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The term “Caudillo” originates from
the Spanish word for head “Cabeza” and describes the leader of a political
faction, often linked to a band of armed men. Due to each Caudillo having their
own, very distinct personality, ideology and set of beliefs, each Spanish
American country had a very different experience with Caudillos, making this
question a lot more complex than it seems at face value. In this essay I will
examine whether they were the cause of consequence of political instability,
paying particular attention to Chile, Mexico and Argentina.

A majority of European countries as
well as the U.S had achieved political stability through democracy and constitutionalism,
for instance the U.S introduced the Bill of Rights in 1791 protecting citizens
from tyrannical governments and anarchy. However, Spanish American countries
were deeply unstable because of the fact that they were just gaining
independence. This volatile climate made perfect breeding ground for Caudillos
who gained authority from being very charismatic and close to the people as
they generally came from military backgrounds. This can be shown by Juan Manuel
de Rosas, a Caudillo from Argentina, who was involved in military action from
the age of just 13.  

On one side, some Caudillos can be
seen as the cause of political instability, this was particularly evident in
Argentina after independence, with Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877). Rosas was
a power hungry dictator who had complete power over Argentina, and in
particular, Buenos Aires. Rosas was voted in as a full dictator in 1828.
According to his liberal enemies, Rosas ran Argentina like one massive
estancia, where he had total control and the citizens were little more than
peons. By nature, Rosas was obsessed with power and was barbaric; this was the
main cause of political instability in Argentina at this time. This can be
further seen in his second spell as president, in 1835, as he deployed spies
and death squads to keep him in power. These conflicts with citizens led to
even more instability but it didn’t stop there, His constant conflicts with
neighbouring countries led to constant political instability, not just in
Argentina, but in neighbouring countries as well, especially through his acts
for the United Provinces against foreign enemies: He fought Bolivia to prevent
it from merging with Peru; he kept intervening with the Caudillo politics of
Uruguay to stop it becoming independent and tried to force Paraguay through
blockade to join the United Provinces. All of these actions brought him into
conflict with Brazil, France and Britain, who had a stake in opening up the
River Plate to boost international trade. These conflicts eventually turned out
to be his downfall as all of his enemies, including Brazil and the Liberals who
he had previously exiled, marched against him and defeated him. This goes to
show that Caudillos can be a major cause of political instability as by nature
they are power seeking and ruthless.

Having said this, Caudillos can also be seen to be a
consequence of political instability. This is mainly due to the fact that after
independence South American countries had weak state structures due to the fact
they’re ex-colonies. Moreover most Spanish American countries had the
distraction of outside economic interest and long term debt. This gave the Caudillos
a perfect platform to take control.   One
example of this would be Chile. After independence in Chile in 1818 there was a
large amount of political, economic and social instability because of the lack
of governability. This in turn led to disputes about how to structure the
country and it was then that Diego Portales (1793-1837), a Caudillo from
Valparaiso, made the constitution in 1833, mainly as a reaction by the
Conservative oligarchs to various unsuccessful liberal dictatorships. This
constitution allowed Chile to become the most stable country other than Brazil.
This constitution proved to be the most enduring of modern times in the Hispanic
world and certainly more durable than many constitutions of the period. It
influenced democratic practice in Chile until 1973.  The rewards of Portales’s pragmatic
conservatism were considerable: Chile went on to become a formidable military
and economic power having once being one of the least prized territories in the
Spanish Indies. This goes to show how in some Spanish American countries, like
Chile, Caudillos were a consequence but not necessarily a cause as in Chile it
actually led to more stability.

This brings up the question, why did Caudillos achieve
stability in Chile yet in Argentina they led to instability. The difference
between Chile and Argentina is that Portales appealed to the oligarchy in Chile
and revolutionised the country in a democratic, non violent way, with the
constitution whilst Rosas was more of a man of the people, a classic Caudillo
who appealed to the “sectores bajos” and to the “sector alto” and did this
through violence and barbarism. Moreover, as previously stated, Chile achieved
stability through a constitution which limited state power and protected Chile
from Caudillos like Rosas , on the other hand Rosas in Argentina preferred a
system of pacts with chieftains like Estanislao Lopez of Santa Fe or Facundo
Quiroga of La Rioja to any formal constitutional arrangements. This meant that Rosas
could keep full sovereignty and would still have no legally binding restrictions
allowing him to continue his dictatorship over Argentina and meant instability would
continue in Argentina. Eventually Argentina did acquire a Chile like
constitution which allowed it to achieve high levels of political stability and
this could also be a factor as to why Chile and Argentina are still today the
top South American economies and the politically two of the most stable
countries. This goes further in showing that although Caudillos always come as
a consequence of political stability they are not always the cause. Whether or not
they are the cause depends on the characteristics of the Caudillo.

Looking at the reasoning behind the instability, a trend
clearly shows that more often than not it is due to disagreements on how to run
the country between Liberal Caudillos and Conservative Caudillos.  This can be seen very clearly in Mexico after
independence. Mexicans were very split after independence in 1810. Liberals
wanted a U.S. style constitution and were anti-clerical whilst the Mexican
Conservatives were very powerful and wanted to restore the monarchy. This split
led to many failed coalitions between the two, causing economic disarray and
many revolts and ultimately led to political turmoil and chaos in Mexico. This
can be further seen when Santa Anna tried to improve national security by
giving the country a more centralist constitution but his plan failed as it
annoyed liberal federalists who were very dogmatic in there federalist views,
this caused revolt in several states leading to even more instability. This
Liberal v Conservative conflict caused a lot of tension for the Caudillos and
in many cases is the reason behind a lot of the instability they caused. It was
also apparent in Argentina, as mentioned, when Rosas exiled the Liberals.
However it is true to say that although the tensions between the left and the
right provoked the Caudillos, it was the Caudillos who reacted and caused the
instability. In fact the only country, other than Brazil, in South America that
avoided this was Chile, as they had clear constitutional boundaries which
restricted any arbitrary actions from Caudillos. These ultimately back up the
point that Caudillos were a cause of political instability.

In conclusion, it would definitely be true to say that
Caudillos were the consequence of instability. This goes back to the nature of
Caudillos and where they come from socially. They were able to reach positions
of power due to the unstable political climate which is shown as all countries
in South America were affected by Caudillos in one way or another. However,
they were not always the cause of political instability, having said this, due
to the lack of constitutions and presidential restrictions they usually were
the cause of some political instability. And this instability was provoked by
the liberal-conservative tensions but ultimately the Caudillos were responsible
for reacting badly to it due to their military ruthless nature, this can be
summed up by Diego Portales who stated “Los generales sólo entienden por la Sangre”.