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The Caesar Temptation

BUENOS AIRES – On June 28 a coup deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, ending his attempt to hold a referendum that would permit his re-election. That same day in Argentina, former president Nestor Kirchner was defeated in a mid-term election that many people viewed as a test of whether or not he or his wife Cristina, Argentina’s current president and Nestor’s successor, would continue as president after the vote of 2011. Both events crystallized a peculiar Latin American phenomenon: the temptation to empower a new, local Caesar.

This “Caesarism” is not a new idea.  Instead, it marks the return of a practice that had seemed to have been consigned to history’s dustbin which has now returned with a vengeance.

In 1919, the first edition of Democratic Caesarism , by the Venezuelan historian and sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, was published and widely circulated across the continent. Vallenilla claimed to be seeking an effective (as opposed to the formal) constitutional system for his country.

To achieve this end, Vallenilla argued that, at least in the case of Venezuela, a charismatic leader, confirmed in power through regular elections, would be best placed to concentrate political power successfully and guarantee institutional order. Ninety years later, it looks as though, with the rise of a variety of neo- caudillos , Vallenilla’s idea of the “good Caesar” is coming back.