Failed states or weak democracies? The state in Latin America

Mariano Aguirre
17 January 2006

The concepts of fragile, failed or collapsed states are usually applied to states where the principles of territorial unity, legitimate monopoly over the use of force and constitutional law do not apply – among them many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, or Afghanistan. Latin America, however, is only rarely included in these analyses of fragility. But it is useful to consider whether extending such concepts to the recent experience of countries like Bolivia and Venezuela, and even Argentina and Brazil, might illuminate some of the problems and dynamics of the changing politics of the continent.

It is striking that the list of “fragile states” (on income criteria) drawn up by the World Bank Group Work on Low–Income Countries Under Stress: a Task Force Report, includes a majority of African states but, in the region of Latin America (a category used here to include Central America and the Caribbean) mentions only Haiti. A more controversial list of sixty unstable states (designated according to several variables) compiled by The Fund for Peace in Washington, places Haiti in tenth place, Colombia in fourteenth, and Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, Honduras, Ecuador and Cuba in the lower half.

But if discussions of fragile or failed states tend to disregard or downgrade Latin America, the formation of states in this diverse area has long been an object of study – covering such themes as the formation and flaws of institutional structures, and how they might be the basis for developing just and democratic societies. These debates have addressed the colonial inheritance, the relations between civil society and the armed forces, and the problem of achieving a legitimate monopoly of force amidst traditions of caudillismo and armed insurgency or paramilitarism.

Mariano Aguirre is a journalist and writer on international relations. He is co–director of the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride) in Madrid.

Also by Mariano Aguirre on openDemocracy:

America underneath New York
(November 2004)

The many cities of Buenos Aires
(February 2005)

Exporting democracy, revising torture: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff
(July 2005)

Mr Rogers goes to war: America’s ‘democracy by force’
(August 2005)

The Hurricane and the Empire
(September 2005)


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Yet the question of the state in the Americas south of Rio Grande has undergone a revival in recent years. This is partly because the international financial agencies and centres of power that for two decades have advocated the withdrawal of the state from the realms of business and society now seek its return. More immediately, it is because the problems of a number of states in the region (as in other regions of the global south) have become unavoidable:


  • institutional weakness (for example, Peru and Ecuador)
  • collapse (Haiti)
  • delegitimisation of democracy in countries emerging from dictatorship
  • exclusion of social sectors (especially indigenous peoples and the poor)
  • the possibility of secession (Bolivia)

All reveal that the issue of the state – and the closely associated question of democracy – in Latin America is far from being resolved. The return to democracy in recent years has not resolved several fundamental problems of state, which Laura Tedesco & Jonathan R Barton well describe: "historical inequality in social relations remained relatively unchanged following the neoliberal reforms; the perpetuation of the notion that this inequality in inevitable and almost necessary; the spread of economic exclusion; the de facto restrictions of civil liberties for those economically excluded; the persistence of important degrees of social and political authoritarianism; the injustices of the judicial systems; and unresolved ethnic and racial issues" (The State of Democracy in Latin America, Routledge, 2004).

An uncivil society

A new book by mainly Dutch and Latin American scholars – Kees Koonings & Dirk Kruijt’s co–edited, Armed Actors: Organized Violence and State Failure in Latin America (Zed Press, 2005) – advances the argument about the Latin American state, democracy and citizenship, especially in relation to the key theme of violence.

The use of the term “state failure” in the subtitle indicates the daring intentions of the Utrecht University authors. Koonings & Kruijt identify the main problems that hinder the improvement of democracy in Latin America: institutional flaws, lack of accountability, social inequality, and the fact that violence appears to be enduring and adopting new dimensions.

Violence, they argue, is not just conventional conflict between dictatorial governments or armed opposition groups. The “new violence” has many different faces (state, state–related, non–state); it involves illegal economic connections; it is linked to the corruption of élites and to poor people’s struggle for survival; it appears in the guise of old and new identities. This diversified violence creates an “uncivil society” that reveals the “dark side of civil society”.

The incisive essay by Patricio Silva of Leiden University comments on the tendency to criticise the state for its weakness and authoritarianism without focusing too on the key actors in civil society, who too often fail to realise that political negotiations and consensus can be more beneficial than the use of violence: “In present–day Latin America it is not only the state which is weak, but also the main actors within political society, namely political parties.” Without the mediation of political actors and organisations, individuals and social groups try to impose their agenda through “coercive policies” in “uncivil societies” rather than through dialogue or accommodation.

The fragile state and violence

The deep–rooted commitment to ideas of national sovereignty has helped prevent the concept of the fragile or failed state from being accepted in Latin America. It is also considered to be a problematic notion that could justify a project of external tutelage and, in the last resort, military intervention ostensibly to counter terrorism or drug trafficking.

A minimum definition of a fragile or failing state is one which:

  • is unable to control its territory or large parts of its territory and guarantee the security of its citizens, because it has lost its monopoly on the use of force
  • is no longer able to uphold its internal legal order
  • is no longer able to deliver public services to its population or create the conditions for such delivery.

Koonings & Kruijt think Latin American states fail on one or more of these points; but above all in not maintaining the legitimate monopoly of the use of force and in democratically imposing the rule of law. In the resultant void, forms of “new violence” emerge associated with narco–trafficking, paramilitary organisations, the maras (youth gangs), and armed groups that mix ideology with economic gain.

Their panorama of “armed actors” includes state security forces, paramilitary groups, death squads, private national or foreign forces, guerrilla movements, and criminal organisations. (The authors surprisingly include indigenous movements in Ecuador and the Movimiento sim Terra [landless workers’ movement] in Brazil; this confusion of radical demands with the use of force echoes that perpetrated in documents of the United States military and the media).

Wim Savenije & Chris Van Der Borgh identify an example of the “new violence” in El Salvador: youth violence and the maras. They consider that the incapacity of the state to provide security for citizens, the practice of violence inherited from the wars of the 1980s, and social exclusion have resulted in a new type of non–politicised violence. This is also “symbolic violence” in that those who carry it out seek or possess a certain degree of power and try to wield influence in order to achieve a coercive consensus within their social group.

An especially relevant point emerging from this book is that violence generates fear and distrust, affecting many social relationships and tending to delegitimise the state and democracy.

Poverty, inequality and violence: Argentina and Brazil

A vital question that appears in almost every chapter of Koonings & Kruijt’s book is the relationship between inequality, justice and violence.

Marcelo Saín, a lawyer and Argentinean government official, analyses the complex root causes of violence, including how justice functions and how inequality works. He explains that in Argentina the state has lost its capacity to regulate, mediate and resolve basic social conflicts, and that this has led to a serious deterioration of the criminal justice and police systems. Worse, the exercise of illegal violence by government agencies, and the use of the police as an instrument of government rather than society, have delegitimised institutions.

Saín calls Argentina a “failing state” – “that is to say a state that has displayed an incapacity to guarantee the effectiveness of its laws, regulations and policies throughout its territory and its system of social stratification, thus moulding with it a scenario in which the relation between state and society comes to be characterized, in many of its aspects, by a low degree of institutionalization”.

The erosion of the state in Argentina is particularly interesting because the institutions have not disappeared or lost their effectiveness. In contrast to other cases of fragility and collapse, the country maintains its state structures in apparent working order. But they have lost legitimacy over the last twenty years as a result of two factors: the growth in inequality and poverty together with the decline of the formerly substantial middle class; and the crisis of Peronismo as an ideology and political system which embodied its own form of welfare state.

Alba Zaluar explores the Brazilian case, and identifies a gap “between the formal institutions of the rule of law and citizenship rights and the ambivalent domain of social processes and practices not controlled by them.” In Argentina, this gap has been created in the last decades while in Brazil it has been present since the construction of the state.

The enormous profits from the illegal drugs trade in Brazil have led to widepsread institutional corruption: of the police, the judiciary and the government; and all this has been linked to urban violence. Social violence is traditional in Brazil (as it is in Colombia), emanating local chiefs (caudillos) who formed armed bands to control and protect their lands, as well as the exploitation of rural people, the poor, indigenous people or black slaves. Since the 19th century, such violent means have been used to impose or eliminate political candidates; alongside, the economy and the architecture of the modern state continued to develop, especially in urban areas. This created a chasm between different spheres of legality and illegality in the social structure.

The result is that Brazil has one of the most unequal societies in the world, with enormous social exclusion, and élites protected by the police and layers of subcontracted personnel, from private security guards to “extermination groups” who kill delinquents. Zalaur establishes the relationship between social exclusion, inequality and the failure of public institutions to impose the rule of law.

By including Brazil and Argentina in their analysis, the editors of Armed Actors have broken with the conventional debate over failed states with its implication that fragility is an “African” issue, and that only Haiti offers a regional parallel. (In this light, it would have been useful to include three other countries in the book: Mexico, an example of an institutionally strong state which has democratic and institutional flaws; Bolivia, because of its serious constitutional crisis; and Haiti itself, the only state in the continent which actually collapsed.)

It is interesting too that Venezuela has been included; Harold Trinkunas’s thought–provoking essay analyses the growing role of the armed forces in relation to Hugo Chávez’s government and the opposition, and to what extent that armed presence diminishes the current and future possibilities of democracy.

The book discussed in this article is Kees Koonings & Dirk Kruijt, eds., Armed Actors: Organized Violence and State Failure in Latin America (Zed Press, 2005)

A longer, Spanish–language, version of this article is published on the website of the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride)

A democratic agenda

What fresh understandings, and what political implications, follow from introducing the idea of the fragile or failed state to the understanding of Latin American politics?

For decades, left-wing social groups from Mexico to Argentina pursued social change with a mechanical conception of the state; for them, it was a matter of seizing power and changing direction. In that scheme of things, violence was a legitimate instrument. Meanwhile, those in power also regarded violence as a means of maintaining the status quo and of defending their conception of the state. As long as these two poles were in opposition, violence remained an instrument for survival in many parts of the social labyrinth.

In the light of this inheritance, to find a way of building a democratic agenda that can create an inclusive state is a long-term task – one requiring a reassessment of democratic coexistence, respect for human rights, and a firm commitment to use deliberation instead of violence.

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