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JUNE 2015



The United States

and Latin America:

Individuals vs. Institutions

Thomas E. McNamara, a retired career Senior Foreign

Service officer, served as assistant secretary of State for

political-military affairs, ambassador to Colombia and

ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism, among many

other assignments. He also worked on the National

Security Council staff under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George

H.W. Bush. An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a lecture at

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Understanding the “two paths” in Latin America can lead to effective,

long-term policies toward our neighbors.




espite modern communications,

increased migration, trade and

industrial integration, and technologi-

cal advances, the United States and

Latin America still do not understand

each other as well as we should. This

hemisphere is our neighborhood, and

unlike citizens who move from one

neighborhood to another, a nation’s

neighborhood is permanently fixed. With that in mind, I want to

highlight an important impetus for change in our neighborhood,

which can reduce the misunderstanding if we recognize and

encourage it.

There are two paths in Latin American politics which most

Americans do not know. To maintain political order, one path

relies on personalism (personalismo); i.e., individual leaders.

The second relies on democratic institutionalism; i.e., civil insti-

tutions. The Western Hemisphere will be affected by which path

dominates Latin America’s future.

To be sure, this theory does not explain all of Latin American

politics or regional relations because history is more complicated.

But the struggle outlined here has been fundamental for 200 years,

and must be understood.

Caudillismo in Latin America

Personalismo (the cult of personality), and its variant, caudi-

llismo (control by a dictatorial leader), are deeply rooted in Latin

American, Spanish and Portuguese history. They have dominated

Latin American politics since the conquistadors (Cortez, Pissarro,

etc.) and were the entrenched political culture during the inde-

pendence struggles of Bolívar, San Martín, O’Higgins and others.

Of course, the phenomenon is not unique to Latin America—

think of Stalin, Hitler and lesser examples of tyrants like Mobutu,

Qaddafi and Sukarno, “the divine right of kings” and imperial

rulers. But in modern industrial democracies, personalismo is a

plague on society.

This approach elevates a caudillo (leader) to supreme leader-

ship, often with demigod status. Policies, programs and ideologies

are named for him (e.g., Peronismo, Fidelismo, Sandinismo). In

such a culture the leader turns institutions into personal tools of

power. Any that resist are subverted, exiled or destroyed; a few are