Caudillo is a Spanish word used to describe leaders in Latin America that maintain their authoritarian political and social power by catering to their clientes (as in the patrón-cliente relationship). The political ideology of a caudillo is subject to change, sometimes dramatically, as a means of ensuring continued power. Because of this, caudillos are often described as populists, if only to the elite that control the country’s political landscape.
Caudillos as microscale dependencyEdit
Caudillos represent a microcosmic version of dependency in that they depend entirely on their clients for political power. Caudillos are defined by their followers rather than by formal ranks, offices and institutions (Chasteen). Therefore, they are politically unstable leaders for many are put into power by the military and are also maintained by military means (see below for examples in Panama). Their charisma is a large motivation factor as it acts as the primary populous’ judgment which in turn provides the basis of if that caudillo’s laws are followed. This echoing of dependency to the microscale is indicative of how Latin American political and social institutions are firmly rooted in dependency.
After a disputed start to his reign, Omar Torrijos regained power in 1969 from the guards who had deposed him. Having gained respect through the ranks of the military, Torrijos used this image along with leftist, populist politics to win over the support of rural campesinos and urban wage-earners. By employing his charisma while touring the country to spread word of his labor reforms, Omar Torrijos echoed the style of early Latin American caudillo leaders who ruled based on their popular support and ability to provide protection for the common people (Conniff 126).
In the following years, “the Torrijos regime appeared variously as revolutionary, reformist, populist, dictatorial, and socialist, but in a final analysis it was none of these” (Conniff 127). He embraced movements in an ambiguous fashion to ensure his own popularity, all while resorting to force to hold on to complete power. This capricious and mysterious character is echoed in Graham Greene's account of his friendship with Torrijos. While visiting some disgruntled campesinos seeking wage increases, Greene notes that Torrijos “would keep the peasants guessing for a while—for his amusement and theirs” (Greene 1984). Due to this inventive style of politics, he is best understood as a caudillo-style leader who claimed to stand up for the common worker and defend Panamanian nationalist interests, including his political victory by signing the 1973 Torrijos-Carter Treaties returning the Panama Canal to Panama. This nationalism helped Torrijos be remembered for both his charisma and the stand he took against the United States during treaty negotiations in the 1970s that served as an attempt to distance Panama from its strong dependency on the U.S. despite his previous personal and political spending dependence on U.S. foreign aid.