It is a somewhat common refrain in Latin America that countries need the mano dura (strong hand) of a military dictatorship in order to get things done. Surveys in the early twenty-first century reveal a growing disenchantment with civilian governments, with a surprisingly large minority of Latin Americans stating a preference for a dictatorial form of government over democracy. Such sentiments date back to the founding of the Latin American republics in the early nineteenth century. After the removal of the Iberian crowns, conservatives argued that the new states were like children who needed parental guidance. These conservatives favored a centralist form of government in which a small group of elites would hold power and rule paternalistically on behalf of the rest of the country. Positivism, with its emphasis on order and progress, often provided a philosophical basis for such regimes in Latin America.
Military rule has been a feature of Latin America dating back to the colonial period. Rather than interpreting this as a cultural phenomenon, many observers have pointed to a failure of civilian institutions to address persistent problems of poverty and corruption. Some twentieth-century military dictatorships follow the pattern of nineteenth-century caudillo leaders who often ruled more through a use of personal charisma than brute military force. In fact, the only remaining nonelected executive in Latin America at the end of the twentieth century was Fidel Castro in Cuba, and his personalist style was more in line with the leadership of classic caudillos than what many would understand as the defining characteristics of a military dictatorship. However, while caudillos could be civilians and presented a variety of ideological stripes, “dictatorship” in Latin America normally refers to right-wing rulers who maintain themselves in power through overwhelming military force. For example, the Somoza and Pinochet dictatorships in Nicaragua and Chile maintained power more through repressive means than through personalist, caudillo styles of government. Particularly in South America in the 1960s and 1970s, bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes like those in Chile and Argentina attempted to use the power of state institutions to enact a fundamental reordering of society.
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