Caudillos

Maximiliano Hernández Martínez

Gabriel García Márquez on the ultimate caudillo

The Colombian novelist (1928–2014), famous for his absurdist portrayals of Latin American tyrants, refers in this excerpt from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to the antics, and savagery, of a few leading military men:

Our independence from Spanish domination did not put us beyond the reach of madness. General Antonio López de Santana, three times dictator of Mexico, held a magnificent funeral for the right leg he had lost in the so-called Pastry War. General Gabriel García Moreno ruled Ecuador for sixteen years as an absolute monarch; at his wake, the corpse was seated on the presidential chair, decked out in full-dress uniform and a protective layer of medals. General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the theosophical despot of El Salvador who had thirty thousand peasants slaughtered in a savage massacre, invented a pendulum to detect poison in his food, and had streetlamps draped in red paper to defeat an epidemic of scarlet fever. The statue to General Francisco Morazán erected in the main square of Tegucigalpa is actually one of Marshal Ney, purchased at a Paris warehouse of second-hand sculptures.

From Gabriel García Márquez, “The Solitude of Latin America” (Nobel Lecture, December 8, 1982).

Political alignments and realignments left a permanent imprint on the post-colonial era. In most studies of Latin American history the post-independence decades have been viewed as a time of perpetual upheaval. As Peter Bakewell puts it in his comprehensive history of Latin America: “although it would be foolish, and wrong, to dismiss the post-independence decades as simply a period of indescribable chaos, political calm was notably absent from a time when it was much needed.” Historically, neither the process of forging a new nation, nor that of creating a sense of loyalty to that nation – nationalism – can be seen as following a single ideological trajectory. Nationalism is at home on the left or the right; embraced by the radical freethinker or the conservative, by the forward-looking reformer or the backward-looking traditionalist. Latin American nationalism and the region’s particular definition of national identity varied over time and place, rested on competing notions of power, and depended on the rights accorded to, or taken by, Indians, blacks, mestizos, and mixed-race people. In the hands of caudillos, one or another racial group was restricted or promoted, and one or another conception of manliness or femininity stood as the ideal, alongside standard symbols and rituals – flags, anthems, language, and customs – that drew the community together.

An emerging authoritarianism, epitomized by the personalist caudillos, stamped the post-independence era as one of excessive individual greed and power, based on distrust of foreigners and foreign governments. Some caudillos were self-serving, backward-looking, and anti-intellectual, while others were progressive and reform-minded. Some caudillos abolished slavery, instituted educational structures, built railroads and other transport systems, and sought to forge economic units capable of driving hard bargains with entrepreneurs representing European and US firms. Because the caudillos did not fit into a single mold nor represent a single political vision, and because they tended to rise to power through networks of personal loyalty, some historians have characterized them as “populists.” Admittedly, populism is a frustratingly vague and imprecise label that has meant different things in different historical periods, but the flexibility of the term may help to define the caudillo. As a “strongman,” the caudillo tolerated little or no opposition, and relied on armed strength to maintain his power. As a “populist,” the caudillo drew his power from those who were loyal to him, many of whom were small producers beholden to his beneficence and the patronage he doled out to ensure their loyalty.

Argentina and the Tyrants

The archetypical caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793–1877) rose to power in Argentina in 1829 and ruled until 1852, drawing his support from the estancieros south of Buenos Aires, the capital. Rosas began his career in the military, following a path common to many ambitious young men active in the drive for independence. Cousin to the wealthy landholding Anchorena family, Rosas’s military career and influence helped to build the dynasty’s resources in the province. Rosas is known for developing a mini-government and system of authority on his estate that eventually spread to the surrounding region. He demanded absolute respect, obedience, loyalty, and diligent work from the Indians, mixed-race debt peons, and gauchos (cowboys) in return for employment on his ranch or membership in his personal army. Rosas rejected attempts from the capital to centralize authority, modernize and build the export market, or enforce other measures intended to serve the country as a whole. Although he sometimes expressed staunch adherence to a federalized system and local control, Rosas was mostly concerned with absolute authority centralized in himself and those loyal to him. In 1828 he began a guerrilla war against the country’s leadership and eventually launched a successful assault on the capital, backed by an army of gauchos, peasant militiamen, and assorted vagrants he had mobilized into a fighting force. By the end of 1829 he controlled the governorship of Buenos Aires province, a post he used as a steppingstone to the leadership of Argentina that he held until his defeat and exile to England in early 1852.

Over his more than two decades of rule, Rosas epitomized caudillismo. After using rural forces from the estancias to bring himself to power, he sent them back to the land from which they had come and relied instead on the regular army, paramilitaries who did his extra-legal bidding, and the police and law enforcement bureaucracy. Initially he attempted to win support from domestic enterprises and artisans by imposing strict duties on imported goods in hopes of reviving national industry. The effort failed, forcing him to lift the ban on essential imports, especially textiles, and open the door to British manufactures in order to meet Argentina’s consumer demand. Rosas maintained control of the legislative branch, denying it resources and ensuring a rubber stamp for his many edicts; the legislature served mainly as window-dressing for foreign visitors and dignitaries. Rosas maintained his popularity through patronage and tight control of the press and organs of public relations, but mainly he relied on repression: jailing, exiling, or killing those who opposed him. This method, particularly his ironfisted rule over Buenos Aires, the export–import market, the police, and the military, allowed the general a monopoly hold over the seat of national power for nearly 20 years – but it did not ensure peace throughout the country.

Writer Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811–88) captured the rivalry and jealousy among estancieros, as well as the discontent among liberal, cosmopolitan urban dwellers, in the epic chronicle Facundo, published in 1845 and later translated as Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants; or Civilization and Barbarism. Sarmiento used the character of Juan Facundo Quiroga as the archetypical barbaric caudillo. Although Sarmiento described the backwardness of the rural caudillo, his stereotype extended to the landless peasant as well, casting a racist pall over the intelligence of the rural dweller in a classic “blame the victim” account. Rosas certainly derived support from fellow caudillos and a segment of the rural poor, but also from urban merchants and complacent legislators, who often profited from his authoritarian rule.

By the late 1840s and early 1850s Rosas’s authority was under threat from estancieros in other parts of the country who desired better access to regional markets and local shipping lines, as opposed to the funneling of all trade through the port of Buenos Aires. The period was almost a repeat of the call for free trade and an end to the colonial monopoly that had galvanized independence forces and local strongmen a half-century earlier. In 1852 Rosas found himself under attack politically and militarily. He lost to an invading army comprised of forces from Brazil and Uruguay and rival regional armies within Argentina itself. The British, who had benefited from Rosas’s reliance on English monetary support in return for assured British control of the export/import market, hurried him to a ship and into exile in England, where he eventually died.

Populist Caudillismo: Paraguay and Bolivia

Rosas’s career was a case study in caudillismo, a phenomenon that relied on outside support from largely foreign financial and mercantile interests. It likewise illustrates that the privilege of liberalism in Europe was anchored in colonial and neocolonial authoritarianism, despite the self-righteousness and moral superiority claimed over much of the rest of the world. Nothing demonstrates that contradiction better than a comparison between the life, career, and eventual fate of Juan Manuel de Rosas and that of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia in Paraguay. Francia governed Paraguay from 1811 to his death in 1840, a period that coincided with caudillismo in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America. Although sometimes included in the list of strongman rulers of the era, Francia used his power to attempt to establish a very different form of society, based on communal principles and local control rather than centralized authoritarianism. Sometimes counted among the dictators of his era, contemporary history has viewed Francia as an honest, populist leader, who promoted sovereign economic prosperity in war-torn Paraguay. Scottish travelers, brothers John Parish Robertson and William Parish observed that Francia, an austere, simply dressed, modest, and efficient Doctor of Theology, had the respect of all the parties; that he “never would defend an unjust cause; while he was ever ready to take the part of the poor and the weak against the rich and the strong.”

Throughout the colonial period Paraguay was a backwater of the empire, the people there a mixture of Guaraní Indians and early Spanish settlers who for generations lived a fairly simple agricultural existence. After independence, land that had belonged to the Church and the Spanish state reverted to the government. Rather than use it for himself, as the other liberators had done, Francia established state ranches and rented out the land for a nominal fee to those willing to till it, aiming to rebuild the communal Indian society that had existed in Paraguay before the arrival of European settlers. Shunning the favors of the landed elite, the Catholic Church, and foreign investors, Francia used his authority to rearrange society according to the demands of the poor. He nationalized the Church, abolished the tithe, declared religious freedom, and put the clergy on the government payroll. Allowing working and landless peasants the opportunity to earn a living on the state-run estancias angered the estancieros, who had long relied on local peasants as a cheap and ready source of labor. Francia also closed down municipal councils that were in the hands of the traditional landed elite, or severely restricted their authority, but allowed local councils to continue in areas where small producers, artisans, and skilled and unskilled laborers were in the majority. He established state-run iron and textile works, and livestock and small handicraft industries, from which a wide swath of the ordinary population derived a modest living.

It was Francia’s disregard for wealthy landowners, merchants, and the Church, and his interference with the paternalistic, all-encompassing power of the ruling elite that sparked opposition to his policies. He was accused of anti-clericalism for curbing the absolute authority of the Church, but he actually used state funds to construct new churches, support religious festivals, and tend cemeteries. He likewise ordered a state takeover of the management of social welfare services (such as orphanages, hospitals, and care for the indigent), which had previously been under the auspices of the Church and the beneficence of the local elite. Moreover, under Francia, much to the dislike of powerful Argentine estancieros, Paraguay prospered. A fairly lively trade was maintained through an overland route to Buenos Aires. If the old-line Spanish elite and Catholic hierarchy denounced Francia for his dictatorial treatment of them, the majority of Paraguayans cheered his measures. Never having received any particular support or benefit from the established ruling classes, and having suffered under the burden of high tithes to a clergy that required payment for sacraments and burial plots in Catholic cemeteries, the mass of Paraguayans found in Francia a sympathetic and honest leader.

At the time of Francia’s death in 1840, Paraguay’s prosperity was also linked to its policy of vigilant neutrality toward its large and powerful neighbors: Argentina and Brazil. Subsequent administrations weakly followed Francia’s path, expending efforts to expand railroad and telegraph lines, upgrade the educational system, and renovate the capital city of Asunción. But in a particularly ill-conceived move, Francisco Solano López (1826–70), president from 1862 to 1870, interceded on the side of neighboring Uruguay and declared war on Argentina and then Brazil. After a trip to France as a young man, Solano López apparently became enthralled with Napoleon’s exploits and fancied himself the “Napoleon of South America.” Both were military men, but the comparison pretty much stopped there. Solano López led thousands of soldiers to their death in a futile and senseless war against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, who formed what was known as the “Triple Alliance” and unleashed armies that ravaged tiny Paraguay from 1864 to 1870. This slaughter is known as the War of the Triple Alliance, or the Paraguayan War.

Britain’s role in supporting the aggressors in the war is a subject of controversy. Some, mainly Paraguayan and Argentine, historians claim the British feared that Paraguayan economic independence might prove contagious. Evidence has not been strong in support of this contention. What is known is that Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina waged a war of extermination against Paraguay and its people, at great cost to themselves and unspeakable cost to tiny Paraguay. In six years, untold numbers of indigenous Guaraní were eliminated; more than 80 percent of the male population in the country between the ages of 14 and 65 were killed, and Paraguay lay prostrate. Any semblance of the prosperity and independence Francia had initiated was destroyed.

Some historians argue that Solano López was a David fighting the Goliath of his larger and more powerful neighbors, but most conclude that he led Paraguay into a war that it could never win, and which nearly destroyed it. Indisputably, Solano López resorted to the most brutal tactics, wiping out any sign of opposition among his countrymen, including his own family and closest advisors. Thousands died in battle, but hundreds more were tortured and killed by the dictator and his henchmen in his paranoid pursuit of personal glory. British traders probably profited from the destruction of competition from domestic producers in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay as the countries squandered valuable human and industrial resources on a senseless war. In the name of economic liberalism, Britain dealt the final blow to the remnants of Francia’s populism and assured for its own burgeoning working class and hungry factories on the other side of the Atlantic a ready supply of hides, dried beef, wool, and agricultural goods.

Manuel Isidoro Belzú (1808–65), who governed Bolivia from 1848 until 1855, bore some similarities to Francia. A populist caudillo, Belzú attempted to modernize the small country by dividing the nation’s wealth and rewarding the work of the poor and dispossessed. His efforts earned him admiration from the masses and enmity from wealthy Creoles. During the seven years he held the presidency, Belzú instigated protectionist economic policies to defend small, indigenous producers and enacted a nationalist mining code that retained the nation’s resources in the hands of Bolivian companies – thus provoking the ire of influential British as well as Peruvian and Chilean shipping and mining interests. Despite his popularity in many sectors, Belzú had many powerful enemies (he supposedly survived over 40 assassination attempts), many of whom wanted to destroy the state-run projects that benefited a nationalist program but likewise improved the public sphere on which the country’s poor were reliant.

Like Francia, Belzú was attracted to communal, state-sponsored, social welfare projects that struck a responsive chord with Indians in particular, since communalism was more representative of indigenous values than the private property and international trade proposals favored by urban Creoles. Belzú left office in 1855, after presiding over the first civilian census in Bolivia’s history. He remained abroad and out of the public limelight for several years, but began to consider returning to the presidency in 1861, only to be gunned down by one of his rivals. Francia’s policies endured longer than those of Belzú, probably because those of the former were based on a more fundamental reordering of Paraguayan society. Although attempting to enact a similar program, Belzú was unable to create a lasting legacy, and his populist programs largely died with him. In the time since independence, Bolivia has lost half of its territory to neighboring Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Brazil through war and agreements reached under the threat of invasion.

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