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Caudillo System in Latin America

The caudillo system established in Latin America after the wars for independence consisted of unstable transitional governments that achieved few of the goals recognized in an effective democratic government. Despite these shortcomings, the caudillo system maintained a predictable social order and prevented chaos. This system was the best available until the formation of a middle class could be achieved, resulting in a more democratic political system.

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The caudillo system came to be a common form of government in Latin America for several reasons. The first, and most apparent, reason for the establishment of the caudillo system, was the weak, precarious, and unstable governments left in place after independence was achieved. These countries, once colonies, had been under the rule of Spain, which meant that all government control came from an outside source that was imposed upon the inhabitants.

Local armies, the only organized group prepared to take control, assumed power once the Spaniards were defeated. The transition from a military government to a government controlled by a “hero” from the army, the caudillo, was both logical and easy. The caudillo often came from the creole aristocracy, which was supported by the military and the Roman Catholic Church. Occasionally, a mestizo or mulatto took power who quickly adopted the characteristics of the upper class.

The main problem with having a creole in power was that his constituency, the creole class, was not interested in nor had no intention of, the reformation of land ownership or labor systems. This group wanted to stay on the top of the social ladder and had no incentive to make changes for the benefit of the majority and would not support any leader that would deprive them of their privileges. The caudillo maintained the status quo, therefore, lessening the potential conflict that could be created by a society with a constantly changing social order.

Both upper and lower classes seemingly benefited from the predictable social environment. The lack of literacy among the Indians prevented any resistance to the existing social order. John Chastyne opined that the poorest groups identified with the conservatives because their culture and way of life depended on the continuation of their traditions. The liberals, who were in favor of change were not supported by the groups they were trying to assist because they were breaking from tradition.

For example, the liberals were in favor of the ownership of small plots of land by individuals; the native Indians believed in a communal form of land ownership. The indigenous peoples belief facilitated the consolidation of land into the hands of the few and wealthy. The caudillo system, while imperfect, served as bridge between the feudal colonialism left by Spain and the development of democratic society. The caudillo system was supported by both the upper and lower classes because it promoted a traditional form of government.

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