Solano Lopez

Image: Tom D'Arby


The smooth running of the López business required that the people remain obedient to their “supreme” dictates.

Marshal Francisco Solano López (1827-1870) died 154 years ago, but the controversies surrounding his legacy continue to cause rivers of ink to flow and cement political discourses. Just mentioning his name triggers passions and motivates rhetorical duels that almost always revolve around themselves. No wonder: Solano López is part of both regional history and mythology.

Liberal historiography abhors it. In general, it presents him as the sole or main person responsible not only for the outbreak of the War against the Triple Alliance,[I] but also for not having surrendered and, thus, having led to the destruction of his country.

Nationalist historiography, a breeding ground for the ultra-right and a sector of misguided leftists, presents an equally superficial account, but in the opposite direction. They simply canonized him as a “unique national hero”. As this narrative emerged in response to the national trauma caused by Paraguay's historic defeat in the 19th century, it is not difficult to understand why nationalism retains an outsized weight in the collective consciousness.

Unfortunately, in their eagerness to argue with the apologists of the Triple Alliance, a large part of the left rejected Marxism and, with little rigor, assumed the main postulates of bourgeois nationalism as their own, in the form of so-called revisionism. The political cost of this theoretical deviation was high: much of this “progressivism” ended up resigning itself to the innocuous role of mere reproducers of the crudest patriotic interpretations, placing Dr. Francia and the López family in their particular Pantheon of Heroes.”red-red".[ii]

I do not propose here to completely separate man from myth. Of the many faces that this topic raises, I intend to focus on the one mentioned above, that is, how pernicious, from the point of view of the left, the personality cult of Solano López is.

Without a doubt, this is not to deny the leading role he played in a dramatic moment in South American history. The objective is to carry out a class analysis to understand something much more basic: this man had nothing in common with popular interests, nor was he committed to deepening a process of democratization of society that, in any case, would have been limited, given its bourgeois character.

The real Marshal Solano López had none of the paternalistic and even “anti-imperialist” figure that some authors linked to Stalinism-Maoism or dependency theory constructed between the 1950s and 1970s.

Until 1860, it could be said that Dom Carlos' “heir” embodied the stage at which the Paraguayan bourgeoisie had reached: nationalist, ambitious, unscrupulous when it came to extracting social surplus from other people's workforce for his own benefit.

Although modified, the Lópezes maintained the essentials of dictator Francia's statist economic policy. However, unlike their predecessor, they governed during a period of “bonanza” in the trade of primary products, lasting just over a decade, and allowed notable economic growth, compared to the levels achieved until 1840.

Francisco Solano was educated as the firstborn of the most powerful family. Without having participated in any battle, his father promoted him to general at just 18 years old. At the National Congress of March 1865, let us not be mistaken, he was appointed “Marshal of the Homeland Armies”.[iii] Nepotism and all sorts of gifts were normal in a society in which the Lopezes considered themselves “owners” of the nation. In 1864, without palliatives, they were “the State”.

They did and undone whatever they wanted. They were the main landowners; they participated with advantages in internal and external trade; controlled financial operations; They also occupied the main political, ecclesiastical and military positions.

Francisco Solano had a partnership with the brothers Pedro and Buenaventura Decoud to sell yerba mate in Buenos Aires and other places.[iv] Vicente Barrios and Saturnino Bedoya, sons-in-law of Carlos A. López, operated yerba mate plantations and sold their production to the State. The latter, who held the position of General Treasurer during the war, was also the owner of one of the capital's main commercial houses.[v] Data from 1854 allows us to estimate profits from the extraction of social surplus: 0,15 pounds per arroba were paid on plantations, which were sold for 1,60 pounds in Buenos Aires.[vi]

The Lopezes made all kinds of deals and speculations. The women of the family, for example, bought damaged banknotes at an 8% discount, and then exchanged them for their real value at the Ministry of Finance.[vii]

Guido Rodríguez Alcalá gathers data from the National Archives of Asunción that reveal cases in which the López family and their closest circle purchased land and livestock from the State to expand their private properties; they transferred public cattle to their farms; sold or exchanged their own cattle with the State[viii]. It would be childish to assume that, given the family's degree of control over the State, anyone could oppose any of their business.

The claims that Irish Elisa Alicia Lynch, Solano López's best-known partner, made in Asunción after the war, show the gigantic properties that the marshal-president transferred to her as if they were private property. Using dubious titles, in 1875 she demanded the return of 32 rural and urban properties totaling around 9.000.000 hectares of land, of which 60% were on Paraguayan soil and the remainder in territories that had been annexed by the Argentina and Brazil.[ix]

The patrimonialism and nepotism prevailing in the López's Paraguay would certainly make the scandalous discretionary management of public affairs today pale in comparison. The family's business, carried out from its leading position in the State, not only shows the class character of its governments, but also the “normal” evolution of a national bourgeoisie that, as it consolidated, became more reactionary , undemocratic and abusive in the control of public goods.

Recognizing this fact does not mean denying or belittling the material progress that Paraguay achieved until 1864, thanks to a model of capitalist accumulation that, as we know, was based on protectionism and economic regulation, instead of free trade; in monopolies and state-owned companies, to the detriment of large foreign investments; in the balance of public finances, without external debt and, mainly, in the nationalization of land and the leasing of part of it to direct producers.[X]

Although the success of this model was unlikely in the long term, I believe that these elements suggest that there was a nascent bourgeoisie with intentions of inserting itself and gaining space in the international market independently, although without modifying the model based on primary exports. In any case, this does not allow us to confuse a “singular” experience of bourgeois nationalism in the 19th century with emancipatory projects of the exploited classes. They are different things, at least from a Marxist perspective.

Speaking of a statist model, however, assumes that someone controls the state machine. If we accept the existence of social classes – and make an effort to include them in our analyzes – it is not possible to maintain that the López family dominated the nation to promote a supposed common good. No. The nascent bourgeoisie imposed its interests on the rest of the nation and, within this class, the Lópezes were the hegemonic faction. Thus, the material progress of the nation was expressed, in the first instance, in the enrichment of the main sector of the ruling class.

A dictatorship?

Now, an uncomfortable but fundamental question: was the López regime a dictatorship? The study of the facts leads to an affirmative answer.

Denying the existence of a despotic, police regime, in which the popular masses did not enjoy any democratic freedom, is as difficult as hiding an elephant in a room. A Marxist historical reading cannot fail to recognize an evident fact, just as it cannot hesitate when denouncing the entire ideological justification of authoritarianism/militarism that continues to emanate from the glorification of that dictatorship.

For the general congresses of 1813 and 1814, “a thousand deputies” were called, elected in the villages through male suffrage, without census criteria. In 1816, the convocation was restricted to 250 representatives, who acclaimed Doctor Francia as Perpetual Dictator. Francia would not convene another national congress until his death. In 1844, the so-called “Law establishing the Political Administration of the Republic of Paraguay” was approved.[xi] which limited subsequent congresses to 200 deputies and incorporated the condition that they must be “proprietary”. In 1856, a reform reduced representation in congresses to 100 deputies, narrowing the palace circle, since both elected and voters had to be property owners.

This short summary is enough to note that, since 1816, there has been a continuous setback in terms of institutional political representation. If we know that, in Dr. Francia's time, the average salary of a private soldier was six pesos (minus discounts) and that in 1844 “own capital of eight thousand pesos” was required to exercise “the enjoyment of all rights civilians”, it is indisputable that the working classes did not have an opinion or decide anything.

There were several justifications for this dictatorial hardening. In his 1854 report, Carlos A. López insisted on the need to maintain the condition of property as an “essential requirement”, considering the “very serious evils” that universal suffrage contained. He was convinced that the people were not prepared for the “regular and moderate use of rights of which they do not yet know.” Hence his exhortation to maintain “a strong power: without a strong power, there is no justice, there is no order, there is no civil or political freedom.”[xii]

If it is correct to say that in the Empire of Brazil (a slave monarchy) or in Buenos Aires (which intended to impose its hegemony over the interior through almost permanent war) there were no “democracies”, it is no less true that, in Paraguay, all political power was concentrated in this hard core of 100 property-owning deputies, led by the López and linked to state affairs. Power, although congresses were formally convened, continued to be unipersonal and absolute. I dare to say that this was the most powerful oligarchy in Paraguayan history.

In the aforementioned reform of 1856, Dom Carlos also made sure to legally clear the path so that, when he died, his son Francisco Solano would succeed him in power. The congress held on October 16, 1862, did nothing more than ratify the claim of the patriarch of the López family.

A year earlier, The Weekly had promoted an aberrant campaign in favor of a constitutional monarchy. In one edition, the country's official newspaper asked: “Is it possible to say that there is incompatibility between freedom and monarchies? That there is only compatibility between it and the republics?”[xiii]. The conclusion: “Constitutional monarchy and democracy are the same thing”[xiv].

It is true that, in the strictest sense, there was never a formal transition from a republican regime to a monarchical one. However, this official campaign serves as a demonstration of the degree of concentration of power that existed in Paraguayan society before the war. By 1863, royalist propaganda had reached unacceptable levels. The “Supreme Government” printed and disseminated an adaptation of the well-known San Alberto Catechism,[xv] an unequivocal apology for absolute monarchy, with its well-known divine foundation.

The class perspective does not underestimate the importance of defining the political regime, that is, the specific legal-institutional combination through which the dictatorship of one class over another materializes. In this context, a regime that annulled democratic freedoms only worsened the conditions of exploitation of working people, who were unable to express themselves politically. The reason for this was ultimately economic. The smooth running of the López business required that the people remain obedient to their “supreme” dictates.

However, the regime based on unipersonal power would show all its limitations when international hostilities began to close in. The bourgeois State, due to its backwardness and the López's fear of promoting cadres who could overshadow them, showed a dramatic lack of competent personnel in the diplomatic corps and military officers. This further weakened the Paraguayan position when the guasu war it started.

The material abyss that separated Solano López from the people increased during the conflict. In the last three years of the conflict, while tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians died in the trenches or in their villages, amid misery and starvation and all kinds of hardship, we found documents in the National Archives of Asunción that attest to the formation of commissions that They organized celebrations for the marshal's birthday who, in 1867, received as a gift “a golden sword” and a “golden wreath and a triumphal cap”. The following year, other assemblies were held to “issue gold coins with the effigy of Marshal Francisco Solano López”. It is disgusting to see how the cult of the marshal-president was proportional to the deprivations of the troops and the civilian population.

Solano López, the wealthy tyrant who thought he was all-powerful, could be the hero of a sector of the local bourgeoisie. The class he belonged to has the right to idolize him as much as they want. However, he cannot be the hero of anyone who claims to be, not just Marxist or leftist, but a defender of democratic freedoms in general.

We know that working class heroes have always been anonymous. In the same way that it would be absurd to expect the Paraguayan bourgeoisie – which imposed the entire ideological structure that today represents the nation – to build a pantheon for enslaved indigenous people and Afro-descendants, or for mensú (super-exploited rural workers), it is unacceptable for anyone who intends to speak on behalf of the interests of the exploited classes to make the sign of the cross before the altar of Solano López.

It is one thing to recognize your individual role during the period in which the independent national state reached its peak and destruction; and admit its leading role on the military side of a nation oppressed and attacked by superior enemies. Another is to pay reverence to him. The cult of Solano López's personality leads us to make the mistake of confusing the extraordinary struggle that the Paraguayan people carried out during the guasu war with the judgment and actions of its political-military leadership.

The nationalist narrative omits that, although the Triple Alliance represented a common enemy for Solano López and the exploited sectors of Paraguayan society, both faced this danger on the basis of opposing class interests.

The common people fought for their sovereignty, not in the romantic sense that nationalists propose, but rather understood as an action on which their right to exist depended. In turn, when Solano López and his entourage of “property citizens” fought “for the homeland”, they did so to defend their businesses, which were inseparable from the control of the state apparatus. The left, even more so Marxism, should not lose sight of this.

*Ronald Leon Nunez he holds a doctorate in history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (Sundermann). []

Translation: Marcos Margarido

Expanded version of the article originally published in cultural supplement of the Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color.


[I] In Paraguay, also known as big war or, in Guarani, Guasu War.

[ii] Expression used to refer to extreme Chavistas, currently the fanatical followers of Nicolás Maduro. The literal translation is “red-red”.

[iii] Search:

[iv] RODRÍGUEZ ALCALÁ, Guido. Francia y López. In: SOLER, Lorena, et al. (Org.). Anthology of contemporary Paraguayan critical thought. Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2015, p. 15.

[v] WHIGHAM, Thomas. What did the river come to?. State and commerce in Paraguay and Corrientes [1776-1870]. Asunción: CEADUC, 2009, p. 132.

[vi] SCAVONE, Ricardo. Preliminary study. In: SCAVONE, Ricardo (Org.). Controversies surrounding the government of Carlos Antonio López in the Buenos Aires press [1857-1858]. Asunción: Time of History, 2010, P. 15.

[vii] WHIGHAM, Thomas. What did the river come to?…, op. cit, pp. 132-133.

[viii] RODRÍGUEZ ALCALÁ, Guido. Francia y López…, op. cit., p. 552-554.

[ix] RODRÍGUEZ ALCALÁ, Guido. Francia y López…, op. cit., p. 553. Land claims within the borders of Paraguay covered an area that included the entirety of the current departments of Amambay, Concepción, San Pedro and part of Canindeyú.

[X] According to Bárbara Potthast: “During the government of Carlos Antonio López, Francia's successor, this leasing system continued. López established mandatory rules for setting the lease, which could not exceed 5% of the value of the land, and introduced a procedure for the legal transfer of parcels to users.” Consult: POTTHAST, Barbara. Between the invisible and the painterly: Paraguayan women in the peasant economy (Siglo XIX). Jahrbuch für Geschichte Lateinamerikas, Köln, No. 40, 2003, p. 207.

[xi] Search:

[xii] LÓPEZ, Carlos A. Mensajes de Carlos Antonio López. Asunción: Imprenta Nacional, 1931, pp. 94-100.

[xiii] CARDOZO, Efraím [1961]. El Imperio del Brasil y el Río de la Plata: Antecedentes y estallido de la Guerra del Paraguay. Asunción: Intercontinental, 2012, p. 125.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] The Royal Catechism of José Antonio de San Alberto is a political text published in 1786. It was a response from the metropolis to the uprising of Túpac Amaru. Its main objective was to legitimize and preach religious obedience to the Hispanic monarchy.

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