"Caudillismo" the personality cult of the "great man", has spurred Central American politics since the Spanish Conquest. In Guatemala, where this passion for charismatic and forceful leaders is especially strong, Rafael Carrera is unrivalled in the length of his domination and the depth of his popularity. Based extensively on primary research in Central American archives, this narrative aims to provide a balanced and detailed account of Carrera's times and his conservative legacy. Ralph Lee Woodward Jr not only explains the political, social, economic, and cultural circumstances that preceded and then facilitated Carrera's ascendancy but also shows how Carrera in turn fomented changes that persisted far beyond Guatemala's borders and long after his death. An illiterate drifter of mixed blood, Rafael Carrera began his rise to power in 1837, on the eve of a conservative backlash against years of liberal rule in Guatemala.
For more than a decade, reforms aimed at rapid modernisation and development had chipped away at the country's old Spanish institutions and customs - alienating and finally galvanising the country's creole patriarchy, the Catholic Church, and the devout, tradition-bound peasantry. Carrera first led a small revolt in a mountainous rural district of eastern Guatemala, and as similar isolated uprisings escalated into a bloody, full-scale, reactionary revolution, he advanced quickly through the insurgents' ranks. A brilliant military strategist and tactician and an intuitive problem solver, Carrera knew how to charm people even as he exploited them, and he regarded brutality as a legitimate political tool. By 1839, at the age of 25 he commanded the Guatemalan army and was the dominant "caudillo" on the isthmus, almost without interruption, until his death in 1865. Woodward presents Carrera as an aberration of regional politics. He emerged from the revolution as something of a rural populist, able to mobilise Indians, "ladinos", and other segments of society that were disdained and feared by elites of all political learnings.
As his sway over the common people forced the elite factions to lay aside political differences in the interest of preserving their social status, Carrera thrived amid the resulting intrigue and ideological bickering, so secure at home that he often sent troops into neighbouring countries to oust liberal elements. In this context of turmoil, Woodward traces many of Central America's present-day characteristics to Carrera's time, such as the region's reputation for economic and political instability, its minimal contributions to hemispheric trade, the prevalence of self-interest in politics, the dismaying similarities of liberal and conservative rhetoric and tactics, mutually shortsighted alliances and agreements with foreign powers, and the rise of a powerful and arbitrary military class. In contradiction to widely-held notions, Woodward presents evidence that Guatemala enjoyed stable growth and an increase in agricultural exports during Carrera's reign. In addition, he brings to light Carrera's administrative capabilities and reassesses the effects of his attitude of benign neglect toward his lower-class constituencies.