Why did caudillismo triumph over liberalism in the politics of Latin America before 1880?
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. But, as there was little popularity amongst the powerful provincial
elites for a new centralised regime to replace the old, especially a system underpinned by an
ideology which valued personal liberty and equality for all, a system which they could only
view as being in opposition to their priviledged position in societies which Edwin Williamson
describes as “seigneurial, hierarchical, racially divided and often based on slavery,” a
political conflict was bound to arise.
But for the idealistsic leaders and thinkers who had envisioned independence and
championed progressive reforms based on enlightened European ideas, the days when “the
support for the goal of political independence cleary transcended class and regional
differences,” as William Katra puts it, were gone. The carreer politicians now displayed, at
best, an ambivalence towards rural society and, beyond that, suspicion and distrust. With
scant regard for provincial interests and with an apparent ignorance of the opposition they
were fomenting, they forged ahead with their centralized governing structure.
But, due to the population’s bent towards custom and tradition - which meant the same
oligarchies which ruled pre-independence Latin America still held sway - an impersonal
bureaucratic state ruling from the centre was an unwelcome manifestation of their hard
fought for independence. At least with the late monarchy there was a figurehead from whom
they could solicit favours - and for whom they could exercise loyalty, as was their wont.
The absence of the king only provoked in the landowning elites and, in turn (or perhaps by
default), their slaves and peons, the desire, or need, for a substitute form of patriarchy
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through which favours and patronage could be dispensed and allegiance sworn.
Who better to provide the normalising traditional politics of the encomienda whilst backing
the cause of the majority rural population than the latifundistas and estancieros? They
could already command the loyalty of a their workforce through their proven reliability in
supplying the basics of a livelihood, their relations with their workers were personalised and,
through their exploits in the battle-fields, they were recognised as leaders of men.
The job of these rural landowners, as they saw it, was to maintain social order, to protect
productivity and to mobilise bands of faithful underlings at will, without exposing them to
liberal ideas which could potentially undermine the hacendado’s power. The key to the
successful implementation of this model was the traditional social relation between wealth
and its retainers. As Leslie Bethell points out: “The relation of patron and client, this was
the essential link. The landowner wanted labour, loyalty and service in peace and war. The
peon wanted subsistence and security”
It is the notion of ‘peace and war’ which was to transform the wealthy landowner. Asolute
rule over his labour-intensive fiefdom was something he had long enjoyed - even under
colonialism he was given a virtual free-rein over his own domestic affairs - the
metamorphosis from quasi-encomendero to tribal overlord was due to the cause of the
power void above him, namely himself.
Psychologically he had mutated. Where before he saw himself as a link in the rigid chain of
loyalty from the king down, he now, following his dominant role in the Wars of
Independence in which he defied his master, perceived himself as an invincible warrior-
chief, answerable to no-one. Bethell again: “The occupational route they followed had
familiar signposts, from estanciero, via the military, to caudillo.”
But it was not the caudillo alone who had been party to the slaughter of the former masters.
During the advent of military action, simple calculations informed the criollo leaders of the
futility of challenging the Spanish forces alone and so it was, not without reluctance, that they
supplied with arms the “dispossesed” of Latin American society, the mestizos. They fought
under their patrons in the wars and retained their weapons when it was time to return to
work on the haciendas. They also retained the notion that what could not be acquired by
request could be theirs by force of violence.
Their loyalty to the caudillos was borne, as previouly stated, out of a first-hand knowledge
of his capabilities in battle and of a faith in his ability to provide food and shelter. 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. This was the problem for caudillismo; because it was a chaotic and over-
competetive system, it never afforded its enactors the opportunity to, in the words of Wolf
and Hansen “monopolise both power and wealth in order to organize a centralized political
Caudillismo had, through allegiances both with the past and with anyone it could secure a
short-term deal with, triumphed over forward thinking liberalism, but its inherent paternalism
made more for informal pacts with other chieftains than for constitutional cementation. It is
an irony, then, that the shift toward centralised liberal government which could be seen
emerging continent-wide after the 1850s had its path cleared by those same men who had
blocked it some thirty years earlier.
For the self-serving caudillos, whose business interests were best served by donning a veil
of liberalism or whose political astuteness enabled him to discern the upcoming generation
of urban professional creoles with intellectual hankerings after the liberal ideals being enacted
in post-revolutionary mid-century Europe, the image of the liberal band-wagon represented
a propitious gravy-train.
But, paradoxically, whenever opportunistic caudillos rode the liberal ticket, simply as a
means arriving in a position of power, they were obliged to erode the traditional social and
political structures which facilitated their own ascendance.
Whatever their motives for attaining office it was incumbent on the ‘liberal’ caudillos to
sanction legislation which diminished the power of existing institutions, such as the church,
slavery and the denial of universal suffrage. José Gervasio Artigas, from the Banda
Oriental was a case in point when, as William H. Katra states, his own brand of populism
won over his mestizo following with liberal pledges which, he then dutifully followed through:
“Artigas, true to his word, actually implemented many of the promised reforms.” Even
Juan Miguel Rosas was prepared gesture to his liberal business associates if trade depended
on it. David Rock tells us that “until persuaded by the British to desist, Rosas had allowed
the slave trade to revive.” In the world of liberal commerce, he who pays the piper calls
It can be argued that caudillismo was as much an attitude as a political system. There was
no particular cohesion in the caudillo philosophy and, outside of autocratic rule, a penchant
for pacts built on hanshakes and promises and a passion for the past, there is little to suggest
that there was much like-mindedness among the ‘chiefs on horseback’.
What does come to light though is that the liberalism attempting to take a hold in nineteenth
century Latin America can legitimately be accused of tending as much to the old order as
caudillismo which the arch liberal and future president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
described as the “primitive barbarism,” of the pampas. Their differences are like
inversions of each other; the liberals’ urban base gives rise to an administrative vocation and
a necessarily centralized state as opposed to the agricultural livelihood sustained in the rural
positions held by the caudillos, whose national goal was, by and large, a federalist one. Yet
C.A. Jones, in paraphrasing Juan Bautista Alberdi, a liberal and natural ally of Sarmiento,
accuses the centralist Europhile, of playing the politics of caudillaje letrado in view of his
fetishism for bureaucracy and his display of denying power to the provinces just as the
caudillos had done to the urban centres.
Indeed Bartolomé Mitre, Sarmiento’s liberal predecessor in the presidency, was no less of a
contradiction. According to Williamson:
Mitre shared the ambivalence of the Argentine romantics towards the common people: they were
portrayed at times as agents of barbarism and yet idealized on other occasions because of thir
folk culture, the basis of an authentic American identity. Though a patrician and Europeanizing
liberal, Mitre was the first to compose a poem about the legendary gaucho Santos vega.
Of Sarmiento, Gwen Kirkpatrick and Francine Masiello:
He is situated at the centre of national contradictions. A man propelled by a desire for national
consolidation and personal power... Under the rubric of ‘cililization and barbarism,’ he addressed
the colonial past and Argentina’s prospects for the future; he juxtaposed empirical and intuitive
knowledge; he stressed the tensions of writing and political action. ”
So, although, as Williamson writes “ It took some fifty or sixty years for these [liberal] aims
to be realised, and then only in a few countries” when they did arrive it was, in Argentina at
least, by way of charismatic and self-interested paternalists whose rejection of caudillismo
as a political system belied the spirit of caudillaje inherent in their own ‘souls’. 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.
Williamson, Edwin. The Penguin History Of Latin America, Penguin. (London, 1992).
Donghi, Tulio Halperín. Jaksic, Iván. Kirkpatrick, Gwen. Masiello, Francine. (Eds.).
Sarmiento - Author Of A Nation, University of California Press. (US, 1994).
Katra, William H. The Argentine Generation of 1837, Associated University Press.
Bethell, Leslie (Ed.). Argentina Since Independence, Cambridge University Press.
Rock, David. Argentina 1516-1987, University of California Press. (US, 1987).
Sarmiento, D.F. Life In The Argentine Republic In The Days Of The Tyrants,(1868)
Hafner. (New York).
Jones, C.A. Critical Guides To Spanish Texts - Sarmiento, ‘Facundo’, Grant & Cutler.
Williamson, Edwin. The Penguin History Of Latin America, Penguin. (London, 1992). (p.233).
Katra, William H. The Argentine Generation of 1837, Associated University Press. (London,
Bethell, Leslie (Ed.). Argentina Since Independence, Cambridge University Press. (Cambridge,
Wolf, Eric R. and Hansen, Edward C. Caudillo Politics: A Structural Analysis. University of Michigan.
Wolf and Hansen. Op.Cit.
Williamson. Op.Cit. (p.237).
Wolf and Hansen. Op.Cit.
Williamson, Edwin. Op.Cit. Williamson cites those caudillos “who happened to come from the
peripheral regions, or who were engaged in the newer export-economies of the eighteenth century (for
example, cacao in Venezuela; cattle-raising in Buenos Aires).” (p.237).
Rock, David. Argentina 1516-1987, University of California Press. (US, 1987). (p.113).
Sarmiento, D.F. Life In The Argentine Republic In The Days Of The Tyrants,(1868) Hafner. (New
Jones, C.A. Critical Guides To Spanish Texts - Sarmiento, ‘Facundo’, Grant & Cutler. (London,
Donghi, Tulio Halperín. Jaksic, Iván. Kirkpatrick, Gwen. Masiello, Francine. (Eds.). Sarmiento -
Author Of A Nation, University of California Press. (US, 1994). (p.8).
Williamson. Op.Cit. (p.280).