This week we’re are discussing the role of Caudillos in the course of post-independence Latin America. I think a good place to start is with this quote from the Dawson text. “ They (caudillos) were figures who entered the vacuum of power left by the collapse of the Spanish colonial state and who offered hope for stability through the force of their will and their capacity to vanquish their enemies.” As is evidenced in this text, the Caudillos were one of the driving forces that shaped post colonial politics in the region. Throughout the region these strong men created small nations that continually battled each other for land and resources. In one of my other class, someone pointed out that Caudillos very closely resemble modern day war lords. For example their militaristic tendencies or the mass amount of them that existed in the region, often ruling over a small populace.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Caudillo rule is the clientelistic system that they created; the trade of protection of “rights”, property, and life in exchange for political and military support. I think that in many ways we can still see this system at work in contemporary politics. Eg. corporate donations for favourable policies. Or favourable policy in exchange for the promise of a corporate job once retired from politics.
Another aspect I find very interesting is the degree to which people entrusted the Caudillos with the development or protection of their country( or town or whatever it was in any given case) despite the instability of Caudillo rule. I think the example of Santa Anna embodies this perfectly. The fact that he was in power 11 times, despite his numerous failures and that each time he left in disgrace, yet managed to return is evidence of this strange trust people had for them.
On another note, they idea that some members of 19th century Latin American societies wanted to create American copies of Europe seems paradoxical. Did they not seek independence in order to create their own societies, with their own culture, free of European interference? Or were there more subtle driving factors behind the fight for independence. For example, in the case of Brazil which we learned about last week, the elites sought independence in order to maintain their economic systems. Or in Colombia, Venezuela and Peru, Bolivar fought to increase that status of the Creollo. Did he not state, however, that Latin America did not have its own history. Is emulating Europe in the creation of a new state not continuing along those lines?
Now with these thoughts in mind, one of the questions posed in this week’s syllabus seems quite interesting; “Why might some social groups rather than others prefer the caudillo system to liberal rights and freedoms?” I think that there are many possible answers to this question. From the perspective of the most marginalized sectors of colonial/post-colonial society I think that the promise of liberal ideas did not seem realistic to them. Having been oppressed, to put it lightly, for the past few centuries perhaps they thought the civil rights entrenched within liberalism would not extend to them, and maybe even help keep them indentured to the system. Along these lines, Caudillo rule may have helped them. If they were able to pay patronage to the leader, in the form of economic payments or military assistance, they may have felt protected and not so much on the fringes of society. As Dawson notes, it may have helped them gain some sort of autonomy which had been lacking throughout the colonial period. However, it is possible that Caudillismo may have had the opposite effect. The lack of liberal ideals may have allowed the oligarchies or elites to continue their systems of oppression. If liberalism had been enacted in the region, and the rights that come with it extended to all sectors of society, it may have had negative effects on the economic activities. If slavery were not allowed, the elites in Brazil would not have been able to continue with its current economic practice. If liberalism had been entrenched in Central America, the landed oligarchy might not have had the rural poor as cheap labour.
So my question for this week is as follows: Did the era of Caudillo rule increase the rights of the most marginalized sectors of society, or, if liberalism had flourished in the 19th century would Latin America possibly have avoided the hardships of the 20th century?