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. 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 ...

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