Latin American Civilization: History and Society, 1492 to the Present

By Benjamin Keen | Go to book overview

15
DICTATORS AND REVOLUTIONS

AFTER WINNING its independence Spanish America began a long uphill struggle to achieve stable, democratic government. The new states lacked a strong middle class, experience in self-government, and the other advantages with which the United States began its independent career. The result was an age of violence, of alternate dictatorship and revolution. Its symbol was the caudillo, or "strong man," whose power was always based on force, no matter what the constitutional form.

Whatever their methods, the caudillos generally displayed some regard for republican ideology and institutions. Political parties, usually called Conservative and Liberal, were active in most of the new states. Conservatism drew its main support from the landed aristocracy, the church, and the military; liberalism attracted the merchants, provincial landowners, and professional men of the towns. Regional conflicts often cut across the lines of social cleavage, complicating the political picture.

As a rule the Conservatives regarded with sympathy the social arrangements of the colonial era and favored a highly centralized government; the Liberals, inspired by the success of the United States, advocated a federal form of government, guarantees of individual rights, lay control of education, and an end to special privileges for the clergy and the military. Neither party displayed much interest in the problems of the landless, debt-ridden peasantry who formed the majority of almost every nation.

After the middle of the nineteenth century a growing trade with Europe helped to stabilize political conditions in Latin America. The new economic order demanded peace and continuity in government. Old party lines dissolved as Conservatives adopted the "positivist" dogma of science and progress, while Liberals abandoned their concern with constitutional methods and civil liberties in favor of an interest in material prosperity. A new type of "progressive" caudillo -- Díaz in Mexico, Núñez in Colombia, Guzmán Blanco in Venezuela -- symbolized the politics of acquisition. The cycle of

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