New Caudillos, Returning Caudillos, and Last Caudillos

In its editorial on Evo Morales’ re-election victory in Bolivia last week, the New York Times described Morales as one of a group of “new caudillos” threatening “democratic values,” united in their desire to “appoint allies to electoral and judicial bodies and to build patronage networks that turn out the vote,” “weaken institutions,” and assert “greater control over the press.” (Note the evasive comparative adjective in this last—greater than what?). Glenn Greenwald has already observed how “democracy” here is little more than  a code word for U.S. power. “Meanwhile,” Greenwald concludes, quoting the editorial, “the very popular, democratically elected leader of Bolivia is a grave menace to democratic values – because he’s ‘dismal for Washington’s influence in the region.’”

Any hand-wringing about “democracy” in Latin America should of course remind readers of Latin America’s Cold War, when the most horrific mass cruelties were justified in its name. And “caudillo’s” popularity shows the durability of Cold War terminology. It’s always used in English media to signal to an audience the author’s historical seriousness and command of the subject (“Well, in Latin America, you see, they have a term, ‘caudillo,’—you know, it’s pronounced COW-DEE-YO”]. The Times’ editorial is a textbook example of this usage. At its best, the word is simply a pretentious misreading of Latin American history, and at its worst, an ethnic slur. Yet there is something strange about the persistence of the word “caudillo,” if only because it belongs to both the Spanish language and to history, and U.S. journalism is so often incurious about both.

The Spanish Fascist Francisco Franco, whose rule coincided with the term’s revival in English media in the 1930s, was “El Caudillo,” the caudillo to end all caudillos. A casual search of the Times’ archives shows how“caudillo” is always used in either a lapsarian or apocalyptic sense. Last week’s editorial was not the first to ward off, fingers crossed, the rise of the “new caudillo”; one reads always of the “last caudillo” or the “return” of the caudillo. Debates raged about who was the “worst caudillo” ever  in the Dominican Republic. Michele Bachelet of Chile, who is a woman and therefore not a caudillo, took power, naturally, “after the caudillo.”


Woody Allen as a bearded caudillo in Bananas!

The term “caudillo” is by now so saturated with Anglo-American stereotypes of the Latin American macho that it is useless as a meaningful term to describe anything except typical U.S. misconceptions of Latin America. Often translated as “strongman,” the origins of the political form of caudillismo are in the tumultuous post-Independence period in South America, where regional political or paramilitary bosses asserted control over provincial territory in a weakened central state. For this reason, continuing to call Evo Morales or Nicolas Maduro “caudillos” seems like the equivalent of calling Barack Obama a “robber baron” when he bypasses Congress. In other words, even if there is a grain of truth in the analogy, the popularity of “caudillo” shows how when discussing Latin American politics the recourse to tropes of “backwardness” is nearly irresistible. A U.S. president’s faults are of his own time; on the other hand, Latin Americans are always battling back the primitive past that lives in their midst and in their heads. 

The New York Times’ reference to Bolivia’s allegedly degrading “democratic values” is a clue to the term’s basically culturalist meaning. For all the editorial’s lawyerly talk of “institutions” what we’re really talking about here is an authoritarian cultural predisposition, native to the soil south of the Rio Grande. Why else use the Spanish word to describe what is essentially party politics everywhere else? The term “caudillo” suggests that this is a political form peculiar to Spanish America, but by their own definition, the New York Times could use it for any head of a political machine anywhere. Is Michael Bloomberg, who revoked the city’s term limits to serve three terms, New York’s “last caudillo”?


The New York Times, October 9, 1932

Note that this doesn’t foreclose Latin Americans and Latin Americanist scholars from using the term. For example, see the anti-Chavez Venezuelan political scientist Javier Corrales’ coinage of the term neocaudillismo (note, again, how caudillismo is always renewing itself). Corrales shows the difficulties of trying to forge a coherent political theory out of what is essentially an ethnic stereotype. In his estimation, neocaudillismo includes both newcomers and political outsiders (like Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez in Bolivia) and ex-presidents returning to office (Alán García in Peru and Carlos Menem in Argentina), so one wonders who it excludes. “Latin America is still the land of caudillos,” Corrales concludes, in a sentence that sounds like it was written a half-century ago. “These new caudillos may not promote coups, insurrections, or totalitarianism, but they still weaken parties, erode checks and balances, and scare adversaries.”

The popularity of “caudillo” signals the obsession with “political institutions” in foreign policy and development literature as the meaningful instrument and measure of progress. And progress, of course, has usually meant imitation of the United States, where “political institutions” are of course strong, fair, and non-partisan, except when they aren’t. And this is why, for me, there is this odd tone of familiarity with the caudillo in the U.S. press and academia—I can’t think of an equivalent “insider” term in foreign-policy coverage of other parts of the “third world.” Saudi Arabia and Cambodia, say, are so unfamiliar that they must be translated. But we know Latin America, the term seems to suggest, and we how it could be so much more like the United States, if only it could vanquish the partisan caudillos who are always reappearing, have just reappeared, or have just been vanquished, only to reappear again—one more instance of what Martí called “the scorn of our formidable neighbor who does not know us.”


Keywords for the Age of Austerity 12: DIY (Do It Your [Damn] Self)

A New York Times op-ed written by Jayne Merkel, an architecture critic, argues that the New York City Housing Authority could address its vast backlog of unfinished repairs—caused by the long-term cuts in federal funding—by training residents to make their own repairs. She calls this “A DIY Fix for Public Housing.”

 The argument rests on a couple of obvious major fallacies. As with so many of our keywords, it values individual derring-do and ignores structural forces, resulting in the apolitical assumption that closing the federal funding gap is impossible, and thus “arguing over who will make nonexistent repairs is fruitless.” (One could borrow this logic to dismiss any political demand that seems, as most important ones do, unrealistic: “arguing about how women will exercise their nonexistent franchise is fruitless,” “arguing about taxation with nonexistent representation is fruitless,” and so on.). Second is its confidence that “almost anyone can replaster a wall.” (No.)

Reader Barbara A. Knecht of New York City already pointed out the idea’s other problems, in a letter to the editor so sensible one wonders how it slipped by the editors:

 …[F]or the cost and time to develop, administer and insure a training program, the authority could employ and deploy the trainers to make repairs.

…Would the same recommendation hold for the residents of a Park Avenue rental building with a noncompliant landlord? Housing authority tenants pay rent and have a right to expect their landlords to keep up their end of the contract.

Knecht points out something both very old in the history of “do-it-yourself,” and something very new in its recent appropriation as a term of austerity individualism. Informal and inexpert by nature, straddling work and leisure, DIY has never been a strict necessity: you don’t just “do it yourself” because you have to, but also, and sometimes mostly, because you want to. This informality obviously makes it a poor solution for an affordable housing crisis.


Popular Mechanics, Jul. 1960.

What seems new in Merkel’s use of DIY is the migration of this individual ethic of “do-it-yourself” to the sphere of social policy. Besides improving the plaster and the work ethic of public housing residents, a DIY spirit will also relieve the state of its obligations to them. And so, like its close cousins “local,” “artisanal,” and the neologisms “hacker” and “maker,” DIY is a practice of middle-class consumption masquerading as a practice of citizenship. And like the cult of entrepreneurship, such uses of “DIY” reframe social disempowerment as individual achievement, delegating to citizens social costs without giving them any social power in return. It is a lamentable sign of our times that 1) someone can seriously propose that public housing residents, mostly people of color, should work without pay for their landlord and that 2) such a proposal pretends to be “progressive.”

As Steven Gelber has argued, the rise of “do-it-yourself” as amateur home repair dates to the middle of the 20th century. By 1950, the classified section of Popular Mechanics advertised an array of tools and tutorials to do-it-yourselfers.More Americans lived in owner-occupied homes than ever before—30 million by 1960, 10 times the number in 1890—and a majority worked for someone else. The growth of home ownership and the separation of home and work space created the conditions for doing it yourself as a middle-class, mostly male pursuit.


From Popular Mechanics, Mar. 1960: do-it-yourself leathercraft, welding, laminating, and…will-writing.

“When industrialization separated living and working spaces,” Gelber writes, “it also separated men and women into non-overlapping spheres of competence.” But the desire to do-it-yourself came not just from economic necessity, argues Gelber. It was a satisfying hobby for desk-bound workers and a respectable way for men to share the labor of the home while asserting a degree of autonomy and expertise within it. Even as the exclusively male claim on “do-it-yourself” culture has frayed, any Home Depot commercial or Tim Allen rerun will remind us of the anxious performance of masculinity that comes with doing it yourself.


It’s not clear (to me) when DIY regularly appeared as an acronym, but many contemporary uses of the word draw on its association with the print style of self-published punk fanzines and the anti-professionalism of punk more generally. Historians of punk often credit the short-lived 1976-77 London zine Sniffin’ Glue with popularizing the DIY aesthetic—a graphic language built on Xeroxed pages and hand-written or cut-and-pasted type, and a writing style celebrating the close, collaborative networks of authors, bands, and artists.

As Sniffin’ Glue’s creator Mark P. insisted, however, the impulse towards self-producing streamlined industrial products—whether they are music magazines or manufactured goods—goes back further, to other forms of sports and music zines in Britain and to countercultural publications like the 1960s publication Whole Earth Catalog, subtitled “Access to Tools.”  


In a recent essay in The New Yorker, Evgeny Morozov makes an insightful critique of the contemporary celebration of “makers” and “hackers,” which borrows rhetorically from the rebellious posture and community-mindedness of punk DIY. He traces it further back, to Whole Earth and to the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement. (To me, punk DIY, as a specifically media movement, seems different, since punk zines never pretended to be reforming the industrial labor system, and therefore had less of the apolitical hubris that for Morozov fatally compromise the Arts and Crafts and 60s “maker” movements). Arts and Crafts, as Jackson Lears has also written, responded to regimentation and inequality in modern industry by reviving old methods of craft production. By restoring to the worker the autonomy the factory had taken away, the movement would also provide consumers with the beauty they were missing. Yet without structural reforms of the economic system, critics pointed out, Arts and Crafts, which aimed to liberate workers, just became a niche market for middle class consumers. Morozov levels the same charge at so-called “makers” today, who see “ingrained traits of technology where others might see a cascade of decisions made by businessmen and policymakers.” 


 “Workers of the world, disperse.”

Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, January 1971 (via

Morozov quotes one of the maker movement’s apostles, Kevin Kelly, who writes in his book, Cool Tools: “The skills for this accelerated era lean toward the agile and decentralized.” This technophilic rhetoric of speed, nimbleness, and decentralization in the individual parallel the celebration in the corporate world of the same values for capital. As in Merkel’s DIY fix for public housing, which imagines the collective of public housing residents as an assemblage of atomized, vulnerable “yourselves,” the DIY celebration of autonomy can be easily colonized by a corporate zeal for individualism. (To make the link with government austerity even clearer, Merkel ends her column by saying that public-housing residents could “take pride in his or her home…and save the city millions.”)

And now, search Twitter for “DIY” and you will find a host of consumer goods which offer evidence of this: the so-called “sharing economy” has appropriated the DIY label, reframing the vulnerability of precarious employment as self-fulfilling autonomy. Etsy craftmakers eking out extra income hustling “DIY” crafts online, AirBnB apartments are DIY hotels (or, more grandiosely, “DIY urbanism”), and Uber asks you to do cabdriving yourself, with little regulation and decreasing pay.


If, as some have argued, the abuses of the “sharing economy” fall hardest on women and in female-identified professions, then it is no surprise that “DIY,” once the male preserve of Popular Mechanics and This Old House reruns, now markets itself mostly to women. And of course, we should applaud fewer Tim Allens,  fewer macho tool commercials, fewer uses of the phrase “man cave.” Yet the shift in the gendering of DIY also confirms Gelber’s argument that “doing-it-yourself” was a form of productive leisure that also reproduces gender roles in the home. Search Twitter for “DIY” and you will find women’s magazines offering plans for DIY jewelry, Martha Stewart’s DIY pumpkin spice latte, even something called a “DIY chicken coop chandelier.” Much of this usage, which seems to want the anti-establishment posture of Whole Earth or Kill Rock Stars, drains the phrase of the particular meanings it once had (there’s no solidarity in a pumpkin space latte) or even any meaning at all (didn’t “DIY dinner” used to be called “cooking”?).

And then there is this: “Drone it yourself,” a military-style drone you can assemble and launch all by yourself.