Dictatorship, the abiding curse of Latin America, found its archetype in
the man whose will was absolute
during the first three decades of Paraguay's independent life. Born in Cordoba in 1766, Dr. Jose Gaspar
Rodriguez de Francia (president from 1811 to 1840), was first trained in theology (probably earning his
doctorate in that discipline); but his religious ardor cooled under the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau and
other heretics, and he turned to the law. He settled in Asuncion, taught, practiced law, and began to talk of
an independent Paraguay. In 1811 he was one of the five-man junta elected to rule the new nation. Within
two years, he had shaken off his colleagues, and in 1814 a quarreling congress voted him full dictatorial
powers for three years, shortly extending this to a life term. Until his death in 1840, Francia was the
undisputed master of the nation.
Austere, frugal, honest, and cruel beyond description, Francia thought
only of service to his nation. He hated
foreigners bitterly and was fearful of all entanglements. After a few attempts to encourage trade with
England, he fell back upon the complete isolation of the nation, forbidding all river traffic to Buenos Aires and
permitting few to leave or enter the country. In violent anticlericalism, he broke off relations with the Vatican
lands and businesses, were jailed, murdered, or exiled. Paraguay became a hermit nation, with El Supremo
the unchallenged authority. In domestic matters, Francia imposed order, preached the gospel of hard work,
and introduced improved methods in agriculture and stock raising. Under his rod, Paraguayans worked
tirelessly, making the soil produce more than it ever had before. Critics guilty of a word or gesture against
him were jailed, tortured, or murdered. Lacking freedom, Paraguay at least had bread and order. Peace,
denied both Argentina and Uruguay during those stormy decades, was assured to Paraguay. Dr. Francia,
seventy-four in 1840, could congratulate himself and his people upon their security.
There was no congress to take over the government when Francia died in
1840. After six months of disorder,
Paraguay's second man of destiny seized power. Carlos Antonio Lopez (president from 1841 to 1862), a vain,
fat, incredibly ugly estanciero, ruled with a capriciousness equal to that of Francia but with more intelligence.
Abandoning the monkish seclusion imposed by Francia, Lopez opened the river trade with Buenos Aires and
Europe and resumed normal relations with the Vatican. He was soon involved in altercations with the
Argentine dictator Rosas, and in 1845 joined the coalition against Buenos Aires. When Rosas was ousted in
1852, Paraguay shared the credit. Lopez welcomed immigrants, and a few actually arrived. Preening himself
as a statesman, Lopez provoked a series of tragicomic disputes with the diplomatic agents of the United
States, England, and France, while his relations with both Argentina and Brazil steadily worsened. Only
Paraguay's remoteness and unimportance postponed a war.
Internally, Lopez repressed his critics as Francia had, but with less cruelty.
He showed commendable energy
in promoting trade and building a few miles of roads and railways, and even a few schools. Meanwhile, he
and his friends grew rich. Contemporary critics charged that he owned half the land in Paraguay, 300,000
cattle, sundry commercial enterprises, and the monopoly on yerba mate; but the modern reader is skeptical
of such reports. Learning from Francia's mistakes, Lopez did not leave the choice of his successor to chance.
In 1845 he named his nineteen-year-old son Francisco Solano Lopez commander in chief of the army. When
the elder Lopez died in 1862, there was no question as to who should assume the toga.
Francisco Solano Lopez (president from 1862 to 1870), the thirty-five-year-old
who inherited the presidency,
proved even less pleasant than his predecessors. He was a bloated little man, who, when told that he
resembled the great Napoleon, promptly ordered uniforms like those the Corsican had worn and a replica of
his crown. His father had sent him to Europe to study military tactics and statecraft, but he had busied
himself with eating, drinking, and venery. Not least of the trophies which he brought to Asuncion was Elisa
Lynch, an Irish girl whom he had found in Paris, and who devoted herself to him until his death.
The second Lopez was responsible for plunging his weak nation into a war
with the combined forces of
Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil which began in the last days of 1864 and dragged on until 1870. The most
savage and sanguinary war in all the records of Latin America, it was provoked by Francisco Solano Lopez's
intemperate dealings with his neighbors, which culminated in his seizure of a Brazilian steamer, the threat to
intervene in Uruguayan politics, and an attempt to march his troops across Argentine territory in order to
reach Uruguay. The armies of the three allies outnumbered Paraguay's by ten to one. Lopez drafted men of
all ages; boys of twelve fought side by side with their grandfathers. Any show of resistance to Lopez's orders
brought imprisonment, torture, lingering death. There were losses for all the nations involved, but for
Paraguay the war meant virtual extinction. A cautious estimate suggests that her population was reduced
from about 525,000 in 1865 to 221,000 in 1871 --- with only some 28,000 men among the survivors. In 1870
Brazilian soldiers caught the obese Francisco Solano Lopez and ended his Napoleonic career with a bullet.
Elisa Lynch, the mistress who had borne him various children, managed to escape from the country with
money and jewels to comfort her in Parisian exile. Argentina and Brazil sliced off some 55,000 square miles
of Paraguay's territory, levied a huge indemnity which was never paid, and maintained an occupation force