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The March of the Caudillos

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.

These two ideas are helpful in understanding Chávez and Morales. Like the old caudillos , they concentrate representation of their supporters in themselves. Whereas representation in democratic countries is based on people’s confidence that they can achieve a better future under their elected leaders, in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia nowadays, representation is based on a simple identification with the leader: “He’s one of us.”