THERE have been changes in Latin America in the past generation which have complicated and obscured the political scene without really changing its character. The spread of doctrines such as Nazism, Fascism, Socialism and Communism, and their adoption as party names, has given foreigners and even some culturally Europeanized nationals the impression that something strange has happened, that what was always a personal phenomenon in Latin America had become a matter of ideals--that the party, the ideology, has displaced the individual, that the slogan is more important than the leader, that law is now of greater significance than personal influence, that matters of principle now substitute for friendship, family and political clan. Those who have let themselves believe all this have simply lost their bearings and are reading their politics out of a European book and calling things by false names.
The one thing that has not changed has been the caudillo, the leader, he who has la suma del poder, who governs because he can, not because he was elected. There are many differences between Fidel Castro and Trujillo, but there is one thing in common between them: they govern because they can. The fact that Trujillo has himself elected and always receives 100 percent of the vote while Fidel Castro has had no election is irrelevant except as embroidery, or something that gives apparent sanction, or that satisfies critics in the United States or England who do not really appreciate what is going on. And what is going on has always gone on--if "always" is the wrong word, then we will have to say "what has gone on for a very long time." Leadership is personal. The basis of authority is customary rather than constitutional. The political unit is not the individual. It is the "gang," the extended family, the community, the Indian village, each with its own "natural" leader, each endowed with unlimited authority, each possessing the complete loyalty of his immediate followers.
The great leader by some magic, caudillo governs by his mere presence, and anything he says is an order; and if he refuses to say anything at all, then others will act in his name on the assumption that they are carrying out the orders he would have given, and he will be credited with them. The king could abdicate in favor of the legitimate heir to the crown. In Latin America the leader cannot abdicate because there is no legitimate heir to his power. When the successor appears, the power of the older leader evaporates. The power cannot be shared. It is absolute or it does not exist.
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