Close your eyes, dear reader. Now, open them, and keep reading, because we’re going to take you on a journey.
Imagine a country run by a loud, brash personality with hair that defies the laws of gravity. He was elected by devoted rural followers on a nationalist platform. Eventually, that nationalism led him to cut the country off from allies and trade opportunities. He closed the borders to immigration, in or out. Those who did enter the country illegally were held prisoner for years. He developed radical policies about race and ethnicity.
Though he was democratically elected to begin with, he consolidated power over the years. By the end of his 26 years in office, his official title was “Supreme and Perpetual Dictator.”
Lest you think this is Donald Trump fan fiction, fear not.
It’s Paraguay in the 19th century, baby.
José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia was Paraguay’s first democratically elected leader after he helped the country become independent from Spain.
Francia was born poor to a family of mixed ethnic background, two major strikes against him in Paraguay at the time. He rose through the academic ranks, becoming one of only two Paraguayans at the time with a doctorate degree.
Francia was obsessed with the French Revolution and advocated for Paraguay’s independence. Though he held just a lowly, local office, he was well respected for his education. Many rural Paraguayans thought he was a religious figure, based on his deep knowledge of astronomy and history.
Francia capitalized on all of this and ended up writing the new Paraguayan constitution in 1811.
Surprise, surprise: he wrote it in his favor. By 1814, he was elected as the sole leader of Paraguay.
As ruler, Francia cut off all ties with other nations. That went double for Argentina (“and none for you, Argentina!”), even though Paraguay’s only trade route was through Argentina. Paraguay quickly became a hermit nation, an approach that had …well, mixed results.
Not unlike modern Cuba, some of Paraguay’s systems were strengthened by its isolation. Francia encouraged modernization in agriculture. He ran the country frugally and never used his position to line his own pockets. He brought racial and socioeconomic equality to Paraguay’s stratified society.
But his approaches sometimes missed the mark. He forbade any Spaniard to marry another Spaniard, forcing inter-marriages between Paraguayans of indigenous and European backgrounds.
His intense focus on nationalism meant Paraguayans couldn’t leave, and outsiders weren’t welcome in. And perhaps he was right on that front. Two Swiss surgeons were detained in Paraguay for six years. Upon their release, they published a book in multiple languages detailing the inner workings of Francia’s regime. (I mean, come on. Who gets their feelings hurt over a lil six year detention??)
The country’s isolation became even more problematic the longer Francia remained in office. He grew increasingly erratic and despotic, and human rights became ever more imperiled.
After an uprising of Paraguay’s former ruling class, Francia arrested 200 people. Many were executed; others were imprisoned for life. Many of Paraguay’s industries became powered by prison labor.
He personally (!) had to oversee every marriage, and getting married was highly taxed and discouraged. (Probably because he had to personally oversee each one). He abolished higher education and nationalized the Catholic church.
And in the category of not-bad-just-weird, when Francia caught the oldest of his seven illegitimate children prostituting herself, he made prostitution legal for the whole country.
Francia ruled until his death in 1840.
His legacy is mixed in Paraguay. On the one hand, he’s hailed as the man who helped Make Paraguay Great Again by winning independence from overlords near and far. The rural poor flourished under his rule and the country avoided the bloody revolutions of its neighbors. Paraguay is 90 percent Mestizo to this day. There is a museum dedicated to his memory in the capital.
On the other hand, when he died, the noblemen literally stole his corpse, dismembered it and threw it in the river. Paraguay remained isolated and under autocratic rule until 1989. It missed out on decades of economic development and so many people died needlessly under his rule.
I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about whether Francia’s rule was a period of golden peace or a reign of terror. Most importantly, though, it’s over and we all learned our lesson. Never again would a country be ruled by an autocratic-minded loudmouth with an alarming hairline. What. A. Relief.