Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Cult of the Caudillo

To understand what is happening in Honduras today, it helps to know a bit more about Latin America’s long love affair with caudillos, how these larger-than-life but power-hungry men damaged their countries, and why so many people are terrified that they are making a comeback.

Acceptable statement, though rather general and sweeping. There is, of course, no denying the reality of the caudillo in Latin American history. Yet it is important to carefully analyze history, and resist the temptation of making shallow analysis.

Caudillismo is so deeply rooted it has spawned its own literary genre. Discerning readers see Fidel Castro as the model for the aging, cow-obsessed strongman in Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” who wanders alone dragging his outsize testicles over the floors of his presidential palace. Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, in his novel “The Feast of the Goat,” portrayed the precariousness of life in the Dominican Republic under the rule of the predatory and brutal right-wing caudillo, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo.

My reading of the recent García Márquez biography byGerald Martin informs me differently; the Patriarch may well have been a composite, and in part based on Trujillo. I shall have to clear that up.

In Latin America, the strength of the caudillo weakened the region’s institutions. Political parties centered on caudillos often collapsed after the caudillo’s death and never professionalized. As a result, Latin Americans seem perennially ready to trust their fate to a providential “man on horseback” who comes to their nation’s rescue, rather than on the ability of the nation’s institutions to provide security and prosperity.

My reading of John Lynch's biography of Bolívar left me with the impression that caudillismo prevented the emergence of robust institutions. Rather than a result, people's trust in strongmen was concurrent with weak institutions, corruption, and social divisions.

Caudillos come in all ideological stripes. Mr. Pinochet, whose famous photograph in sinister dark glasses was taken soon after his coup, became the iconic image of the right-wing Latin American military dictator. These days, most caudillos are leftist. Mr. Castro, el Comandante or el Caballo (the Horse), has the dubious distinction of being the longest-lived caudillo in Latin American history, owing his record-breaking stretch in power more to caudillismo than Marxismo. He’s passed on the torch to Hugo Chávez, the populist caudillo from Caracas, Venezuela.

Interestingly, the article is not accompanied by the famed photograph of Pinochet looking thuggish in his dark glasses, but, rather, a more innocuous one of the general as a sort of elder statesman.
In the 20th century, few had bigger egos than Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. Known as El Jefe, Mr. Trujillo took power at age 38, wearing a sash with the motto Dios y Trujillo, or “God and Trujillo.” Even churches were forced to emblazon the motto. A few years later, the capital, Santo Domingo, was renamed Ciudad Trujillo. Fond of wearing comic-opera military uniforms with 18th-century-style plumed hats, Mr. Trujillo was as brutal as he was outlandish, murdering thousands of Haitian immigrants as well as torturing and killing political opponents; he fed some of them to the sharks.

Trujillo was the US's man in the Caribbean, a bulwark against communism. His cruelty and brutality is undeniable, yet to omit mention of his being favored by Washington leaves an incomplete, and thus an inaccurate, picture.
While arms made the man in the 19th century, in the 20th, most caudillos have been careful to present themselves as champions of the people, wrapped either in the mantle of revolution—like Fidel Castro—or in that of democracy. Argentina’s Juan Domingo Perón used populism to endear himself to the nation’s poor, known as descamisados, or “shirtless ones.”

Perón returned in the 1970s and held power again, and after his deatch, his new wife held power for a while. Perónismo is the dominant ideological construct, but a vapid skeleton that simply has the label, and little substance. Its meaning is manipulated, so that Menem and the Kirchners can both be labeled Peronists.

The legacy of Mr. Perón’s free-spending populist philosophy has led Argentina into periodic economic crises. When prices for Argentine exports like beef are high, for instance, Perónist governments have spent the windfall like a drunken sailor, leading to a cash crunch when prices eventually head south.

Rather poor choice of metaphor: Argentina is in the South.

As far as the U.S. was concerned, the cause of democracy in Latin America often took a back seat to fighting Communism during the Cold War. For years, the U.S. either looked the other way or supported coups with the aim of preventing the spread of Communism in the hemisphere. Military coups became almost ritual. In the 1970s, Honduras endured so many coups that the capital was jokingly called Tegucigolpe, for the Spanish word golpe, or coup.
Well, the point is raised; I would quibble with the word often. But, the point is made, and is accurate.

While democracy has spread throughout Latin America, caudillos never vanish, they just adapt to changing times. Gone is the old-fashioned military coup, replaced with a new strategy for power that could be called “coup by stealth,” or “coup by democratic means.”

The primary architect of this new blueprint is Mr. Chávez, a strongman with one foot grounded in the past and the other firmly placed in the future of caudillismo. In 1992, Mr. Chávez, then a lieutenant colonel with a mish-mash of leftist, nationalist and fascist ideas, led an old-fashioned coup in an attempt to overthrow the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. It failed, and Mr. Chávez was jailed.

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