week 5

Week 5 – Caudillos versus the Nation State

Last week, we analyzed the political and social state of Latin America and its struggles leading up to independence from European rule. This week, we’re taking a look at what followed the independence process in the continent – how the vacuum in power left by the European authorities was filled, and which sectors of the population were benefitting from that.

This week’s reading (Chapter 2 of Dawson) paints the complete picture in order for us to understand how that vacancy came to be filled. It discusses how, from severing the political ties to the European colonizers, the new countries that were formed were vast and sparsely populated, making it hard to establish any sort of central control. What’s more, the rebellions continued, and the continent saw conflicts between newly established states (such as the War of the Triple Alliance, between Paraguay and Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, in 1864), as well as civil wars (such as the Uruguayan Civil War, in 1839), which contributed to the weakening of any figure of authority in Latin America.

This setup saw the rise of the caudillos to power, described by Dawson as charismatic figures who were able to defend themselves and their supporters through the use of violence and force, creating a “patronage network” in order to create stability. It’s easy to see the appeal of this system, called “clientelism”, especially to the poorest part of the population – its benefits are immediate, as the video lecture points out, and it fills the gap in authority left by the Europea rulers. However, it only appeared to be a functional form of government – the caudillos didn’t have the authority to collect taxes or enforce laws, for example.

At the same time Latin America dealt with the consequences of its struggle for independence, Europe and North America saw liberalism as an ideology be generally accepted by the population. It involves a commitment to rights and freedoms based on a social contract, and while the elites in Latin America became enamored with the liberal ideal, it never quite took off with the majority of the population. The people felt belittled by the liberal elites, which only drove them more toward the protection of the caudillos.

An interesting discussion question could be to consider why liberalism was so unpopular. While in some ways it’s easy to comprehend why the most vulnerable part of the population didn’t take to it, the video lecture points out how violence and corruption are prevalent in a system of patronage – which makes me wonder if they could have been more popular if the liberal elites had had a different attitude towards the rest of the people who weren’t as privileged.

Work Cited: Latin America Since Independence: A History with Primary Sources by Alexander Dawson