The Peaceful Century: War in Twentieth-Century Latin America

Miguel A. Centeno, Sociology, Princeton University

Research Grant, 1997, 1998

Blood and Debt analyzed a double empirical puzzle. Why did the Latin American state fail to develop beyond its limited organizational capacity, and why did international war occur so infrequently on the continent? I demonstrate how the absence of both institutional authority and politically organized violence were bound in a circular, causal relationship. The origins of this unique pattern of development are found in the conditions under which the countries achieved independence. We also need to consider other factors, however, such as Latin America’s actual military experience, the divisions within the societies and within the dominant elites, and the particular sequence of these developments, all of which helped to make the colonial legacy harder to escape.

We can begin with perhaps the most interesting empirical puzzle discussed in the book: the relative scarcity of wars (but especially international ones) in Latin America. The continent has not lacked bloodshed and cruelty in its history, but it has, somehow, skipped the organized exercise of violence that so defines other modern nations. It is the difference in political organization that helps account for both Latin American ‘exceptionalism” and differences within the continent.

The absence of a strong centralizing state authority best explains the particular distribution and forms of political violence observed on the continent. Because the state developed so late (generally only in the late-nineteenth century and then only intermittently), social, political, racial, regional, and economic conflicts were rarely controlled from above. The Hobbesian function of the state was underdeveloped and what ensued was often the violence of all against all. There were simply too many conflicts occurring within each Latin American state for these countries to have much energy to fight each other. These internal struggles and the never-resolved social and economic divisions produced a military that saw its major responsibility as the protection of an always ill-defined sense of nation from internal enemies. Whether these were Indians, class antagonists, or the supposed communist representatives mattered less than the fact the military gaze was oriented inward.

There were simply too many conflicts occurring within each Latin American state for these countries to have much energy to fight each other.

How do wars make states? Wars provide both the means and the incentive to centralize power. Given external threats, states seek to protect their internal situation by imposing their control over as much of their own territory as possible. Wars also help build nations. They do so by both providing the dramaturgical materials for nationalist liturgies and by providing avenues and opportunities for the subject population to establish possibly more cooperative relations with the state. Through the massification of armies, wars also help define citizenship.

In general, the standard bellicist model assumes a relatively smoothly operating feedback loop. External threats generate military needs. These include fiscal and manpower resources. The first are satisfied though some already-existing administrative capacity (which in turns grows and makes fiscal extraction easier). The newly augmented organizational capacity and new funds further encourage and support the establishment of centralized authority. The manpower needs lead to conscription and to citizenship claims in exchange for granting the state such power. Meanwhile, the external threat gives rise to both elite unity and a broader sense of collective identity. The latter (along with the heroic deeds of the actual conflict) help develop an official nationalist ethos (which in turn helps consolidate elite unity). Both of these contribute the legitimacy of centralized authority. The combination of institutionalized authority, citizenship claims, and nationalism are the essential components of a modern nation-state.

In Latin America, the process was generally quite different. The fiscal response to military needs could not be met through an expanded administrative capacity as one barely existed. The kinds of wars fought and the same limited state organizational capability precluded massive mobilization. Instead, the professionalization following the 1890s produced socially isolated, small, and relatively privileged armed forces. External threats did not automatically translate into support or self-identification, but were precluded from doing so by social divisions. Given the absence of any core sense of nation, external threats often aggravated domestic divisions. These produced divided and isolated elites and a generally excluded majority without a sense of citizenship. The results of war on the continent were generally negative, in that it mostly brought about debt, economic breakdown and political chaos. When it had a positive economic effect, it was too often in the form of providing a state with new “rents,” but not forcing it to do more with what it already had undertaken. Positive political results (as in greater centralization) were usually accompanied by authoritarian rule and rarely with any parallel rise in popular participation.

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