restricted access The Changing Role of the State in Latin America (review)
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Hispanic American Historical Review 80.1 (2000) 186-187

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Book Review

The Changing Role of the State in Latin America

National Period

The Changing Role of the State in Latin America. Edited by Menno Vellinga. Boulder: Westview, 1997. Tables. Notes. Index. xi, 312 pp. Cloth, $69.00.

As the title of this book suggests, the relation of the state to civil society and the economy is at the heart of debates and reform efforts throughout Latin America. However, there is little consensus on the proper role of the state in society and the economy. The current volume is a successful attempt to describe some of the factors shaping the changing role of the state in the region, but there are important gaps in the analyses offered.

The first four essays, by Howard Wiarda, Peter Smith, Patricio Silva, and William Glade, offer cultural and historical-structural explanations of the state's changing role. Although not explicit about their differences, the essays clearly follow the distinct approaches to the state that dominate current debates. For Wiarda, the state's role cannot be understood outside the context of a "bureaucratic-patrimonialist, corporatist, centralist and authoritarian tradition" (p. 27) rooted in Iberian culture. He sees neoliberal economic reforms and democratization in the region as offering some of the best hope, while breaking away from culturally bound forms of corporatist state-society relations; Smith's article examines the rise and fall of the developmentalist state by focusing [End Page 186] on the structure of Latin American trade, low state autonomy, and the weakness of the capitalist class; similarly, Glade places the blame for the state's retreat in the economic arena squarely on the economic breakdown of the 1980s, Latin America's "lost decade"; and Silva looks at the newly strengthened role of technocrats in the state apparatus and suggests that they have become an integral part of the reformed state in the region.

One approach to the state that is not represented involves rational choice, which could provide explanations of the choices and preferences of actors undertaking state reform. There is little discussion of the political and social groups that have promoted reforms and almost no discussion of the groups that have benefited from or been hurt by the reforms undertaken. Yet it is clear that the changing role of the state in the region has been made possible by coalitions of interests that have actively sought to reform both society and the economy. Many of the changes described in this volume have been the focus of disputes among important sectors of society, including business, labor, and agrarian interest groups. Ultimately, if and how the state's role changes is a political question that is disputed by different sectors of society as well as a range of political actors. A major gap in the analyses offered is the lack of any link between the changes in the state's administrative and political structures and the interests and conflicts among political and economic groups.

The case studies are somewhat uneven, focusing on specific aspects of state reform in different cases. For example, Victoria Rodríguez examines decentralization policies in Mexico; Julio Cotler links the rise of the informal economy with the emergence of independent political candidates, and Joe Foweraker shows how social movements have expanded notions of citizenship. Although these are important and interesting topics, these authors do not explain how the issues are linked to the state's changing role. It is not at all clear if the changes in these case studies demonstrate regional trends that are being shaped by the same forces. Nor is it clear whether they will endure the rapid political changes that are affecting the region. Although the state is clearly changing, there is still uncertainty over the implications of these changes, which makes it very difficult to come up with clear generalizable patterns. Moreover, many of the factors influencing state reform do not even originate within national boundaries but are part of the broader process of globalization. Clearly, there is a dynamic interplay between changes occurring...