In 1831 José Antonio Páez—who, with Rosas, Santa Anna, and Carrera, appears as a model caudillo in this major study—decided to neutralize a powerful bandit named Cisneros. To do this he captured the bandit’s infant son and then served as godfather at the child’s baptism; he had his mistress act as godmother for good measure. Subsequently Cisneros joined the Venezuelan president. This is one of the few places where John Lynch acknowledges that an institution like compadrazgo could acquire “a special place in Hispanic culture” (p. 200).
More characteristic is his assertion that caudillismo may not be explained “in terms of cultural values or Hispanic tradition” (p. v). Such reliance, says Lynch, means “seeking escape in spurious terms which simply postpone the task of analysis” (p. 402). The terms charisma and machismo, for example, are either too subjective or too universal, and thereby distort the historian’s effort. (It is no surprise that Glen Dealy’s book The Public Man  is not in the bibliography.) Curiously, Lynch chooses to ignore recent historiography in a section called “The Caudillo in Political Theory,” where only Sarmiento, Alberdi, Cariyle, and Vallenilla Lanz are discussed.
Lynch focuses on “primitive caudillos” as against later “oligarchic” and “populist” dictators. These primitives emerged amid the chaos of independence, and not before. “Any sighting of the caudillo in the colonial period ... is a mirage” (p. 33). Constitutionalists like Bolívar, Santander, and Rivadavia were statesmen who built nations; caudillos, by contrast, sought power through land and patronage. Lynch explains that caudillos flourished in early republican Spanish America because they became “the necessary gendarmes” for elite survival in countries with weak institutions and threats of mass insurrection. Juan Manuel de Rosas’ biographer reminds us that “El Restaurador” cynically encouraged blacks and gauchos to engage in the “Carnival of Rosas,” with its “orgies of drinking and fighting,” as a hint of what might happen without his “strong restraining hand” (p. 196).
After an extensive political analysis of caudillismo, Lynch provides biographical sketches of his four leaders. Consular reports by astute observers like Frederick Hatfield in Guatemala inform these sketches, most notably Lynch’s fine piece on Rafael Carrera. As protector of the Indians—and they of him—throughout his long career, Carrera realized Bolívar’s dream of the lifetime presidency.
Primitive caudillos could not survive past midcentury, however. More complex, export-led economies and urban societies required a different breed: the oligarchic dictator of order and progress. Guzmán Blanco and Díaz originated as caudillos, but their governments were “no longer caudillist in structure” (p. 427). Populist dictators like Perón may have reflected personalist qualities, but “who is to say that [they] received them from primitive caudillos rather than [from] authoritarian liberalism, or the world of the twentieth century?” (p. 436).
Lynch gives us a rich examination of primitive caudillismo. It might have been richer yet had he allowed more room for compadrazgo and other qualities that provide nuance, if not definition, to this brand of leadership.