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Francia, José Gaspar Rodríguez de (1766–1840)

Francia, José Gaspar Rodríguez de (1766–1840)

José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (b. 6 January 1766; d. 20 September 1840), dictator of Paraguay (1814–1840). One of three major nineteenth-century rulers of Paraguay, Francia was viewed by his elite contemporaries and traditional historians as a ruthless dictator who isolated Paraguay from outside contact and whose iron rule destroyed all who opposed him—foreigners, intellectuals, and the Paraguayan elite. Revisionist historians perceive him as an honest, populist ruler who promoted an autonomous, social revolution within Paraguay and encouraged the economic development of the country.

Born in Asunción to a Brazilian military officer and his elite Paraguayan wife, Francia earned a doctorate in theology in 1785 at the University of Córdoba, Argentina. He then taught theology at Asunción's Real Colegio y Seminario de San Carlos. Upon his dismissal for his liberal ideas on religion and politics, he turned to law. He never married and did not use his political opportunities to amass wealth. He gained political experience by serving on the municipal council of Asunción from 1807 to 1809 and won enough respect for his legal and administrative knowledge to be given the responsibility of defining the qualifications for participation in the revolutionary junta. Eventually dominating the junta, he espoused Paraguayan independence from both Spanish and Argentine hegemony and wrote the first constitution of Paraguay, which the Congress adopted in October 1813. The dual consulship of Colonel Fulgencio Yegros and Francia soon failed. Francia's popularity, personality, and political ability led the National Congress of 1814 to elect him supreme dictator. Even though there were periods of shared power as well as self-imposed exile between 1811 and 5 June 1816, when the Popular Congress elected him perpetual dictator, Francia was the most powerful and popular politician for the first twenty-nine years of Paraguayan independence.

Francia destroyed the traditional power of the Spanish elite and the church, strengthened the military, and appealed to the peasants. He did not abolish the municipal councils in small towns but did terminate those in Asunción and Villa Rica that were controlled by the elite. He promoted state-operated cattle ranches and state commerce, which competed with the private estancias and mercantile houses and undermined the elite's ability to increase its wealth. Francia dominated the operations of the Roman Catholic Church by collecting tithes, paying the clergy's salaries, and constructing churches. Although he closed the seminary at which he had once taught, between 1815 and 1840 he had at least ten new churches constructed and increased the number of priests in the villages.

To promote the nation's self-sufficiency, Francia encouraged greater utilization of state lands through government enterprises and low rents for small farmers who produced food for local consumption. He promoted internal trade, controlled external commerce and immigration, increased industrial production in both the private and public sectors, improved communications and transportation, and reduced taxes. To limit government costs, he maintained only a small bureaucracy. His frugality and careful attention to detail resulted in governmental fiscal surpluses. A paternalistic ruler, Francia supported religious celebrations and paid for pauper burials and the care of orphans. The state helped pay soldiers' debts, provided food for indigent prisoners, and aided foreign exiles.

To maintain internal security, suppress banditry, protect against Indians, and define the nation's boundaries, Francia built border forts and established garrisons at the northern border with Brazil at the Apa River, in the south at Pilar on the Argentine border, and in the southeast, which expanded control over the Misiones region. To end Paraguayan political independence, Francia sought Argentine recognition and free trade on the border along the Paraná River. When Argentine caudillos disrupted trade between 1817 and 1822 and Buenos Aires refused to recognize Paraguayan independence, Francia closed Paraguay's borders in 1819 and again between 1823 and 1840, redirecting Paraguayan external trade through the department of Itapúa (Encarnación) to Brazil and Uruguay. The conduct of trade down the Paraná, although regulated by Francia, never entirely ceased, because small boats were able to get through Pilar to Corrientes. By maintaining neutrality in Río de la Plata affairs and using Brazilian commercial interests to balance Argentine political demands, Francia assured Paraguayan independence.

In contrast to other Spanish-American states after independence, Francia's government was stable, efficient, and honest. At his death Paraguay possessed a prosperous, independent national economy and a centralized political system. His economic and political power and willingness to use force created critics among the elite and laid the basis for autocratic rule in Paraguay. Even though military officers and civilians maneuvered for power after his death, the peaceful transfer of government that occurred testifies to the strength of his administration. A dedicated nationalist, popular with the masses, Francia was a dictator whose paternalistic policies benefited a large majority of Paraguayans.

See alsoParaguay, Constitutions; United Provinces of the Río de la Plata.


The two major monographs are Richard Alan White, Paraguay's Autonomous Revolution, 1810–1840 (1978), which views Francia's rule as having fomented a social revolution, and John Hoyt Williams, The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic, 1800–1870 (1979), a revisionist interpretation, which assesses Francia as one of the three major nineteenth-century dictators to rule Paraguay. Julio César Chaves, El supremo dictador 4th ed. (1964), is a well-researched, multi-archival political study examining Francia sympathetically within the context of Paraguayan history. Raul De Andrada E Silva, Ensaio sobre a Ditadura do Paraguai, 1814–1840 (1978), analyzes the social and economic system of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paraguay under Francia. José Antonio Vázquez, El Doctor Francia visto y oido por sus contemporáneos (1975), is an excellent collection of 465 documentary excerpts on Francia, beginning with his youth and proceeding chronologically to his death.

Additional Bibliography

Canese, Gino. Karai Guasu: Doctor José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia: Artifice de la nación paraguaya. Asunción: Servilibro, 2004.

Ribeiro, Ana. El Caudillo y el Dictador. Montevideo: Editorial Planeta, 2003.

Rivarola Paoli, Juan Bautista. El regimen jurídico de la tierra: Época del Dr. Francia y de los López. Asunción: J.B. Rivarola Paoli, 2004.

                                     Vera Blinn Reber

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