Blood and Debt: War and Nation-State in Latin America

MIGUEL ÁNGEL CENTENO: University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

Why did the Latin American state fail to develop in the nineteenth century beyond its limited organizational capacities? Why did international wars occur so infrequently on the continent in the 19thand especially in the 20thcenturies? What are the mutual relationships between war and the nation-state in Latin America? These are the three major puzzles that Miguel A. Centeno has addressed in a seminal and original work of political sociology about the (lack of) war and the (lack of) states in Latin America. This is an engaging tour de force about the origins and failures of the Latin American state and the links between war and political development. The result is a very readable, incisive, broad, and extremely original research, which combines bold theoretical statements, sweeping generalizations, and a quite unconventional use of quantitative data, including tax receipts (to examine the limited reach of the Latin American state); conscription records (to assess the relative lack of mobilization of the citizens); the names of articles published in military journals (to address the peculiar absence of bellicose sentiments in the respective armies); and the naming of streets and public monuments in the major cities of the region (as a proxy for the relatively cosmopolitan and non-nationalistic political culture of the ruling elites).

To address these three puzzles, Centeno suggests the following thesis: "Latin America was relatively peaceful because it did not form sophisticated political institutions, capable of managing wars. No states, no wars"(26). The failure of the state to develop as a strong and significant institution provides the initial explanation for the relative absence of (significant) international wars. Although the author is aware of the large number of international wars that had taken place in the region between 1810 and 1883, he tends to dismiss those as mere" limited wars" that had only a minor impact upon very weak and under-developed states, as compared to the European experience of the last two hundred years. In the Latin American context, wars had only caused "blood and debt." These limited wars had created debts and fiscal burdens for the state, rather than enhancing its institutional capabilities. Thus, their effects have pennon-existent, very limited, or at most detrimental for the further development of the state.

The explanations that Centeno offers for these puzzles include the lack of political and military culture oriented toward international violence; the lack of state capabilities to fight wars; the trade-off between international and domestic violence; the persistent notions of fragmented sovereignty( patria chic) with sub-national allegiances; regionalism and a physical geography that impeded the development of centralized authority; ethnic divisions and racist sentiments; the cleavages that have characterized the social and political elites since colonial times; and a deterministic, dependencies -type of framework in which the regional hegemony (the United Kingdom in the19thcentury, and the United States in the 20th century)advocates regional peace. The evidence that Centeno brings focuses upon the initial and interested (partly international and partly domestic) long wars of Independence (1810-1824), and the subsequent 19thcentury wars. The book does not address much of the diplomatic history of the 20thcentury, including the geopolitical competition of the 1970s and the processes of democratization in the 1980s that notably improved and" upgraded" the quality of regional peace, especially among the ABC (Argentina, Brazil, and Chile) Southern Cone countries.

Although Centeno manages successfully to disclose his arguments and evidence in a very eloquent and systematic way, leading us from the original puzzles to the limitations in making war (Chapter 2), to the failures in making the state (Chapter 3), to the shortcomings in making the nation (Chapter4), up to the relative lack of a common civic sentiment (Chapter 5), there are several pitfalls in the empirical and theoretical analysis that should be mentioned. At the empirical level, he omits in Table2.2 to refer to the Argentine "dirty war" of 1976-1982(with more than 30,000 victims) as a case of civil war engaging the Argentine state (or better, regime) against its own citizens. Moreover, in his broad and impressive historical descriptions he also fails to refer to the amazing and peaceful territorial expansion of Brazil in the last part of the 19th and the beginning of the 20thcenturies; the significant differences between Central and South America, and between the Spanish-speaking Republics and Brazil; the contrasts between the 19thand 20thcenturies in terms of relative political and economic development, and especially the almost complete absence of international wars in South America since 1883.

The most fascinating and illuminating sections of Centavo's book cope with the aspects of political sociology and his analysis of the relative weaknesses of the Latin-American state, and the difficulties in forging a nation and a notion of common citizenship. By the same token, the most controversial and problematic sections refer to the implications of his sociological analysis for international relations, leading into a paradox, if not self-contradiction. As I pointed out in my own examination of the puzzle of the South American peace (in Zones of Peace in the Third World), this "long peace" started after1883, coinciding with the relative consolidation of the Latin-American states after 60-70 years of anarchy and disarray. Here is the oxymoron of Centavo's argument: if wars in Latin America until the late 1880s were ineffectual or irrelevant because states were weak or inexistent, we should expect that after states grew stronger, they should have started fighting more "European-types" of war, not less, or even none. Thus, either his explanation is wrong, or the empirical depiction of the 19th century as relatively peaceful is skewed. As David Mares argues in Violent Peace, "the wars of the first 60-80 years of independence had tremendous consequences: states were created, confederations of states ceased to exist, and the position of states in the regional hierarchy was dramatically altered" (35). Although Mares doesn't recognize my own depiction of South America as a "zone of peace" after 1883, he concurs that states did consolidate after the 1880s. Hence, we should account for alternative explanations forth variance in the extent of international peace in the region before and after 1883, including the emergence and evolution of a diplomatic political culture in favor of peaceful norms.

Arie M. Kacowicz

Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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