José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia

José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia
José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia

José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia is considered the founding father of Paraguay. During his childhood in the late colonial period, Paraguay was a backwater nation dependent upon Buenos Aires for its outlet to the sea. Because higher education did not exist, Francia attended the College of Córdoba in what is now Argentina.

In 1790 Francia became a professor of theology in Asunción (the largest city in what became Paraguay). However, his increasingly radical views caused tension, so he left his position to study law.

As a supporter of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others, he soon had the largest library in Asunción. Having acquired knowledge of subjects such as astronomy, philosophy, and French, Paraguayans looked at him as a wizard. By 1800, as a lawyer, he had become known as a defender of the poor.

In 1809 Francia became the mayor of Asunción and supported the coup d’etat in 1810 that brought independence to Paraguay. In the new political climate, he used his diplomatic skills to secure Argentina’s recognition of Paraguay; this was an important achievement, given that many people in Buenos Aires wanted to annex Paraguay.

In 1812, after resigning from the junta composed of military officers which ruled in Asunción, Francia was soon back as a chief of foreign policy. In this position, he once again thwarted Argentine designs on Paraguay. In return, he was placed in charge of half of the army and munitions available and became the single most important figure in the nascent country.

To solidify his position, he called a congress of over 1,100 delegates—the first representative assembly chosen by universal male suffrage—which resulted in the formal declaration of a republic in October 1814.

From this time onward, Francia held supreme power until his death in 1840. He was influenced by French utopian philosophers who opposed private property and idealized communes. As a result, Francia ruled a self-designated community of people.

The state seized private property to assist the peasants. Fully 877 families received homesteads from the land of their masters. Other measures taken to benefit the poor included very low taxes as a result of fines and confiscations levied on the Spanish elite.

The confiscation of foreign properties was used to establish animal breeding farms that were so successful that livestock was given to peasants. Other innovations followed, such as importing machines used in shipbuilding and textiles.

Agriculture was centrally planned so that it became more productive and diversified. Personally frugal and honest, Francia left the country richer than he inherited it, including leaving behind seven years of unspent public money.

Other policies were more controversial. Although Francia advocated power in the hands of the people, he suppressed free speech. People who dissented from Francia within the country were often tortured and disappeared without trial.

Anyone suspected of anti-Francian sentiments would be sent to a detention camp where he or she would be shackled in dungeons and denied health care. Europeans were forbidden to marry other Europeans so that they would marry local people of mixed or Indian ancestry. Francia harbored resentment against Europeans, many of whom had snubbed him due to his “impure blood.” Anyone who attempted to leave Paraguay could be executed.

People who entered Paraguay had to remain there for the rest of their lives. In his vendetta against the elite, Paraguay’s borders were sealed, and tobacco production was largely removed from elite control.

In his hostility against the elite, Francia often took draconian measures. In 1824 all people born in Spain were arrested and placed in jail for 18 months. They were released only after they paid a large indemnity that eliminated their dominant role in Paraguay’s economy.

Francia banned religious orders, closed his old seminary, forced monks and priests to swear fealty to the state, confiscated church property, subjected clerics to state courts, and placed church finances under civil control.

Francia was a bit more relaxed with the underprivileged. Criminals whose crimes he blamed on the unjust behavior of the elite and the church were treated quite leniently, with murderers put to work on public projects. Asylum was given to political refugees from other countries. His foreign policy was wise and prudent.

He managed to remain on good terms with both Argentina and Brazil and was not above pitting them against each other. He conducted a private trade so that Paraguay received just enough foreign goods, including armaments, to remain free from pressure. When he died in 1840 Francia left a mixed legacy.

Significant economic development had taken place, Paraguay’s independence had been secured, and the power of the elite had been broken. On the other hand, political expression had been stifled, and Paraguay’s populace was made extremely passive and thus vulnerable to rule by dictatorship.