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Why did caudillismo triumph over liberalism in the politics of Latin America before 1880?

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Why did caudillismo triumph over liberalism in the politics of Latin America before 1880? Although by the end of the nineteenth century's second decade Latin America had succeeded in ridding itself of the colonial rule which had dictated its every move for three hundred years, liberalism, which was poised to step into the political vacuum left in the wake of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies, found it impossible to find its feet. Latin America at this stage was still very much a product of its own history, run by conquistadores turned encomenderos turned aristocrats, ruling, paternally or despotically, as they pleased, their rural haciendas and mineral rich fiefdoms as God-sent overlords of their essentially non-white labour forces. An aspiration to political stability - which it was assumed would then, naturally, bring economic stability - made liberalism look like the political apparatus best suited to perform the regulatory role of these new independant states. But almost as soon as the tenets of liberalism were being affirmed, inherant contradictions were coming to light. The zeal with which they had fought the Wars of Independence was fuelled by a strong desire, amongst the creoles, to assume the role of a legitimate ruling class so long denied them by their European governors and to access the international trade those same governors had blocked. ...read more.


But if, as Bethell suggests "the union of military power and personal authority was inherent in the caudillo," could not any man, seasoned by war and well versed in the truism that where there's blood-shed there are spoils, assume the authority of a caudillo? The answer is yes. A new political system was born and with it a new class structure and, in an anthropological sense, a new triblalism. The retention of his seat (or, more accurately, his saddle) of power was dependent on the caudillo's acumen for identifying and nurturing its potential usurpers and favouring them with 'calculated gift-giving' in return for loyalty. That these cronies are just a step away from the pyramid's apex with an intimate knowledge of what the caudillo's job demands gave rise to regular power stuggles within a patron-client set. With the right qualifications, the lowliest mestizo could elevate himself to the top spot. As Williamson puts it: "Based as it was on personal charisma and military skill, caudillismo... represented a way up for ambitious men of mixed blood." And if the enemy did not come from within, it was likely that he would be from the nearest hacienda. ...read more.


The caudillo was, it can be said, the product of Latin American society and history; political affiliations were incidental. Caudillismo's triumph over liberalism was because the caudillo was the embodiment of the Latin American victor over colonial rule, he was a natural leader in a directionless nation used to authority, he offered a semblance of stability amidst a pervading atmosphere of anarchy and the promise of bread on the table in a time of economic strife, whilst liberalism represented a European replacement for the ousted European monarchy, a social revolution after years of war, a faceless, impersonal governance and a draining of rual resources into a distant and alien urban centre. Liberalism's eventual triumph over caudillismo was due to the latter's inability to see, beyond the bounds of his hacienda, a developing world in which the potential of trade and co-operation was being regarded as the natural ally of prosperity whilst protectionism and in-fighting were the agents of poverty. The consequent advancement of democratic ideals and what Katra describes as "history's relentless progress," rendered obsolete the role of these provincial overlords and saw liberalism's position cemented in the prevailing climate of increased urbanisation, the development of national infrastructure and further reliance on international trade. ...read more.

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