Academic journal article MACLAS Latin American Essays


Academic journal article MACLAS Latin American Essays


Article excerpt


I, The Supreme is a novel that intrigues the reader on many levels.(1) This paper concentrates on the novel's treatment of both independence era and mid-twentieth century politics, and on the author's approach to political analysis and the explanation of political events.


On the surface level the novel is about the life and politics of Paraguay's most famous dictator, El Supremo: Dr. Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia. Francia (1766-1840) was the first great political leader of an independent Paraguay. He dominated national politics following the independence movement of 1811, was voted dictator for life by congress in 1814, and ruled the nation from then until his death in 1840. He was the first of three long-serving dictators who ruled over the landlocked nation for the first 60 years of its independence.

Francia created an army in which all citizens were required to serve. He confiscated property from the upper classes, and used the state's coercive power to direct the working of that land by peasants and the army. Francia sealed Paraguay's borders against the outside world. All foreign trade and travel required his permission, and even internal travel was closely controlled. No political opposition was tolerated. Through his land confiscations and active suppression of any opposition Dr. Francia soon destroyed Paraguay's small upper class of wealthy families. He used executions and prison camps against any suspected political plotters. Exile offered the only escape for those who opposed him.(2) At one level, I, The Supreme is a retelling of these events from the perspective of the dictator.


Although ostensibly a fictionalized account of the life of El Supremo, the novel is also a thinly disguised attack on the politics and rule of Alfredo Stroessner, the twentieth century personalist dictator ruling Paraguay at the time I The Supreme was published (in exile of course) in 1974. Stroessner ruled Paraguay even longer than Francia, controlling the nation from 1954 to 1989. Prior to becoming President, Stroessner had led Paraguayan troops against Bolivia in the Chaco War, and fought on the winning side in the 1947 Civil War. Subsequently, he was involved in a series of coups which eventually led to his assuming the presidency in 1954. His two principal sources of support were the military and the Colorado Party. By 1966 Stroessner had gained complete control of the Colorado Party by using his exceptional political infighting skills to remove all factional opposition leaders and appointing his trusted associates to the top party positions.

His infighting, organizational skills, and hard work also enabled him to gain complete control of the military, where he used the same skills to eliminate potential rivals. He closely monitored promotions and assignments, was in constant contact with military leaders, and participated directly in the allocation of military resources.(3) Stroessner's obsession with details is satirized in the novel in a long dispatch El Supremo dictates to a minor official in a rural outpost which tells the official how to adjust the harnesses of horses so that they can manage their work loads, when wood should be cut, what colors of cordings are appropriate for the fronts and backs of jackets for different military uniforms, the price to pay for back orders of publications, and the exact dimensions of some 15,000 toys that he wants ordered (including "20 foxes with a rooster on top of each of them, placed on boxes with springs 9 inches long").(4)

The novel's El Supremo (Francia) and Stroessner in the twentieth century used similar methods for dominating national politics. Neither tolerated effective opposition. Both rulers were extremely suspicious of any potential opponents, quickly acting to imprison and torture anyone suspected. Both were ruthless in their intolerance of dissent. Marked differences, however, did exist in the foreign policies of the two leaders. …

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