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Origins and growth

Contemporary meanings and research


The word caudillo signifies “leader,” or, in a more corrupted political sense, “boss.” In Spain it has retained a less pejorative connotation than in Latin America, where it is invariably employed for purposes of denigration. In its broadest political sense, caudillismo in Latin America has popularly come to mean any highly personalistic and quasimilitary regime whose party mechanisms, administrative procedures, and legislative functions are subject to the intimate and immediate control of a charismatic leader and his cadre of mediating officials. Outside Latin America, this broad usage of the term has slowly made caudillismo increasingly synonymous with any political system controlled by military personnel. The confusion between Spanish and Latin American usage has also taken the concept away from its historical roots in the early days of Latin American independence from Spain. Thus the designation of Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain as el Caudillo has been taken to be correlative with der Führer and il Duce, and in consequence not necessarily descriptive of the substantive differences between the political systems of Falangist Spain, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy.

This broadening of the sense of the term inhibits its more specific use in describing a particular type of authoritarianism—the kind found in varying degree and at different times throughout nineteenth-century Latin America. Although the Latin American experience is quite relevant to that of certain “new” nations of this century, care must be taken not to confuse the military component in caudillismo with that of all contemporary praetorian or other kinds of military governments in underdeveloped areas. Historically, the caudillo was a self-proclaimed leader, usually a military officer (although some were civilians) who was supported by an irregular or otherwise nonprofessional army. Although he generally found the source of his power in rural areas—recruiting his troops from among the peasantry and abetted in his undertakings by large landowners—the consolidation of his power demanded that he extend his sway over the national capital. In this curiously backward fashion, then, provincial caudillos served an integrating political function of a quasi-national nature.

The generalization, which may be historically drawn in the definition of caudillismo as a system of government, is that it is a personalistic, quasimilitary government of provincial origin and economic interest serving a function of loose national integration in periods of decay or withdrawal of effective central authority. Caudillismo is not socially revolutionary, even though the caudillos themselves have not always been devoid of ideological commitment.

Origins and growth

The roots of caudillismo are found in the last years of the Spanish colonial period in Latin America. The personal and sometimes separatist ambitions of the more unruly conquistadors were handled most effectively by a crown legitimated by the strongly hierarchical values of the Iberian normative system and strengthened by the experience gathered from seven centuries of warfare with the Moors. Until the late eighteenth century, military units in Latin America were under the almost exclusive command of Spaniards, and a sharp status line was drawn between criollos, or “creoles,” the children of Spaniards born in the New World, and peninsulares, or native-born Spaniards. In the 1760s, Charles III of Spain instituted a series of imperial reforms that included the establishment of a colonial militia and the regularized commissioning of Creoles as military officers of the Spanish crown. The Spanish government was motivated not only by reasons of economy but also by its growing relative weakness among European powers and its increasing inability to prevent the inroads of pirates and other commercial adventurers on the Spanish economic monopolies in their colonies.

These Creole officers were recruited from the colonial upper class and were granted the full privileges of Spanish officers, including the advantages of the fuero militar, or “military law.” This legal privilege exempted them from trial by civil courts and entitled them to other special privileges giving them status midway between that of their colonial origins and that of the metropolitan upper groups. Such men as Simón Bolívar and José de San MartÍn, trained in the Spanish army, became the leaders of the independence movements of 1810–1823. But the number of such officers was insufficient for the long-drawn-out military contest of the wars of independence, necessitating the opening of officer ranks to many persons of lower social station. This popularization of the officer corps created the channel through which aspirants to higher social position gained access to power, although their position was in turn contested by waves of others equally ambitious and power-hungry.

By 1823, the disappearance of Spanish rule was complete everywhere in Latin America except Cuba. The first attempts to establish successor governments had begun as early as 1810 in many urban centers, where intellectual leaders and other members of the local aristocracies divided on ideological grounds, the clericalist Conservatives opposing the Liberals, who were the “radicals” of the period. The threat that the urban commercial and intellectual groups would consolidate national control evoked the coalition of interest between the caudillos and the landowning, provincial Conservatives, which gave form to the politics of most Latin American countries until the 1860s. Chile was an exception in that Diego Portales, a civilian Conservative caudillo, ruthlessly suppressed opposition elements in the military, thus giving his country a completely civilian integrative rule which has come, to be known as the “Autocratic Republic.” Brazil, too, followed a different path, in effect ingesting a Portuguese monarchy until 1889. Although the establishment of a republic in that year was followed by a very short period of caudillismo, civilian constitutionalism was reestablished by 1895. Every other nineteenth-century Latin American country followed a path from independence to short-lived Liberal victory to caudillismo.

Because some of the caudillos reigned for long periods and in some cases developed or represented specific schools of thought, they have left a deep imprint on their national histories and ideologies. Juan Manuel de Rosas ruled in Argentina from 1829 to 1852, for example, and remains a hero figure to authoritarian Conservatives. Rafael Carrera, an illiterate person of mixed Indian and white origin, held office in Guatemala from 1839 to 1865, and died in office. He must be counted among the more influential of the caudillos if for no reason other than his long tenure, but he has no appeal to any present Guatemalian intellectual groups, nor is he viewed as a national hero. Some of the other well-known caudillos are Jean Pierre Boyer (1818–1843) of Haiti, Ramón Castilla (1845–1851 and 1855–1862) of Peru, Juan José Flores (1831–1835 and 1839–1845) of Ecuador, Antonio López de Santa Anna (on and off the political scene from 1821 to 1855) of Mexico, and Francisco Solano López (1862–1870, inheriting power from his father) of Paraguay.

There were literally scores of other caudillos, however. Lieuwen (1960, p. 21), for example, points out that there were 115 successful revolutions in the Latin American republics between their independence and World War I; obviously there were many more unsuccessful rebellions. In the decade from 1849 to 1859 Ecuador had six presidents, four of whom were military men on active duty when they took office. Johnson says of the caudillos:

Their social and economic conformity and political orthodoxy in effect made them the tools of those landed elements dedicated to the survival of old ideas and old formulas. Because power was in this period based largely on personal magnetism, few were able to consolidate their control sufficiently to hand it on to a chosen successor. Their dictatorships tended to revert to civilian regimes controlled by the landed oligarchs. (Johnson 1964, p. 56)

By the 1860s, the instability inherent in caudillismo became untenable. Latin America’s cities were growing, the educational systems were slowly expanding, new technology and ideas were coming in from Europe, and foreign capital was beginning to develop a new and sustained interest in Latin America. The Liberals then reasserted themselves and, following varying patterns, succeeded in gaining unequivocal control in all the Spanish American countries except Colombia by the end of the nineteenth century. The professionalization of the military, initiated in Chile in 1885 and extended virtually everywhere by 1910, changed Latin American armies into at least a semblance of modern, impersonal fighting forces. Traditional caudillismo was dead.

Contemporary meanings and research

In common usage, caudillismo as a concept has changed in Latin America. As was stated above, the name caudillo now is applied to any charismatic leader. Juan Perón, president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955, earned this sobriquet, as did General Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay. Even though the term is also given to local political bosses, the Indian-derived cacique (“chief”) is more commonly used to refer to ward leaders or relatively unimportant rural county or municipio politicians.

In the academic literature, however, caudillismo has retained its historical meaning. This consistency is due primarily to the fact that the Latin American experience is rarely used as prototypical for other underdeveloped regions. As a result, the concept has suffered no blurring from being generalized to other cultural settings. One recent study, in attempting to explain the inappropriateness of the Latin American case for comparative military studies, states:

Latin American countries … have many characteristics comparable to the new nations. Even more pointedly, it appears at first glance that Latin American nations are also confronted with similar crises of civil-military relations. But there are fundamental differences in the natural history of militarism in South America. The forms of military intervention represent more than a century of struggle and accommodation which has produced political institutions different from those found in the new nations. (Janowitz 1964, pp. v–vi)

It is doubtful that the turmoil in the Belgian Congo attendant on the withdrawal of the colonial government is in an entirely different family of events from the classical caudillismo of Latin America. Even from the histories of such complex and relatively developed countries as Argentina, significant parallels with certain new nations appear. It may be argued, for instance, that the first “Nasserist” government was in truth the Perón administration. Certainly both movements were led by nationalistic army officers using the military as a means of social ascent, both pursued populist and nationalistic ideological ends, and the political constituencies of both regimes were similar. The recent outpouring of research on Latin America may serve to remedy this disuse of the Latin American experience as supportive of the derivation of general comparative social theory.

Latin American historians, notoriously polemical in their approach to political affairs, have for long divided over the issue of whether the great caudillos were beneficial or harmful. Those writers who support caudillismo emphasize the nation-building functions some may have performed and tend to draw the conclusion that contemporary strongmen are desirable. Marcos Pérez Jiménez, military dictator of Venezuela, overthrown in 1958 after a six-year incumbency, expressed the standard justification for military tutelary rule that is also the contemporary justification for caudillismo: “I made every effort to give the Venezuelans the kind of government adapted to them. … We are still in our infant years and we still need halters. … There must be a leader who shows the way without being perturbed by the necessity of winning demagogic popularity” (cited in Johnson 1962, pp. 91–92). The counterarguments are advanced by civilistas opposed on all counts to military rule and concerned with the encouragement of democratic procedure.

An analogous schism separates non-Latin American writers. The post-World War II interest in military-civil relations has enriched the literature concerning caudillismo and subsequent military events in Latin America as elsewhere in the world. Although none of these authors looks with favor upon the caudillos as such, they are in implicit disagreement concerning the precise definition of the term and the meaning of caudillismo for contemporary events. One group (exemplified by Lieuwen 1960) equates the evils of classical caudillismo with the continued political interventionism of Latin American military leaders, a factor causing increasing perturbation in the Latin polities. The opposing view (most clearly expressed by Johnson 1962; 1964) argues that the caudillos were essentially irregulars spawned in the early national period of the Latin American republics, and that in this restricted sense caudillismo no longer exists. This kind of military phenomenon, they claim, is not to be confused with the later activities of professionalized military forces, whose political roles earn mixed critical judgments. The practical effect of these two views, of course, is that the “Lieuwen school” looks with much less favor on the military as a modernizing force than does the “Johnson school.”

The political success or failure of given caudillos, with reference to the historical development of their countries, can be measured only in terms of whether they succeeded in imposing some degree of national integration, as in the case of Rosas in Argentina, or merely in compounding the confusion of the post-Independence times of trouble, as in the case of Santa Anna, the Mexican adventurer. Other criteria, of secondary importance in assessing the roles of individual caudillos, may be based on their civilian or quasi-military status, their attachment to Liberal or Conservative party doctrine, and their ability to survive through appreciable periods of time. Any extension of the caudillo type to the political experiences of other countries should be done with due care not to permit the concept to grow too broad.

Caudillismo, in its historical form, is made possible only by a disappearance or a breakdown of central authority, which permits private armies and other semiregular rural forces to attempt seizure of the nationwide political organization in order to maintain the economic and social power of provincial groups. The price paid by the latter for this protection is a sharing of political power and a recognition of the social ambitions of the caudillo. This type of political regime will become increasingly rare as more and more new nations enter periods of coherent national growth involving the presence of strong central governments, whether they be of a military stripe or not. Caudillismo, as a political product of social dissolution, can then reappear only in the event of severe institutional dysfunction and political retrogression.

K. H. Silvert

[See alsoDictatorship; Fascism; Latin americanPolitical thought; Militarism.]


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