Doctors and the dictator

In the latest BMJ essay, Dalrymple discusses the early 19th Century Paraguayan dictator Francia.

Dalrymple visited the former home of the dictator more than twenty years ago, during his East-to-West journey across the South American continent, and he wrote about the experience in his first book, Coups and Cocaine: Two Journeys in South America.


Yaguaron was also the home of Dr Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, first dictator of Paraguay and one of the most extraordinary men of the nineteenth century, though now largely forgotten. His house is a museum, little visited, down an unpaved road that leads straight to the wilderness beyond.

Dr Francia’s home is a modest, single-storeyed whitewashed house, not unlike thousands of others. I went there in the hope that it would help me understand something of his enigma — a residue, no doubt, of the primitive idea that after his death a little of a man’s spirit remains in the places he has frequented during life.

The house was as simple in furnishing as it was in construction, hardly what one might have expected of a man with such a monstrous ego that he decreed that all Paraguayans must wear a hat, be they otherwise naked, so that they might doff it whenever he or his functionaries went by. The truth seems to be that Dr Francia was one of those strange austere despots that this normally corrupt continent throws up, whose integrity is terrifying in its consistency, more terrifying by far than any regime of mere peculation could ever be. When Francia died, the public treasury was found to contain 122,000 silver pesos and 87,336 gold, of which latter 36,500 were his unclaimed salary for the previous twenty-five years. He was a Lenin rather than a Somoza.

[snip]

He was parsimonious with government funds to the ultimate degree. When having a batch of conspirators executed on the lawn in front of the government house he allocated only one musket ball per condemned man. If that failed to kill, the man was hacked to death with a machete. Thanks to ancient muskets and poor marksmanship there was fearful carnage, while Francia looked on from the veranda, calmly smoking a cigar and writing beside the name of each executed man the words Pax Francia. There were not many conspiracies against him.

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