THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
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.
BY THOMAS E . MCNAMARA
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
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