Why Weak States Hamper Latin America

October 5, 2020

This is the first in a series of articles that use extracts from Oxford Professor, Edwin Williamson’s The Penguin History of Latin America, to help international investors today learn from the region’s past…

The factor that repeatedly hindered the modernisation of Latin America was the weakness of the state. It was a weakness that can be traced back, in the first instance, to the circumstances of independence, to that profound crisis of royal authority that had led by tortuous and dangerous byways to a political secession which few creoles had initially contemplated and whose ultimate constitutional form fewer still were content with. For the white creole oligarchies, whose power derived from the pattern of grants and bounties created at the time of the Conquest, found themselves constrained after independence by republican constitutions written to the alien prescription of Enlightenment liberalism. The builders of the new nations were therefore faced with the prospect of accommodating a stratified patriarchal order, fragmented into countless regional clusters of power, within the rationally conceived structures of a liberal republic. The result was the chronic squabbling of oligarchic factions with intervals of order under a strongman.

The ‘colonial pact’

However, this weakness of the state had even more distant origins: it derived from the peculiar deficiencies of the state in the New World. The almost preternatural stability of the Spanish and Portuguese empires over roughly three centuries should not mislead one to assume that the imperial states were particularly strong: they were resilient and adaptable, but the actual power of the Crown was circumscribed by the oligarchic interests of landowners and merchants in America. In the Spanish Indies, in particular, the Crown’s determined efforts to consolidate the authority of the state had foundered by the early 1600s through royal indigence and Indian depopulation. What remained was the monopoly of legitimacy of the Catholic monarchy, a not inconsiderable asset which bound the colonies to the mother country more closely than the direct exercise of power might have done. That monopoly of legitimacy more than compensated for the fretful condition of the creoles as a thwarted ruling class: it provided a mediating institution for their oligarchic disputes, it brought the dispersed focuses of regional power under a loosely unified polity, and, above all, it kept the non-whites quiet. Indeed, the real ‘colonial pact’ was not economic but political: the white creole elites acquiesced in the ostensible authority of the Crown in return for its priceless justification of the internal colonialism which served them so well.

the creole elites acquiesced in the ostensible authority of the Crown in return for its priceless justification of the internal colonialism, which served them so well…

What held the realms of the Indies together, then, was not force but the silver threads of royal legitimacy. However, when Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, deposing the legitimate Bourbon monarch and placing his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne instead, these barely visible threads first became tangled and then broke – and the inherent weakness of the imperial state caused the Indies to fall to pieces. The many divisions that had in reality always fragmented these American societies surfaced in the violent play of caudillos, a kind of latter-day baronial factionalism restrained from time to time by the debased absolutism of charismatic tyrants. Only a handful of republics succeeded in taming caudillismo by manipulating or abridging the electoral process so as to allow the interests of the creole elites to find satisfaction through political institutions.


Until roughly the 1920s the mass of the population – poor whites, mixed-bloods, Indians and blacks – were excluded from the political system. It was nationalism that acted as the vehicle of the enfranchisement of the masses; nationalism that extended the idea of civil rights and the common good beyond the confines of the white creole elites; and nationalism, finally, that acted as the force for the democratisation of Latin American culture. Nationalist politicians, however, came to power through caudillo politicking and military intrigue. Moreover, most had been tainted by European fascism or Catholic authoritarianism, so that the idea itself of liberal democracy was mistrusted. Nationalism thus never broke free from caudillismo and the politics of patronage, since it tended to operate through sectional interest-groups, populist electoral machines and labour unions run by political bosses. And so the process of state-led industrialisation that nationalists set in train in the 1940s was plagued also by caudillo factionalism and bitter social confrontations, not to mention the numerous mistakes and distortions that amplified the turbulence of these rapid industrial revolutions.

Breakdown and Transformation

State-led development added hugely to the stresses suffered by an endemically weak state, straining it to the point where in the 1970s the armed forces stepped in to try and shore it up. But such intervention had the reverse effect: the state all but broke down as most countries were plunged into internal wars, and civil society found itself terrorized by guerrillas and death squads. However, from that breakdown of the nominally democratic Latin American state there arose in the mid-1980s a new popular sentiment for genuine constitutional democracy; and the conditions for its fulfilment had never looked so promising.

the state all but broke down as most countries were plunged into internal wars, and civil society found itself terrorized by guerrillas and death squads….

By the 1980s the social interest-groups that had originally supported nationalism were already dominant in the major Latin American countries: industrialists, entrepreneurs and technocrats constituted the most powerful economic elites; the urban middle classes were large and influential; and the organised working classes had become crucial players on the political stage. Sociologically, so to speak, the advanced countries had arrived at a point in their development where a modern, comprehensive state of nationhood at last seemed possible to achieve.  Nationalist industrial development, and the rapid urban expansion that went with it, were in themselves conducive to a transformation of traditional values and practices. The major Latin American republics were no longer dominated by agrarian economies controlled by seigneurial oligarchs. Between the 1940s and 1980s they had evolved into socially varied, dynamic consumer societies with myriad interests operating in the market place.