Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia (or a Creative Tribute to National Hispanic Heritage Month)


A portrait of eccentric Paraguayan dictator Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia.

Of the 19 countries in Latin America, the nation of Paraguay is among the least discussed. It’s not much for tourism (not a lot to see) and its history is short, sad, confused, and confusing. Yet, somehow, this tiny, pathetic nation has managed to achieve a degree of Amerindian integration completely unheard of elsewhere. Around 77% of Paraguayans identify as indigenous in part or in whole, with over 90% of the population speaking Guarani (the major indigenous language) compared to only 87% speaking Spanish! How were they able to achieve such an incredible degree of integration?

Paraguayan independence was a bit of a long and complicated affair, with them first being a part of independent Argentina, and then finally becoming truly independent. The new government of Paraguay was a confusing mess, in more ways than one. Not only was the governmental structure extremely strange (a 3 man ruling junta and a 5 man governing junta working together to manage the country), but all the people in those juntas were entirely lacking in administrative or political skill. All, that is, but our subject of discussion for today, the confusingly named Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia. Francia had managed to maneuver himself to quite a high office (secretary to the ruling junta and member of the governing junta). Being one of the only people in the country with any significant education, he was far more politically adept than the vast majority of his rivals. After a series of messy leadership changes, Francia was able to maneuver himself into becoming absolute dictator for a period of three years, during which he was able to consolidate his power to the extent that come the end of the three year term, he was voted dictator for life, beginning the real fun. 

A few months prior to his appointment as dictator for life, Francia had passed a very unusual law completely prohibiting Spanish intermarriage. In other words, Spaniards who may have previously immigrated to Paraguay (say, during the time period in which it was a colony of Spain) were now prohibited from marrying one another, and thus, if they were to marry at all, they were now required to marry into the Amerindian population of Paraguay. This seemingly insane legislation was shockingly effective. As stated in the introduction, more Paraguayans speak Guarani than speak Spanish, and day-to-day conversation is largely Guarani, not Spanish*.

So that’s it, then? A brilliant political mastermind taking an incredibly calculated risk in passing an apparently insane equality-focused law, with spectacular results? A genius ahead of his time? If I ended this piece here, I would be leaving you with an inaccurate impression of the situation. Firstly, one important thing to clear up is that this law was not passed on anything resembling a moral basis. Francia had incredibly strong support among the Guarani of Paraguay (indeed, he was often referred to as Karaí Guazú, or “Great Lord” in Guarani). He did not, however, have quite so strong support amongst the colonials. In all likelihood, this legislation was a ploy to maintain his own power, and not something inspired by any sort of humanistic idealism. 

Additionally, the notion of this being “calculated” seems to falter when considering some of Francia’s other policies. In an (unsurprisingly) common practice among dictators, Francia imposed autarky (trade isolation) on his nation, in a (seemingly successful, despite the horror) attempt to grow national industry. Francia also nationalized the church of Paraguay, declaring himself the new head (another common tactic among dictators). Upon receiving an excommunication from the Pope in Rome, he purportedly retorted by saying “If the Holy Father himself should come to Paraguay, I would make him my private chaplain”. After abolishing flogging, Francia made liberal use of the death penalty, with the unusal stipulation that all executions were to be carried out on a very particular stool under an orange tree visible through a window of France’s house. In an attempt to save bullets, those facing capital punishment were generally bayonetted, with the additional requirement that their bodies may not be collected until they had lain on the floor for a sufficient amount of time to ensure that they were dead. Francia abolished institutions of higher education, reallocating that spending to the military on the grounds that personal study could be freely conducted in his private library. Francia finished the first Paraguayan warship in 1815 (Paraguay is landlocked), and had a small navy by 1820 (Paraguay continued to be landlocked). In addition to keeping a list of all women he slept with, Francia subjected marriage to heavy taxation and personally officiated all weddings in his nation. Francia was paranoid, and had various anti-assassinaton measures, including having all trees and bushes along his riding paths uprooted to deny potential assassins hiding spots, and a requirement that all citizens must prostrate to him as he rode by to prevent a potential assassin from getting too close. 

All in all, though Francia’s actions regarding marriage restrictions had some success, reading further into the events of his dictatorship reveal this not to be a brilliant play, but rather an incredibly lucky shot in the dark (the fact that he at some point personally officiated every wedding in the country is evidence enough of that). It is undeniable that the situation in Paraguay regarding the Guarani race/language is fascinating, but as always, it is important to do one’s due diligence in research before coming to any broad conclusions. As for whether or not this kind of program would be feasible in another nation – that is for you to decide. 

* This is basically unheard of. Some countries have something similar with a creole language (such as Haiti), but these are different since these languages are not indigenous, but rather originate as a pidgin of French(like in haiti) / Spanish or Portuguese (like with Papiamentu/o) or another colonial language, with large amounts of vocab taken from Coastal West African languages spoken in the region where slaves would have been imported from.

** Did you catch me swapping “Francia” with “France”?

This is a Public Forum article. The views represented here are not those of IHS Voice or anyone associated with it, and are solely those of the guest writer.