The term “Caudillo” originates fromthe Spanish word for head “Cabeza” and describes the leader of a politicalfaction, often linked to a band of armed men. Due to each Caudillo having theirown, very distinct personality, ideology and set of beliefs, each SpanishAmerican country had a very different experience with Caudillos, making thisquestion a lot more complex than it seems at face value. In this essay I willexamine whether they were the cause of consequence of political instability,paying particular attention to Chile, Mexico and Argentina. A majority of European countries aswell 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 citizensfrom tyrannical governments and anarchy. However, Spanish American countrieswere deeply unstable because of the fact that they were just gainingindependence. This volatile climate made perfect breeding ground for Caudilloswho gained authority from being very charismatic and close to the people asthey generally came from military backgrounds.
This can be shown by Juan Manuelde Rosas, a Caudillo from Argentina, who was involved in military action fromthe age of just 13. On one side, some Caudillos can beseen as the cause of political instability, this was particularly evident inArgentina after independence, with Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877). Rosas wasa power hungry dictator who had complete power over Argentina, and inparticular, Buenos Aires. Rosas was voted in as a full dictator in 1828.According to his liberal enemies, Rosas ran Argentina like one massiveestancia, where he had total control and the citizens were little more thanpeons.
By nature, Rosas was obsessed with power and was barbaric; this was themain cause of political instability in Argentina at this time. This can befurther seen in his second spell as president, in 1835, as he deployed spiesand death squads to keep him in power. These conflicts with citizens led toeven more instability but it didn’t stop there, His constant conflicts withneighbouring countries led to constant political instability, not just inArgentina, but in neighbouring countries as well, especially through his actsfor the United Provinces against foreign enemies: He fought Bolivia to preventit from merging with Peru; he kept intervening with the Caudillo politics ofUruguay to stop it becoming independent and tried to force Paraguay throughblockade to join the United Provinces. All of these actions brought him intoconflict with Brazil, France and Britain, who had a stake in opening up theRiver Plate to boost international trade. These conflicts eventually turned outto be his downfall as all of his enemies, including Brazil and the Liberals whohe had previously exiled, marched against him and defeated him. This goes toshow that Caudillos can be a major cause of political instability as by naturethey are power seeking and ruthless.
Having said this, Caudillos can also be seen to be aconsequence of political instability. This is mainly due to the fact that afterindependence South American countries had weak state structures due to the factthey’re ex-colonies. Moreover most Spanish American countries had thedistraction of outside economic interest and long term debt. This gave the Caudillosa perfect platform to take control.
Oneexample of this would be Chile. After independence in Chile in 1818 there was alarge amount of political, economic and social instability because of the lackof governability. This in turn led to disputes about how to structure thecountry and it was then that Diego Portales (1793-1837), a Caudillo fromValparaiso, made the constitution in 1833, mainly as a reaction by theConservative oligarchs to various unsuccessful liberal dictatorships. Thisconstitution allowed Chile to become the most stable country other than Brazil.This constitution proved to be the most enduring of modern times in the Hispanicworld and certainly more durable than many constitutions of the period. Itinfluenced democratic practice in Chile until 1973.
The rewards of Portales’s pragmaticconservatism were considerable: Chile went on to become a formidable militaryand economic power having once being one of the least prized territories in theSpanish Indies. This goes to show how in some Spanish American countries, likeChile, Caudillos were a consequence but not necessarily a cause as in Chile itactually led to more stability. This brings up the question, why did Caudillos achievestability in Chile yet in Argentina they led to instability. The differencebetween Chile and Argentina is that Portales appealed to the oligarchy in Chileand revolutionised the country in a democratic, non violent way, with theconstitution whilst Rosas was more of a man of the people, a classic Caudillowho appealed to the “sectores bajos” and to the “sector alto” and did thisthrough violence and barbarism. Moreover, as previously stated, Chile achievedstability through a constitution which limited state power and protected Chilefrom Caudillos like Rosas , on the other hand Rosas in Argentina preferred asystem of pacts with chieftains like Estanislao Lopez of Santa Fe or FacundoQuiroga of La Rioja to any formal constitutional arrangements.
This meant that Rosascould keep full sovereignty and would still have no legally binding restrictionsallowing him to continue his dictatorship over Argentina and meant instability wouldcontinue in Argentina. Eventually Argentina did acquire a Chile likeconstitution which allowed it to achieve high levels of political stability andthis could also be a factor as to why Chile and Argentina are still today thetop South American economies and the politically two of the most stablecountries. This goes further in showing that although Caudillos always come asa consequence of political stability they are not always the cause. Whether or notthey are the cause depends on the characteristics of the Caudillo. Looking at the reasoning behind the instability, a trendclearly shows that more often than not it is due to disagreements on how to runthe country between Liberal Caudillos and Conservative Caudillos. This can be seen very clearly in Mexico afterindependence. Mexicans were very split after independence in 1810. Liberalswanted a U.
S. style constitution and were anti-clerical whilst the MexicanConservatives were very powerful and wanted to restore the monarchy. This splitled to many failed coalitions between the two, causing economic disarray andmany revolts and ultimately led to political turmoil and chaos in Mexico. Thiscan be further seen when Santa Anna tried to improve national security bygiving the country a more centralist constitution but his plan failed as itannoyed liberal federalists who were very dogmatic in there federalist views,this caused revolt in several states leading to even more instability. ThisLiberal v Conservative conflict caused a lot of tension for the Caudillos andin many cases is the reason behind a lot of the instability they caused. It wasalso apparent in Argentina, as mentioned, when Rosas exiled the Liberals.
However it is true to say that although the tensions between the left and theright provoked the Caudillos, it was the Caudillos who reacted and caused theinstability. In fact the only country, other than Brazil, in South America thatavoided this was Chile, as they had clear constitutional boundaries whichrestricted any arbitrary actions from Caudillos. These ultimately back up thepoint that Caudillos were a cause of political instability. In conclusion, it would definitely be true to say thatCaudillos were the consequence of instability. This goes back to the nature ofCaudillos and where they come from socially. They were able to reach positionsof power due to the unstable political climate which is shown as all countriesin South America were affected by Caudillos in one way or another. However,they were not always the cause of political instability, having said this, dueto the lack of constitutions and presidential restrictions they usually werethe cause of some political instability.
And this instability was provoked bythe liberal-conservative tensions but ultimately the Caudillos were responsiblefor reacting badly to it due to their military ruthless nature, this can besummed up by Diego Portales who stated “Los generales sólo entienden por la Sangre”.