Six ways to take example from Napoleon and ruin your country

Dmytro Kyrylovets

President of Paraguay, Francisco Solano López, tried to imitate the Emperor of the French like no other statesman. This has killed most of the citizens of his country.

Many statesmen wanted to be like Napoleon, but few put as much effort into copying his image as President of Paraguay, Francisco Solano López. He became an ardent admirer of Bonaparte and the Second French Empire after visiting France in 1853.

‘He was short and stout… always inclining to corpulency. […] He dressed grotesquely, but his costume was always expensive and elaborately finished. […] His eyes, when he was pleased, had a mild and amiable expression; but when he was enraged the pupil seemed to dilate till it included the whole iris, and the eye did not appear to be that of a human being, but rather of a wild beast goaded to madness. He had, however, a gross animal look that was repulsive when his face was in repose.’ That’s how Charles Ames Washburn, the U.S. Minister to Paraguay, described López.

‘She was tall, had a flexible figure with seductive curves and alabaster-colored skin. Her eyes were so blue as if they had borrowed the color from the sky; their depths, where the radiance of Cupid reigned, glowed with indescribable pleasure…’ That’s how journalist Hector Varela described Eliza Lynch.


1. Find your own Joséphine

In one of the Parisian salons, Francisco Solano falls in love with an Irish-born courtesan Eliza Lynch. A year later, he offers her to move to Paraguay and promises to make her the ‘Empress of Latin America.’ Lynch agrees.

Although López did not marry her, over time, the foreigner gained the status of the most powerful woman in the country. She gave birth to six children and initiated the reconstruction of the impoverished capital city of Asunción, following the example of Paris. When the 35-year-old vice president inherited the presidency after his father’s death, Elisa became the unofficial first lady. During the Paraguayan War, her husband awarded her the rank of marshallina.

Eliza Lynch at the age of 20 (left) and 30 (right). Source: Revista de História da Biblioteca Nacional / Wikipedia

2. Copy Napoleon’s style

After becoming president in 1862, López began to modernize the Paraguayan army. Although his father had introduced the Prussian system of military organization, the son dressed the soldiers in uniforms resembling those of Napoleon’s army. López was photographed in Bonaparte’s favorite pose, with his hand over the side of his coat. It was rumored that he even ordered an exact copy of the French emperor’s crown to be made for him.

3. Develop winemaking

López dreamed of making Paraguay a ‘second France.’ In order to launch the wine industry, the president settled a group of French colonists in the Gran Chaco region and renamed the territory Nuevo Burdeos (New Bordeaux).

The French were greeted with honors. But the swampy, forested soil was not suitable not only for winemaking but for agriculture in general. A year later, the settlers began to fall ill and starve. They were also attacked by Indians. Gran Chaco has never become a wine region. Though a century and a half later, oil was discovered there.

Francisco Solano López, portrait by Aurelio García (1866), and the last known photo of López (1870). Source: Wikipedia /

4. Build your own Paris

Napoleon built the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and expanded the Louvre. His nephew, Napoleon III, has completely redesigned the city, turning most of the alleys and cul-de-sacs into wide, straight boulevards. Inspired by Paris, Francisco López and Eliza Lynch invited Europeans to build and transform the capital of Asunción. One of the largest projects was the construction of the presidential residence. Work began in 1857 under the direction of the English architect Alonso Taylor. The furniture was purchased in France.

Francisco Solano López has never settled in the palace. During the war, the residence was damaged by enemy artillery, and after the occupation of the country it became the headquarters of the Brazilian contingent.

5. Start a big war

In 1864, three countries intervened in the Uruguayan civil war: Paraguay on one side, Brazil and Argentina on the other. López considered the conflict a great opportunity to go down in history and win his country’s access to the sea back from the Brazilians.

Paraguay was better prepared for hostilities than its neighbors. The 38,000-strong army outnumbered the troops of all three adversaries. The country had its own production of guns and ammunition, and several dozen civilian riverboats were converted into military vessels.

Remains of Paraguayan soldiers at the battlefield. Photo: Bia Corrêa do Lago / Wikipedia
Uruguayan artillery, July 18, 1866. Photo: Ricardo Salles. Guerra del Paraguay: memoria & imágenes. // Rio de Janeiro, Biblioteca Nacional / Wikipedia
Brazilian soldiers, May 30, 1868
Brazilian soldiers, May 30, 1868. Photo: Ricardo Salles. Guerra del Paraguay: memoria & imágenes. // Rio de Janeiro, Biblioteca Nacional / Wikipedia
Uruguayan soldiers' sconce. Photo: Ricardo Salles. Guerra del Paraguay: memoria & imágenes. // Rio de Janeiro, Biblioteca Nacional / Wikipedia

By the middle of 1865, the initiative was in the hands of the Paraguayan army, which managed to capture part of the border provinces of Argentina and Brazil. However, for the next three years, the main events took place in the swamps of the La Plata River basin. The fate of the war was determined by the victory of the strong Brazilian navy. López lost control of river communications in a region with very few roads, but he did not give up.

In 1868, the president decided that the military failures were caused by a conspiracy and executed several hundred of the most influential citizens. Without trial and after torture, his brothers, ministers, judges, prefects, officers, priests, engineers, and nearly 200 foreigners, including several diplomats, were executed along with their families. López also ordered the beating of his 70-year-old mother and sister.

In 1870, the Brazilian army surrounded López’ detachment that was hiding in the northeast of the country. Before he died, he exclaimed: 'I die in my country!'

As a result of the war, almost half of Paraguay’s territory was ceded to Brazil and Argentina. 90% of men or, according to other estimates, 90% of all Paraguayans died in battle, of hunger or disease. It was an unprecedented tragedy.

For six years, the country was under Brazilian occupation. After that, from 1870 to 1932, 33 governments changed in Paraguay. To overcome the demographic crisis, polygamy was legalized. Paraguay is still one of the poorest countries in South America.

The image of Francisco Solano López on the Paraguayan 1000 guaraní bill. Source:

6. Become a national hero

Just like Napoleon, Francisco Solano López became the leader of the country at the age of 35. The bad ruler and bloody dictator did not lack personal courage. 60 years later, the Paraguayan government made López a symbol of the country’s indomitable spirit.

«I will be buried under the weight of disgrace. But my day will come, and I will rise from the abyss of slander… to take my rightful place in history», – proclaimed López shortly before his death.

He was right.

In 1932, Paraguay became involved in the bloodiest Latin American war of the 20th century and recaptured most of the oil-rich Gran Chaco region from Bolivia. Remains of Francisco Solano López were moved to the National Pantheon of Heroes, and his image appeared on banknotes. In 1961, Eliza Lynch was also recognized as a national heroine.