South America: Chapter XXIV

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Republic of Paraguay


We have seen how Paraguay, having in the early days of the war of liberation compelled the retirement of the Argentine army commanded by General Belgrano, was left to its own resources.

It is said by some that Belgrano, during the intercourse he maintained with the Paraguayans subsequent to the defeat of his force and previous to his definite retreat, contrived to inculcate some ideas of independence into the heads of the officials of the inland province.

These seeds of liberty may or may not have borne fruit, but in any case it is certain that public opinion in Paraguay rapidly veered round in favour of independence, and as early as 1811 the Spanish Government was replaced by a Junta, which consisted of a President, two Assessors, and a Secretary.

The person appointed to the latter office was Don José Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, whose name was destined to become dreaded throughout the length of the Republic which was now to establish itself.

It was not long before the strong personality of Francia dominated the Junta.
The history of Paraguay at this period differs widely from those of the more progressive nations surrounding it.

In Paraguay a certain opera bouffe element, together with a series of grimly farcical incidents, continually mingled themselves with some of the darkest tragedies that have been known in any age.

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From the very start something of the kind had become evident.
The members of the Junta, for instance, finding their own means insufficient to support the pomp and state which was suddenly thrust upon them, and which they had grown to love, began to adopt some extraordinary measures in order to maintain their position.

Any portable national assets were sold without the least compunction for this purpose, and they even went to the length of compelling State prisoners to purchase their liberty - an idea which undoubtedly ranks as one of the most extraordinary schemes for raising money ever employed.


Measures such as this constituted a sufficiently ominous beginning; they provided, indeed, an only too true augury of what was to come and from what species of wrongs the unfortunate country was doomed to suffer for generations.

In justice to Francia himself it must be said that he took no part in these first minor acts of oppression. His grim and proud nature cared but little for mere matters of pomp and ceremony.
Money and possessions, curiously enough, affected him little.

Messrs. Rengger and Longchamps vouch for it that, having once discovered that he was the possessor of 800 piastres, he thought this sum a great deal too much for a single person, and he spent it.
A remedy such as this seems simple enough for an unusual complaint!


By the year 1813 all but the most powerful elements of the Junta had been weeded out.
The power was now confined to the two remaining members - Dr. Francia and his colleague, Fulgencio Yegros.

These were now endowed with the titles of Consul. Two curule chairs were specially manufactured for them. These classical seats were covered with leather.

On one was the name of Cæsar, on the other that of Pompey.
It is possible that Francia had some faint smattering of Latin and of Roman history; at all events, he is said to have pounced on the first and eagerly to have taken possession of it.


The two Consuls began their reign by employing a vast amount of ceremony and form in order to accomplish a few quite arbitrary acts.
The majority of these were directed against the Spaniards, who, suffering now from the swing of the pendulum of fate, were as much oppressed as they had formerly oppressed.

Indeed, the situation of those Spaniards who still remained in Paraguay was now pitiable in the extreme.
Persecuted on all sides by the high officials, they could expect, in the face of an example such as this, scant consideration from the populace.


In the year 1814 Francia determined that the time had come when he could dispense with the services of his colleague, Yegros.
By means of a coup d'état he packed the Congress, and succeeded in intimidating his adversaries.

As a result, he was named Dictator of Paraguay for a period of three years, notwithstanding a counter-move on the part of the military followers of Yegros. This was calmed by Yegros himself.
In a moment of considerable generosity this latter pacified the officers and the troops, and thus left the way clear for Dr. Francia.


At this period the new Dictator again gave evidence of his curiously complex character. Congress, anxious to please the new ruler, whose power of domination had already become so evident, had allotted to His Excellency the Dictator an annual allowance of 9,000 piastres.

Francia definitely refused to accept more than one-third of this, and, moreover, continued firm in his refusal, alleging that the State was far more in need of money than he.


On paper, never was the start of a Chief-of-State's career more fraught with promise than that of Francia's. He had given evidence of despotism, but also of an earnest spirit.
No sooner had the reins of absolute power fallen to his lot than he altered entirely the mode of his life.

From a comparative libertine he became a man of austere habits, displaying a most extraordinary industry in his attention to the matters of State.

His manner, moreover, was affable to poor and rich alike, and the claims of the humblest met with a courteous consideration rare in any State at any time, but doubly amazing in a period of chaos such as was reigning throughout the Continent at the time.


In 1817 his period of Dictatorship expired.
It was then that Francia made his supreme effort. Intrigues, persuasions, and veiled threats strengthened the position which his cautious and cleverly conceived conduct had created for him.

Numbers of his creatures now came forward with suggestions. Congress fell into the trap, and Francia was appointed Dictator of Paraguay for life.
This was the moment for which Francia had waited so patiently and so long.

With the last obstacle to his full power now removed, the change in the Dictator's conduct was as complete as it was sudden.
Had he sat at the right hand of Nero his refinements of tyranny could not have been more successful. In a very short while his methods had terrorized Asuncion.


When Dr. Francia and his hussar escort rode abroad, the streets through which the cavalcade passed resembled a desert, for anyone who had the misfortune to find himself anywhere near the line of route was set upon and beaten with the flat of their swords by the hussars for the mere fact of daring to be in the neighbourhood of the Dictator in a public place.

At the outset there were some who protested.
The fate of every one of these was, at the lightest, to be flung into dungeons and loaded with massive and torturing chains.

Following the inevitable progress of tyranny, as time went on Francia's vigilance and cruelty increased, while as the discontent of the populace became evident his suspicions grew more and more on the alert.

Conceiving the possibility of an assassin lurking behind one of the orange-trees with which the streets of the capital were so liberally and beautifully planted, Francia cut them down, and it is said that when his horse once shied at the sight of a barrel before a door, the owner of the cask was made to suffer severely on account of the nerves of the Dictator's steed!


Paraguay gradually became more and more a hermit State under the rule of this despot.
It was difficult in the extreme to enter the country, but, having once passed its frontiers, it was harder still to return. Forts were established along the borders, and the rivers were strictly policed.
A strict watch was kept on all travellers, and none might move from spot to spot without being in possession of a passport especially granted by the Dictator.

Some there were who attempted to make their way from the now dreaded country through the vast swamps of the Chaco, but death at the hands of the Indians or the teeth of the wild beasts was the usual result.


It was inevitable that stagnation of commerce should have ensued, but the traders by this time no longer dared to complain openly.
Francia himself, so long as he had the State to govern, cared little whether its people were rich or poor.

As for the unfortunate Spaniards in Paraguay, the enactments against them became more and more severe.
As evidence of his supreme contempt for these Europeans, Francia issued a decree by which they were forbidden to intermarry with a white woman.


This extraordinary measure shows the length to which this strange man carried his tyranny, and how deeply was the hatred of the Spaniard implanted in his queer and grim mind.

It is impossible, however, to go fully into the details of Francia's autocratic reign, incredible as many of these are.
The destruction of the Church, the secularization of the monks, wholesale executions and torturings, the suppression of the Post Office, and a hundred other acts of irresponsible and childish tyranny - these are only some of the episodes which characterized the days of his rule.

During all this while the power of the army grew until militarism became rampant - militarism, that is to say, instigated by Francia, since no officer or man of his troops dared move hand or finger unless commanded by the Dictator himself.

His title was now "Supremo Dictator Perpetuo de la Republica del Paraguay" (Supreme and Perpetual Dictator of the Republic of Paraguay).


This he retained until the day of his death, no man daring to dispute for a single instant his perfect right to the title.
Grim and implacable, he continued his career unchallenged to the last. Considering the circumstances, his vitality remained unimpaired for a strangely long period, for Francia died at the advanced age of eighty years, after a virtual reign of nearly thirty years.

Francia was succeeded by Carlos Antonio Lopez, who showed himself, by comparison, a liberal-minded and progressive ruler.
During his reign few events of real importance occurred, although the trading facilities permitted by the new Dictator were responsible for the increasing intercourse between Paraguay and the outer world.

On the death of Carlos Antonio Lopez the chief office of the State of Paraguay was occupied by his eldest son, Francisco Solano Lopez.


Francisco Solano had seen more of the outer world than was usual in the case of the Paraguayan of that period.
He had resided in Paris, where he had carried out a diplomatic mission, and where his intelligence had won golden opinions from all those who came into contact with him.

Indeed, the impression he had produced on all sides was favourable in the extreme, and great things were expected as the outcome of his government in Paraguay.

On the death of his father Lopez showed no small sense of initiative, for the only office to which he could assume any shadow of a right to claim at the moment was that of Vice-President.

Acting in this capacity, he obtained immediate control of the army, summoned a meeting of the Deputies, and told them it was their task to elect a new President.
Seeing that the building was surrounded by troops in the pay of Lopez, the great majority took the hint.


Two only of their number did not acclaim Francisco Solano as the new autocrat of Paraguay, and as these two disappeared on the following night, and were never seen again, the unwisdom of opposition was strongly inculcated from the start.

The Dictator's full title was "Jefe Supremo y General de los Exercitos de la Republica del Paraguay"; his familiar title, and the one he most encouraged, was "Supremo."

With the power once in his hands, Francisco Solano Lopez changed his tactics as completely and as abruptly as had Francia in his day.
Tyranny once more became the accepted order of things.

Lopez had brought with him from France his mistress, Madame Lynch, a Parisian of Irish descent, and it was this latter alone who possessed the slightest influence over the new autocrat.


Indeed, once firmly established on his throne - for his Dictator's seat was in reality nothing less - Lopez II. showed a most callous disregard for the lives of any of his subjects, whether great or small.

Ever since his visit to France Napoleon had constituted his ideal of manhood, and it was upon the conduct of the great Corsican that he loved to think he modelled his own.

Certainly Lopez was utterly free from any dread of holocaust.
In a very short while the prisons had been filled to overflowing, and the red soil of Paraguay grew redder with the blood of hundreds of executions.


Once again the barriers began to be set up between Paraguay and the outer world, and once again it became almost impossible for one who had crossed its frontiers to return to his native land.

But, since it was the fate of Lopez to have lived in a later age than Francia, the ambitions of this third Dictator were correspondingly enlarged.
It was not his design ultimately to shut off Paraguay from the rest of the Continent; it was his plan rather to cause the frontiers of his country to spread until they had enveloped all the other lands.

Thus he considered he was acting in conformity with the true Napoleonic tradition, and also, incidentally, with his own desires and dreams.


In order to be prepared for the great day which was to come to Paraguay, the army was increased, trained, and drilled until it became one of the most important and efficient military organizations in the Continent.

This army was completely and entirely the toy of Lopez.
The men were his to be shot or promoted at his slightest whim, and the officers were subjected to precisely the same irresponsible but merciless discipline.

Even at this period in no other country of South America, perhaps, would such a state of affairs have continued. Paraguay, however, as has been explained, differed in its ethics from any of the neighbouring States.

The population was largely composed of civilized Guaraní Indians, and the section of this great family in these latitudes had from the earliest days of the Continent been noted for its easy-going and somewhat indolent qualities.


The result of the intercourse between the Spaniards and Indians had produced a small minority of mestizos, whose enterprise scarcely exceeded that of the natives.
The soft and enervating climate was, of course, largely responsible for this; indeed, it was inevitable that a beautiful and lotus-eating land of the kind should have produced inhabitants to match.

A few only of the Paraguayans had had the advantage of travelling in Europe, and on their return to their native land its atmosphere very seldom permitted them to remain for long without the local and somewhat demoralizing influences.


Had Lopez been content to continue to act as supreme and all-powerful lord of every man and thing within his own frontiers, the affairs of Paraguay, enlivened at intervals by those salutary orgies of executions, might have drowsed on indefinitely.

For a man of the temperament of Francisco Solano Lopez such comparative repression was impossible.
He had dreamed himself Emperor of South America, and this he was determined to be.


Of all the neighbouring countries, Brazil was the first to be alarmed.
She had the most reason, since her frontiers ran to the greatest length side by side with those of the land which held the ambitious Dictator.

Ere Francisco Solano Lopez had reigned two years the inevitable had occurred.
Arrogance and threats of aggression on the part of the inland State, resentment and profound mistrust on the part of the Brazilian Empire, led to open breach.

The pretext lay in the joint interference on the part of Brazil and Paraguay in the internal affairs of Uruguay, which troubled Republic was just then in a more than usually violent state of revolution.


Lopez, in a moment of somewhat artificial exaltation, protested solemnly against the Brazilian policy as directed against Uruguay. Since this protest was ignored, Lopez resolved on war.

He commenced hostilities by the capture of the Marques de Olinda, a Brazilian steamer which conveniently found itself at the moment at Asuncion, on its way up the great river system to the Imperial territory of Matto Grosso.

The crew and the passengers of the Marques de Olinda were taken ashore as prisoners. These included the Brazilian Governor of Matto Grosso, who, together with the great majority of his fellow-passengers, was destined never to see his native land again.


This decisive act lit up the flames of war, and the most important struggle between the races of its own soil which the Continent had ever seen now commenced; for in the end, not only were Brazil and Paraguay involved, but the neighbouring States of Argentina and Uruguay as well.



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