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Caudillo is a Spanish word (caudilho in Portuguese) usually describing a political-military leader at the head of an authoritarian power. It is usually translated into English as "leader" or "chief," or more pejoratively as warlord, "dictator" or "strongman". Caudillo was the term used to refer the charismatic populist leaders among the people. Caudillos have influenced a sizable portion of the history of Latin America.

The term originally referred to military power: Indíbil and Mandonio, Viriathus, Almanzor (sometimes in the modern historiography), Don Pelayo and other fighters of the Reconquista, even Simón Bolivar, Francisco Franco, etc., but in Latin America another sense has developed: the liberal caudillo lawyer and politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was honored with the title "Caudillo of The Colombian People" (and other nuances with a significance mostly demagogic -accused by the right wing opposition and some landowners-) and even without state responsibilities like cacique in Spain and oligarchical-plutocratic power.


The related caudillismo is a cultural phenomenon that first appeared during the early 19th century in revolutionary South America, as a type of militia leader with a charismatic personality and enough of a populist program of generic future reforms to gain broad sympathy, at least at the outset, among the common people. Effective caudillismo depends on a personality cult.

The root of caudillismo lies in Spanish colonial policy of supplementing small cadres of professional, full-time soldiers with large militia forces recruited from local populations to maintain public order. Militiamen held civilian occupations but assembled at regular times for drill and inspection. Their salary from the Crown was a token; their recompense was in prestige, primarily because of the fuero militar ("military privilege"), that exempted them from certain taxes and obligatory community work assignments (compare the feudal corvée), and more significantly, exempted them from criminal or civil prosecution. Away from colonial capitals, the militias were at the service of the criollo landowners.


Charismatic image

Typically, the caudillos took it upon themselves to attain power over society and place themselves as its leader. Caudillos were capable of commanding large numbers of people and holding the attention of large crowds with growing excitement. In the late Roman Republic men like Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar and Octavian were populist commanders who had strong personal ties with their soldiers, and imagery of revived Roman values is often brought to bear in support of caudillismo. A similar phenomenon in Italy from the 13th to the 16th century repeatedly brought the condottieri, the charismatic leader of a band of mercenaries, to power, when institutions of power temporarily failed.

Gaining of support

In the upheavals of the decades of revolution and its aftermath, leaders who were able to draw to themselves bands of loyal followers and keep them well armed and otherwise well cared for could assume the title of "general." Caudillos began to attain this power in the course of the South American Wars of Independence, where the militias did much of the fighting and earned a heroic reputation. The caudillos used their small armed bands to overthrow the vulnerable newly independent states in South America. These caudillos were not always welcome, but they were not publicly condemned either. Some were large landowners (hacendados) who sought to secure their private interests, but more typically they began as vigilantes keeping the local peace for the hacienda, then gained independence of action and developed an anti-oligarchic public stance and finished by supporting an acquiescent establishment that included the Catholic Church.

Government structure

Since the caudillo typically held power by controlling a patronage network that brooked no rival structure, some caudillos took up an anti-clerical stand. Many of the caudillos used their newly gained power, which was unchecked because it was extra-constitutional, to promote their own wealth and interests. At the height of caudillismo, as in Venezuela, the national army was rendered superfluous by the personal armies of the caudillos: in 1872 Venezuela's federal troops were dismissed entirely.

Some famous caudillos

A few examples of powerful Caudillos in the Americas during the early 1800s include Juan Manuel de Rosas and Juan Facundo Quiroga in Argentinamarker, José Gervasio Artigas in Uruguaymarker, Antonio López de Santa Anna in Mexicomarker, José Rafael Carrera in Guatemalamarker, and José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, "El Supremo," in Paraguaymarker. In Venezuela, a century of caudillismo was initiated with the 1848 coup of José Tadeo Monagas who ruled Venezuela in partnership with his brother, followed after the Federal War by the rule of Antonio Guzmán Blanco, but the tradition of caudillismo has lingered; after the coup by which the designated vice-president Juan Vicente Gómez overthrew the elected president, Gómez ruled Venezuela by his personal authority until his death.

Well-known later caudillos have included Gabriel García Moreno in Ecuador and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. The strongman with a military following who controls political developments continues to be an unsettling factor in Latin American societies.

The Spanishmarker ruler Francisco Franco used from 1936 the title "Caudillo de España, por la gracia de Dios", echoing (as usual at that time) the titles "Führer" and "Il Duce." English speakers are reluctant to use the term "caudillo," which they imagine must have pejorative connotations; in Spain, it resounded of the old warriors of history. The word had already been used for key men like the Cid Campeador and, in retrospect, Fernan Gonzalez, Viriathus. Similarly, António de Oliveira Salazar was called caudilho.

Franco's contemporary Juan Domingo Perón, however, had to fight the connotation of the uncultivated Argentinian caudillos of the 19th century. In spite of Peronism's nationalism, the Peronist press used the Anglicism líder (from English "leader"), and the term caudillo was only employed when context ensured it would not be misunderstood.

The death of Cirilo Vázquez, a cacique from Acayucanmarker, Veracruzmarker, made headlines in newspapers in Mexicomarker and the United Statesmarker.Nowadays some European and opposition press use the term to refer Hugo Chávez, compared with Jorge Eliécer Gaitán or Perón, and for his military origin with Franco or Juan Vicente Gómez.

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