- Tiburcio Carías: Portrait of a Honduran Political Leader
Central American dictators such as Anastasio Somoza or Jorge Ubico have been synonymous with much of the region's modern history. They have defined both the transitional nature of modernity in their nations and fundamental principles of the revolutionary movements that eventually overthrew them. It is rare to find an example of a caudillo who emerged in the twentieth century, maintained an iron grip on his homeland, and managed a graceful segue into peaceful retirement and political irrelevancy. Thomas J. Dodd's thoughtful, well-argued biography of Honduran strongman Tiburcio Carías tells the story of just that progression.
Tiburcio Carías was a man with his feet in two centuries. Imbued in the ideals of classic nineteenth-century Latin American liberalism and its advocacy of order, discipline, and paternalism, Carías never wavered in his efforts to bring stability to Honduras. To a significant degree, his leadership is a clear reflection of the caudillismo of a past age. However, at the same time, Carías also embraced all the tools provided by modernity, particularly the communications and transport technology that he used to build a modern infrastructure around his dictatorship. With these means, Carías centralized his own authority by making the Honduran National Party into a twentieth-century construct. In doing so, he was able to reconcile two very disparate elements of Honduran political life: the urban elites who dominated Tegucigalpa and its environs and the local caudillos who controlled the small town and villages of the countryside. [End Page 693]
However, as Dodd cogently establishes in his narrative, Carías' lifelong mission to consolidate political power for the sake of stability created a series of blind spots in his regime that ultimately ruined him. Carías was first and foremost a tactical thinker, masterful in constructing mechanisms that could satisfy or neutralize potential rivals while enhancing his own indispensability to the nation. Yet, Carías failed to comprehend fully the systemic changes occurring around him. As it neared the midpoint in the century, Honduras, like many of its Latin American counterparts, was experiencing the tidal forces of political and economic change. During the outbreak of World War II, at the seeming apex of his power, Carías was forced to contend with both expectations for tangible freedoms and the large-scale and unmet desire for prosperity. Although he was able to survive the tumult created by the war, Carías was never able to prevail over his new circumstances. Unlike Juan Perón, he did not manage to successfully forge a link between his leadership and the social welfare of Hondurans. As Dodd puts it, Carías was a leader who evoked awe and respect, but never the love of his people.
Dodd also points out that another major failure of the Carías regime was in its relationship with U.S. export companies. While he was effective in melding tradition with contemporary opportunities in the political realm, Carías fell far short with respect to economic development. Dodd clearly makes the point that Carías never took the subsequent steps to capitalize on the stability his government created. If he proved extremely adept at micromanaging his National Party, Carías was never able or willing to establish a foundation of economic sovereignty. In the end, his administration compounded Honduran economic dependency upon foreign capital. Loans from the American banana industry ultimately left his government permanently tied to foreign interests.
As a work of academic scholarship, Tiburcio Carías excels. The inclusion of primary documents taken from public and private Honduran collections is emblematic of a major work in the field. Similarly, Dodd's use of an extensive series of interviews with individuals who were witnesses to and participants in the Carías regime burnishes an already strong narrative. Overall, the author has incorporated an important story into the body of scholarship on Central America and accomplished this task with clarity, detail, and balance...