Book Review: Blood and Debt; War and the Nation-State in Latin America, by Miguel Angel Centeno, 2002.

The altarpiece of the Independence of Mexico (“El Retablo de la Independencia de México”), is a fresco on a wall by Juan O’Gorman, painted from the year 1960 to 1961.

“What has characterized the Latin American state is not its concentration of power, but the very dilution of power.” – Miguel Angel Centeno (2002, Loc. 244)

If you ever noticed (to say the least) that in Latin America ethnic origin, class and caste operate in a very different way than in developed Western countries, now you can understand why this is so.

This is a very well accomplished (research) work. Miguel Angel Centeno finishes this book by stating that “that Latin America has millions of great stories. It is high time that we begin to appreciate the wider lessons it has to offer.” After reading his work, I could not agree more. But I am getting ahead of my own ideas…

Centeno begins by asking why is that war is so scarce in the Latin American region. His answer is developed under the idea that “Latin America was relatively peaceful because it did not form sophisticated political institutions capable of managing wars. No states, no wars. Moreover, given this history, the military as an institution appears to have identified the critical national enemy as an internal one. Given the absence of an external enemy, wars were superfluous.”

It is (usually) assumed that the historic, brutal repression of the countries under the Rio Grande has equaled strong, solid states; Centeno asserts that it has been the opposite; according to the author’s ideas the figure of the state has been very weak throughout history in this geographical area. The very notion of citizenship is frail, as it is the idea of the nation; the Weberian concept of the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a territory, and fiscal policies have never been (in Latin America) as consistent as in the case of developed European and North American countries. The preconceived (and wrong) scheme that the formation of a state follows a universal pattern, born in Europe, is demystified by Centeno. Put in simple terms: The historical conditions observed at the moment of the formation of the Latin American countries were very different to those lived by the European and even the North American ones (except Mexico, which is part of Latin America). The Western presumption of the rise of the nation-state is linked to the phenomenon of war, particularly in Europe; however, armed conflict in Latin America has traditionally been much more of an internal nature (directed inside) versus interstate; particularly since the second half of the twentieth century, when war among countries in the region has been practically inexistent. The consequences of war in Latin America, Centeno explains, have been also very different, usually leaving the state surrounded by “blood and debt”… when war happened in Latin America, it left a path of wrecking of institutions and pronounced social and political internal divisions; the opposite to what war in the US, Canada and Europe created. Identities in Latin America were based out of skin color, class and origin; the outcome of that is exclusion, inequality, discriminated distribution of resources, etc.

Two exceptions are considered by Centeno: Brazil and Chile, where he asserts that few groups tied their own survival to that of the state. Fear of an internal foe stoped the possibility of consolidation of power or the emergence of the necessary mythology which is found at the base of the nation-state in Europe and developed North America. The case of Paraguay in the nineteenth century is also reviewed by the author as one of a short period of creation of homogeneity and autonomy, however ended by the War of the Triple Alliance or Paraguayan War (1864-70), the most intense and bloodiest conflict of the region fought between Paraguay and Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.

The Chilean Army and its sense of belonging is analyzed by Miguel Angel Centeno…

Throughout this book the reader will find a wide range of propositions related to the development of the nation-state and the Latin American particularities in this sense; e.g. Centeno refers to patterns of military service (including the Chilean “exception”) and explains why in Latin America this did not contribute to the construction of national identities or citizenship. This is a book that significantly adds up to the interpretation and understanding of the formation of the nation-state and to the demystification of Eurocentric ideas in that regard.

Reference:

Centeno, Miguel Angel. 2002. Blood and Debt: War and the Nation-State in Latin America. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press. Kindle Edition.

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