Caudillismo: Characteristics, Causes, Mexico, Peru, Argentina

The caudillismo  is a social and political phenomenon that developed in Latin America in the nineteenth century. Caudillismo designates the type of government led by a charismatic leader who usually comes to power through informal channels: the caudillo.

Caudillos were very common in Latin America during the first decades of independence. The term, despite the general definition, encompasses different types of leaders. The Spanish colonial authorities, for example, called the Mexican independence leaders caudillos, even though the majority did not rule the country.

Agustín Gamarra, Peruvian leader. Source: National Museum of Archeology, Anthropology and History of Peru [Public domain]

One of the most common characteristics of caudillismo is the popular support that it tends to arouse in the first place. In addition, the caudillos used to belong to the military establishment or, at least, to have participated in some conflict. It was one of the ways they managed to gain influence in society.

On the other hand, caudillismo led in most cases to a personalist and authoritarian government, even though democratic institutions such as a parliament existed. Experts point out that today there is a continuation of caudillismo, which they define as postmodern.

Article index

  • one

    Characteristics of the caudillo

    • 1.1

      Charisma and legitimacy

    • 1.2

      Personal power

    • 1.3

      Authoritarian government

    • 1.4

      Postmodern caudillismo

  • two

    Causes of caudillismo

    • 2.1

      Decline of the colonial authorities

    • 2.2

      Independence processes

    • 23

      Power emptiness and lack of order

    • 2.4

      Central power weakness

  • 3

    Caudillismo in Mexico

    • 3.1

      Caudillismo during the War of Independence

    • 3.2

      During the Mexican Revolution and later

    • 3.3

      Post-revolution

  • 4

    Caudillismo in Peru

    • 4.1

      Military establishment

    • 4.2

      Main leaders until 1841

    • 4.3

      Later warlords

  • 5

    Caudillismo in Argentina

    • 5.1

      Most important leaders

  • 6

    Caudillismo in Colombia

    • 6.1

      Caudillos and gamonales

    • 6.2

      Some caudillos

  • 7

    References

Characteristics of the caudillo

Antonio López de Santa Anna was a Mexican military dictator who installed himself in power with the title of  Serene Highness

In Latin America, the caudillo appeared across the entire ideological spectrum that existed at the time. There were conservatives and liberals, as well as federalists and centralists. Also, it was not uncommon for some to switch sides over time, moving from one position to another.

Charisma and legitimacy

On a personal level, one of the main characteristics of the caudillos was their charisma. It was this ability to attract popular support that gave them the legitimacy to govern.

In this way, he used emotional elements to get the people’s adherence. His political program used to be very general, promising improvements in living conditions. In a time of great instability and poverty, the caudillo generated an image of strength and of being essential to improve the situation. 

Personal power

Although it did not happen in all cases, many of the Latin American caudillos came from the richest sectors. The landowners, merchants and the military were frequent, which gave them prestige and power.

Likewise, some of the independence heroes later became leaders thanks to their popularity and to having created their own armies.

Authoritarian government

The caudillos, once they were in power, installed a type of authoritarian government or, at least, a highly personal one. Normally, he accumulated all the springs of power in his hands and repressed the opposition.

This type of autocratic leadership could start from the very beginning of the mandate or, sometimes, after some time, when they decided to empty parliaments and similar bodies of all their functions.

Postmodern caudillismo

Although historians point to the 19th century as the time in which Latin American caudillismo was most present, there are also experts who point to the existence of this phenomenon in more recent times.

There are, however, differences between the characteristics of modern and ancient caudillos. The main one is the way to come to power, since at present they can do so using democratic mechanisms.

Once the elections are won, they accumulate power by eliminating the functions of the supervisory bodies, such as the courts or Congress.

Causes of caudillismo

Juan Álvarez, considered one of the leaders of Mexican independence

The political phenomenon of caudillismo developed in Latin America in the 19th century. The figure of the caudillo was very characteristic during the first decades that followed independence. These caudillos had participated many times in the fight against the colonial authorities and were characters with great charisma.

Typically, caudillos came to power through informal methods, although with frequent support from the people. The political regimes associated with caudillismo were personalistic and with a large presence of the military.

Caudillismo in Latin America led, in most cases, to dictatorships. However, on other occasions they were the origin of democratic and federal systems.

Decline of the colonial authorities

Latin American caudillismo has its origin in the decadence of the colonial authorities. Institutions began to lose authority, creating very unstable societies.

This led to the emergence of leaders, often in peripheral territories, who assumed a large part of the power lost by the authorities. Furthermore, in Latin America, many of those leaders assumed leadership of the fight against the royalists.

Independence processes

The wars for independence not only implied the appearance of national heroes who, many times, became caudillos. It also caused societies to undergo a process of ruralization and militarization, which became a perfect breeding ground for caudillismo.

According to historians, the figure of the caudillo had as a precedent the caciques already existing during the colony. These ended up holding royal power in their lands and created a network of personal loyalties and loyalties.

When the independence wars broke out, the caudillos took advantage of social militarization to organize their own armies. Many times, they began by fighting to democratize the system, but, upon gaining power, they ended up in personalist regimes with very authoritarian features.

Power emptiness and lack of order

The fall of the colonial administrations made the continent go through periods of great political instability. In many cases, there was a power vacuum and, almost always, a total lack of political consensus.

The independence leaders did not all share the same ideas about social organization. There were monarchists and republicans, conservatives and liberals, as well as centralists and federalists. The most powerful, those who had formed their own army, ended up facing each other.

The lack of public order and economic crises also caused the population to seek strong leaders to stabilize the situation.

Central power weakness

After the independences, in many countries the central power was very weak. The regional caudillos took the opportunity to try to impose their leadership.

Caudillismo in Mexico

Venustiano Carranza – Source: Harris & Ewing [Public domain]

Mexico was one of the Latin American countries in which the phenomenon of caudillismo appeared most strongly. They were very charismatic characters, capable of obtaining the support of the people and, even, of the economic elites.

One aspect to bear in mind about Mexican caudillos is that a wide variety of leaders have been classified as such. The Spanish, during the last years of the colony, named many of the first independence rebels, such as Miguel Hidalgo, José María Morelos or Vicente Guerrero.

Not all historians agree with that denomination. More consensus is found by characters such as Antonio López de Santa Anna or Venustiano Carranza.

Caudillismo during the War of Independence

Posthumous portrait of Miguel Hidalgo. Via wikimedia commons.

Although not all experts share that they can be considered caudillos according to the classic definition, heroes of independence such as Miguel Hidalgo or Vicente Guerrero are often described as such.

The former starred in the first uprising against the Spanish. His charisma got a good part of the people to follow him, proclaiming himself Generalissimo of the Americas before being captured and shot.

For his part, Vicente Guerrero became the leader of the insurgents in the south of the Viceroyalty. He reached an agreement with Agustín de Iturbide to join forces and proclaim independence. After overthrowing Guadalupe Victoria, he became president of the country in 1828.

During the Mexican Revolution and later

As happened during the War of Independence, the Mexican Revolution also caused the appearance of charismatic leaders who can be assimilated to the figure of the caudillo. From Venustiano Carranza to Victoriano Huerta, passing through Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata, all have been qualified within this political phenomenon.

Post-revolution

A young military man Porfirio Díaz

After the end of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, whom some authors describe as a caudillo, the following leaders coincide with many of the characteristics of caudillismo.

Between 1920 and 1938, Álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles established very personalistic governments, with many authoritarian measures. Their legitimacy was based on their own personality and on alliances or confrontations with the leaders of the army and with the union leaders.

Caudillismo in Peru

Experts consider that the birth of the Republic of Peru was in 1823. After the government of San Martín, the first Constituent Congress was convened. That same date the so-called era of the caudillos inaugurated.

As in other parts of Latin America, the wars for independence created the right conditions for small armies led by local leaders to emerge. These acceded, through force, to power. The weakness of the central power caused the caudillos to dominate Peru between 1823 and 1844.

Military establishment

Although they shared the ultimate goal of independence, during the war against the Viceroyalty there was no single position on how to organize the future country. Creoles, for example, barely participated, which was reflected in their absence during the Constituent Congress.

Instead, the military took advantage of its participation in the independence battles to control political power for two decades. According to experts, they ended up believing themselves indispensable to the country. Between 1821 and 1845, there were 15 presidents in Peru, 10 congresses, and 6 different constitutions.

Main leaders until 1841

One of the most important leaders of that first period after Peruvian independence was Agustín Gamarra. He led the army that overthrew Sucre in 1828, taking La Paz with more than 5000 men. He died during his attempt to invade Bolivia.

Luis José de Orbegoso faced Gamarra. President of the country, he fought against Gamarra in 1834, being overthrown by Felipe Salaverry, another of the leaders of that stage.

Later warlords

Juan Francisco Vidal

Other leaders who emerged after the era marked by Gamarra were, for example, Juan Francisco Vidal, who took power by arms. In turn, he was deposed with the same methods by Manuel Ignacio de Vivanco.

On the other hand, Ramón Castilla is considered the first reformist president of the country. Although he deposed Vivanco by arms, he was later elected by vote on two occasions.

Other prominent names on this list are Nicolás de Piérola, Andrés Avelino Cáceres, Manuel Iglesias and Lizardo Montero Flores.

Caudillismo in Argentina

The caudillos in Argentina were closely linked to the confrontations between federalists and centralists. During the 19th century, these caudillos were the different heads of the armies in the country’s provinces. On the one hand, they were fighting each other. On the other, they faced supporters of centralism, located in Buenos Aires.

The provincial caudillos had their own army and had popular support in their territories.

Historians divide Argentine caudillismo into three stages: that of the independence leaders who faced the Spanish; that of the Provincial Autonomies, which fought against the Unitarians; and those who led revolts in the provinces against the hegemony of Buenos Aires.

Most important leaders

Jose Gervasio Artigas

The number of caudillos in Argentina was enormous. For historians, several of them stand out for their historical importance.

The first was José Gervasio Artigas, born in present-day Uruguay. He is considered the first of the caudillos and was called “the herald of the federalism of the River Plate”.

Other important leaders were Miguel De Güemes and Félix Heredia from Salta, as well as De Güemes and Fëlix Heredia, both natives of Entrerríos.

After the national reorganization, in the 1960s, leaders such as Ángel Vicente Peñaloza appeared and, somewhat later, the one considered the last great leader, Ricardo López Jordán.

Caudillismo in Colombia

Colombia, after independence, saw two similar phenomena appear but with aspects that differentiate them: caudillismo and gamonalismo. Both were caused by the power vacuum after the Spanish defeat and by the regional division that accompanied the fall of the Viceroyalty.

Regionalism took a lot of strength in the area, which led to strong leaders appearing in each territory. Their purpose was to achieve power and consolidate themselves in their respective provinces.

Caudillos and gamonales

Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera

As has been pointed out, the similarities between caudillismo and gamonalismo make it possible to confuse them. Both, for example, use political patronage to consolidate power and were based on the figure of a charismatic leader.

However, in the Colombian case, the caudillos belonged to the country’s economic elite, in addition to holding a certain military power in a given region. From there he could influence larger territories and even at the national level.

The most important among these caudillos was Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, from the Cauca region. In 1860 he decided to proclaim war on the State, managing to defeat it. After that, he promoted a constitutional change to install federalism.

For their part, the gamonales acted more like political caciques. They were of more popular origin and had only local power.

Some caudillos

Unlike what happened in other Latin American countries, in Colombia there were more gamonales than caudillos. Thus, none of the latter managed to dominate the country for significant periods of time.

As an example, the experts cite José María Obando, from Cauca. In 1840 he tried to rise up against the government, without success. He reached the presidency of New Granada in 1853, but was overthrown a year later by José María Melo. In turn, Melo was only able to hold power for a few months.

Finally, another of the important but very brief caudillos was Juan José Nieto, President of the state of Bolívar in 1860. When Tomás Cipriano Mosquera began his federalist revolution, Nieto assumed the executive power of the United States of Colombia. He was only in that position for six months, until Mosquera himself replaced him.

References

  1. Art History. Emergence of caudillismo. Obtained from artehistoria.com
  2. Castro, Pedro. Caudillismo in Latin America, yesterday and today. Recovered from researchgate.net
  3. González Aguilar, Héctor. The stage of the caudillos. Obtained from episodiosdemexico.blogspot.com
  4. From Riz, Liliana. Warlordism. Retrieved from britannica.com
  5. Rebon, Susana. Caudillismo in Latin America; political and social phenomena. Retrieved from medium.com
  6. Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. Caudillismo, Caudillo. Retrieved from encyclopedia.com
  7. Wikipedia. List of Hispanic American Caudillos, Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org

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