It's been more than 100 years since Delaware native Rutherford B. Hayes led the United States, but he still looms large in the South American nation of Paraguay.

The country was in a dire position in 1878.

The nation and its population had been devastated by a six-year war against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay that ended in 1870. Brazil had occupied Paraguay since then, and Paraguay had reached an impasse in negotiations with Argentina over disputed land in a region called Gran Chaco.

Both countries asked the United States to arbitrate the dispute, and Hayes ruled the disputed territory belonged to Paraguay.

As a result, Hayes is a national hero in Paraguay, said Manuel Maria Caceres Cardozo, Paraguay's ambassador to the United States.

Cardozo traveled to Delaware for the Oct. 4 dedication of a statue of Hayes that stands at William and Sandusky streets, not far from the president's birthplace at 17 E. William St.

Without Hayes' decision, Cardozo said, Paraguay would have struggled to exist as a nation.

The area in dispute in 1878 covered about 40,000 square miles, he said, and Hayes' ruling "gave us the right to claim the rest of the Chaco, to use that legitimate argument to keep that part of the Chaco in Paraguay."

As a result, Gran Chaco now makes up about two-thirds of Paraguay's roughly 230,000 square miles.

With the land, Cardozo said, his nation could begin a long road of recovery from a brutal war.

"That war was a big, big tragedy for Paraguay. It was a very prosperous country at that time and (the war) just decimated the country," he said.

Only about 300,000 of the nation's 800,000 people survived the war, he said, and it took Paraguay 100 years for its population to return to prewar levels.

The war "brought the country to its knees," Cardozo said, creating "extreme poverty for such a long time."

Whether Hayes reached the decision alone or followed advisers' guidance is undetermined, according to a 2014 National Public Radio article on the topic.

Hayes signed the ruling, however, and in Paraguay he is "very admired. ... He's a hero for us (and) a big part of our history," Cardozo said.

Paraguay named one of its "departments" -- loosely equivalent to a U.S. state -- Presidente Hayes. It covers about 28,150 square miles and its capital is a city called Villa Hayes, population about 57,000.

Cardozo's trip to Delaware was his first, he said, and, "We're very honored to be here and be a part of this."

His visit included a stop at the Willis Education Center, lunch with members of the Hayes Memorial Committee and a reception at William Street United Methodist Church, as well as meetings with Mayor Carolyn Kay Riggle and Ohio Wesleyan University President Rock Jones, said Lee Yoakum, the city government's communications manager.

Cardozo said one of his roles in the United States is to foster business relationships with U.S. companies and economic investment in Paraguay.

The country has a sizable trade deficit with the United States, he said, "so we're always trying to export here a little more. That's always a challenge, but we try to do what we can."

Paraguay has trade deals with Argentina and Brazil, he said, and is "a platform for investment in the region."

The nation's economy has been growing 4% to 5% a year, he said, and in the past 15 years, the middle class has doubled in size and the extreme poverty rate has fallen to single digits.

"There's still a long way to go, and of course we need to integrate into the world economy," he said.

The nation also has a young population, he said, with 70% of its citizens age 35 and younger.

"That poses lots of challenges. Education is monumental to improve the situation," Cardozo said.

For more than 50 years, he said, Paraguay has had a relationship with the University of Kansas, under which Paraguayans can attend at the same tuition rates as residents.

"We would love to have that type of relationship with the great state of Ohio," he said, "but it's not up to us. We're trying. ... We're working on that."

Agriculture and hydroelectric power represent large parts of Paraguay's economy, he said.

"The best way to create jobs for a country with so many young people is to have small industries open up and get to be part of the economy," he said.

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