Civil Wars, National Imaginings, and the State in Latin America: A Comparative Perspective

AHA Session 229
Conference on Latin American History 54
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room A602 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Nils P. Jacobsen, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Cecilia Méndez Gastelumendi, University of California, Santa Barbara
Rebecca Earle, University of Warwick

Session Abstract


Even though Latin America’s history is marked by civil wars, only recently have historians started to incorporate them into the political history of the region. The papers presented in this panel will discuss Latin America’s civil wars comparatively in connection to the process of the construction of the state, the role of violence in the formation of political institutions, and its legacies in national imaginings.  The time frame of the papers spans from the independence wars in the early nineteenth century to the late twentieth century and the area covered is South and Central America, more specifically, today Colombia, Peru and Costa Rica.

Save, perhaps, for Mexico and Colombia, civil wars are far from being explored as such, let alone comparatively in the historiography of Latin America. This absence can be attributed to a number of factors, one of them being the enduring influence of the notion of caudillismo to describe Latin America’s politics. Roughly defined as the rule of caudillos, ambitious strong men that engaged in fractious armed confrontations through most of the nineteenth century, caudillismo has traditionally paid little or no attention to caudillo followers, their programs, and the societies that backed them. The notion of caudillismo, which as Peruvian historian Magdalena Chocano asserts, is of relatively recent use, has marred the understanding of the state and its connection with state making (particularly in the nineteenth century), because caudillos have been consistently seen “obstacles to the state” rather part of the process of state making.

To be sure, in the last two decades, more nuanced approaches have emerged, as historians have begun to incorporate peasants and other marginalized sectors as political actors in the fabric of national politics (Guardino, López Alves, Mallon, Méndez, Sanders, Thomsom, Thurner). Yet a comprehensive examination of civil wars in the region is still lacking. Scholars of Latin America are far from having exhausted Charles Tilly’s famed theoretical claim (1985) that war making and state making are interrelated processes. Indeed, one of the most sweeping studies on the subject concludes that this claim simply does not apply to the region (Miguel Angel Centeno, 2002)

The comparative analysis of Peru, Colombia and Costa Rica proposed in this panel provides fruitful and original questions. Whereas in Colombia only once were the insurgents of its nine nineteenth-century civil wars able to take power, in Peru  the opposite was the case: only once in the nineteenth century’s civil wars was the state able to suppress the rebels. Thus, wars pervaded in Colombia way until the XX century, whereas Peru found a more quiescent twentieth century—that is, until in 1980 the Shining Path insurgency hit back, losing the battle. Finally, by including Costa Rica, a country usually portrait as the democratic and peaceful “exception” in Central America, the panel promises to broaden and destabilize the usual boundaries for comparative analysis in the region.

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