Authoritarian rule under military dictatorships assumed two primary characteristics in Latin American before 1945: domination by nonprofessional military caudillos (strong leaders, from the Latin capitellum) and institutional rule by professional armed forces officers seeking consensus within the military establishment. The roots of authoritarianism exemplified by the ancient Spanish expression "Del rey abajo ninguno" (after the king no one is superior to me) were fixed in the mentality of Hispanic colonial leaders from Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro to the regional and local caciques (chiefs). Spain's fear of local military autonomy prevented the establishment of well-trained colonial militias that could effectively defend the colonies or provide a basis for a professional military immediately after independence. The nearly complete lack of effectiveness of Peru's colonial militia in putting down the widespread rebellion of Tupac Amaru II (José Gabriel Condorconqui) in the early 1780s is a prime example of the weakness of these colonial militias.
After independence, caudillos often ruled without the constraints of well-integrated political or military systems. The careers of Antonio López de Santa Anna in Mexico and Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina stand out in this regard. These charismatic leaders ruled mainly by default because no legitimate civilian or military rivals could construct a power base. Of course, opposition to these caudillos and others was often weakened by state-sponsored terror of the kind that would become the hallmark of most institutional military dictatorships in the modern era.
By Samuel Huntington's classic definition of military professionalism, which identifies four components of military forces—expertise, responsibility, corporateness, and ideology—most nineteenth-century military establishments were woefully amateurish. An important exception was the Paraguayan army headed by Francisco Salano López, which was as well-trained and disciplined as any in Latin America. Yet in the tradition of many power-hungry caudillos, Solano López sacrificed his army and his nation in a quixotic attempt for dominance in South America during the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870).
A very few of these caudillos, such as Ramón Castilla in Peru and Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, were nation-builders. Although the national structures these leaders created were badly flawed, their careers manifested a concern for modernization rarely seen among the parochial nineteenth-century military dictators. Still, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Peru, Chile, Brazil, and to a lesser extent Mexico, influenced by social Darwinism and the rise of mass armies in Europe, contracted military and naval missions from Germany, France, Britain, and the United States to help build professional military institutions and rid their armed forces of caudillismo. But except for the operational experience of Brazil and Argentina in the War of the Triple Alliance and Chile's successful campaign against Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific (1879–1882), the larger armies and navies of South America remained largely in their barracks. Argentina, for example, would not put its army in the field for nearly a century before confronting the British in the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) War of 1982. Thus officers in these nations, with little to call upon by way of a battlefield tradition, began reshaping the traditional meaning of national defense to include important components of formerly civilian-dominated sectors of their national economies. The experience of the Brazilian army during World War II stands out against this tendency to sublimate professional missions. The Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF) was recruited from all sectors of the country, and fought well in Italy with the Allies in 1944 and 1945. It was hoped that this battlefield experience would establish prominence for Brazil in the postwar world. In fact, many veterans of the BEF played leading roles in military government that seized power in Brazil in 1964. Their confidence was bolstered by their wartime experience. But the Brazilian generals lacked any real sense of limits regarding the military's role in national affairs. The military dominated Brazil through a series of faceless institutional presidents for more than two decades after 1964.
Juan Perón, Augusto Pinochet, and Hugo Chávez reflect sociopolitical conditions that are grounded in the era before 1945. The armed forces of Latin America of that era never securely established the concept of a military career that would have enabled younger officers to look to their profession and not to political forces to gain what a career soldier seeks—professional satisfaction, regular advancement through merit, a salary adequate to raise a family, and operational experience to demonstrate hard-earned expertise. Prolonged political and economic instability caused mainly by caudillismo deprived the military of the opportunity of creating apolitical and professionally stable military establishments. This legacy would become woefully apparent following World War II.
See alsoArmed Forces; Castilla, Ramón; Caudillismo, Caudillo; Díaz, Porfirio; Military Dictatorships: Since 1945; Perón, Juan Domingo; Rosas, Juan Manuel de; State of Siege; Túpac Amaru (José Gabriel Condorcanqui); War of the Pacific; War of the Triple Alliance.
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Daniel M. Masterson