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, fraud or force has at his disposal all this power, which in his absence devolves to the local leaders. And because he has it, his power is absolute regardless of what the constitution may say. The power is absolute because it is all deposited in one person and he cannot divide it, delegate it or refuse to use it. As a matter of simple fact, he cannot resign it--as Fidel Castro could not resign from being the "maximum leader of the Revolution" in Cuba. He could resign his office of Premier, but not his personal authority. The 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.

The case of Fidel Castro is particularly revealing. Cuba is not typical of Latin America. The Indian influence is nil. The Negro, on the other hand, is important in numbers, but more so even in over-all influence. The Negro has given the Cubans a gentle, friendly and optimistic attitude towards life. He has tended to emphasize the importance of the moment. He has filled the land with music, the drum and the dance. Cuba, too, is close to the United States and our impact upon Cuba has been great--greater perhaps than either they or we realize. There are therefore many reasons for arguing that politically Cuba should be less Latin American than it has shown itself to be. For what it has shown in Fidel Castro is that it likes to have a caudillo who stands above the law, above the constitution, because all authority, all justice, all good emanate from him.

The differences between Fidel Castro and Batista are many and great, but as administrators they both respond to the same demand, the same way. Batista was secretive, cruel, selfish and acted for himself and a small clique. But no one doubted who exercised the power. He depended upon the police and the army, and his power was absolute. All constitutional formulas were secondary. Fidel Castro uses the radio and television; he is devoted to the ideal of nationalism and a strong Cuba. Administratively, like Batista, he stands above the law, above the constitution, for he embodies them both. The uses the power is put to are different. The totality of its lodgement in a single hand is the same.

The power is put to different uses because the individual leaders are different and not because the "party" which carried them to power is different. In fact, there was no party in Batista's case and there is none in Fidel Castro's case. The Cuban people have Fidel Castro because they want him. They had Batista because they tolerated him--perhaps, until the last two years, wanted him--not because he was "good" or constitutional, but because he was strong, because he was a caudillo. If they finally overthrew him (and the active fighters against him were never very numerous) it was because he had become a tyrant, because he was misusing his power beyond reason, beyond the wide tolerance of human fallibility so characteristic of Latin America. He had lost what moral sanction he might have had or claimed. His overthrow by a revolution was accepted as good and the leader of the revotion was greeted with an outpouring of public joy.

It is difficult for people outside Latin America to understand the reasons for these repeated changes. They know only that Latin American governments are unstable, that revolutions are frequent, that tyrannies are a commonplace and occasionally, as the recent one in Colombia, bloody and heartless, and that constitutional government has remained an unsatisfied aspiration. This has now been the case for nearly 150 years and there is really no evidence that, politically speaking, the countries are closer to representative democracy now than they were in the nineteenth century. There are exceptions to these broad generalizations, but they are few and even so would be subject to qualification.

The pattern of dictatorship, then, is rebellion and again dictatorship, and it has not materially changed since 1900. Anyone who would make a count of the abortive uprisings and the rebellions that were successful in the last 59 years would convince himself that if there has been political change, it has not necessarily been in the direction of greater stability. This is so in spite of an almost universal commitment to the ideals of democracy among Latin American intellectuals and statesmen. Students, scholars, newspapermen and politicians have written an impressive public record in their striving for political democracy, and every constitution describes in detail the manner in which popular governments are to come to power, how long they are to last and how they are to be succeeded by another administration freely elected and resting upon the consent of the governed.

This contrast between what men say they want politically and what they do cannot be ascribed to malice or perfidy. That would be too simple. If the political difficulties were merely the product of evil intent, they could be dealt with. Politically active people in Latin America are on the whole neither better nor worse than their kind in other parts of the world. The trouble lies somewhere else. Politicians do what they do because they have only limited alternatives and it is not always clear that choices other than those they make would always be better.


The social and cultural matrix within which the politicians operate is such that popular democracy is not a feasible immediate alternative. The only really responsible question that the democratically minded observer can ask of a politician in Latin America is whether his conduct is conducive towards an increasing prospect of popular democracy, and an honest man would find it difficult to give an honest answer. For how can one be sure that the professed idealist in his enthusiasm for reform, in his stirring the passions and hopes of simple folk beyond his own ability to satisfy them, may not be sowing the dragon's teeth and preparing the ground for some conscienceless tyrant tomorrow, who will make all promises and fulfill none? The difficulty lies somewhere else. It is not personal. It lies in the absence of a universally accepted symbol of political authority. That is why Latin American politicians cannot do what they would and lack the moral support to carry out the programs they do have in mind.

For the business of government is to govern. That is the first responsibility. If it fails at that, then the politicians in office will soon be fleeing the country and seeking exile in places where they will have no relentless responsibilities to fulfill. But to govern in Latin America is an unusually difficult matter.

General Lazaro Cardenas once remarked that the people of Mexico must learn that they can be governed without violence. Cardenas, however, had qualities of leadership which made violence unnecessary. He could govern Mexico that way but no one else had been able to do so before him. Violence has been an essential in Latin America because the governments have been unstable, and the governments have been unstable because violence is a traditional means of coming to office. And violence is traditional because there has generally been no other sure means of transferring political power from one administration to another. Here is the heart of the matter: how to come to power without violence, how to transfer it without revolution.

In other parts of the world which are familiar with the political miracle of entering upon and leaving public office peacefully, there is some universally accepted principle of legitimacy. A universal symbol makes the government of today just as much a government as it was yesterday in spite of a complete change-over in personnel. The king is dead, long live the king, is a perfect example of this kind of symbol of authority. As long as the accepted principle of descent is adhered to, there is never any question as to where authority resides and to whom the crown descends. The government is never without a recognized head. Everyone knows who the king is. No such universally accepted symbol exists in Latin America.

During the colonial period the question of where legitimate power resided never arose. The king was the king in all things and at all times. People might have notions about the wisdom, the stupidity or even the lunacy of the king or queen, but none about the legitimacy of the power he or she exercised. So universal was this acceptance that it seemed like a part of nature itself. Men had laid down their lives for "God and the King" for so many generations that the king's "divine" authority was beyond question. He filled every political and civil need and his law protected the innocent and punished the guilty. All offices, all honors, all men, all property, life itself were under his protection and held by his mercy. Even the church, because of the Patronato, was in many important ways subject to the king. The authority of the crown was everywhere, unquestioned and unopposed. The two things that were known even to the most humble were the power of the king and the mercy of God. It was therefore always simple to transfer power as long as the rules of succession were followed. The future king was known while the present king was still alive.

It is at this point that the independence movement served the people of Latin America poorly. It destroyed legitimate political power without providing an equally legitimate substitute. When the wars of independence were over, no one knew where political power resided. Who was the legitimate heir to the King of Spain--to his authority, influence, prestige, semi-sacred character, the embodiment of the will of the people, the protector of the poor, the fountainhead of justice?

The answer, of course, is that no one inherited those qualities of popularly endowed eminence; no one received the same degree of devotion from the populace and no one was looked to as the absolute father of his people. Latin America was left without a legitimate symbol of political authority. And that vacuum has remained unfilled. It has not been filled by "democracy," "federalism," "socialism," "Communism," "justiciatism," or whatnot. The idea of the nation comes closer to being a substitute for the idea of the king than any so far. But nationalism in Latin America is relatively recent and many of the nations lack cultural unity. A considerable part of the population, the majority perhaps, in Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, for instance, have but the vaguest notion of what the nation means. There is the other difficulty that nationalism has taken an anti-foreign turn and has become a slogan for demagogues and ambitious politicians. More serious, however, is the absence of a fixed rule of who is to represent the nation and how he is to be chosen.

The constitution has proved an insufficient influence to guide the political process. There have been too many constitutions and they have been disregarded with such regularity that they do not serve to discipline political behavior. In fact, the constitution has frequently been a personal political broadsheet used by the new mandatario as his own private declaration, and since it is private it need not be scrupulously followed. What ought to be protected and guarded as the embodiment of all public law and public will has become a matter to be changed, modified, suspended or abolished. What might have become an effective symbol of authority as a substitute for the awe-inspiring bearer of the Spanish crown has been perverted to personal use.

An American scholar tells the story somewhere that when as a young man he went to Venezuela to study its constitutional history, people in Caracas, when they learned of his purpose, said, "Why, he must be a poet!" The constitution in their mind had a literary, conceivably a theoretical interest, but certainly not a political one. The 19 constitutions that he studied showed no evolutionary principle and could not be classified on any rational basis. He finally grouped them under various rubrics including that of experimental constitutions. All of this merely goes to emphasize the point that there is no recognized basis of political authority universally accepted and universally respected. What does not in fact exist cannot be symbolized. This, however, is only one part of the difficulty.

Independence abolished the monarchy but retained what is natural to a monarchy--centralism, authoritarianism and aristocracy. These characteristics remained because the revolutionists were themselves reared in the Spanish tradition and knew no other. Centralism, authoritarianism and aristocracy were a part of life itself and no other way was known to either the leaders or the people.

Aristocracy was affected only in the degree that the Spanish aristocrats departed while the local criollo with his claims to nobility remained; and below him were the merchants, farmers, mestizos, castas, free Negroes, Negro slaves and Indians. To all appearances, nothing had changed socially except that a few mestizos had worked their way to public notice by their part in the Wars of Liberation and that a number of Negro slaves had been freed because they had been drafted into the revolutionary armies. Beyond that, the hierarchical structure survived more or less intact in most places throughout the nineteenth and in some areas to the middle of the twentieth century.

Natural to the hierarchical structure, too, was the survival of authoritarianism and administrative centralization. The existence of slavery, the survival of Indian peonage, the universality of the hacienda and the important role of the military all contributed to the maintenance of a political system which did not know how to share or divide political authority.

The contrast between an authoritarian and democratic society lies at this point. A democratic society finds it natural and logical to divide and distribute political authority in many places. No one person or institution is possessed of all the authority of the state. Quite the contrary, in an authoritarian society, political authority is indivisible.

The president is all powerful but he has no heir. There is no effective machinery for transferring political power. And this is the most serious crisis facing the elected chief executive. If he does not decide who the next president is going to be, then he is sure to face serious difficulties. For someone is going to make that decision and anyone who can do that is stronger than the president. The chief executive soon discovers that all of his power has ebbed away and is now in the hands of him who was able to pick the next president. The prospects are that a revolution will be inevitable unless the occupant of the presidential chair is completely pliant. There is a story about Ortiz Rubio which does not have to be true to be important. The fact that it could be told and believed is sufficiently revealing of the political process in an authoritarian and centralized tradition. The story is that Ortiz Rubio heard on good authority that General Plutarco Elias Calles was going to start a revolution against him. Ortiz Rubio called General Calles on the phone to inform him that he, the president, was going to join the revolution against the government. If, on the other hand, the president decides upon his successor and can make the decision effective, he still has the prospect of revolution against his decision. He is surely going to be accused of imposing the next president against the will of the people. Where there is no institutionalized and universally acknowledged basis of public power, then violence becomes a "natural" means to public office.

In the Spanish tradition, however, political authority requires a moral basis. Power over other people is something that can be exercised only with divine sanction. It must have a moral basis and serve moral ends; otherwise it cannot be considered legitimate. Violence is not the route to legitimacy even if it is successful. The dictator, even when in office, even when he imposes obedience by terror and cruelty, will be held to have no moral basis for his authority. That explains the frequent resort to elections by dictators who have come to office by violence. If they hold an election they will become legitimate in their own minds and, they believe, in those of the populace. The old saying that the will of the people is the voice of God is here taken literally even if the will of the people has to be invented before it can be recorded. But such instances (and they are numerous, if not as extreme as in Santo Domingo) merely illustrate that even the tyrant is seeking a moral basis of power because sheer violence even if successful does not legitimize public office.

The dictator will be obeyed of necessity and opposed secretly or by conspiracy on the grounds that his power is immoral and tyrannical. The opposition may ultimately triumph as it did in Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia and Cuba. As soon as the revolution is over and the tyrant is no more, the old dilemma reappears as "The king is dead--who is the king now?"

Who shall be the next--what? Not a tyrant, not a dictator surely. Who shall be the next executive who will exercise all power but will remain a democrat, a gentle human being who will have all the power of the government without restraint, without limit, but will not use it to evil ends? He cannot divide his authority or delegate it. The populace will not permit that. The president must be president. On that point there is general agreement. But on what ground does he become president? How does he achieve power? How does he retain it? What is his mandate? Who is he responsible to? To these questions there is really no answer because there is no institutional basis for the political process. There is no prerequisite which determines how the candidate for the highest office is to be chosen, how once designated he is to be selected, how once selected he is to remain in office for the period set by the constitution. Nor is there anything absolute and sacred about how and to whom he is to transmit power when his legal term of office draws to a close. These questions had to be faced recently in Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba and in none of them is the answer irrevocable; in none is the occupant of the highest office certain of his post or certain that he can transmit it peacefully at the end of his term.

In Argentina the question of whether President Frondizi will be allowed to terminate his period will be determined by the military, and unless they can be satisfied he will be deposed. He came to office by denying the vote to a large percentage of the electorate. In Venezuela the arbiter of the political fortunes of Betancourt is again the army. Here, too, the army overthrew the previous régime and held the office until it was occupied by a civilian. The case in Colombia is different, in the sense that the revolution was made by the people while the army remained neutral. Again, however, an army junta took over office until a civilian could be chosen. This became possible only by an agreement between the Liberal and Conservative parties for alternate terms in the presidency. This arrangement had great political merit at the moment but changes an old tradition that each party had to win power on its merits. Whether the arrangement can survive is dubious and the alternative is civil war. The Cuban answer to the question is the emergence of a popular caudillo in place of a military dictator. But none of these solutions is perhaps more than transitional. None has an institutional basis such as a political party system would provide.

In the absence of a political party system, the president must be his own party and maintain himself in office by his own ingenuity and political skill, by dependence upon the loyalty of his immediate followers, by compromise, blandishment and, if these fail him, by force and fraud. What this really means is that the president is not only the chief executive but also the most active politician, almost the only politician. For under the circumstances no one else may be allowed to have political influence. Politics is the act of keeping your political enemies from depriving you of the presidency. What is really involved is not your policy but your power. Under the circumstances, the government must do everything because every act has political significance and no one but the president can indulge in political activities. When the power of the government is in daily question, every public act, no matter how small, has political implications.

Any activity which the president does not control is a threat to his influence. He can have power only if he has all the power. If any escapes him, all of it will. This is so because his power is not institutionalized but belongs to him personally. The government is his government. He conquered it. He must be the whole government, executive, legislative, judicial. Never mind what the constitution says. The constitution is not the instrument of government. It is only the name in which the government is carried out. The president must be his own head of the army, his own cabinet, and in these days of planning he must be his own planner. He must be all of this because he cannot delegate really effective powers to anyone else. He governs without a party. There are only the president and his friends, and his friends must be real friends--unconditionally, who will take orders and do what they are told, politically speaking.

The tradition of centralization and the absence of effective party organization define the role of political leadership. The leader must do everything, have the answer to all problems and the remedy for every ill. Jose Antonio Paez once wrote to Bolivar: "I do not know why, but the people bring me all their problems, how to build a house, whom to marry, how to settle a family dispute, and what seeds to plant." He was their leader because they turned to him in need, expected to be helped. If he had refused to listen he would soon have lost his leadership. This dependence upon the leader converts the ministry, cabinet, legislature and courts of justice into his appendages. The poorest citizen refuses to abide by a decision of any intermediate and will take his case to the president personally.

Under the circumstances, there are no bases either for democracy or monarchy. It is interesting to recall that Bolivar recognized that the American milieu would erode any monarchy established in America. He was equally skeptical, after much experience, that the former Spanish colonies would lend themselves to democratic government. In his disillusionment he predicted that America was ungovernable, a prophecy that proved itself true in many places over a long time.

For one thing, the government seems foreign and the law it enforces looks like an imposition. This was true in the colonial period and has continued to be true since. In the colonial period the government and the law were foreign in the literal sense of the word. In spite of their best intent, the officials of the crown remained Europeans and Spaniards, with the natural consequence that the law they wrote reflected their local allegiance and training and remained an empty gesture. The good intentions written into the law proved unenforceable. The law was one thing, the customary ways another.

It is a well-attested story that no ship reached the Port of La Guira in what is now Venezuela for a period of 11 years, and yet, miraculously, the cocoa of the country was regularly exported and the king's officials wore good English cloth. The export of American treasure and the import of European goods were indeed to so large an extent in the hands of smugglers that effective rule in such matters lay outside the reach of the law. Customary ways and legally prescribed rules existed side by side but unknown to each other, so to speak. This is but part of the story. For in addition to the popular disregard of the law by the officials and the criollos, there was the much larger Indian community which did not know the law or understand those who tried to enforce it. The Indian had his own ancient ways of determining right and wrong. The European colonial community was extraneous to the large mass of the population which remained linguistically and in most other ways beyond the effective reach of the government. Where the officials succeeded in enforcing the written precept they did so as outsiders, as antagonists, as enemies. The government, its agents and officials belonged to a different world. The state for which the government acted was an arbitrary something beyond the ken of the Indians and in some sense beyond the acceptance of even the Spanish colonists and their descendants.

This Spanish tradition of a government apart from and strange to the people has survived in Latin America to this day. The "elected" official government is not part of the real substance of custom, common law and local order. The locality follows local traditions and the representatives of the "government" collect taxes and chase smugglers if they can. The government was not chosen by the people and does not represent them. This is obviously true of areas where there are large Indian populations, which govern themselves to the extent allowed by the "official" government. The same may be said about large Negro communities and areas. Government here, too, is foreign and local order is made by custom and tradition. In their degree this is true of the regions where the local caudillo is the real ruler of the area and the "government" a tolerated but suspected meddler in things beyond its "legitimate" jurisdiction. The people in Yucatan, Cuzco, Cartegena or Amazonas have never been converted to the idea that the governments in Mexico City, Lima, Bogota or Rio de Janeiro are their governments. This is true of the mestizo and criollo and especially true of the Indian and Negro. Political instability and political revolutions are preoccupations of the central government.

At the local level there is little instability for on the whole the same people will govern because the effective loyalty and power are theirs regardless of who is the new president of the country or who are his agents. "Elected government" is important at the center; in the locality, he who governs has always governed. In fact, at the local level the "election" is unnecessary for everyone recognizes who the "real" governor is regardless of the election. If the president at the center interferes by imposing his own "governor," the emissary finds the task difficult because he can do only what the police or the army will do for him, and he discovers for himself an old Napoleonic dictum that the one thing you cannot do with bayonets is to sit on them. He may be the designated governor but the real ruler of the district is the locally accepted leader whose power and influence have come to him "naturally."

What we are really saying is that the central government and the localities are two worlds apart; that the lack of legitimacy, the absence of popularly endowed authority, applies to the center a great deal more than it does to the locality. The prospect of political stability rests on the possibilities of identifying the locality with the center, for that would be one way, perhaps the only way, of making the central government "legitimate." This can be done only in a democratic world through effective political parties, and no such parties are in existence.

General Lazaro Cardenas once remarked that "when all of the land belongs to the villages then the government will rest on the villages, but at present it depends upon the army." The reason why the government in Mexico rested upon the army was because there was no other institutionalized basis sufficient for the purpose. This statement can be generalized for all of Latin America. The only exceptions possibly are Costa Rica and Uruguay. So far as the other Latin American countries are concerned, and this includes Brazil, the government's ability to survive to the end of the presidential term and its prospects of passing on the government to the next administration in peace are determined by the army's willingness to stand back of the president. Beyond the army there is no really effective underpinning for the government.


In democratic countries such as Great Britain, the United States or Switzerland, the government at the center comes into being in response to a consensus of the localities. If we take the United States as an example, the party in power is built from the local cells, each having an effective role in its own parish and township and having long experience in local self-government. The local government, whether Democratic or Republican, is locally chosen in a free and competitive election. It serves a specific term, at the end of which it has to seek a new term on its record or be turned out. While in office, it has local responsibilities which no other agency of government occupies itself with. A party member nominated for a county office, such as sheriff, district attorney or treasurer, is usually someone who has had considerable experience in local affairs, and his nomination is a reward for service well done or sufficiently well done to receive the support of his neighbors who will vote for him. The same is true of the candidates who stand for election to the state legislature or to the Congress of the United States. The House of Representatives is not the creature of the President, nor is the Senate. The President cannot either prevent or determine the election of a member of either house, nor can he interfere in the election of a state governor, to promote his election or depose him if elected. In addition, each of the units of government has its judiciary and its own law-enforcing agency. Each also has its own taxing powers and collects the taxes it imposes and spends them locally. Intervention by county, state or national government is strictly limited by constitutional proviso and legislative enactment. The government at each higher level is chosen, maintained or defeated by the voters at the lower level. The government that comes to office is endowed with limited powers and for a limited period.

But this is not in itself the entire story. The political party which nominates and elects is a voluntary association, independent of the government. The President does not control the Republican or Democratic Party. He may not even be its effective leader. He may see his program defeated in Congress by the members of his own party refusing to vote for the bill he favors. The same is true at the state and local level.

The party itself needs further characterization if this discussion is to help us understand the political differences between the United States and Latin America and to make clear what we mean when we say that the governments in Latin America have no institutional basis because there is no effective political party system there.

The local Democratic or Republican club in any township or city may not have more than a small proportion of the total registered Democratic or Republican voters. But these members between them are likely to be active in the affairs of all the other local organizations--and even a small township manages to have many organized groups: the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Red Cross, the Rod and Gun Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Elks, the Lions, the Women's Church Union, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the public library association, and so on. All of these groups are centers of influence and power. Each represents a real interest, each defends or propagates a policy. Often they communicate with other organizations in the township, county, state and nation and sometimes even with interested groups in other countries. Their activities affect the lives of their neighbors and impinge upon, oppose or support the activities of other groups.

Technically, these groups are not represented in the local political club. In fact, the club seems like only one more local group. But it organizes local political power and elects the officials of government. It is the agency through which the objectives of these many organizations may receive public sanction, support and even legislative enactment. It is the center where the active public-spirited members of the community gather to argue over every issue that comes to the surface of public debate--and whether the question is one of concern to the Chamber of Commerce, the Volunteer Fire Department or the Parent-Teachers Association, some member will arise and speak for the organization concerned because he is a member of it. And this process repeats itself in every township, in every city, and works its way through the party from the local to the national level. The state legislature and the national Congress are the ends of this process.

Nor does this exhaust the list of influences that shape public policy or that give direction to government. But when we say that our government has an institutionalized basis, we refer to the tens of thousands of political clubs within which all the organized activities of the people have virtual representation--and which, taken together, lead to the nomination and election of one or another person to Congress and the Presidency. Clearly the President is not the creator of his own political party and clearly, too, his tenure in office does not depend upon the army.

None of this political complex exists in Latin America. There is no effective local self-government. The school, the roads, the police, the tax collector, the agents of formal government are in the central administration. The governors are appointed or are removed by the central administration. The intervenor in Argentina and Brazil, the authority to declare that a state has lost its constitutional powers in Mexico, are illustrative of the central government's control over the state even in countries where there is a constitutionally established federal system. Most of the income from taxes is taken by the central government, the state, counties and townships being left with a pittance. I have seen a village that had built its own school out of local materials with the free labor of its own residents wait for months for the money to buy the windows which they could not make. A community will send a delegation to the capital to sit for months in the antechamber of the president to beg for a pipe or small gasoline engine to bring water to the community. All of this follows from the traditional principle of authoritarian and centralized rule. The president must make every decision and he must provide for all needs. He must do this because there is no effective local government; and in the absence of that, there is no means of developing a political party that can provide the needed support to make the presidency independent of the army.

In spite of the ancient and honorable tradition of the Spanish cabildo, there is really no way of organizing a political party with strong roots in local government. Beyond the reach of the large urban center, the hacienda, with its enclosed community of encasillados living inside the boundaries of a private estate, has no local self-government. For them the government is what local tradition has grown up to define the relations between the hacendado and his laborers. The hacienda community, no matter how large, has no civic status. If the population happens to be Indian, there is normally the added barrier of language difference to make political communication most difficult. These communities are comparable to our own mill "village" organized about the southern textile mills until a few years ago, where the mill owner hired the policeman, the schoolteacher and the preacher, and where the local factory "hands" had neither a vote nor a voice in the arrangement of the minutest affairs of their community.

In the case of the village--in Guatemala, for instance--if it is large enough, the central government will control the local administration through one of its own appointed agents who may have the compulsory assistance of a given number of villagers. But the real government, apart from taxes and purely legal imposition, will be in the hands of traditionally recognized authority completely alien to the central government. The central government may be ignorant of its existence or contemptuous of its doings, considering them foolish Indian ways. But the effective authority in these Indian communities is with the traditional government and not with the agents sent down from the center.

An interesting example of this can be seen today in Peru, in the barrajes (shanty towns) which have sprung up all around Lima. Where the recent migrants in these communities are of Indian origin, a locally improvised democratic government traditional in the Indian village automatically comes into being. This government takes on the problems of the new community as best it can. All male members vote in the election of the community officers and frequent public assemblies discuss community needs. Actually this government is legally non-existent, since local communities in Peru are run by delegates from the center. Here in the capital of the country is an interesting example of two systems of administration, one legal and mestizo and centrally controlled, the other democratic, Indian and legally non-existent.

If the Latin American governments had really been prepared to build a democratic society, here was (and still is in many places) a good foundation based upon custom and traditional folk law. But no political administration has ever contemplated such a possibility. The theory of individualism and the practice of organizing everything from above have made it impossible for all practical purposes to incorporate the remnants of democratic practices and customs that still survive among Indian communities. These communities, like the hacienda, are not really part of the civic organization of the state.

This leaves the mestizo and Negro communities, other than those on plantations. These will be under the influence of a regional power system that will exist independent of central government. The central government will be represented by appointed officials, except in those areas where there are elections for local office. Where there are elections, the central government will manage to win all the elections, including the local one, for it cannot permit the locality to escape from its control. Even in Mexico no governor of a state could be elected against the will of the president or against his known opposition. The governor of the state has to be a friend of the president. Furthermore, no governor could survive in office if he made it clear that he opposed the administration's policies or that he would not accept the decision about who the next president should be. Any governor who could defy the president on these matters would be stronger than the president and would end by driving the president from office. These are not elements out of which a political party independent of the executive can be built.

In the large urban centers the situation is more complicated. In a number of places the most important local interests are in the hands of foreigners. Or control may lie in the large nearby haciendas, as, for instance, in Trujillo in Peru, in which case urban political life is dominated by the rural. Cities like São Paulo, Lima and Santiago have increased in size so recently that the effective control still lies with the older oligarchic members dominated by strong family allegiances, the same element to which the government belongs. The oligarchy is one aspect of the extended family which reaches back into the regions. It certainly does not provide an effective basis for a political party system. As for the middle class and the workers, these have not discovered their interest or their power and are so dependent upon favors from the government that an independent party composed of these elements is either make-believe for political window-dressing or is inspired with the panacea that lies hidden in the aurora of a possible revolution. They may become elements out of which a party grows, but the time when that will happen has not yet arrived.

The president who comes to office has none of the assurance and strength provided by a political party with deep roots in the thousands of communities that form the nation. That is why he has to be the architect of his own power.

This brings us back to Fidel Castro. During the days when he was in the Sierra Maestra with a handful of followers fighting to overthrow the Batista régime he had, on the report of those who knew him best, no ambitions other than the reëstablishment of political freedom in Cuba. He himself wanted neither power nor office. His task would be completed when the dictatorship had fallen and a new democratic government had taken office. Both he and his friends should have known better. But Latin Americans, like others, enjoy living in a make-believe world. They talked as if Cuba were a democracy with political parties and elections and as if the president were chosen by a majority of the people. The facts are quite different. The president either has been a caudillo himself or has been imposed by one. The successor to Machado was Batista, the intervening governments were largely his creatures and the successor to Batista is Fidel Castro.

He does not have to be elected. He does not need a Congress. He does not need them because his power would be as equally unrestrained after an election as before one. What passed for political parties has disappeared because they were not parties. They were groups of office seekers in search of a leader who would, by becoming president, authorize their misuse of public funds for private ends. Castro has no need of a political party because the people expect him to govern, to make every decision, to lead them, to impose his will on any and every one who opposes him. If he makes a social revolution, it is good because he makes it. If he did not make one, that would also be good because he did not make one. I am not arguing the merits of his program. That is beside the point in this discussion. This kind of program could have emanated from a popularly elected legislature. What is at issue is that the power, the program, the policy, are personal. He is the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. Every statement he makes is the law of the land. That is what the people want. They know who their government is--Fidel Castro. Not only that, Fidel Castro claims a moral sanction for his power. He destroyed the tyrant and is now bringing justice and liberty to the people. As long as the people believe that his intent is good, that his purposes are to protect and help them, then he will continue to be a national hero, a very prince returned to rule with divine power. He is the king come to office again.

His difficulty will arise if and when his actions become suspect as being motivated by personal ends, when he becomes suspicious, arbitrary and tyrannical. When the people become fearful and no longer trust him, should that misfortune befall him, he will be driven to become a tyrant as happened to Calles in Mexico. He will find that he cannot resign his power, cannot transfer it, cannot abandon it. If elections are held, his party will have to win and he will govern as he governs now. To be able to transfer his power he would have had to come to office through a political party which had strong deep roots in every community, that had chosen him and might have chosen someone else. The party would have brought him to office temporarily and when the time came would pass the office on again temporarily to someone else. But there is no such party, nor can it be created overnight.

Fidel Castro would make an important contribution to the democratic development of Cuba if in his intent to democratize the country he would devolve and decentralize the government, give the provinces, towns and villages power of self-government, reform the tax structure so that most of the income from taxes would go to the smallest political units, allow the localities to elect their own officials without interfering, permit the localities to spend their money as they thought best and allow the courts to deal with infractions of the law. But that kind of program would largely strip him of his role as active leader, his followers would not approve of it and the people themselves would in all probability consider that he was weak because he permitted others to do what was clearly his own responsibility--to govern all things.

That is the dilemma of Latin American politics and it reappears in every administration. Democracy requires local self-government and local power independent of the center and beyond its realm. Centralization requires just the opposite, no local power and nothing beyond the reach of the chief executive. How the contemporary Latin American statesmen who believe in democracy can move to increase local power and independence without at the same time undermining their own position is the unanswered question.

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  • FRANK TANNENBAUM, Professor of Latin American History at Columbia University; visiting lecturer at many universities in Latin America; author of "The Mexican Agrarian Revolution," "American Tradition in Foreign Policy" and other works.
  • More By Frank Tannenbaum