Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

Stuck in the "Gray Zone": States, Societies, and Democracy in the Andes-A Review Essay

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

Stuck in the "Gray Zone": States, Societies, and Democracy in the Andes-A Review Essay

Article excerpt

Jo-Marie Burt and Philip Mauceri, editors Politics in the Andes: Identity, Conflict, Reform Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004, x + 324 pp.

Russell Crandall, Guadalupe Paz, and Riordan Roett, editors The Andes in Focus: Security, Democracy and Economic Reform Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005, viii + 235 pp.

Kathleen O'Neill Decentralizing the State: Elections, Parties, and Local Power in the Andes Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 275 pp.

There was a time when introductory courses and textbooks on Latin American politics could get away with introducing students to the politics of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and sometimes Cuba on the assumption that the political trajectories of these countries--the biggest and/or most noticeable members of the Latin American subcontinent--could be extrapolated from in order to explain events and developments in the rest of the region. Not anymore. The recent outpouring of scholarly work on the Andean countries (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela) rightfully corrects that overly simplistic view, providing a better perspective on the continent's rich diversity and offering a much-needed understanding of this little known set of cases. Together with three recent contributions on the history and politics of ethnic mobilization (Larson [2004], Van Cott [2005], and Yashar [2005]), the three books under review here will be joined this summer by two additional edited volumes (Drake and Hershberg [forthcoming] and Mainwaring, Bejarano, and Pizarro [forthcoming]) to yield, in little over two years, what already looks like a sizeable collection on Andean politics.

This unprecedented boom of comparative literature on the Andes--pioneered in the 1990s by Conaghan and Malloy (1994)--is more than welcome. Yet it is sad to note that the sudden interest in Andean politics is not motivated just from genuine intellectual curiosity about an understudied region, but also (and perhaps mainly) from the perception that the region is in deep trouble. "Volatile," "unstable," "violent," "turbulent"--all these adjectives have been used recently to describe political dynamics in the Andean region of Latin America, seen as resulting from restive societies, weak or failing states, and democracies permanently on the verge of collapse. The overused term "crisis" has become a shorthand description of Andean politics. Some scholars have even used the word "breakdown" to frame their accounts of recent developments in the region (see Shifter, 2004). Two of the volumes under review here seem to confirm this view. Burt and Mauceri introduce Politics in the Andes by asserting that "since the 1990s the Andean region of Latin America has been the most unstable and violent area in the hemisphere" (1). Crandall's introduction to The Andes in Focus similarly argues that "the Andean region is considered the most troubled in Latin America" (vii). (1) By contrast, O'Neill's Decentralizing the State definitely eschews any reference to the region's purported crisis, focusing instead on the efforts to reform these countries' ailing political institutions and thus remaining an outstanding exception in the landscape of the literature devoted to the Andes.

This exception notwithstanding, it is obviously because of this widespread sense of an emerging region-wide crisis that the five Andean nations have become the recent focus of much academic and policy debate in North America--thus replacing the earlier emphasis on either the Southern Cone (in the 1970s and 1980s) or Central America (in the 1980s and early 1990s). Academic interest follows a sad pattern indeed: it tends to take note of countries and regions only when grave economic, political, and/or humanitarian crises hit. In the United States, it also tends to follow the trail of that country's foreign policy--usually lagging a little behind. The "Andean region" began to take shape in the imagination of U. …

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