The March of the Caudillos

The re-election of Presidents Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales for unlimited periods in Venezuela and Bolivia, respectively, reflects a phenomenon – caudillismo – that has never been far from the surface of Latin American politics. The weaker a country’s institutions, the more evident the inequalities, and the more concentrated the resources, the greater the caudillo’s powers will be.

LA PAZ -- The re-election for unlimited periods that Presidents Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales have sought in Venezuela and Bolivia, respectively, reflects a phenomenon – caudillismo – that has, sadly, never been far from the surface of Latin American politics. At least Russian president Vladimir Putin had the decency to honor the form of his country’s constitution when he recently promised to step down and run for parliament.

Of course, several recent Latin American presidents succeeded in changing their countries’ constitutions to lengthen their terms in office. Argentina’s Carlos Menem, the heir to Peronism, the continent’s most enduring form of caudillismo , was one such example, but his was a soft caudillismo , which basically maintained democratic norms .

C audillismo has two key facets. First, because it is, above all, a form of political representation, it can have its own local particularities. Second, although caudillismo personalizes politics, it depends less on the characteristics of the caudillo than on the social, political, and economic conditions of the country in which caudillismo takes root. In other words, although a caudillo ’s charisma matters, he or she is a social creation.

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