(from an email) Yo, el Supremo. Paraguay's take on Bastos, Francia, and Stroessner

I'm having (what I hope is) an interesting email exchange about Bastos' masterwork Yo, el Supremo (1974) and Paraguay and thought, hey, why not post it? Gaspar Francia is the first dictator of Paraguay after independence (early 1800s) who closed the borders and prohibited contact with the outside world... For this, he got criticized by his contemporaries for being totally insane, but praised by later generations as one who was committed to Paraguayan independence. Bastos wrote a book about Francia but it was seen (and intended) as a thinly veiled critique of the Stroessner dictatorship under which Bastos was living in 20th century Paraguay.

Here's the question:
I run a tiny book club in ... and wanted to ask someone in Paraguay how important is Augusto Roa Bastos' I, The Supreme is there. Do you hear Paraguayans mention José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco very often? What is the conventional wisdom on the book? I am under the impression that 'Dr. Francia' remains a respected figure there, but the book doesn't show him in a very admirable light...

Here's my answer:
Thanks for emailing. Yo, el Supremo is an important work in Paraguay and Bastos is a figure who, though dead, has left his mark on the country. But, notice how "important" and "mark" don't necessarily mean "well-liked" or "popular." There are super cool cultural centers named after Bastos and Yo, el Supremo is in every bookstore (even the super tiny shacks on the sidewalks that seem to specialize in porn).

But, Paraguayans are very nationalistic and the figure of Francia, as you've said, is viewed very positively ("when a couple got married, they got a little piece of land and a pig and some seed from the state" a union leader once told me of Francia's reign). And so, Bastos' critique of Francia is controversial. I've had people take great pains to explain to me that the historical Francia and the Bastos's figure are very different and that I shouldn't confuse literature with history.

What was even more surprising to me was the way people have defended Stroessner (who Francia was a stand-in for in that book). And I mean ordinary people (not just those who have an interest in the conservative regime) who were all "some people say he's a 'dictator' but he was the president" and "some people say some people in his government committed torture, but I don't know anything of that."

Um... I hope this is a helpful email :) I'm reading it against the research I'm conducting and so it's cool to even get a chance to chat about it.

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One Response to (from an email) Yo, el Supremo. Paraguay's take on Bastos, Francia, and Stroessner

Gavin Sullivan said...

Thanks Christine. It wasn't at all obvious to me that the book's real target was Stroessner. Did Stroessner ban the book? Good of you to find Four Years In Paraguay for us--thanks. What would have happened had Paraguay never gained independence, anyway? Two horrendous wars avoided...a per-capita GDP not rivaling Sri Lanka's? Are you meeting intellectuals who take a less knee-jerk ideological view of their own country's history? If the average bloke thinks well of Stroessner, does this mean they're not very anti-US? Thanks for a cool blog! (& sorry if comment is somewhat bluntly worded)


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