Caudillo, caudillismo, an authoritarian form of leadership common throughout the history of the Hispanic world. Among the Spanish words for leader is caudillo, which derives from the Latin capitellum, the diminutive of caput (head). Although it is common to think of caudillos in the context of Spanish America, the prototypes are deep in the Iberian past.
Caudillismo is often narrowly interpreted to apply mainly to those leaders who emerged in the newly independent republics. There are, however, so many who deserve the name "caudillo"—from Pelayo (the eighth-century Asturian chieftain) to Augusto Pinochet—that it is too limiting to direct attention only to an early-nineteenth-century "Age of Caudillos." It is, nevertheless, important to employ qualifiers when dealing with individuals. Although caudillos are often military men, there are civilians like Gabriel García Moreno of Ecuador, who might be called "theocratic," and Rafael Núñez of Colombia, who was a lawyer, career politician, and poet. Many caudillos acquired sobriquets that set them apart. José Gaspar Francia of Paraguay was "El Supremo," Plutarco Elías Calles of Mexico was called "El Jefe Máximo" (the Ultimate Chief), Juan Vic-ente Gómez of Venezuela carried the nickname "El Bagre" (the Catfish), and Alfredo Stroessner was known to his foes in Paraguay as "El Tiranosauro."
The variety of caudillos is practically endless, but certain common qualities help distinguish them from other leaders: a personalist rapport with followers, the ability to create reciprocal advantages between leaders and the led, a combination of charisma and machismo, and access to political and economic power are fundamental characteristics. In a controversial book Glen Dealy argues that "public men" in Catholic societies—particularly in Latin America—surround themselves first with their family and compadrazgo (godparent) relations and then concentrically with aggregates of friends, who are more important to them than wealth. The Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo, "The Benefactor," arranged to be the compadre (godfather) at the baptism of thousands of babies to enhance his power.
Some caudillos were actually manipulated by elites, and only seemed to be dominant. Martín Güemes of Salta, in what later became Argentina, was a regional caudillo during the Independence wars (1810–1821) who prospered as long as he served the interests of his extended family, and was destroyed when he deviated.
Many caudillos have understood the value of ceremony and the need to look the part of a dominant personality, often in uniform, whether on horseback, in the back of an open limousine, or on a balcony. Part of this theatrical display and attendant propaganda is designed to fill the vacuum of moral authority lost in Spanish America with the end of the empire. From the days of Hernán Cortés to the present, caudillos have sought legitimacy. Peter Smith (whose essay is included in this author's edited work, Caudillos) examines Max Weber's criteria for legitimacy—"traditional," "legal," and "charismatic"—and then adds two of his own: "dominance" and "achievement-expertise," or the technical ability to solve a nation's problems. Chile's Augusto Pinochet skillfully manipulated the military's hierarchy and the traditions of the country's presidency to ensconce himself in power for fifteen years (1973–1988) before the democratic process reasserted itself. Many caudillos cleverly utilized rigged elections, plebiscites, and constitutional amendments to extend themselves in power in a process called Continuismo. Anastasio "Tacho" Somoza and his two sons were particularly adept at this in Nicaragua, and managed for a time to overcome the problem of political succession that has plagued most caudillos. That such undemocratic maneuvers often succeeded suggests that caudillismo does not necessarily always carry a pejorative connotation within the culture. On the contrary, José de Palafox, a hero of Spanish resistance against the French in 1808, was called "El Caudillo Palafox," and Francisco Franco, the victor in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and autocrat of Spain until his death in 1975, proudly dubbed himself "El Caudillo."
Military dependency has been widespread among caudillos, but it is not universal. Antonio López de Santa Anna of Mexico, Francisco Solano López in Paraguay, and Marcos Pérez Jiménez of Venezuela banked heavily on their armies. But adroit politicians like Porfirio Díaz in Mexico recognized that a strong army might threaten their power and thus played generals against each other and against civilian factions and corporations. Díaz, for example, expanded a paramilitary force called the Rurales to parry the army's pretensions. Juan Perón sought to broaden his support beyond the military in Argentina by cultivating labor.
Caudillos have often been characterized by their violence, intimidation of their enemies, and the use of torture. Resort to such practices is a function of the problem of succession. Caudillos most often have come to power through coups d'état, and are conscious of the fact that the "out" factions are waiting—usually in exile—for an opportunity to repeat the process. Vigilance, oppression, and wealth from Venezuelan oil wells helped the notorious Juan Vicente Gómez to remain in power from 1908 to 1935. He died of old age. One of the most vicious of caudillos was Manuel Estrada Cabrera of Guatemala (1898–1920), who became the model for the novel El señor presidente by the Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias.
In historical perspective caudillismo—already well developed in the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula—arrived in the Americas with the explorers and conquistadores. Bands were almost always centered about leaders like Cortés and Francisco Pizarro. The mutual reliance of followers and their chiefs was always dependent upon caudillaje, the essence of close personal ties. These relationships, however, were often tenuous—witness the difficulties that Cortés had with the followers of Governor Diego Velázquez in Cuba and the factional divisions that beset Pizarro. Once the goals of conquest were achieved, the sometime soldiers quickly dispersed and settled down or returned to Spain as civilians to enjoy the fruits of their victories.
As the colonial era developed, it was local political bosses or caciques who tended to characterize leadership. They could be bureaucrats, hacendados, miners, merchants, militia officers, or priests as well as bandits and peasant leaders. These frequently formed personal networks to which they turned after Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808 broke down the royal mechanisms to resolve disputes among colonial factions. These caciques moved into the political vacuums everywhere evident in the Independence wars, and some rose to national caudillo status.
New constitutional forms in the early republics lacked the moral authority once associated with the crown. The ambitious caudillos who emerged had their own agendas or pronunciamientos in which ideology was less important than the degree of stability and economic control a given leader might guarantee his supporters. Some used liberalism as an excuse to exploit the communal property of indigenous peoples, while others, like José Rafael Carrera of Guatemala, became what E. Bradford Burns calls "folk caudillos" bent upon preserving traditional patterns of property and institutions.
Weak states and powerful regions so characterized mid-nineteenth-century Spanish America that later caudillos like Rafael Núñez abandoned federalism in favor of recentralizing authority.
Caudillismo since 1900 has been an uneven but persistent phenomenon. Countries such as Costa Rica and Venezuela (after Pérez Jiménez left in 1958) have had little recent experience with caudillos. Mexico has developed the dominant party to replace the dominant individual. But Cuba (with Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro), Panama (with Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega), the Dominican Republic (with Trujillo and Joaquín Balaguer), Paraguay (chiefly with Stroessner), and Argentina (with Perón and a succession of military strongmen), as well as Chile, have had their histories punctuated by caudillos during the middle and later decades of the twentieth century.
See alsoMilitias: Colonial Spanish America .
For a comprehensive guide to the interpretive and illustrative literature on caudillismo, see Hugh M. Hamill, ed., Caudillos: Dictators in Spanish America (1992), and John Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 1800–1850 (1992). Efforts to explain caudillismo include Peter H. Smith, "Political Legitimacy in Spanish America," in New Approaches to Latin American History, edited by Richard Graham and Peter Smith (1974); Glenn Caudill Dealy, The Public Man: An Interpretation of Latin American and Other Catholic Countries (1977); Torcuato S. Ditella, Latin American Politics: A Theoretical Framework (1990). Robert L. Gilmore makes a useful distinction in his Caudillism and Militarism in Venezuela, 1810–1910 (1964). A Chilean woman's view of caudillismo is in Isabelle Allende's novel The House of the Spirits, translated by Magda Bogin (1985). John Hoyt Williams treats Francia, Carlos Antonio López, and his son, Francisco Solano López, in The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic, 1800–1870 (1979). A sample of the massive literature on individual caudillos includes Roger M. Haigh, Martín Güemes: Tyrant or Tool? A Study of the Sources of Power of an Argentine Caudillo (1968); Howard J. Wiarda, Dictatorship and Development: The Methods of Control in Trujillo's Dominican Republic (1968); John Lynch, Argentine Dictator: Juan Manuel de Rosas, 1829–1852 (1981); Joseph A. Page, Perón: A Biography (1983); James William Park, Rafael Núñez and the Politics of Colombian Regionalism, 1863–1886 (1985); Genaro Arriagada, Pinochet: The Politics of Power, translated by Nancy A. Morris, Vincent Ercolano, and Kristen A. Whitney (1988); Sebastian Balfour, Castro (1990); Carlos R. Miranda, The Stroessner Era: Authoritarian Rule in Paraguay (1990); Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala, 1821–1871 (1993).
Buchenau, Jürgen. Plutarco Elías Calles and the Mexican Revolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
Castro, Pedro. A la sombra de un caudillo: Vida y muerte del general Francisco R. Serrano. México, D.F.: Plaza & Janés, 2005.
De la Fuente, Ariel. Children of Facundo: Caudillo and Gaucho Insurgency During the Argentine State-Formation Process (La Rioja, 1853–1870). Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Hugh M. Hamill
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