Following a traffic accident in 1998, 15-year-old Griselda Servin spent two years in a coma. When she awoke, the Paraguayan was excited to find out that a regional television show, Tell Me a Dream, would be making one of her wishes come true. Servin would have an opportunity to fly to America, which she had always wanted to see, with all expenses paid.
There was one condition. Instead of heading for New York City, which she preferred, the show would be sending her to Fremont, Ohio. Servin would be honoring her country by visiting the resting place of its greatest hero—the 19th American president, Rutherford B. Hayes.
How Hayes—by most historical accounts, a man who chaired an unremarkable presidency from 1877 to 1881 that was remembered mainly for introducing telephones and Easter Egg rolls to the White House—wound up becoming an icon for a small South American country is remarkable. Not because of the geographical divide, but because Hayes himself might have had virtually nothing to do with it.
In 1864, Brazil had tried to intervene in a civil war in Uruguay; Paraguay was worried that this would destabilize the entire region, and ultimately declared war on Brazil, which enlisted Argentina and Uruguay to overtake the Paraguayans. Paraguay was so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the opposing soldiers that they began painting sticks to look like guns and putting them in the hands of children wearing fake beards. After six years of bloodshed, the country had seen up to 60 percent of its population killed in combat or dead of disease.
Sensing easy prey, Argentina swooped in to claim Chaco, a desolate slice of land roughly the size of Colorado that made up 60 percent of Paraguay's total territory. Losing it meant Paraguay would be in danger of ceasing to exist.
In an attempt to settle the land issue without bloodshed, the countries agreed to arbitration by a neutral third party: the United States. Both submitted reams of documents and testimony arguing why their side should be awarded Chaco.
On November 12, 1878, Hayes released a written decision. It read, in part:
…Be it known that I, Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States of America, having duly considered the said statements and the said exhibits, do hereby determine that the said Republic of Paraguay is legally and justly entitled to the said territory between the Pilcomayo and the Verde rivers, and to the Villa Occidentals situated therein…
Although Chaco was and would remain largely destitute and semi-inhabitable—Paraguayans like to refer to it as the “Green Hell” despite a productive cattle ranching industry—it didn’t matter. To them, Hayes had rendered a just decision that offered some ray of hope after a devastating three-pronged attack, one that had left just 29,000 adult males alive—many still with battle wounds.
Over the next several decades, Paraguay’s reverence for Hayes swelled. It named a state Presidente Hayes, with the town at the mouth of Chaco dubbed Villa Hayes. A museum was erected in his honor; a bust of him greets schoolchildren at Villa Hayes Elementary. The date of his decision, November 12, is a provincial holiday.
Amid the monuments, soccer teams, and postage stamps honoring him, Paraguayans often express disbelief whenever they're confronted with the idea that Americans don’t spend much time thinking about Hayes.
Ricardo Nuñez, mayor of Villa Hayes, was astonished to be told by a U.S. journalist that Hayes’s contemporaries once referred to him as “Rutherfraud” because his office was preceded by a Constitutional crisis, and he had lost the popular vote.
“Rutherfraud? Wow!” Nuñez told NPR in 2014. “That’s amazing!” He could not conceive of such a slur.
Given Paraguay’s history of malevolent rulers, it’s not surprising that they placed a lot of emotional stock in Hayes, who served just one term and died in 1893. The dictator who antagonized Brazil, General Francisco Solano Lopez, once demanded that his Catholic bishops declare him a saint. If they refused, they were executed. Once he took office, he had his elderly mother flogged in public.
While there’s no record of Hayes ordering the courtyard whipping of his mother, the truth is that no one is quite sure just how much he had to do with the decision to allow Paraguay to keep Chaco. Historians don’t know what criteria was used, or if Hayes simply endorsed the decision made by his staff. It’s likely low-level subordinates pored through paperwork and that Secretary of State William Evarts merely gave the ruling to Hayes for a signature.
For a matter that may have occupied just a couple of hours of his life, Hayes has received infinitely more credit for it than for his entire tenure in office. In Delaware, Ohio, his childhood home was torn down to make room for a commercial development. Those wishing to pay a pilgrimage to Hayes’s birthplace will be greeted by a BP gas station with a memorial plaque out in front.