Pride in Porfirio et al.

This is the first essay I have ever written for a college class. It's definitely a piece of work, but I put a lot of work into it, and I am generally well pleased. Enjoy!

Writing addressing the causes of dictatorship in Latin American history may contain many names. These names appear gradually as specific examples of caudillos – dictators – or they come suddenly, listed in droves in a single sentence. Either way, experts on Latin America can summon a plethora of dictatorial examples, bombarding their readers with the names of persons historical. It seems that no single essay on caudillismo could list all its diversely-named incarnations. The question, then, is why these examples are so prevalent.

One writer particularly able to provide reasons for the rise of caudillos (and their names) is Peter H. Smith, author of “Political Legitimacy in Spanish America.” In his book Caudillos: Dictators in Spanish America, Hugh M. Hamill excerpts Smith’s essay, entitling the section “The Search for Legitimacy.” This is the section of the first part of Hamill’s book that this author finds best justifies caudillismo, and it does so through presenting a thoroughly simple thesis that also has wide applicability.

Smith presents the case that caudillos were frequent figures in Latin America because they held political legitimacy. While other essays in Hamill’s Part One point to Mediterranean culture or the legacies of medieval and Renaissance thought as causes for the rise of caudillos, no other author presents such a succinct explanation. Smith then points to the classifications of legitimacy of Max Weber: tradition, legality, and charisma. These explain how the colonies accepted their monarchs through tradition and how some caudillos were seen as legitimate through their charm or their exploitation of laws and constitutions. For Smith, however, this is not enough to explain the success of caudillos.

“The Search for Legitimacy” posits that we can substantiate additional categories of legitimacy, and Smith justifies his choices of “dominance” and “achievement-expertise” as types to add to the established three. Throughout his essay, Smith uses highly logical assumptions about political and cultural factors in Latin American societies that explain the success of caudillos in claiming legitimacy, and thus being able to rule. The other essays in Part One of Caudillos seek to link the legacy of caudillos to other historical themes, and while these links have their purpose, they are not as fully able to directly address the question of why history contains so many caudillos.

It isn’t difficult to assert that a leader’s claim to political legitimacy is the primary determinant of their ability to remain in power. While a leader’s circumstances, skills, and other factors propel them to office, it is their political legitimacy that keeps them from losing power. This is especially true in the United States, where a President may be elected or reelected on various grounds, but the dominant reason that they may fulfill their term is the legitimacy bestowed upon their office by both tradition and legality. Caudillos took advantage of all five categories of legitimacy defined by Weber and Smith. It was Latin American peoples, however, who accepted these qualifications for legitimacy, allowing themselves to be dominated by strongmen through their failure to reject dictatorship. This legitimacy – both its fulfillment and its acceptance – is what explains the prevalence of caudillismo in history.

The variety of caudillos to be studied is as diverse as their names are numerous, and to simplify the histories, characteristics and goals of a selection of these leaders would do a disservice to a careful analysis of this phenomenon. Instead, this author will now conduct a case study of a caudillo with whom he is already relatively familiar: a dictator whose legacy exhibits countless opportunities for analysis, and has not only defined an entire era of Mexican history, but also caudillismo itself. His name is Porfirio Diaz.

Diaz grew up from humble beginnings during the dominance of Santa Anna – the Mexican caudillo most known by Americans. Already this can be seen as an influence on both Mexican society and the future dictator; Santa Anna defined the personalist leader through his charismatic and populist actions, and he maintained legitimacy among Mexicans through his dominance. Santa Anna’s decline was followed by instability, including the French intervention in Mexico, creating a vacuum filled only briefly with stability by the presidency of Bentio Juarez, who had until then blazed a long and turbulent path for Mexican republicanism and liberalism. During this time, Diaz had risen by chance and success through the military, an institution that sowed machismo and the drive for power in many a caudillo, and from his vantage point of national fame and achievement-expertise as a warrior, Diaz sought to challenge Juarez.

Diaz used the principle of opposition to reelection to legitimize his rebellion, but he would try and fail several times to overthrow Juarez and his successor before finally imposing himself upon Mexico. Here the reader can reflect on Diaz’s intentions; he overthrew a political establishment following philosophies that were largely his own, professedly because of ideals that history shows he came nowhere near to abiding by himself. Diaz would come to rule Mexico for decades, his opposition to reelection long forgotten, and his aim, we must conclude, was the attainment of power, and then the keeping of it.

During the Porfiriato, by which his rule has come to be known, Diaz presented as his goals for Mexico the increase of foreign investment and the advancement of the Mexican economy. In these veins his dictatorship succeeded immensely, bringing Mexico a foreigner-induced robber-baron capitalism that rivaled the similar European and American economies of the time. This is Peter Smith’s preeminent example of legitimacy through achievement-expertise. Though they were authoritarian and at the very least negligent (if not abusive) of the majority of Mexicans, the policies of Diaz were literally able to bring home the goods, which garnered him legitimacy among those rich enough to afford a say in the workings of power.

The history of Porfirio Diaz is a prime example of all the factors that have led Latin American societies to accept so many caudillos. Personalist leaders were accepted because of their legitimacy – legitimacy defined through the five categories of Peter Smith as well as many potential others. Tradition and instability led Mexico to accept Diaz as it had other domineering individuals in the past; pretensions of legal immorality allowed him to challenge the legitimacy of the political status quo; charisma, dominance and an insufferable will to attain power brought Diaz to the highest office. Lastly, it was unmatched achievement-expertise and ability to satisfy the desires of the elite that made the Porfiriato one of the most compelling examples of caudillismo one can find.

Although this essay presents only a single theoretical analysis of caudillos in Latin America and then examines one example through this lens, the reader may find it useful upon further exploration of caudillismo to remember both Peter Smith and Porfirio Diaz (though hardly similar men, to be sure). “The Search for Legitimacy” and Diaz’s place in history both provide simple explanations for many questions about caudillos, not least among them their prevalence. Among so many names of dictators, perhaps simplicity is a good place to start.


  1. Hey sweetie!

    Wow. That was an amazing essay. You did SUCH a fantastic job. I'm sure it was worth all the late night work. :)




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