de sus respectivos regímenes autoritarios. Ahora bien, la crisis fronteriza no fue una confrontación entre dos poderes iguales. Brasil era la potencia mayor, y, con el respaldo de los Estados Unidos, la dictadura brasileña condujo firmemente a Paraguay bajo su esfera de influencia al tiempo que también marginó a la vecina Argentina. La cuestión fronteriza en Guairá sirvió de trampolín al emergente poder brasileño, lo que subsecuentemente transformó el paisaje geopolítico del Cono Sur.

Este artigo narra os quinze meses de conflito de fronteira entre os regimes militares do Brasil e do Paraguai ocorrido entre março de 1965 e junho de 1966 – um impasse que abriu caminho para a construção da hidrelétrica de Itaipu, projeto que se tornaria a maior barragem do mundo. No contexto da Guerra Fria da década de 1960, ambos os governos viram numa usina hidrelétrica de grande escala no rio Paraná um meio de catalisar a industrialização e fortalecer a legitimidade política de seus respectivos regimes autoritários. Porém, a crise na fronteira não foi um impasse entre forças iguais. O Brasil representava um poder muito maior. Apoiada pelos Estados Unidos, a ditadura brasileira conduziu firmemente o Paraguai dentro de sua esfera de influência, enquanto ainda marginalizava a vizinha Argentina. A questão fronteiriça de Guaíra serviu como um trampolim para o poder crescente do Brasil, e subsequentemente transformou a paisagem geopolítica do Cone Sul.

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1 The name of the region is spelled Guaíra in Portuguese, and Guairá in Spanish; this article will employ the former nomenclature.

2 This was known as the ‘Ata das Cataratas’ in Portuguese and as the ‘Acta de Iguazú’ in Spanish.

3 Within the large body of literature on the Cold War in Latin America, two newer works include Brands, Hal, Latin America's Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Garras-Burnett, Virginia, Lawrence, Mark Atwood and Moreno, Julio E. (eds.), Beyond the Eagle's Shadow: New Histories of Latin America's Cold War (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2013).

4 For more on the Alliance for Progress and the ideology of modernisation, see Taffet, Jeffrey F., Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America (New York: Routledge, 2007), and Latham, Michael, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and ‘Nation Building’ in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). For more on covert US actions see Rabe, Stephen G., The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

5 Although Brazil and Paraguay technically shared equal access to the dam's energy, the 1973 Treaty of Itaipu stipulated that Paraguay had to sell its unused portion of energy exclusively to Brazil at a price that was fixed for 50 years and was far below market value. For more on the 1973 Treaty, see note 101.

6 For a history of the brasiguaios, see Blanc, Jacob, ‘Enclaves of Inequality: Brasiguaios and the Transformation of the Brazil–Paraguay Borderlands’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 42 (1) (2014): 145–58.

7 Brazil's geopolitical overtaking of Argentina began in the 1930s and accelerated in the 1940s when the government of Getúlio Vargas aligned the country with the United States in World War II. In exchange for Brazil's war-time participation – its troops were sent to fight in Europe and the United States was allowed to build military bases in the nation's north-eastern regions – Washington ‘extended loans and technical assistance for the national steel plant at Volta Redonda, [and] gave Brazil substantial Lend-Lease aid (three-fourths of the total to Latin America)’: Hilton, Stanley E., ‘The United States, Brazil, and the Cold War, 1945–1960: End of the Special Relationship’, The Journal of American History, 68 (3) (1981): 600. For more on the changing relationships during this time between Brazil, Argentina and the United States see also Hilton, Stanley E., ‘The Argentine Factor in Twentieth-Century Brazilian Foreign Policy Strategy’, Political Science Quarterly, 100 (1) (1985): 2751.

8 Nickson, R. Andrew, ‘Brazilian Colonization of the Eastern Border Region of Paraguay’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 13 (1) (1981): 111–31.

9 da Mota Menezes, Alfredo, La herencia de Stroessner: Brasil–Paraguay, 1955–1980 (Asunción: Carlos Schauman, 1990).

10 de Lima, Maria Regina Soares, The Political Economy of Brazilian Foreign Policy: Nuclear Energy, Trade, and Itaipu (Brasília: Fundação Alexandre de Gusmão, 2013)

11 Folch, Christine, ‘Surveillance and State Violence in Stroessner's Paraguay: Itaipú Hydroelectric Dam, Archive of Terror’, American Anthropologist, 115 (1) (2013): 4457.

12 Laconich, Marco Antonio, La cuestión de límites en el Salto del Guairá (Asunción: La Colmena, 1964); Giménez, Leopoldo Ramos, Sobre el Salto del Guairá al oído de América (Asunción: Anales del Paraguay, 1966).

13 Ynsfrán, Edgar L., Un giro geopolítico: el milagro de una ciudad (Asunción: Instituto Paraguayo de Estudios Geopolíticos e Internacionales, 1990); Barboza, Mario Gibson, Na diplomacia, o traço todo da vida (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 1992); Magalhães, Juracy and Gueiros, José Alberto, O último tenente (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 1996).

14 Additional archival research in Buenos Aires and Washington DC would contribute to an even more complete examination of the border crisis.

15 Informally known as the ‘Archivo del Terror’, this collection of documents from the Stroessner dictatorship is called the Centro de Documentación y Archivo para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (Documentation Centre and Archive for the Defence of Human Rights, hereafter CDyA).

16 Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter FRUS),; ‘Opening the Archives Project’ (hereafter OAP),

17 Seeking a neutral position, the present article employs the term ‘Guairá waterfalls’, combining both Paraguay's nomenclature of Guairá, and Brazil's use of the plural for the cascades.

18 See ‘Tratado de límites entre la República del Paraguay y el Imperio del Brasil’, 1872, in  Archivo Histórico de la Cancillería de Paraguay (hereafter AHCP). The holdings of the AHCP are not organized by category. Cited evidence therefore contains only the identifying numbers of the original documents themselves.

19 Key meetings of the Joint Border Commission included the 2nd Conference of 29 July 1933; the 11th Conference of 21 Aug. 1939; the 13th Conference of 5 May 1941; the 15th Conference of 29 May 1945; the 21st Conference of 21 Dec. 1955; and the 25th Conference of 20 Nov. 1961. The minutes of these meetings are all housed in the AHCP.

20 Soares de Lima, Political Economy of Brazilian Foreign Policy, pp. 352–7.

21 Ibid., p. 347.

22 ‘Encontro de presidentes: Paraguai apóia construção de Sete Quedas’, Última Hora,  21 Jan. 1964, p. 6.

23 ‘Stroessner faz acôrdo com Goulart: Sete Quedas’, Jornal do Brasil,  21 Jan. 1964, p. 1.

24 ‘7 Quedas: não há compromisso com USSR’, O Jornal,  5 Jan. 1964, p. 1; ‘Goulart responderá à nota soviética, que não faz ofertas’, Jornal do Brasil, 5 Jan. 1964, p. 3.

25 Parker, Phyllis R., Brazil and the Quiet Intervention, 1964 (Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 1979).

26 State Department paper, ‘Guidelines of US Policy and Operations, Brazil’, 7 Feb. 1963, FRUS, 1961–3, vol. 12, pp. 487–90.

27 Smith, Joseph, Brazil and the United States: Convergence and Divergence (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010), pp. 154–6.

28 Weis, W. Michael, Cold Warriors and Coups d'Etat: Brazilian–American Relations, 1945–1964 (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), p. 153.

29 Telegram from the State Department to the embassy in Brazil, 30 March 1964, FRUS, 1964–8, vol. 31, doc. 194.

30 McSherry, J. Patrice, Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), p. 53.

31 Skidmore, Thomas E., The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964–85 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 28.

32 Rabe, The Killing Zone, p. 108.

33 When the United States invaded the Dominican Republic in April 1965, most Latin American countries criticised the action as a violation of the sovereignty and charter of the Organization of American States (OAS). In exchange for sending troops, a Brazilian general was appointed the top command position of the Inter-American Peace Force. For more, see Leacock, Ruth, Requiem for Revolution: The United States and Brazil, 1961–1969 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990), pp. 235–6.

34 Mora, Frank O. and Cooney, Jerry W., Paraguay and the United States (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2007), p. 167.

35 Ibid., p. 180. On the heels of the previous presidency of Arturo Frondizi (1958–62), Illia offered new challenges to US interests, especially in the context of the 1963 oil crisis. For more see Walcher, Dustin, ‘Petroleum Pitfalls, The United States, Argentina, Nationalism, and the 1963 Oil Crisis’, Diplomatic History, 37(1) (2003): 2457.

36 Paradiso, José, Debates y trayectoria de la política exterior argentina (Buenos Aires: Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 1993), p. 150.

37 Langley, Lester D., America and the Americas: The United States in the Western Hemisphere (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989).

38 Secret letter from João Baptista Figueiredo to President Emílio Médici, 1 Dec. 1969,  Exposição de Motivos no. 056/69, in Arquivo Nacional, Brasília (henceforth AN-BSB), N8.0.PSN, EST.285.

39 Paraguay's citations come from DPI (Departamento de Política Internacional) no. 712, 14 Dec. 1965, AHCP; and ‘Sucinta información sobre el diferendo paraguayo–brasileño relativo al Salto del Guairá’, 15 March 1966, AHCP.

40 Ynsfrán, Un giro geopolítico, p. 70.

41 As described in ibid.; and Brazilian embassy, Asunción, to Paraguayan government, note no. 322, 8 Nov. 1965, AHCP.

42 ‘Operation Sagarana’, secret report, 22 June 1967, Arquivo Histórico de Itamaraty, Brasília (henceforth AHI), CTF/1, 254(43), para. 29.

43 ‘Hasteamento da bandeira paraguaia em Coronel Renato provocou a sua ocupação pelos militares brasileiros’, Jornal do Brasil, 6 Jan. 1966, p. 7. This article was the second in a five-part series on the border conflict. The witness testimony was then passed to General Alvaro Tavares do Carmo, Commander of the 5th Military Region. Source: Ministry of War, no. 994/S-102-CIE, in Arquivo Nacional, Rio de Janeiro (henceforth AN-RJ), BR.DFAN.BSB.Z4.SNA.CFR.0007.

44 ‘Operation Sagarana’, paras. 30–2, 38.

45 Ministry of War, no. 994/S-102-CIE, in AN-RJ, BR.DFAN.BSB.Z4.SNA.CFR.0007.

46 Ibid., p. 4. It should be noted that the present article offers the first evidence of the exact date that Brazilian troops occupied the border zone. In all previous scholarship, it was known only that these soldiers arrived at some point in June.

47 ‘Antecedentes históricos del litigio Paraguay–Brasil’, 10 May 1966, AHCP.

48 Verbal note from Brazil's president, General Humberto Castelo Branco, to Stroessner, 1 Sept. 1965, AHCP. Castelo Branco was Brazil's first post-coup military president, holding office from April 1964 to March 1967.

49 References to the small size of the detachment come from Minutes of the National Security Council (Conselho Nacional de Segurança, CNS), 16 March 1966, AN-RJ, BR AN,BSB N8.0.PSN, EST.286; the symbolism of the troops was noted by Chancellor Juracy Magalhães in an interview on 5 April 1966: Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil – Fundação Getúlio Vargas (Centre for Research and Documentation of Brazilian Contemporary History – Getúlio Vargas Foundation, hereafter CPDOC-FGV), JM pi 66.04.05/1 (‘JM’ is the Juracy Magalhães folder within the CPDOC archive). As Chancellor, Juracy Magalhães was often the Brazilian government's international affairs spokesperson.

50 Secret letter Figueiredo to Médici, 1 Dec. 1969.

51 Minutes of the CNS, 16 March 1966, AN-RJ, BR AN,BSB N8.0.PSN, EST.286.

52 Verbal note from Castelo Branco to Stroessner, 1 Sept. 1965, AHCP.

53 Brazilian embassy, Asunción, telegram no. 408, 28 Nov. 1965, AHI, DAM/DF/932.1(42)(43).

54 Ynsfrán, Un giro geopolítico, p. 73. In the following months six letters were exchanged between the two foreign ministries on the following dates: 25 Sept., 22 Oct., 29 Oct., 8 Nov., 9 Nov. and 14 Dec. Source: AHI.

55 DPI no. 604, 22 Oct. 1965, AHCP.

56 Carlos Saldívar, interview by author, 14 Jan. 2015, Asunción, Paraguay.

57 Conrado Pappalardo, interview by author, 5 Jan. 2015, Asunción, Paraguay.

58 Press release from the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, 26 Oct. 1965, AHCP.

59 According to different versions of the story, the Paraguayans were detained for between four and six hours.

60 Brazilian embassy, Asunción, to Paraguayan government, note no. 322, 8 Nov. 1965, AHCP.

61 ‘Hasteamento da bandeira paraguaia’, p. 7.

62 Folch, ‘Surveillance and State Violence in Stroessner's Paraguay’, p. 47.

63 ‘Brasil propõe ao Paraguai arbitragem internacional’, Folha de São Paulo, 16 Nov. 1965, p. 11; and ‘Brasil quer arbitragem em 7 Quedas’, Jornal do Brasil, 18 Nov. 1965, p. 17.

64 Memo of conversation, State Department, FRUS, 1964–8, vol. 31, South and Central America; Mexico, doc. 465.

65 Hanratty, Dennis and Meditz, Sandra, Paraguay: A Country Study (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, 1990), p. 46.

66 ‘Diplomacia’, Última Hora, 25 Nov. 1965, p. 6. Couto e Silva had been dispatched to Asunción at the personal request of President Castelo Branco, largely because he (Couto e Silva) and Stroessner knew each other well from the time when the former had served in the Brazilian Army Mission in Paraguay.

67 Alves, Helena Moreira, State and Opposition in Military Brazil (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985), p. 8.

68 Joel Bergsman, a US economist who worked for Brazil's Ministry of Planning in 1966, noted that despite Brazil's immense hydroelectric potential, electric power remained a persistent problem. In particular, the country's industrial centres of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro had suffered major power shortages since the 1940s. Source: Bergsman, Joel, Brazil: Industrialization and Trade Policies (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 64.

69 do Couto e Silva, Golbery, Geopolítica do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Livraria J. Olympio, 1967).

70 Meaning more than just ‘invader’, bandeirante refers to participants in the slaving raids in colonial Paraguay by Brazilians from the São Paulo region. Mameluco is a Portuguese word that refers to the first-generation offspring of a European and an Amerindian. Its use during the protests in Paraguay can be seen as a reference both to Brazil's alleged sense of superiority (for being descended from European culture), and to the historical violation that Brazil wrought on native lands.

71 Descriptions of the 27 Nov. demonstration come from CDyA, 1F 0974–981; 9F 1829–1831; ‘Hasteamento da bandeira paraguaia’, p. 7; Ricardo Caballero Aquino (student involved in the demonstration), interview by author, 7 January 2015, Asunción, Paraguay; and Brazilian embassy, Asunción, note no. 949, 2 Dec. 1965, AHI.

72 Examples of news articles discussing the unifying perception of opposition to Brazil include ‘El partido R[evolucionario]. Febrerista se pronuncia en diferendo fronterizo con Brasil’, El Pueblo, 6 Jan. 1966; ‘Centro paraguayo de ingenieros al condenar actitud inamistosa de Brasil se solidariza con el gobierno’, Patria, 14 Jan. 1966.

73 Stroessner speech to Paraguay's House of Representatives, 1 April 1966. Reproduced in Giménez, Sobre el Salto del Guairá, pp. 6–13.

74 Caballero Aquino, interview.

75 Brazilian embassy, Asunción, secret note no. 839, 5 Nov. 1965, AAA DAM SDF DI 930.1(42)(43).

76 ‘Paraguai vai indenizar o Brasil’, O Globo,  2 Dec. 1965, p. 8.

77 Barboza, Na diplomacia, p. 85.

78 The most widely distributed of these exchanges occurred in Jan. 1966, when Paraguay sent out copies of a lengthy letter (DPI no. 712) it had written to Brazil on 14 Dec. 1965, sharing it with twenty different embassies throughout the world. Source: DPI nos. 17–42, 1966, AHCP.

79 DPI no. 75, 9 Feb. 1966, AHCP.

80 ‘Operation Sagarana’, paras. 38–44.

81 Minutes of the CNS, 16 March 1966, AN-RJ, BR AN,BSB N8.0.PSN, EST.286.

82 SSN/188/502.52, in AN-BSB, BR.DFAN.BSB.Z4.SNA.CFR.0006.

83 Minutes of the CNS, 16 March 1966, AN-RJ, BR AN,BSB N8.0.PSN, EST.286, p. 2.

84 State Department ‘Airgram’ (message sent via courier), no. A-167, 13 Oct. 1963. Source: OAP,, accessed 24 Nov. 2016.

85 Lanús, Juan Archibaldo, De Chapultepec al Beagle: política exterior argentina, 1945–1980 (Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1984), p. 294.

86 Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (MRE) no. 18/73, 18 August 1973, AHCP.

87 DPI no. 192, 14 April 1966, AHCP.

88 Stroessner speech to Paraguay's House of Representatives, 1 April 1966, in Giménez, Sobre el Salto del Guairá, pp. 11–18.

89 ‘Guairá al oído de America’, Patria, April 1966.

90 ‘¡Los Saltos del Guairá son y serán siempre Paraguayos!’ El Pueblo, 5 March 1966.

91 Clippings of these international articles are included amongst AHI notes numbered 107–485, dated 19 March 1966 to 24 April 1966 inclusive.

92 ‘Juracy entrega ao julgamento da história a acusação paraguaia’, O Globo, 27 April 1966, p. 17.

93 ‘Diário do Congresso Nacional’, 19 May 1966, p. 61. Available at, accessed 24 Nov. 2016.

94 The full document can be found at: Diário Oficial da União (official journal of the Federal Government of Brazil), 8 Aug. 1966, pp. 9061–2. Day 1 of negotiations was held in Puerto Presidente Stroessner (now called Ciudad del Este), and the second day moved across the river to Foz do Iguaçu.

95 A full roster of the delegations can be found in CPDOC-FGV, JM pi 66.06.21, folder III.

96 Unless otherwise noted, the description of the Act of Iguaçu negotiations comes from a confidential report written afterwards by Juracy Magalhães and sent to President Castelo Branco: AAA/DAM/DF/G/SG/75/930.1(42)(43), in: CPDOC-FGV, JM 66.01.27/1(A) CMRE.

97 This argument was made by the Estado Maior das Forças Armadas (General Staff of the Armed Forces, EMFA) on 16 June as part of the larger process of drafting Brazil's proposal for the eventual negotiations with Paraguay: ibid., Appendix 7.

98 Ibid., Appendix 21. This retelling is also included in Magalhães and Gueiros, O último tenente, p. 349. It is significant to note that no evidence was found in Paraguayan sources to corroborate this exchange.

99 Special Border Commission Report, 16 Sept. 1966, p. 3, AHCP.

100 AAA/DAM/DF/G/SG/75/930.1(42)(43), in: CPDOC-FGV, JM 66.01.27/1(A) CMRE, Appendix 22.

101 Article 8 of the treaty of the 1973 Treaty of Itaipu required Paraguay to sell all of its unused energy exclusively to Brazil at the set price of US$300 per gigawatt hour (GWh). More importantly, this price was non-negotiable and was stipulated to stay fixed until 2023. The low price for Itaipu's energy is evident when compared to that agreed for the energy generated by the Yacyretá dam, when during this same period Argentina and Paraguay agreed to sell its energy at US$2,998/GWh. Source: Canese, Ricardo, Itaipú: dependencia o desarrollo (Asunción: Editorial Araverá, 1985), p. 16. These treaty terms were renegotiated only in 2009, under the leftist governments of Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva in Brazil and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay.

102 Both of these closing remarks are reproduced in: CPDOC-FGV, JM 66.01.27/1(A) CMRE.

103 ‘Culminaron con positivo y elocuente resultado tratativas de cancilleres de Paraguay y Brasil’, La Tribuna, 23 June 1966, p. 5; ‘Retirada da fôrça de Guaíra em troca da aceitação da fronteira’, O Globo,  23 June 1966, p. 11.

104 ‘Brasil abandonou o Guaíra’, O Globo, 28 June 1966.

105 This information comes from a report marked ‘secret/urgent’ dated 5 July 1967. Source: AN-RJ, BR AN,BSB N8.0.PSN, EST.286, pp. 728–37.

106 Nickson, ‘Brazilian Colonization’, p. 121.

107 Kleinpenning, J. M. G., Man and Land in Paraguay (Amsterdam: CEDLA, 1987).

108 Blanc, ‘Enclaves of Inequality’, p. 145.

109 Itamaraty report, 5 July 1967. AN-RJ, BR AN,BSB N8.0.PSN, EST.286, p. 736.

* Financial support for this article's research was provided by the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Award, the Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship, the American Historical Association's Beveridge Grant and the University of Wisconsin Department of History.

The author would like to thank Debbie Sharnak, Elena McGrath and Eric Blanc for their help in reading various drafts of this article. Suggestions from the three anonymous reviewers for the Journal of Latin American Studies were especially helpful in framing the article's central argument. In Paraguay, Gustavo Codas was an invaluable source of information, research contacts and friendship. In Brazil, Professor Francisco Doratioto allowed me to present the early progress in my research to his graduate course in history at the Universidade de Brasília, and also offered comments on a subsequent draft of the article.



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