Summary of "Blood and Debt: War and the Nation-State in Latin America"

Summary of

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

By Miguel Angel Centeno

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Centeno, Miguel Angel. (2002). Blood and D1ebt: War and the Nation-State in Latin America. University Park, Pa., Pennsylvania State University Press.

Centeno begins with a puzzle, the absence of interstate war in Latin America. The conclusion he develops in the book is 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." (26) Despite what might be assumed by the repressive history of many Latin American countries, by many measures the state has historically been very weak. The notion of citizenship is lacking as is the physical integration of society, for example. The ability to monopolize the use of violence within the border has not been consistent and tax collection rates less than other, wealthier countries. Why is the Latin American state so ineffectual? Centeno examines the historical circumstances of the development of South American states to understand why the state formation process there did not mimic patterns observed in Europe, which are often at least implicitly assumed to be universal processes.

Scholars such as Charles Tilly have pointed to the importance of war in the development of the nation-state. In Latin America, Centeno discusses, interstate war has been a rarity and when it did occur, it was of a limited nature. Significantly, limited war "do[es] not require the political or military mobilization of the society except (and not always) in the euphoric initial moments." (21) As a result, there was not a great need to construct a strong sense of nationalism nor was it necessary to develop state institutions to manage taxation and the conduct of war. Taxation was really not necessary because at the time of their development international financial markets had developed to a degree that they could more easily be tapped by governments.

"As in much of the postcolonial world, states preceded nations in Latin America." (24) Because independence came more from Spanish collapse than strong internal demand, there was little to differentiate the new Latin American states. Nationalism could not be built on difference with one's neighbors, for they were little different. In fact, there were greater divisions within the new states on class and ethnic lines than existed across borders.

The book goes on to examine a range of issues related to state and nation development. It describe patterns of military service and why in Latin America it appears not to have aided much in constructing a national identity. Centeno also describes efforts (or lack thereof) to create citizens.

The book is an important addition to our understanding of the importance of historical circumstances surrounding state formation for its long-term development. It also serves as a welcome caution to the tendency to assume processes of Western development have universal application.