Monday, December 16, 2013

Francisco Solano Lopez: Latin America's Bloodiest War

Francisco Solano Lopez

French Premier George Clemenceau once remarked that, “War is too important to be left to the generals.”  Some military men might think that war is too important to be left to the politicians.  This was certainly true in the case of Francisco Solano Lopez.

Francisco Solano Lopez became president of the small land locked South American country of Paraguay 
in 1862.  His chief claim to office was that he was the eldest son of the previous president/dictator Carlos Antonio Lopez.  The father had groomed the son to take his place.  Francisco was appointed a brigadier general at the age of 18 (1844).  In 1853 he was sent to Europe as minister plenipotentiary to purchase arms and military supplies.  He spent some eighteen months in Europe and became enamored with the military pomp of the court of Napoleon III of France When someone told the short, fat Lopez that he resembled the great Napoleon, he began to wear uniforms in the style of the great Emperor and even had an exact replica of Napoleon’s crown made to take back to Paraguay He devoured literature on the campaigns of Napoleon and prided himself on knowing the minutia of every battle. 

Returning to Paraguay, Solano Lopez was appointed Minister of War in 1855.  He was subsequently appointed Vice President, and upon the death of his father became president.  He then called a special session of congress which chose him as president for ten years.  During his first two years as president, López continued his father's domestic policies, especially the promotion of agriculture, but foreign affairs were his obsession. Although he had practically no military training, López fancied himself a great political and military strategist. Solano Lopez had visions of “Greater Paraguay”.  He wanted to annex portions of Brazil 
to link Paraguay to the Atlantic Ocean He began to expand Paraguay’s military capability, developing war industries, mobilizing large numbers of men for military service and building fortifications in key strategic areas.  Diplomatically, Solano López allied himself with the conservative government in neighboring Uruguay which was known to be hostile to the interests of Brazil

In 1864, Brazil 
threw its support behind an armed uprising against the government of Uruguay Uruguay sought help from Paraguay Lopez notified Brazil that any occupation of Uruguayan lands by Brazil would be considered as an attack on Paraguay. Brazil sent troops into Uruguay on October 12, 1864

declared war on Brazil on December 13 and invaded the Brazilian province of  Mato Grosso, quickly overrunning most of the province and seizing its diamond mines. Lopez next intended to drive the Brazilians out of Uruguay, but to reach Uruguay he needed to march across the territory of Argentina The Argentine government refused to allow his force to cross its province of Corrientes Lopez then declared war on Argentina (April 13, 1865), overrunning Corrientes province and declaring its annexation to Greater Paraguay.  

On May 1, Brazil, Argentina 
and the newly installed rebel government in Uruguay signed the Treaty of the Triple Alliance which stipulated that the allies would pursue war against the existing government of Paraguay until “no arms or elements of war should be left to it.”

Francisco Solano Lopez had embarked on a war which pitted Paraguay with a population of 500,000 against three countries with a combined population of 11 million. Lopez's chief asset was a well-drilled army of 8,000 men, which was rapidly expanded through conscription.  Lopez’s earlier preparations for aggressive war allowed initial local numerical superiority and early victories, but by 1866 the Allies had blunted his advances and were beginning to bring their superior numbers to bear.  The Triple Alliance was on the offensive, driving the Paraguayans out of the previously conquered territories and preparing to invade Paraguay In September, 1866, Lopez  realized that the war was lost and was ready to sign a peace treaty with the allies.  The allies demanded unconditional surrender and regime change.  This Lopez could not accept.

The army with which Francisco Solano Lopez began the war was gone.  Now every male was to be conscripted: ten-year-olds fought and died beside their grandfathers. The new armies marched half-naked, their colonels barefoot. Young boys wore fake beards and were armed with sticks.  Units attacked Brazilian ironclads armed only with machetes. And yet Paraguayans continued to fight. At Peribibuy, two thousand men and boys faced a force ten times their size, firing their few muskets and then, out of ammunition, throwing stones.

While an indifferent general, Francisco Solano Lopez was a first rate tyrant.  Through a system of nepotism, liberal rewards and harsh punishments he was able to bind the fate of the Paraguayan people to his own.  Lopez cultivated loyalty by fostering a variety of populist measures directed at encouraging a veneer of solidarity between the Westernized president dressed in the latest French military fashion and his, bare-foot Indian subjects.  More importantly, a pervasive spy network reported even the mildest grumbling.  Grumbling was punished by death.  The spy network included household servants and even priests reporting back from the confessional.  One of the dictator’s most useful allies was the Roman Catholic Church.  The Church told the ignorant parishioners that Lopez ruled by divine right and anyone dying in his service would go directly to heaven.  Clerics who disagreed ended up in jail.   In a last ditch effort to inflame the religious mania of the people, Lopez proclaimed himself a saint. Twenty three Paraguayan clerics objected to the canonization and were executed.

In 1868, with the allies steadily advancing, Lopez convinced himself that there was a conspiracy against his life. Several hundred prominent Paraguayan citizens were arrested and executed, including his brothers and brothers-in-law, cabinet ministers, judges, prefects, military officers, bishops and priests, and nine-tenths of the civil service, together with more than two hundred foreigners.

In August 1869 the allies captured the capital, Asuncion, and set up a new government.  Solano López continued resistance from the mountains northeast of Asuncion The Brazilians tracked Lopez down to his mountain lair.  On March 1, 1870 
the Brazilians surprised Lopez at his camp at Cerro Cora and killed the would-be Napoleon.

The Paraguayan War, or War of the Triple Alliance as it is also known, lasted from 1864 to 1870 and was one of the bloodiest wars in Latin American history. Paraguay lost half of its population, the survivors being mostly women and children, and had to cede a great part of its territory to its neighbors.  Only some 28,000 adult males survived the debacle.

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