El Supremo Dictador

El Supremo Dictador

Francia, described by a historian as "the frail man in the black frock coat," admired and emulated the most radical elements of the French Revolution. Although he has been compared to the Jacobin leader Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-94), Francia's policies and ideals perhaps most closely resembled those of François-Noël Babeuf, a French utopian who wanted to abolish private property and communalize land as a prelude to founding a "republic of equals." Francia detested the political culture of the old regime and considered himself a "revolutionary."

In essence, the government of Caraí Guazú ("Great Señor," as Francia was called by the poor) was a dictatorship that destroyed the power of the elite and advanced the interests of common Paraguayans. A system of internal espionage destroyed free speech. People were arrested without charge and disappeared without trial. Torture in the so-called Chamber of Truth was applied to those suspected of plotting to overthrow Francia. Francia sent political prisoners--numbering approximately 400 in any given year--to a detention camp where they were shackled in dungeons and denied medical care and even the use of sanitary facilities. In an indirect act of revenge against people who had discriminated against him because of his supposed "impure blood," Francia forbade Europeans from marrying other Europeans, thus forcing the elite to choose spouses from among the local population. Francia tightly sealed Paraguay's borders to the outside world and executed anyone who attempted to leave the country. Foreigners who managed to enter Paraguay had to remain there for the rest of their lives. Paraguayan commerce declined practically to nil. The decline ruined exporters of yerba maté and tobacco. These measures fell most harshly on the members of the former ruling class of Spanish or Spanish-descended church officials, military officers, merchants, and hacendados (large landowners).

In 1820, four years after a Paraguayan congress had named Francia dictator for life with the title El Supremo Dictador (supreme dictator), Francia's security system uncovered and quickly crushed a plot by the elite to assassinate El Supremo. Francia arrested almost 200 prominent Paraguayans and eventually executed most of them. In 1821 Francia struck again, summoning all of Paraguay's 300 or so peninsulares (people born in Spain) to Asunción's main square, where he accused them of treason, had them arrested, and led them off to jail for 18 months. Francia released them only after they agreed to pay an enormous collective indemnity of 150,000 pesos (about 75 percent of the annual state budget), an amount so large that it broke their predominance in the Paraguayan economy.

One of Francia's special targets was the Roman Catholic Church. The church had provided an essential ideological underpinning to Spanish rule by spreading the doctrine of the "divine right of kings" and inculcating the Indian masses with a resigned fatalism about their social status and economic prospects. Francia banned religious orders, closed the country's only seminary, "secularized" monks and priests by forcing them to swear loyalty to the state, abolished the fuero eclesiástico (the privilege of clerical immunity from civil courts), confiscated church property, and subordinated church finances to state control.

The common people of Paraguay benefited from the repression of the traditional elites and the expansion of the state. The state took land from the elite and the church and leased it to the poor. About 875 families received homesteads from the lands of the former seminary. The various fines and confiscations levied on the criollos helped reduce taxes for everyone else. As a result, Francia's attacks on the elite and his state socialist policies provoked little popular resistance. The fines, expropriations, and confiscations of foreign-held property meant that the state quickly became the nation's largest landowner, eventually operating fortyfive animal-breeding farms. Run by army personnel, the farms were so successful that the surplus animals were given away to the peasants.

In contrast to other states in the region, Paraguay was efficiently and honestly administered, stable, and secure (the army having grown to 1,800 regulars). Crime continued to exist during the Franciata (the period of Francia's rule), but criminals were treated leniently. Murderers, for example, were put to work on public projects. Asylum for political refugees from other countries became a Paraguayan hallmark. An extremely frugal and honest man, Francia left the state treasury with at least twice as much money in it as when he took office, including 36,500 pesos of his unspent salary, or at least several years' salary.

The state soon developed native industries in shipbuilding and textiles, a centrally planned and administered agricultural sector, which was more diversified and productive than the prior export monoculture, and other manufacturing capabilities. These developments supported Francia's policy of virtual economic autarchy.

But Francia's greatest accomplishment--the preservation of Paraguayan independence--resulted directly from a noninterventionist foreign policy. Deciding that Argentina was a potential threat to Paraguay, he shifted his foreign policy toward Brazil by quickly recognizing Brazilian independence in 1821. This move, however, resulted in no special favors for the Brazilians from Francia, who was also on good, if limited, terms with Juan Manuel Rosas, the Argentine dictator. Francia prevented civil war and secured his role as dictator when he cut off his internal enemies from their friends in Buenos Aires. Despite his "isolationist" policies, Francia conducted a profitable but closely supervised import-export trade with both countries to obtain key foreign goods, particularly armaments. A more activist foreign policy than Francia's probably would have made Paraguay a battleground amid the swirl of revolution and war that swept Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil in the decades following independence.

All of these political and economic developments put Paraguay on the path of independent nationhood, yet the country's undoubted progress during the years of the Franciata took place because of complete popular abdication to Francia's will. El Supremo personally controlled every aspect of Paraguayan public life. No decision at the state level, no matter how small, could be made without his approval. All of Paraguay's accomplishments during this period, including its existence as a nation, were attributable almost entirely to Francia. The common people saw these accomplishments as Francia's gifts, but along with these gifts came political passivity and naïveté among most Paraguayans.

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