A History of Paraguay
By Baruja, Paiva & Pinto

Chapter 5

José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia is one of the greatest figures in Paraguayan history as well as the most enigmatic. Even the great Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos scribbled a biography on Rodríguez de Francia called “I, the Supreme” which revealed his probable thoughts and later transformed into an undisputed piece of classic Latin American literature. Governing from 1814 until his death in 1840, Francia successfully constructed a strong, prosperous and strengthened independent nation in a frigid moment when the existence of Paraguay as a distinct nation seemed improbable. When he died, he left a peaceful nation with a stable economy and many flourishing industries. Frugal, honored, competent and diligent, Francia was tremendously popular with the lower classes. But despite his popularity, Francia stepped on human rights and imposed a police authoritarian state based on espionage and a hard coercion. Under Francia, Paraguay suffered a change in society that destroyed the old elites.

One should note that while Francia ruled cruel prison conditions, his mortal victims were few compared to the innumerable deaths occasioned in the pre seen bloody revolutions which rose almost annually in the rest of Latin America. To be exact, Francia only ordered forty executions during his time in power.

Independent Paraguay was an area relatively underdeveloped. The majority of the residents of Asunción and virtually all the rural colonists were illiterate. The urban elite had access to private tutoring. The university education, however, was restricted to the few who had the luxury of paying for studies abroad at the prestigious University of Córdoba in Argentina. Practically nobody had any experience in government, finance or administration. The colonists treated the Indians a little better than slaves and the paternal clergy treated them as children. The country was surrounded by hostile neighbors including the hyper bellicose tribes of the Chaco. Paraguay was in need of a strong force to safeguard the nation from disintegration.

Francia, born in 1766, spent his school years studying theology in the Monserrat School employed by the University of Córdoba in Argentina. Despite the malicious rumors that his Brazilian father was a mulatto and a tobacco grower, Francia won the much coveted seat of theology in the Seminary of San Carlos in Asunción in 1790, a position of which only people of “pure race” could undertake. His radical opinions did not hold up his position as a teacher and he resigned from his position to study law. Devoted to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and a keen reader of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French encyclopedism, Francia owned the largest library collect in Asunción. His interest in astronomy, combined with his knowledge of French and other “deep” subject matter in Asunción impressed several superstitious Paraguayans who considered him a magician capable of predicting the future. As a lawyer, he was exposed himself as a social activist and always defended the less. He demonstrated an early interest in politics and accomplished with great difficulty the position as mayor with his first campaign, in other words, became the head of the municipal council of Asunción in 1809, the highest position available to a Creole.

Following the military revolt of 14-15 of May which led to independence, Francia changed into a member of the governing board following the successful coup. Although the real power rested in the army, the political cinch of Francia was worth him the support of the peasants of the nation. Probably the only man in Paraguay with diplomatic, financial, and administrative skills, Francia constructed his base of power on his natural skills and powerful personality. Mocking the Porteño diplomats in the negotiations which produced the Treaty of the 11 of October in 1811 (of which Buenos Aires implicitly recognized the Paraguayan independence in exchange for vague promises of a future military alliance), Francia demonstrated his possession of crucial skills needed for the future of the country.

Francia reinforced his power by convincing uncertain Paraguayan elite that he was indispensable. But by the end of 1811, he grew discontented with the political role that the military officials were beginning to assume and resigned from the committee. He retired to his modest farm in Ibaray, near Asunción. From there, he continued to speak to the innumerable commoners that used to visit, telling them that their evolution had been betrayed, that the change of the government only signified a transition from a Spanish elite to a Creole elite and that the present government was incompetent and being mismanaged. In fact, the country was rapidly headed towards a fatal crisis. The Portuguese threatened to extend their northern borders while the “porteño” government (the government of Buenos Aires) had practically closed the Río de la Plata to Paraguayan commerce, besides charging import taxes and capturing ships. To make matters worse, the porteño government sent direct orders to form a Paraguayan army to fight against Spaniards in Uruguay, thereby ignoring the Treaty of October 11. The porteño government also informed the committee that it wished to open communications.

When the committee realized that a porteño diplomat was en-route to Asunción, they panicked because they felt that they were not competent to negotiate without the presence of Francia. In November of 1812, the members of the committee invited Francia to be in charge of foreign policy, a job which Francia quickly accepted. In return, the committee agreed to put half of the army and half of the available ammunition under Francia’s control. Without someone to challenge him in the committee, Francia easily gained control of the government in a very short time. When the Argentine envoy, Nicolás de Herrera, arrived in May of 1813, he found that all decisions had to be approved by a Paraguayan congress that met in late September. Meanwhile, Paraguay again declared itself independent of the Argentine Confederation and expelled two members of its committee known to be in favor of a union with Argentina. Under virtual house-arrest, Herrera had few chances to obtain support in favor of the unification, in spite of numerous bribes.

The session of congress that began September 30, 1813, was certainly the first of its type in Latin America. There were more than 1,100 delegates chosen by universal male suffrage and many of these delegates represented the poor men who are the rural Paraguayan majority. Ironically the decisions of this democratically chosen body would be the foundation of a long dictatorship. Herrera was not allowed to attend the sessions, even to present his argument, instead, congress expressed overwhelming support of Francia’s anti-imperialist and anti-union foreign policy. The delegates rejected an invitation for a constitutional congress in Buenos Aires and instead established a Paraguayan republic, the first in Latin America, with Francia acting as its first consul. It was assumed that Francia would change places every four months with the second consul, Fulgencio Yegros; however, Francia established his iron rule with Yegros being no more than a puppet. Yegros, a man without political ambitions, represented the national military Creole elite, but Francia already had much power that was based on national popular opinion of the masses.

Francia reforzó su poder convenciendo a la insegura elite paraguaya de que él era indispensable. Pero al final de 1811, descontento con el papel político que los oficiales militares estaban empezando a jugar, él renunció a la junta. En su jubilación en su modesta chacra en Ibaray, cerca de Asunción, les decía a innumerables ciudadanos comunes que solían visitarlo que su revolución había sido traicionada, que el cambio del gobierno sólo significó la transición de una elite española hacia una elite criolla y que el actual gobierno era incompetente y mal administrado. De hecho, el país se estaba dirigiendo rápidamente hacia una fatal crisis. Estaban los portugueses quienes amenazaban exceder las fronteras norteñas y el gobierno porteño tenía prácticamente cerrado el Río de la Plata al comercio paraguayo imponiendo impuestos y capturando naves. Para colmo el gobierno porteño envió órdenes directas para formar un ejército paraguayo para combatir contra los españoles en Uruguay desatendiendo el Tratado del 11 de octubre. El gobierno porteño también informó a la junta que deseaba volver a abrir conversaciones.

Cuando la junta dióse cuenta de que un diplomático porteño estaba en camino a Asunción, hubo pánico porque no era competente negociar sin la presencia de Francia. En noviembre de 1812, los miembros de la junta invitaron a Francia a encargarse de la política extranjera, oferta que Francia aceptó. A cambio, la junta estaba de acuerdo en poner medio ejército y mitad de las municiones disponibles bajo el mando de Francia. En ausencia de alguien semejante a él en la junta, Francia fácilmente controló el gobierno en muy poco tiempo. Cuando el enviado argentino, Nicolás de Herrera, llegó en mayo de 1813, se enteró de que todas las decisiones tenían que ser aprobadas por un congreso paraguayo que se reunía a más tardar en septiembre. Entretanto, Paraguay se declaró independiente de nuevo de la Confederación Argentina y expulsó a dos miembros de la junta conocidos por su inocultable simpatía por la unión con la Argentina. Bajo virtual arresto casero, Herrera tenía pocas chances de conseguir apoyos a favor de la unificación, pese a que acudió al soborno.

El congreso que se inició el 30 de septiembre de 1813 fue ciertamente el primero de su tipo en América Latina. Había más de 1.100 delegados elegidos por sufragio universal masculino y muchos de estos delegados representaban a los pobres que son la mayoría rural paraguaya. Irónicamente las decisiones de este cuerpo democráticamente elegido pondrían las bases de una dictadura larga. A Herrera no le fue permitido asistir a las sesiones ni para presentar su declaración, en cambio el congreso dio un apoyo aplastante a la política extranjera antiimperialista y antiunionista de Francia. Los delegados rechazaron una invitación para un congreso constitucional en Buenos Aires y establecieron una república paraguaya, la primera en América española, con Francia como primer cónsul. Se suponía que Francia intercambiaría lugares cada cuatro meses con el segundo cónsul, Fulgencio Yegros, pero el consulado de Francia marcó el principio de su férreo gobierno directo porque Yegros no era más que un títere. Yegros, un hombre sin ambiciones políticas, representaba a la elite nacionalista militar criolla, pero Francia ya tenía mucho poder ya que lo basaba sobre las masas nacionalistas y populares.

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