What Is Caudillismo? Definition and Examples in Latin American History

Argentine Federation soldiers at the time of Juan Manuel de Rosas.
Argentine Federation soldiers at the time of Juan Manuel de Rosas.

DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Caudillismo is a system of political power based on the leadership of and allegiance to a "strongman," who is sometimes also recognized as a dictator. The term stems from the Spanish word "caudillo," which refers to the head of a political faction. Although the system originated in Spain, it became common in Latin America in the mid 19th century, following the era of independence from Spain.

Key Takeaways: Caudillismo

  • Caudillismo is a system of political power associated with a caudillo or "strongman," sometimes also thought to be a dictator.
  • In Latin America, all caudillos gained power through their charisma and willingness to resort to authoritarianism, though some were self-serving while others sought social justice by aiding disadvantaged social classes.
  • Ultimately, caudillismo failed because authoritarianism inherently generated opposition. The system also clashed with 19th-century ideals of liberalism, freedom of speech and a free-market economy.

The Rise of Caudillismo

Caudillismo emerged in Latin America following the era of decolonization from Spain (1810-1825), when all but two countries (Cuba and Puerto Rico) became independent nations. Land was granted to former members of the army as a reward for their service, and ended up in the hands of powerful local bosses, or caudillos. Many caudillos were "former military commanders who derived their prestige and following from the independence wars and the disputes that broke out during the period of instability following the treaties that ended formal hostilities," according to historian Teresa Meade.

Caudillos did not hold specific political ideologies, as they often gained power through local networks based on personal loyalty, but all of them were authoritarian leaders. According to Meade, "Some caudillos were self-serving, backward-looking, authoritarian, and anti-intellectual, while others were progressive and reform-minded. Some caudillos abolished slavery, instituted educational structures, built railroads and other transport systems." Some historians refer to caudillos as "populists" because although they tolerated little dissent, they generally were charismatic and maintained power by doling out rewards to those who remained loyal.

The Archetypal Caudillo

Argentina's Juan Manuel de Rosas is considered the quintessential 19th-century Latin American caudillo. From a wealthy cattle ranching family, he began his political career in the military. He launched a guerilla war against the government in 1828, eventually assaulting Buenos Aires, backed by an army of gauchos (cowboys) and peasants. At one point he collaborated with another famed Argentine caudillo known for his tyrannical nature, Juan Facundo Quiroga, the subject of a famous biography by Domingo Sarmiento, who would come to serve as Argentina's president later in the 19th century.

Rosas ruled with an iron fist from 1829 to 1854, controlling the press and jailing, exiling, or killing his opponents. He used a secret police force for intimidation and required public displays of his image, tactics many 20th century dictators (like Rafael Trujillo) would imitate. Rosas was able to maintain power largely because of foreign economic support from Europe.

Mexico's General Antonio López de Santa Anna practiced a similar type of authoritarian caudillismo. He served as president of Mexico 11 times between 1833 and 1855 (six times officially and five times unofficially), and was known for his shifting allegiances. He fought first for Spain in the Mexican War of Independence, and then switched sides. Santa Anna presided over the Mexican forces when Spain attempted to reconquer Mexico in 1829, during an 1836 rebellion by white settlers in Texas (at which time they declared independence from Mexico), and during the Mexican-American War.

General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, 1829
General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna against General Isidro de Barradas' Spanish troops in 1829. DEA Picture Library / Getty Images 

Venezuelan José Antonio Páez is also considered to be an important 19th century caudillo. He started out as a ranch hand on the plains of Venezuela, quickly acquiring land and cattle. In 1810, he joined Simon Bolívar's South American independence movement, leading a group of ranchers, and eventually became the chief Venezuelan commander. In 1826, he led a rebellion against Gran Colombia—a short-lived republic (1819-1830) led by Bolívar that included present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama—and Venezuela eventually seceded, with Páez designated as president. He held power in Venezuela from 1830 to 1848 (though not always with the title of president), during a period of peace and relative prosperity, and then was forced into exile. He ruled again from 1861 to 1863 as a repressive dictator, after which time he was exiled until his death.

Populist Caudillismo

In contrast to the authoritarian brand of caudillismo, other caudillos in Latin America gained and held power through populism. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia governed Paraguay from 1811 until his death in 1840. Francia advocated for an economically sovereign Paraguay. Also, while other leaders enriched themselves with land formerly belonging to the Spanish or the Church that reverted to the government, Francia rented it out for a nominal fee to natives and peasants. "Francia used his authority to rearrange society according to the demands of the poor," wrote Meade. While the Church and the elite were opposed to Francia's policies, he enjoyed widespread popularity among the masses and Paraguay's economy prospered during his rule.

In the 1860s the British, fearing Paraguay's economic independence, funded a war on Paraguay, enlisting the services of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Sadly, Paraguay's gains under Francia were erased.

Aymara Indian dance, Bolivia, 1833
Bolivia, Aymaras Indian dance by Emile Lassalle from Alcide Dessalines d'Orbigny Journey, Colored engraving, 1833. DEA / M. SEEMULLER / Getty Images

Manuel Isidoro Belzú, who governed Bolivia from 1848 until 1855, practiced a similar brand of caudillismo to that of Francia. He advocated for poor and indigenous people, attempting to protect Bolivia's natural resources from European powers, namely Great Britain. In the process, he made many enemies, particularly from the wealthy urban "creole" class. He left office voluntarily in 1855, but in 1861 considered running for president again; he never had the chance, as he was killed by one of his many rivals.

Why Caudillismo Didn't Endure

Caudillismo wasn't a sustainable political system for a number of reasons, mainly because its association with authoritarianism inherently generated opposition, and because it clashed with 19th-century ideals of liberalism, freedom of speech and a free-market economy. Caudillismo also continued the dictatorial style of governance that Latin Americans had been subjected to under European colonialism. According to Meade, "The widespread emergence of caudillismo postponed and prevented the construction of social institutions accountable to the citizenry and managed by capable experts—legislators, intellectuals, entrepreneurs."

Notwithstanding the fact that caudillismo flourished in the mid-19th century, some historians also refer to 20th century Latin American leaders—such as Fidel Castro, Rafael Trujillo, Juan Perón, or Hugo Chávez—as caudillos.

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