Why did caudillismo triumph over liberalism in the politics of Latin America before 1880? Although by the end of the nineteenth century's second decade Latin America had succeeded in ridding itself of the colonial rule which had dictated its every move for three hundred years, liberalism, which was poised to step into the political vacuum left in the wake of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies, found it impossible to find its feet.
Latin America at this stage was still very much a product of its own history, run by conquistadores turned encomenderos turned aristocrats, ruling, paternally or despotically, as they pleased, their rural haciendas and mineral rich fiefdoms as God-sent overlords of their essentially non-white labour forces. An aspiration to political stability – which it was assumed would then, naturally, bring economic stability – made liberalism look like the political apparatus best suited to perform the regulatory role of these new independant states. But almost as soon as the tenets of liberalism were being affirmed, inherant contradictions were coming to light.
The zeal with which they had fought the Wars of Independence was fuelled by a strong desire, amongst the creoles, to assume the role of a legitimate ruling class so long denied them by their European governors and to access the international trade those same governors had blocked. But, as there was little popularity amongst the powerful provincial elites for a new centralised regime to replace the old, especially a system underpinned by an ideology which valued personal liberty and equality for all, a system which they could only
view as being in opposition to their priviledged position in societies which Edwin Williamson describes as "seigneurial, hierarchical, racially divided and often based on slavery," a political conflict was bound to arise. But for the idealistsic leaders and thinkers who had envisioned independence and championed progressive reforms based on enlightened European ideas, the days when "the support for the goal of political independence cleary transcended class and regional differences," as William Katra puts it, were gone.
The carreer politicians now displayed, at best, an ambivalence towards rural society and, beyond that, suspicion and distrust. With scant regard for provincial interests and with an apparent ignorance of the opposition they were fomenting, they forged ahead with their centralized governing structure. But, due to the population's bent towards custom and tradition – which meant the same oligarchies which ruled pre-independence Latin America still held sway – an impersonal bureaucratic state ruling from the centre was an unwelcome manifestation of their hard fought for independence.
At least with the late monarchy there was a figurehead from whom they could solicit favours – and for whom they could exercise loyalty, as was their wont. The absence of the king only provoked in the landowning elites and, in turn (or perhaps by default), their slaves and peons, the desire, or need, for a substitute form of patriarchy through which favours and patronage could be dispensed and allegiance sworn. Who better to provide the normalising traditional politics of the encomienda whilst backing the cause of the majority rural population than the latifundistas and estancieros?
They could already command the loyalty of a their workforce through their proven reliability in supplying the basics of a livelihood, their relations with their workers were personalised and, through their exploits in the battle-fields, they were recognised as leaders of men. The job of these rural landowners, as they saw it, was to maintain social order, to protect productivity and to mobilise bands of faithful underlings at will, without exposing them to liberal ideas which could potentially undermine the hacendado's power.
The key to the successful implementation of this model was the traditional social relation between wealth and its retainers. As Leslie Bethell points out: "The relation of patron and client, this was the essential link. The landowner wanted labour, loyalty and service in peace and war. The peon wanted subsistence and security" It is the notion of 'peace and war' which was to transform the wealthy landowner.
Asolute rule over his labour-intensive fiefdom was something he had long enjoyed – even under colonialism he was given a virtual free-rein over his own domestic affairs – the metamorphosis from quasi-encomendero to tribal overlord was due to the cause of the power void above him, namely himself. Psychologically he had mutated. Where before he saw himself as a link in the rigid chain of loyalty from the king down, he now, following his dominant role in the Wars of Independence in which he defied his master, perceived himself as an invincible warrior- chief, answerable to no-one. Bethell again: "The occupational route they followed had familiar signposts, from estanciero, via the military, to caudillo. "
But it was not the caudillo alone who had been party to the slaughter of the former masters. During the advent of military action, simple calculations informed the criollo leaders of the futility of challenging the Spanish forces alone and so it was, not without reluctance, that they supplied with arms the "dispossesed" of Latin American society, the mestizos. They fought under their patrons in the wars and retained their weapons when it was time to return to work on the haciendas. They also retained the notion that what could not be acquired by request could be theirs by force of violence.