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José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia

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Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco (January 6, 1766 – September 20, 1840) was the first leader of Paraguay following its independence from Spain. He ran the country with no outside interference and little outside influence from 1814 to 1840.

Although his father, a native of São Paulo, was simply García Rodríguez Francia, the dictator inserted de to style himself "Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco". He is often referred to simply as "Dr. Francia".

Born in Yaguarón, he became a doctor of theology and master of philosophy. Eventually, he would learn five languages (Guarani, Spanish, French, Latin and some English). He trained for the Catholic priesthood but never entered it. He became a a member of the Asuncion cabildo. On the 24th July 1810, Francia shocked the other members by saying it was irrelevant which king they had. When Paraguay's independence was declared, 15th May 1811, he was appointed secretary to the national junta or congress. On August 1st he resigned because of the army's dominance over Congress. He retired to the country where he spread rumours the country was going to be betrayed by the incompetent government. He was one of the few men in the country with any significant education (only one other Paraguayan had a doctorate), and soon became the country's real leader.

October 1st 1813: Congress named Francia and Yegros as alternate consuls for a year, Francia taking the first and third four month periods. July 1st 1814-Francia banned Spaniards from marrying each other, they had to wed Indians, Blacks, or Mulattoes. On October 1st 1814 Congress named him Consul of Paraguay, with absolute powers for three years. On June 1st 1816, he sought and received absolute control over the country for life. According to historian Richard Alan White, these congresses were actually very progressive for the era: all men over 23 could vote for them. For the next 24 years, he ran the country with the aid of only three other people. He aimed to found a society on the principles of Rousseau's Social Contract and was also inspired by Robespierre and Napoleon. To create such a personal utopia he imposed a ruthless isolation upon Paraguay, interdicting all external trade, while at the same time he fostered national industries. He became known as a caudillo who ruled through ruthless suppression and random terror with increasing signs of madness and was known as "El Supremo".

He outlawed all opposition and abolished the Inquisition and established a secret police force. He had abolished higher education because he saw the need to spend more money in the military in order to defend Paraguayan independence from those that did not recognize it such as Argentina. In June 1821, a letter detailing an anti Francia conspiracy was found, Francia had all 300 Spaniards arrested and made them stand in the plaza while he read the letter out. They were only released when they had paid 150,000 pesos (by comparison the 1820 budget was 164,723 pesos).[1]

No rank above captain was allowed, soldiers guarding the borders were not paid till they returned to Asuncion, so if they died no money was wasted. Francia deliberately mislead foreigners into thinking the army 5,000 strong. In fact it was only 1,800. By the mid 1820s, a navy of 100 canoes, sloops and flatboats had been built.

In 1828, Francia made state education compulsory for all males (he ignored the private schools). Even before this the pupil-teacher ratio was good, 1 teacher to 36 pupils by 1825 according to Richard Alan White. In 1836 Francia opened Paraguay's first public library, stocked with his opponent's books.[2] Books were one of the few duty-free items (munitions being another)." Francia did close the country's only seminary in 1822, mainly due to the bishop's mental illness.

Leading a spartan lifestyle, Francia frowned on excessive possessions or festivities. He banned church processions, repurposed confessional boxes as sentry posts, and returned his unspent salary to the treasury. He closed the borders of the country to both people and trade (including river trade with neighbouring Argentina, from which Paraguay had broken off during the Wars of Independence), reasoning this would prevent a national debt from forming, but also isolating the country from outside – especially modernising European influences.

In October 1820, a plague of locusts destroyed most of the crops. Francia ordered a second harvest planted, it proved abundant so from then on Paraguay's farmers planted two crops a year. Through the decade, Francia nationalised half the land in four stages. First he confiscated the lands of traitors, then clerics (1823-4), squatters (1825) and finally unused land (1828). The land was either run directly by soldiers for making their own supplies or leased to the peasants. By 1825, Paraguay was self-sufficient in sugar cane and wheat was introduced. At the end of his life, to stop a cattle plague spreading from Argentina, Francia ruthlessly confined all the cattle at Ytapua until the plague had died out.

Francia seized the possessions of the Roman Catholic Church, he appointed himself head of the Paraguayan church, for which the Pope excommunicated him. Francia's reply on hearing this was: "If the Holy Father himself should come to Paraguay I would make him my private chaplain." In mid June 1816, all nocturnal processions were banned, except the Fete Dieu. In 1819, the Bishop wa persuaded to transfer authority to the vicar-general. The Friars were secularised in 1820. On August 4th 1820, all clergy were forced to swear alleigance to the state and their clerical immunities were withdrawn.The 4 monasteries were nationalised in 1824. One was knocked down, another became a parish church. The remaining 2 became an artillery park and barracks. The 3 convents also became barracks. The confessionals became sentry boxes while the hangings in the mission churches became the lancer's red waistcoats.

He made marriage subject to high taxation and restrictions, insisting he personally conduct all weddings. To reduce the influence of the Spanish gentry, he forbade them to marry among themselves. He himself had no close relationships, but had a daughter, Ubalde García de Cañete.

One Latin American scholar summarized his rule as follows:

As time went on he appears to have grown more arbitrary and despotic. Deeply imbued with the principles of the French Revolution, he was a stern antagonist of the church. He abolished the Inquisition, suppressed the college of theology, did away with the tithes, and inflicted endless indignities on the priests. He kept the aristocracy in subjection and discouraged marriage both by precept and example, leaving behind him several illegitimate children. For the extravagances of his later years the plea of insanity has been put forward.[3]

Francia's later years were known for their seemingly arbitrary rulings. He ordered all dogs to be shot. Not only did everyone have to raise their hat when he passed, but those without hats had to carry brims to raise.[4]

When Francia died on September 20th 1840, his body was fed to caiman and his furniture burnt. His reputation abroad was negative, Charles Darwin for one hoped he would be overthrown, though Thomas Carlyle, no friend to democracy, found material to admire even in the publications of Francia's detractors and wrote in an 1843 essay "Liberty of private judgement, unless it kept its mouth shut, was at an end in Paraguay" but considered that under the social circumstances this was of little detriment to a "Gaucho population... not yet fit for constitutional liberty." A modern reader might consider this faint praise, taken all in all.

There is today a museum dedicated to Rodríguez de Francia in Yaguarón. Even today, he is still considered a national hero. Paraguayan author Augusto Roa Bastos wrote a book based on the life of Francia entitled Yo, el Supremo (I, the Supreme).


  1. Richard Alan White, Paraguay's Autonomous Revolutionpage 89
  2. Jerry Cooney, Education in the Republic of Paraguay History of Education Quarterly, 1983
  4. John Gimlette, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels through Paraguay

Further reading

  • FRANCIA, 3 Vols. 600pgs each. Asunción, Paraguay: Editorial Tiempo de Historia. 2009. ISBN 978-99953-816-4-6.  An annotated publication of the archived collection of Francia's writings, the Colección Doroteo Bareiro, held by the Archivo Nacional de Asunción.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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