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The Centralist Tradition of Latin America

The Centralist Tradition of Latin America

by Claudio Veliz

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The author describes and analyzes four principal factors that distinguish Latin America from the countries that share the northwestern European tradition: the absence of the feudal experience; the absence of religious nonconformity; the absence of any conceivable counterpart of the Industrial Revolution; and the absence of those ideological, social, and


The author describes and analyzes four principal factors that distinguish Latin America from the countries that share the northwestern European tradition: the absence of the feudal experience; the absence of religious nonconformity; the absence of any conceivable counterpart of the Industrial Revolution; and the absence of those ideological, social, and political developments associated with the French Revolution.

Originally published in 1980.

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The Centralist Tradition of Latin America

By Claudio Véliz


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05280-9


Postfeudal Conquest

The Iberian countries of the Western Hemisphere entered the modern age as administrative, legal, and political creations of a postfeudal Castilian monarchy committed to the principle of central control. The political and administrative structure of Hispanic America owes its centralism to an emphatically centralist Castile and not to a more or less pluralistic Spain. The new realm was given order, system, and hierarchy by ministers and monarchs who contemplated the world of the Renaissance not from a cultivated cosmopolitan city in a divided Italy, but from the cold, windswept, and introspective capital of a united Spain. This Castilian character persisted throughout the period of imperial ascendancy and beyond, as vigorous and stern under Philip as it had been under the Catholic monarchs. The style was Castilian indeed, hence perhaps the lack of humor, the concern with administrative punctilio, the bureaucratic diligence and rigorous adherence to the requirements of the royal prerogative. Although distant from the Castilian center, Brazil was not an exception to the centralist impulse. It could be argued that it was in Brazil where the transfer of centralist institutions from the peninsula to the Indies achieved its most telling embodiment: the wholesale transportation of the court and the imperial capital from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. More will be said later about the far-reaching consequences of the centralizing momentum imposed on Portugal and Brazil by the Pombaline dictatorship; in this chapter attention will be concentrated on the postfeudal Castilian conquest of Hispanic America.

Shaped by Renaissance circumstances and Renaissance minds at a time when feudalism had all but vanished from the western European scene, Latin America was spared an experience that elsewhere played such a decisive role in the formation of institutions: feudalism was never part of the Latin American cultural and political tradition. It could not have been transplanted from Spain or Portugal because, by the time of the great discoveries and the conquest, even the very special variety of Iberian feudalism had ceased to be a significant feature of the political organization of these metropolitan nations.

This relatively simple fact has become unnecessarily complicated by the erratic way in which the word "feudal" has often been employed to describe the relations between landlord and peasant or to comment on the patterns of land distribution in parts of Latin America. The Bolivian sociologist Arturo Urquídi, for instance, maintains that "Spanish feudalism is reproduced in Latin America with absolute fidelity, and this reproduction which offers an almost biological similitude because of its hereditary character, affects the psychological and spiritual fields, as well as that of institutional organizations." Addressing himself to those he calls "North Americans," the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes also indulges in a lax use of the term "feudal" when he describes the historical tradition of Latin America: "You (the United States) started from zero," he states, "a virgin society, totally equal to modern times, without any feudal ballast. On the contrary, we were founded as an appendix of the falling feudal order of the Middle Ages. ... the Latin American drama stems from the persistence of those feudal structures over four centuries of misery and stagnation." Fuentes later affirms that "the formulas of free enterprise capitalism have already had their historical opportunity in Latin America and have proved unable to abolish feudalism." Another contemporary observer of the Latin American scene Moisés Poblete Troncoso, writing about Costa Rica, states that "the nineteenth century marks the beginning of the feudal oligarchy, which originated from the widespread cultivation of coffee." Hernán Ramírez Necochea goes further and firmly declares that the Chilean latifundia of the nineteenth century were the basis of a "purely feudal" economic and social structure. Holding views wholly different from those of Ramírez Necochea on most issues Regis Debray is not above making as enthusiastic and unrigorous a use of the term as the Chilean historian. When referring to the controversy over the appropriate revolutionary program for Latin America, he states: "To the sectarian thesis ... of the immediate socialist revolution without preliminary stages is counterposed the traditional thesis of certain Communist Parties, of the antifeudal agrarian revolution." A few lines further on he stresses, "Even a cursory analysis of Latin American capitalism reveals that it is organically bound to feudal relations in the countryside." And then he goes on to explain that "Cuba is admired ... as the only country which has succeeded in liquidating feudalism." Finally, he suggests that the Alliance for Progress failed "because the liquidation of agrarian feudalism required the transformation of the relations of production as a whole, since agrarian feudalism is an integral moment of the development of the commercial and agrarian-export bourgeoisie."

Such unrigorous use of this important word should not be allowed to obscure its precise political meaning. Without attempting to propose a satisfactory definition of the term it can be said that serfdom, ill-treatment, and the division of land into large estates are not distinguishing characteristics of Western feudalism. Human beings were cruel and nasty to each other for centuries before feudalism appeared on the political horizon and have continued to behave in objectionable ways after it vanished. As for serfdom, even if, stretching definitions to their limits, one were to consider that the relationship between the conquerors and the native inhabitants of the Indies was similar to that found in European medieval serfdom — a highly questionable assumption — and were further to accept that serfdom "is the characteristic existence-form of labour power in the feudal mode of production," the argument would still have to overcome the objection that much more than serfdom is needed to produce feudalism. Sweezy indicates that "some serfdom can exist in systems which are clearly not feudal; and even as the dominant relation of production, serfdom has at different times and in different regions been associated with different forms of economic organization." As for the large estates, it does not demand much erudition to discover instances — Britain afforded a classical one to Marx when he was trying to prove the same point — of countries where the formation of large estates has been one of the consequences of the demise of the feudal system.

The concept of feudalism used here refers specifically to that particular system of distribution of political power that became widespread in much of western Europe roughly between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries. A principal shared characteristic of this system was the transformation, often by gradual and functional delegation of power, of public duty into private obligation formalized through the holding of a fief. This process lessened the power of the monarchical center and augmented that of the baronial periphery. The assumption of judicial, legislative, and military duties turned the barons into an effective and politically important intermediary between the vassals and their sovereign. In addition to many other significant consequences, this rearrangement led to the development of diverse practices and habits of compromise and understanding permitting the coexistence of the different holders of effective political power. Pragmatic notions of equilibrium and balance of power issued from such arrangements, and schemes were devised to ensure the continued functioning of the body politic even though perfect agreement or the absolute subservience of the lesser holders of limited power to the central monarchy did not occur.

This does not pretend to be a definition of feudalism, but merely a brief enumeration of those features that are important for this study. Obviously there are others perhaps equally important; Dobb lists six that appear eminently acceptable: a low level of technology; a system of production for immediate use (which would rule out the whole of the Spanish and Portuguese overseas empires); demesne farming, often on a considerable scale, by compulsory labor services; conditional holding of land by lords on some kind of service tenure (which again would exclude much of the Hispanic and Portuguese American empires); possession by a lord of judicial or quasi-judicial functions in relation to the dependent population (again not applicable to the Indies); and finally — and possibly most important — political decentralization.

The end of feudalism was not a simple result of a lineal sequence of events; many factors contributed to it and their interaction is certainly not a subject that can be described superficially; those who have examined it closely do not agree. For the purpose of this study it is enough to point out that there is a discernible parallel between the decline of feudalism as a workable form of social and political organization and other changes such as the increase in the circulation of money, the regularization of taxation by central governments, the purchase by monarchs of the military services that permitted them to challenge the power of the peripheral barons, the development of a learned professional judiciary that gradually took over the legislative functions of the nobility, the overexploitation of serfs apparently resulting in mass migration into the towns, and, generally, the development of commerce on a vast and unprecedented scale. Feudalism declined when the need for balance was no longer mandatory; it ended when the central monarchies secured sufficient power to enforce acceptance of their writ.

This feudal experience has been a cardinal factor in the development of the Western political tradition and is certainly found at the very root of European parliamentarism, liberalism, and all the social democratic variants that evolved from them. Trevelyan makes this point when he writes: "unless we become a Totalitarian State and forget all about our Englishry, there will always be something medieval in our ways of thinking, especially in our idea that people and corporations have rights and liberties which the State ought in some degree to respect, in spite of the legal omnipotence of Parliament. Liberalism, in the broadest sense, is medieval in origin, and so are trade unions. The men who established our civic liberties in the Seventeenth Century, appealed to medieval precedents against the 'modernizing' monarchy of the Stuarts."

And of course he is right; representative institutions and parliaments are distinctly a product of the Middle Ages and directly a result of the development of feudalism; the parliamentary limitations that proved so tiresome to the absolutist rulers of the "New Monarchies" after the end of the medieval period were certainly an echo of medieval practices in matters of political representation. It is difficult to disagree with R. H. Lord when he suggests that the hallmark of the period from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century was the limitation of the power of the crown by assemblies, "in part elective, whose members, though directly and immediately representing only the politically active classes, were also regarded as representing in a general way the whole population of the land." This was probably true of most of western Europe, but the country where it least applied was certainly Castile. Modern absolutism developed strongly in France and Britain, but it came earlier and more successfully to Castile where the assertion of the royal authority was virtually unrestricted by institutional obstacles. This historical circumstance has afforded a basis for intriguing suggestions regarding the origins of the modern state. Sanchez Agesta, for example, believes that it is in sixteenth-century Spanish thought, firmly founded, of course, on political experience, that "the architecture of a theory of State; perhaps the first theory of the State" can be discerned. According to Maravall, sixteenth-century Spanish politics are intelligible only if considered as a consequence of the early rise of the modern state in the peninsula. And as it was from the heart of Spain, from Castile, that the Indies were conquered, colonized, and organized, the dying political feudalism in the kingdom of Isabella was never given the opportunity to prosper overseas, and consequently the institutional habit of compromise between alternative holders of effective political power did not have an early opportunity to become established in Latin America. When it appeared at all, it was as a result of the eager imitation of nineteenth-century western European institutions on the part of the independent republics that emerged after the collapse of the Spanish Empire.

Reference has been made to the directness with which the central monarchical authority was exercised over the empire, and it is useful at this stage to comment on two common misunderstandings that plague much of the historical writing about the overseas Spanish Empire. The first one arises from an erroneous interpretation of the well-known dictum, "Se obedece, pero no se cumple," whose approximate meaning is "One obeys, but does not enforce," suggesting that the formal act of acceptance of a royal order was not necessarily followed by its enforcement, usually on the excuse of seeking clarification or further information. This legalistic delay, which was certainly not rare, has been interpreted as a dilatory tactic designed to avoid compliance without openly challenging the metropolitan authority. Basing themselves on this interpretation, some students of these problems have been led to believe that the power exerted by the crown was more apparent than real. Julio Alemparte, for instance, roundly states that "the kings were not in Spain, but in the Indies; the real sovereigns, in a way, were the colonial masters." While the crown was in Castile, as were the official sources of power and juridical order, the real sovereignty was "that which emerges from the effective control of the land and the mass of the people" and that was in the colonies. It might be said, according to Alemparte, that in the New World there was a curious mixture of feudal nobility and bourgeoisie, both at one and the same time: "Is more power possible? Fiefs indeed could be called those enormous extensions of land given to the encomenderos and the Indians and mestizos, their serfs. ... The inhabitants of the Indies, both Creoles and Europeans, and particularly those of Peru ... as long as they remained loyal to the kings of Spain and unshaken in their faith, could hardly wish for a more advantageous government, with greater freedom than they enjoyed and more security for their properties." Of course, the operative phrase is "as long as they remained loyal to the kings of Spain." Comfort and well-being must not be confused with power, even when distances and slowness of communications permitted the colonial authorities to attenuate the full rigor of the crown directives. Power ultimately must mean power to disagree; latitude of enforcement, perhaps more the result of geographical distance than of political intent, cannot be accepted as evidence that there were in the Indies groups of men with effective power to stand up successfully against the metropolis.


Excerpted from The Centralist Tradition of Latin America by Claudio Véliz. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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