When the Columbian expeditions reached the Greater Antilles, they found most of the land dominated by chiefdoms. Hispaniola had probably reached a more consolidated level, with fewer, larger, and more powerful entities, some of them perhaps monarchies. The rulers called themselves, at least to the Spanish ear, "caciques," and those who did not immediately oppose the Spaniards found themselves in the tenuous position of brokers or administrators for the Spanish regime. Nearly all finally revolted and were killed in battle or executed.
Spaniards carried the word caciques to their conquests of the mainland and took to using the term to describe Indian leaders at the town or village level across the Americas. For example, Andean local leaders called curacas were inevitably still called caciques. Similar linguistic distortions of local power occurred in most areas that were conquered.
There is considerable academic debate as to the roles and fate of this indigenous lower aristocracy. Some have emphasized their importance as brokers, tax collectors, and petty administrators for the local Spanish officials or the encomenderos, and discuss how caciques in many areas were squeezed between increasing demands from a growing Spanish population and a declining number of Indian subjects. Evidence for this position consists of data on the number of caciques killed or demoted, and of instances of usurpers placed in theoretically hereditary positions, often, after the early years, by Spanish manipulation of elections. These scholars also show that the imposition of Spanish systems of town government—cabildos, or town councils, headed by alcaldes, regidores, and sometimes gobernadores—was sometimes an attempt to shunt aside traditional cacique kinships.
Others have debated these conclusions, arguing that the native aristocracy survived in some areas for the entire colonial period. These caciques became true brokers and fended off some Spanish intrusions as well as provided for community needs. They became the repositories for native traditions and cultural resistance. This view also points to instances where cabildos were skillfully taken over by members of old ruling lineages, so that these caciques became the alcaldes and regidores. In a few areas there is also evidence that where the office of gobernador existed, it was sometimes reserved for a member of a hereditary ruling group. In other cases the position was clearly a direct Spanish imposition, and dominated the elected cabildo.
It would be safe to say only that the activities, cultural attitudes, and ultimate fates of the colonial cacique class varied widely over time and place between the extremes of rapid extinction and relatively prosperous independence and continuity.
The nineteenth-century history of the term cacique, and of its extension, caciquismo, is unclear, but they came to be used to describe various kinds of rural patrones (bosses, or strongmen) and their systems of wielding power, both in Spanish-speaking America and in Spain. (The Brazilian institution of Coronelismo has many similarities.)
Some have found the origins of caciquismo in the authoritarian regime of the colonial period, and in the regionalism and disarticulation of that era. Others consider the outbreak of independence, the disappearance of the colonial system, and the resultant legitimacy vacuum as the situation that led to the emergence of local bosses. Some reject explanations based on the colonial or independence periods and have emphasized such factors as: the weakness of the infant nation states which fostered anarchy or virtual autonomy on the peripheries; the lack of political institutions or parties which led people to pledge their allegiances to persons rather than movements; the necessity for a network of patron-client relationships in a hierarchically structured society with chronic insecurity and a tradition of paternalism and Latifundia; and, in some cases, the desire of undemocratic elites to retain power by using strongmen puppets to do their work of social control.
All of these propositions have been contradicted by yet other scholars. National rulers in the capital, for example, have used coalitions of regional caciques to maintain and even increase their power. Elites have been humbled by local populists, especially when these rural bosses make their bids for the presidency and national power.
The connection between the rural cacique and the national Caudillo has also caused debate. Some see them as different generically. Others argue that the caudillo was often an insurgent regional cacique who had seized power in the capital; that is, functionally and systemically the two institutions were linked.
Either the terms require further scrutiny or, perhaps, they have become so stretched by the diversity of explanations and processes packed into them that they have become somewhat empty generalizations.
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Murdo J. MacLeod