Latin America is well-known for its history of military strongmen, caudillos and other dictators. That may be the most obvious thing I’ve said all day. Yet it had to start somewhere.
Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, also known as “El Supremo,” ruled Paraguay with an iron fist nearly a century before the rise of the so-called “banana republics.” His methods were brutal, and his motivations were often … shall we say, odd.
Born in 1766 to a family of modest means, Francia was an exceptionally bright student who earned advanced college degrees before he was 20. He did so in a time and place where most people were illiterate. Although originally intending to become a Catholic priest, Francia instead became a professor and later a lawyer in Asuncion.
Francia became involved in Paraguayan politics while the country was still ruled by Spain. By 1807 he was a member of the Asuncion cabildo, an entity similar to a city council. In 1809 he became head of the cabildo. Then as it is now, Asuncion was the capital and by far the largest city in the country. In other words, by the time Paraguay declared independence Francia was already a pretty big deal.
On the Rio de la Plata, everybody knew him.
When Paraguay became independent from Spain in 1811, it was believed Francia was one of only two people in the entire country with a doctorate. Francia’s academic and political credentials combined to give him some serious gravitas among the largely illiterate general population, a fact which he didn’t hesitate to exploit. By 1811 he was already known as “Karaí Guazú” (literally “Great Lord”) in the local Guarani language. Some even believed he had magical powers.
The country’s ruling junta appointed Francia as its secretary, but it soon became apparent he was the real power in the new Paraguay. Inspired by the French Revolution, after Paraguay split from Argentina in 1813 Francia was elected consul along with Fulgencio Yegros, the country’s leading military figure. The following year, Yegros was purged from the government and Francia was given the dictatorial powers he would hold for the rest of his life.
After a failed coup, Yegros and his sideburns were executed in 1821.
For the next quarter century, Francia would treat Paraguay as his own personal sociological experiment. Although heavily influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers, Francia had no use for anything resembling direct democracy. Indeed, his long rule would be noted for its arbitrary and often bizarre proclamations. Among other things Francia:
– Completely closed the country to foreign trade.
– Routinely held foreigners as prisoners.
– Abolished higher education.
– Recognized only interracial marriages and personally presided over all marriages in the country.
– Increasingly suppressed the Roman Catholic Church, eventually declaring himself its leader in Paraguay.
– Legalized prostitution after his illegitimate daughter was caught soliciting.
– Ordered all dogs in the country shot.
– Required all Paraguayans to tip their hat to them as they passed. Those who didn’t have hats were required to carry hat brims for the purpose.
Turkmenbashi had nothing on El Supremo.
With Paraguay closed off from the outside world, Francia busied himself with nationalizing the country’s virtually nonexistent industries, admittedly with some success. Although Francia lived a modest lifestyle – at times even returning portions of his salary to the national treasury – he implemented a zero-tolerance policy towards opposition. This was enforced by his secret police, the Pyraguës.
Also known as the “hairy feet.”
Image credit: Kevron
After dominating the country for nearly three decades, El Supremo’s end would prove a bit anticlimactic. Francia died in September 1840, shortly after burning all of his papers. Soon after his furniture was destroyed. Although given a state funeral, his body was stolen and thrown in the river. It was never recovered. Despite his legacy, some in Paraguay still remember him as a national hero. A museum dedicated to him is located in his hometown of Yaguaron.
While Paraguay would emerge from its strict isolationism after Francia’s death, the country’s penchant for authoritarian rule would persist well into the 20th Century. This would prove especially apparent after the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance, but I already wrote about that. Still to this day, few people have done dictatorships quite like El Supremo.