The Strange Case of Paraguay

Paraguay is perhaps the most unusual country in Latin America in the 19th century. Isolated deep in the interior of South America, it was largely populated through the creation of Jesuit missions in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ostensibly under the control of the viceroyalty of La Plata at the beginning of the 19th century, it was probably the most racially, culturally, and linguistically mixed area in Spanish America. When the first set of wars for independence break out in the La Plata region in 1808, Paraguay is largely forgotten, and a strong man, José Gaspar de Francia, arises as the authoritarian leader of independence and the new nation. Unlike the rest of Latin America, in the aftermath of independence, Paraguay would turn inward and isolate itself from the outside world until the mid-19th century.

We will close this survey of the age of revolution in the Americas with the case of Paraguay. It is perhaps the most unusual country in the Americas in the 19th century.

A. Paraguay was in one of the most remote parts of the Spanish Empire in the Americas; its destiny was partially shaped by this geography.

  1. More than 1,000 miles upriver from where the Rio de la Plata empties into the South Atlantic, the Jesuits established an extensive mission system in the region in the 17th century to escape the predations of slave hunters.
  2. The few Spanish colonists and numerous Guaraní Indians intermixed, producing a truly bilingual and bicultural society.

B. The Jesuits dominated the region until their expulsion in the 1760s.

  1. The Treaty of Madrid in 1750 established the Missions (Paraguay) as a Spanish possession and drew the boundaries with Portuguese Brazil.
  2. The colonial economy consisted primarily of subsistence agriculture and some exports, especially a strong tea, yerba mate.
  3. At the periphery of one of the most peripheral viceregal centers, Paraguay had a long history of relative local autonomy.

The struggle for independence in Paraguay was one of the shortest and most painless in all of the Americas.

A. As the other, more central colonies had, Paraguay felt the impact of the reassertion of imperial authority in the last quarter of the 18th century.

  1. Peninsulars dominated commerce, and the cabildo was ardently royalist.
  2. Taxation deterred the development of trade and exports.

B. The Argentines forced the issue of independence.

  1. After the May 1810 upheaval in Buenos Aires, an open meeting of more than 200 prominent citizens in Asunción chose to support the Council of Regency in Spain.
  2. Manuel Belgrano led an Argentine force into Paraguay to “liberate” the people.
  3. Led by Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, local elites declared their independence from Spain and Argentina on May 17, 1811.
  4. For the next two years, a junta tried to establish a national government.

Francia emerged as a powerful leader in 1814 and would rule Paraguay as a dictator until his death in 1840.

A. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia is one of the most interesting and controversial figures in Latin American history.

  1. Born in Asunción in 1766, he attended the University of Córdoba (Argentina) and received a doctorate in theology in 1785.
  2. Under the influence of Rousseau, Francia became a freethinking lawyer (certainly an interesting shift for a man trained in theology).
  3. He was described by a British traveler at the time as about 5 feet, 10 inches tall and very thin, almost cadaverous.

B. Usually described as austere, frugal, honest, xenophobic, and cruel, Francia developed a negative reputation with outsiders and generations of historians.

  1. Beginning with his contemporaries and continuing with the liberal historians of the late 19th century, Francia was portrayed as evil, despotic, bloodthirsty, and an enemy of all modern progress and civilization.
  2. I should also mention, here, a wonderful novel about Francia, Yo, el Supremo (I, the Supreme) by Augusto Roa Bastos.

C. Francia emerged as the only man capable of taking control of events in the process of independence.

  1. The three-man junta formed in 1811 gradually became two men, when Francia and Colonel Fulgencio Yegros were named co-consuls of the Republic of Paraguay.
  2. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia would rule Paraguay as “El Supremo” from 1814 until his death at the age of 74 in 1840.
  3. Although seen by many historians as a conservative because he refused to open up Paraguay to the outside world, Francia systematically dismantled the traditional colonial power structure.
  4. He destroyed the power of the landed class, the most powerful group in any Latin American society.

D. Yet the move that has made Francia probably more maligned than any other Latin American caudillo in the 19th century was his effort to isolate Paraguay from the rest of the world.

  1. Although he initially tried to engage in some trade with other countries, his enemies in the La Plata basin closed off the river to his goods, denying him trade with the outside world.
  2. Part of Francia’s bad reputation comes from his treatment of the unfortunate foreigners who did pass his way.
  3. Francia died on September 20, 1840.
  4. He would be succeeded by Carlos Antonio López, followed by his son, Francisco Solano López, two more dictators who would dominate Paraguay until 1870.

The strongest argument in favor of a positive assessment of Francia is the self-sufficiency of Paraguay in the early 19th century.

A. Although the evidence is hotly debated and the meager statistics available are not crystal clear, it does seem that Paraguayans produced enough to feed, clothe, and house themselves adequately.

  1. As we will see, all the other countries in the Americas turned outward and sought to develop exports in the 19th century.
  2. Paraguay, because of its isolation, did not build roads, railways, and the other tools of 19th-century modernity.
  3. Instead, it seems that Paraguayans, although poor, did not starve and certainly did not develop the enormous socioeconomic inequities that characterized colonial Latin America and intensified in the 19th century.

B. In spite of the revisionist efforts of some historians, Francia and Paraguay are still generally negatively portrayed in the standard textbooks.

  1. This much is certain: José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia chose to buck the trend throughout Latin America in the age of revolution.
  2. At a time when independence signified an opening to the outside world and greater trade, Francia closed his country to the outside world and turned the country inward.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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