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Latin America has traditionally been home to dictators: charismatic men who have seized almost complete control over their nations and held it for years, even decades. Some have been fairly benign, some cruel and violent, and others merely peculiar. Here are some of the more noteworthy men who have held dictatorial powers in their home nations.
Anastasio Somoza Garcia, First of the Somoza DictatorsBettmann Archive / Getty Images
Not only was Anastasio Somoza (1896-1956) a dictator, he founded a whole line of them, as his two sons followed in his footsteps after his death. For almost fifty years, the Somoza family treated Nicaragua like their own private estate, taking whatever they wanted from the treasury and granting favors to friends and family. Anastasio was a cruel, crooked despot who was nevertheless supported by the US government because he was staunchly anti-communist.
Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's Iron Tyrant
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Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915) was a general and war hero who reached the Presidency of Mexico in 1876. It would be 35 years before he left office, and it took nothing less than the Mexican Revolution to dislodge him. Diaz was a special sort of dictator, as historians today still argue whether he was one of Mexico's best or worst presidents ever. His regime was quite corrupt and his friends became very wealthy at the expense of the poor, but there is no denying that Mexico made great steps forward under his rule.
Augusto Pinochet, Chile's Modern DictatorBettmann Archive / Getty Images
Another controversial dictator is General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) of Chile. He took control of the nation in 1973 after leading a coup that deposed elected leftist leader Salvador Allende. Over the course of almost 20 years, he ruled Chile with an iron fist, ordering the deaths of thousands of suspected leftists and communists. To his supporters, he is the man who saved Chile from communism and put it on the path to modernity. To his detractors, he was a cruel, evil monster who is responsible for the deaths of many innocent men and women. Which is the real Pinochet? Read the biography and decide.
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Mexico's Dashing Madman
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Santa Anna is one of Latin American History's most fascinating figures. He was the ultimate politician, serving as President of Mexico eleven times between 1833 and 1855. Sometimes he was elected and sometimes he was simply handed the reins of power. His personal charisma was matched only by his ego and his incompetence: during his reign, Mexico lost not only Texas but all of California, New Mexico and much more to the United States. He famously said "One hundred years to come my people will not be fit for liberty. They do not know what it is, unenlightened as they are, and under the influence of a Catholic clergy, a despotism is the proper government for them, but there is no reason why it should not be a wise and virtuous one."
Rafael Carrera, Pig Farmer Turned Dictator
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Central America was largely spared the bloodshed and chaos of the struggle for Independence that swept Latin America from 1806 to 1821. Once free from Mexico in 1823, however, a wave of violence spread across the region. In Guatemala, an illiterate pig farmer named Rafael Carrera took up arms, gained an army of followers and proceeded to help smash the young Federal Republic of Central America. By 1838 he was the undisputed President of Guatemala: he would rule with an iron fist until his death in 1865. Although he stabilized the nation in a time of great crisis and some positive things came of his time in office, he was also a tyrant who ruled by decree and abolished freedoms.
Simon Bolivar, Liberator of South America
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Bolivar was South America's greatest freedom fighter, liberating Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia from Spanish rule in a string of stunning battles. After these nations were liberated, he became President of Gran Colombia (present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela) and he soon became known for a dictatorial streak. His enemies often derided him as a tyrant, and it is true that (like most generals) he preferred to govern by decree without legislators getting in his way. Still, he was a fairly enlightened dictator when he held absolute power, and no one has ever called him corrupt (like so many others on this list).
Antonio Guzman Blanco, Venezuela's Peacock
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Antonio Guzman Blanco was a dictator of the amusing sort. President of Venezuela from 1870 to 1888, he ruled virtually unopposed and enjoyed great power. He seized power in 1869 and soon became head of an extremely crooked regime in which he took a cut from nearly every public project. His vanity was legendary: he was fond of official titles and enjoyed being referred to as “The Illustrious American” and “National Regenerator.” He had dozens of portraits made. He loved France and often went there, ruling his nation via telegram. He was in France in 1888 when the people tired of him and deposed him in absentia: he chose to simply remain there.
Eloy Alfaro, Ecuador's Liberal General
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Eloy Alfaro was President of Ecuador from 1895 to 1901 and again from 1906 to 1911 (and wielded a lot of power in between). Alfaro was a liberal: at the time, that meant that he was for complete separation of church and state and wanted to extend the civil rights of Ecuadorians. In spite of his progressive ideas, he was an old-school tyrant while in office, repressing his opponents, rigging elections and taking to the field with a horde of armed supporters whenever he suffered a political setback. He was killed by an angry mob in 1912.