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"The Weakness of the State in Latin America"

February 22, 2005

Fernando Escalante, Tinker Visting Professor in History, University of Chicago and Professor, El Colegio de Mexico

From the Center for Latin American Studies' Latin American Briefing Series.


Conversations on the consolidation of democracy in Latin America have largely overlooked two important characteristics: the weakness of the state, in both financial and legal terms, and the absence of a common civic culture. New opportunities for education, health services, and access to information have served only to widen the extreme social, cultural, and political inequalities in Latin American countries. In this absence of a common civic culture, citizens have turned to powerful political brokers - union leaders, caciques, businesspeople, clergy - to negotiate daily political activities. Policies implemented to strengthen democracy, such as privatization of public enterprises, liberalization of markets, and stabilization of public finances, have been manipulated by these brokers for their own benefit. The result is an unexpected political order based on patronage and clientelism that is always on the brink of sliding toward authoritarian populism at the expense of building strong institutions.

Fernando Escalante is a public intellectual of wide renown in Mexico and Spain. A historical sociologist and professor at El Colegio de Mexico, he is the author of six books and countless scholarly articles. His study of civic culture, Imaginary Citizens (1992), explores the everyday moral habits and interests of various social groups following independence to show that it was virtually impossible for anyone to conduct politics as an ideal citizen, able to balance private interest with public good. The book has been through three editions, and has made his reputation as an erudite and original interpreter of Mexican politics. While at the University of Chicago, Prof. Escalante's course offerings include "Political Order in Latin America" (Winter 2005) and "Political Cultures of the Left" (Spring 2005).

Recent articles (in Spanish) by Prof. Escalante include:

1) "México, fin de siglo"

2) "La transición al desencanto"

3) "El nuevo indigenismo y el EZLN"

4) "Anomia y Estado"