The foundations of democratic states in the Andes are in serious trouble. Governments seldom complete their terms without armed insurrections, and economies have not grown in a generation. While citizens plead for basic justice from states bereft of functioning courts, rulers grovel for loans in exchange for cutting public services. The worst crisis is in Colombia, where electoral democracy has some of the deepest roots in Latin America, yet civil war ravages entire provinces. But the condition of Peru, racked by misery and unrest, and strife-torn Venezuela is little better. In Bogotá, guerrillas shell the Presidential Palace; in Arequipa, riots strew the streets with casualties; in Caracas, tense demonstrations and counter-demonstrations escalate. Everywhere legal powers of the state have atrophied, while politics has become more militarized and social and civic freedoms less secure.

Diagnosis of what is wrong with the region has come to be dominated by the notion of ‘failed states’. By the 1980s, international financial institutions, non-governmental organizations and a range of apostolic reformers were touting the virtues of a more decentralized and ‘effective’—leaner and meaner—state as the key condition for stabilizing capitalism and democracy. Only an operative fiscal-military apparatus could rein in guerrillas or coca capitalists, while strapping elected regimes to definitions of constitutionalism that would curb populist mobilization. The inability of Andean states to shape up to these tasks has since become a major source of concern in Washington. Following September 11, the US Commission on National Security has identified actual or potential state ‘failure’ as a strategic threat to American interests, listing—among others—Mexico, Colombia, Russia and Saudi Arabia as weak linchpins in global security.footnote1 This new and ominous classification has clear policy implications, but obscures the origins of the current crisis in the northern and central Andes. To understand the turmoil now gripping the region, it is necessary to track back to the key historical experiences that have shaped it.

The first of these lies in the pattern of state-formation in this part of Latin America. In the early nineteenth century, the zone that today comprises Venezuela, Colombia and Peru was swept by the most violent struggles for independence in the continent, led by the armies of Simón Bolívar. After the Spanish were driven out, the colonists found it easier to agree upon what they rejected—any restoration of the old regime—than on the makeup of a new order with any shared legend or national project. Bolívar’s dream of a confederation stretching across the Andes freed by his forces, from Caracas to Potosí, rapidly proved a chimera. Instead, criss-cross regional fighting broke out, laying the foundations for local warlord politics. The spread of caudillismo—chieftains waving favours at clients and sabres at rivals—was a general pattern throughout the former Spanish Empire. But in the Andes, where sub-regions within countries were often worlds apart, divided by steep mountain chains, deserts, vast plains and thick jungle, topographic barriers made the curse especially acute. Here warfare was a state-maker of a peculiar sort. Frustrating country-wide constitutional syntheses, it incubated sub-national power-brokers who became the arbiters of the emerging republics. Where in Europe after Westphalia state-to-state conflict formed political and fiscal systems, in the Andean region these were essentially shaped in the crucibles of infra-state wars.footnote2

By the end of the nineteenth century some semblance of stability had crept across the Andes. Ascendant elites, enjoying the rents of export development, forged pacts among provinces and caudillos, between local and central governments. Typically, ruling coalitions agreed to play by a few common rules, inscribed in constitutions that steered clear of any notion of prior obligations to citizens. Designed to yield some kind of order after decades of turmoil, foundational charters and codes gave the states a patina of legality without extending civic freedoms. In practice, stability rested on the nitty-gritty business of amalgamating politicos and parliaments in the capitals with caudillos and their clients in the provinces. Careful management of complex patronage networks ballasted, without fully legitimating, authoritarian political systems and capitalist property relations. Hybrid societies, graphically depicted by José Carlos Mariátegui, blended the coercion of colonial extractive traditions with unfettered markets, and wrapped a republican constitutional fabric around personal clientelist systems. Parliamentary sequels proved incapable of shifting the bases of state legitimacy to principles and practices that supposed the equal rights of the ruled rather than the privileges of rulers. Sporadic recurrences of civil war exposed the weakness of makeshift constitutions and patchwork ruling blocs, reviving the importance of clientelistic rent-sharing to restore peace among rival caudillos.footnote3

It was the crisis of the world economy in the 1930s that shattered this framework across much of Latin America. What emerged from the Great Depression and the 1940s were typically systems still authoritarian in character, but substantially more inclusive than their predecessors, based on a wider range of social forces. Vargas in Brazil, Cárdenas in Mexico, the MNR in Bolivia, Perón in Argentina were leading examples. This was the high-tide of what would be loosely described as populism in Latin American history. These were regimes that sought to extend certain basic rights to the working poor, recalibrating relations between rulers and ruled, at times in the name of a ‘revolutionary’ rupture with an exclusionary past. In practice, efforts to revamp state–society relations in any deep or enduring way often ended in prolonged bouts of updated oppression. Yet the aspiration towards legally more inclusive orders did not die away so quickly, and would return in the 1980s and 1990s to buoy the restoration of democracies after a cycle of savage military dictatorships. Populism, whatever other malignities it brought, broadened the political horizon of these societies permanently.