- Violence, State Formation, and Everyday Politics in Latin America*
The books reviewed here address two important topics in studies on Latin America and the Caribbean: the origins and formation of the state in the nineteenth century, and the political uses and effects of violence in everyday life. Comparatists are increasingly focused on the significance of state weakness and the poor provision of security and justice as factors contributing to the low quality of democracy in the region.1 Also, the dual political and economic transitions beginning in the late 1970s were accompanied by significant upsurges in criminal violence, to the point [End Page 239] that delincuencia ranks as one of the top two issues cited in the 2007 Latino-barómetro report.2 Weak states and poor-quality justice amid a heightened sense of insecurity undermine public support for democracy.
By the (good) luck of the draw, most of the works reviewed here deal with outliers in the sense of their atypical routes toward state formation (Chile, Puerto Rico) or of the degree to which violence marks their daily life (extreme in Colombia and Guatemala; comparatively less in Argentina). Outliers can provide interesting clues about violence, state formation, and everyday politics.
Violence and the Origins of Modern States
How important are the origin and first years of the state for its subsequent coherence and effectiveness? Students of path dependence argue that origins are critical for creating incentives to follow given paths, and that departures from these paths become less likely over time.3 It is surprising that most scholars, with few exceptions, focus on the 1870s as the starting point for their analyses of the origins of the modern state. Implicitly, they discount the importance of the extraordinary violence and instability of the wars of independence and their aftermath, or roughly 1810 to 1860.4
Related to path dependence, the bellicist theory of state origins suggests that interstate wars can have positive effects on the formation of effective nation-states.5 Oversimplified, the notion is that such wars force states to raise revenues and field an army, which requires competent bureaucracies that can extract resources and regulate behavior. Successful extraction and regulation also implies functioning police-justice systems. War making, especially when successful, can promote solidarity and patriotism, thus reinforcing the nation-building project. [End Page 240]
Drawing on Charles Tilly and others, Miguel Centeno writes that “Latin American state power has always been shallow and contested.”6 Violence in the region has been more internal than interstate. Centeno contrasts “total war” in the European case with “limited war” in Latin America, finding that the latter is more likely to incur large debts, promote the development of a professionalized military with little popular participation, hamper the creation of patriotic symbols and unifying myths, and retard economic growth: “The most generalizable trend may be that limited wars rarely leave positive institutional legacies and often have long-term costs. Instead of producing states built on ‘blood and iron,’ they construct ones made of blood and debt. It is precisely this latter pattern that we may observe in Latin America.” For as Centeno goes on to emphasize, it is “not war in itself...