Unlike the United States, which forged a stable federation following its revolution, most Latin American countries suffered decades of internal turmoil. Simón Bolívar’s vision of a political union of Spanish-speaking nations failed to unite disparate interests and rival caudillos (military-political leaders). In many places, medals were issued for the military response to the rebellions of indigenous peoples against rulers of European descent.
As royalist forces were gradually defeated by republican armies, new revolutionary leaders competed for power. In most countries creoles (citizens of European descent) aligned themselves with one of two ideologies: conservatism or liberalism. The conservatives generally were supported by wealthy landowners in alliance with the Catholic Church. Liberals drew their strength from the major cities and trading ports; they promoted free trade, sought to separate church and state, and attempted to end aristocratic and ecclesiastical privileges. In some countries this conflict continued well into the twentieth century.
Another political fault line separated proponents of a strong central government from regional leaders who wanted to see the benefits of nationhood distributed more equitably among distant provinces. Argentina suffered years of warfare between federalists and unitarians during the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rojas (1793–1877). The conflict was motivated by the desire to control tax receipts from the customhouse in the port of Buenos Aires.
Spain’s three-hundred-year rule of Latin America generally failed to integrate indigenous peoples into colonial society. The wars of independence put families of European descent in power without changing the social status quo. These creoles showed little interest in defending indigenous rights if they conflicted with personal economic interests. Indian communities often rose up to defend their lands, which led to armed conflict, particularly in Argentina.
Caudillo is a Latin American term for a political leader who takes power by force or through a fraudulent election and rules as a dictator. The term is no longer in popular use. The word fit the many dictators who ruled in the nineteenth century in most Latin American countries. The Bolivian caudillo Manuel Mariano Melgarejo (1820–1871) is especially known for the repressive nature of his regime and the large quantity of medals he had struck at the mint of Potosí, often on the same standards as coins.