How a small South American nation became smitten by an obscure American president and inexplicably came to regard him as its biggest national hero.
There’s weird presidential trivia, there’s really weird presidential trivia… and then there’s this.
Rutherford B. Hayes was the 19th U.S. president — one who lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote in a controversial way — and a one termer. In the annals of presidential history, he’s generally summed up as “indifferent” to “quite meh.” He was one of the five presidents specifically included in the lyrics of the “Caretaker Presidents” song on The Simpsons. I grew up in Ohio and although he’s one of the four presidents from the state, I can’t recall ever learning anything about him. My school wasn’t the only one that shrugged him off; his childhood home in Delaware, Ohio, was bulldozed and replaced by a gas station.
Suffice to say, he’s not widely regarded as a national hero in this country. There’s no petition circulating for him to replace Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.
But don’t tell the people of Paraguay. To them, he’s a national hero.
Paraguay is a landlocked South American country with a population around seven million. With all due respect, Paraguay is to Western hemisphere countries what Rutherford B. Hayes is to presidents.
And they adore Rutherford B. Hayes.
They have a city named after him, Villa Hayes. Their national soccer team is also named for him, Club Presidente Hayes. There’s a statue, a stamp, a museum and a national holiday in his honor. One of their local TV shows held a contest to fulfill a person’s dream, and the winner was a 17-year-old girl who got to travel to rural Ohio to see his presidential center and grave. There is no bigger national folk hero in Paraguay than Hayes — not even one who’s actually, ya know, Paraguayan.
So… how did it happen?
In the 1860s, Paraguay lost a brutal war to an alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. In the process, Argentina claimed an large but mostly uninhabitable area of land called the Chaco. They eventually needed a third party to arbitrate their dispute over the land and, in the pre-U.N. days, they decided to turn to the United States. Hayes had just been elected president and was called on to make a decision.
He chose Paraguay.
It’s not clear why; some historians believe he more or less delegated the decision to some low ranking staffer who flipped a coin and handed him a piece of paper to sign. There was no agonizing over the decision, no endless weighing of the facts, no time commitment by Hayes beyond maybe a half hour. But, in making the ruling that he did, Paraguay got the land back — it’s about 60 percent of their country — and they’ve regarded him as the savior of their country ever since.
And that’s how a semi-obscure American president and semi-obscure South American country became inexorably linked. It’s just too perfectly weird to be made up.