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Theodore Kahn

Fernando Ciaramitaro and Marcela Ferrari (coords.), A través de otros cristales: Viejos y nuevos problemas de la historia política de Iberoamérica

Universidad Autónoma de México-Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata, 2015, 344 p.
Référence(s) :

Fernando Ciaramitaro & Marcela Ferrari(coords.), A través de otros cristales: Viejos y nuevos problemas de la historia política de Iberoamérica, Universidad Autónoma de México-Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata, 2016, 344 p.


Texte intégral

1The title of this wide-ranging volume, A través de otros cristales: Viejos y nuevos problemas de la historia política de Iberoamérica, captures well its two defining features: an ambitious geographic and temporal scope and a focus on actors and practices “previously left unanalyzed.” This is how the editors describe the new historical approach, which was born out of a recognition of the “limits of the explanatory capacity of structural history” (12). The promise of this approach, hinted at if not stated directly in the introduction, is to marshal insights gleaned from the analysis of such micro-processes to shed new light on such traditional themes of political analysis as parties, states, and ideas.

2The substantive chapters of the volume, developed from a symposium at the International Conference of Americanists at the University of Vienna, indeed cover a diverse and eclectic conceptual terrain. The first section includes two chapters on the nature of state and democracy in Mexico, which elucidate the historical antecedents underlying contemporary challenges, as well as an exploration of the ideational basis of Brazilian foreign policy after its transition to democracy; the second section, more tightly organized thematically, examines various aspects of Peronism, Argentina’s definitive yet hard-to-define political movement.

3Such a thematically and methodologically diverse volume poses a challenge to the reviewer (if not to the reader, who can profitably take in any chapter in isolation). At times, one struggles to identify the tenets of new history as described in the introduction. In other parts, the volume dives so deep into the details of specific contexts and actors that the broader picture is lost. Taken as a whole, however, A través de otros cristales elucidates the historical antecedents and micro-foundations of contemporary states, political parties, and institutions in the region’s largest countries in ways that shed new light on these subjects. As such, it will be of interest to a range of scholars of the region.

4The thesis of Raúl Zamorano Farías’ chapter, “Diferenciación y periferia de la sociedad moderna” is that the contemporary state in Mexico has yet to achieve the basic conditions of modernity. Drawing on the work of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the author, a professor of sociology at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), proposes the existence of impersonal laws governing social relations, and a consequent delineation between the public and private, as the defining feature of modern society. Such a delineation enhances possibilities for individual flourishing and eliminates or reduces the role of “contingent” social relations in determining outcomes. In Mexico, the author argues, such impersonal or modern social relations, which are necessary to the functioning of a democratic system, do not exist—or if they do, they only apply to a small minority. The rest of the chapter grapples with the consequences of this state of affairs.

5The author sees the manifestations of this lack of modernity in the absence of functional autonomy among, for example, the political and legal systems, the diffusion of patrimonial relations into the state apparatus, and the pervasive scourge of corruption. What are the prospects for Mexican democracy given this state of affairs? Here Zamorano paints a pessimistic portrayal of the self-reinforcing nature of patrimonialism: personalized and traditional forms of social relations persist because they are functional; they generate confidence and reduce risk in a context where the state cannot be depended on to provide goods and services in an impersonal and efficient way. At the same time, their very persistence prevents such a modern state from developing. While it is hard to argue with Zamorano’s general conclusion here, perhaps this picture is overly bleak. Assessing the vast variety of state institutions in Mexico—across levels of government and policy areas—with this blanket verdict glosses over much diversity, including important examples (even if they are the minority) of genuine institutional renewal and state-building at the local level.

  • 1 See for example, Dell, Melissa, Path dependence in development: Evidence from the Mexican Revolutio (...)

6Mariano Torres, a professor of anthropology at the Autonomous University of Puebla (BUAP), presents a more specific critique of the post-Revolutionary Mexican state. For Torres, its crime is less one of omission (failure to develop modern, differentiated functions) than of commission: the cynical peddling of “a grandiose myth” that its “revolutionary” project would improve the state of Mexico’s poor masses. The author writes that the regime has consistently portrayed itself as the ultimate defender of the interests of the majority, protecting it from the social consequences of “savage capitalism” (67). Land reform, which the chapter rightly devotes a good deal of space to, constituted a key pillar in this allegedly progressive agenda. As Torres asserts, however, land reform a la Mexicana has been far more efficient as a mechanism of political cooptation than a policy for economic development—a conclusion also reached by a number of quantitative studies by economists.1

7Indeed, an agrarian policy that viewed the sector solely through the lens of dividing up and distributing ever-smaller and less fertile plots of land was not only inimical to long-term development of the countryside—obliterating any notion of property rights needed for economic growth—it also uprooted in places a quite modern agroindustry from the Porfirian regime. Post-revolutionary land reform thus lacked the least bit of economic planning; it also lacked a solid legal basis, something that legal scholars recognized at the time, as the author shows through interesting primary material from the era. The cooptation and economic marginalization of the Mexican peasant found its urban equivalent in the derailment of the workers’ movement—which won important, even genuinely revolutionary achievements—by a host of corrupt labor leaders in bed with their political masters.

8The subjugation of rural and workers’ movements into the cynical political apparatus of the PRI set the stage for decades of state-led capitalism that lined the pockets of bureaucrats and their allies in the business sector, while abetting the long-term decline of the campo. The author draws a link between economic management in this period and the crony capitalism that has emerged since Mexico’s first round of economic reforms in the early and mid-1990s. The analysis dovetails nicely with theme of the first chapter as land redistribution emerges as a sort of state-building “on the cheap”: substituting exploitative political linkages for the hard work of constructing state infrastructural power, targeted at precisely those parts of the country where the presence of the central state has been and continues to be weak.

9In final contribution to the first section, Beatriz Alves and André Luis Eiras take the reader far afield from the Mexican Revolution to foreign policy in post-democratization Brazil. The authors assert at the outset that they will adopt a constructivist point of view, which they understand as elucidating “how [a] set of shared ideas can contribute to the identity of a policy” (97), shaping both the structures that define international relations and the identities and interests of actors. The chapter describes the various stages and fluctuations of foreign policy in Brazil’s post-transition governments, identifying consistent fault lines such as disposition to cooperate more closely with the United States, versus prioritizing balancing through relations with other powers. The authors devote more time to the administration of Fernando Cardoso, who is credited with helping Brazil achieve status as a protagonist on the international stage without sacrificing its role as regional leader, thus reconciling the two broad foreign policy aims that had been at odds in previous administrations. In these years, Brazil worked to deepen Mercosur, concluded trade agreements with Chile and Bolivia, and played a leading role in the FTAA process (which would be ultimately doomed—thanks in part to Cardoso’s successor).

10After the historic election of Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva (Lula), leader of the Worker’s Party, the new president faced the challenge of “combining the positions supported by his leftist party…with the policy preferences of the leaders of the ministry of foreign affairs” (129). Pursuing goals such as the expansion and prioritization of Mercosur, the struggle for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and the promotion of the BRICS group of powers representing the global south opened the government to criticism that ideology rather than national interests was driving foreign policy. Itamaraty, Brazil’s ministry of foreign relations, is seen as the institutional home of a set of core ideas about Brazilian statehood and its proper international role that have anchored the conduct of the country’s foreign policy, even in the face of changing political winds. The Lula years clearly represented a challenge to the foreign policy establishment, as the leftist PT tried to leave an indelible mark on the country’s international position.

11The authors chronicle how shifting ideas on central debates in Brazil’s foreign policy—regional versus international leadership, free trade versus more measured modes of economic integration, and the appropriate tenor of relations with the United States—shape Brazil’s actions outside its borders. The chapter might also have considered how the ability of Brazilian presidents in this period to project power and influence on the international stage responded to domestic factors—namely, their ability to manage the economy at home. Cardoso’s success reining in inflation (first as Finance Secretary with the Plan Real, and later as president) surely gave him the gravitas needed to promote projects at both the regional and global levels. By contrast, the administration of Collor was undermined by corruption allegations that eventually led to the president’s impeachment. Likewise, the authors make only passing mention of the favorable economic circumstances during the Lula years that provided both the material basis and the ideational grist for the BRICS narrative. Overall, one sees structural and material factors creeping into this account of foreign policy making.

12The second section of the volume consists of three chapters on the origin, consolidation, and evolution of the Peronist movement in Argentina. Taken together, the chapters garner interesting insights into the micro-processes supporting the looming, at times monolithic presence that is Peronism in Argentine politics. Carolina Barry, a professor and researcher at Argentina’s National Science and Technology Council, describes the emergence of Peronist women’s associations in the early years of the movement, which initially arose to organize support for Juan D. Peron’s candidacy in 1946 elections and later transformed into permanent bodies that advanced the social work of Eva Peron.

13The ability to organize citizen groups outside of formal political parties as such had been a core element of Perón’s political strategy as Secretary of Labor, the position from which he launched his political ascendance. In a testament to the General’s mass appeal, the early civic unions included many that were organized from the bottom up by citizens—rather than at the behest of the Ministry’s Office of Propaganda or one of the political parties supporting Perón. The movement seized on this grassroots support, even if it only applied to a proportion of the civic groups supporting Perón, to present itself as free from the stain of traditional parties. The Peronist women’s groups formed in this context. While this episode was not the first in which Argentine women were politically active, the groups used new channels to mobilize female support, such as family and neighborhood ties and the mobilization of university groups, in addition to drawing on women’s groups within existing workers’ organizations. A long portion of the chapter chronicles the origins and make up of various strands of the women’s movement.

14The turning point in the political development of the Peronist women’s movement came after the election of Juan D. Perón in 1946, when Eva Perón emerged as a political force in her own right, becoming a forceful advocate for women’s rights in general and suffrage in particular. At the same time the feminine groups went through a process of formalization and unification that paralleled the process of uniting Peronism into a single political party. In this way, the women’s groups were well positioned to facilitate the transformation of Eva Perón into a prominent political figure and were key actors in the subsequent campaign led by Eva Perón for female suffrage, which was achieved in September 1947. The author concludes underlining how this episode was novel for the region at the time for the inclusion on women in organic political movements. Barry thus underscores two illustrative features of this moment of early Peronist history—its movement characteristics, with the ability to mobilize actors outside of the context of elections—and its tactic of expanding its bases as a key strategy to secure the continued appeal and electoral force of the party. The latter tactic is alive and well, as the Kirchner government’s lowering the voting age to 16 shows.

15The next contribution to the volume, by Andriana Kindgard, explores the formation of Peronist political identity in the province of Jujuy, aiming to show how Peronism as a national political force owes its existence to numerous subnational processes each “strongly conditioned by local situations that give it singular characteristics.” (191). In Jujuy, a largely indigenous province located at the border with Bolivia, Peronism was constructed on the back of the political apparatus of Miguel Tanco, a local caudillo who had aligned with the Radicals under Hipólito Yrigoyen. The raison d’etre of Tanquisimo was land, in particular the reapportionment of Jujuy’s vast latifundias into small holdings for the region’s indigenous communities. More than an economic demand, Kingard writes, regaining pre-Colonial land holding was central to the social organization and identity of local communities.

16Tanco himself had been assigned by President Yrigoyen to be political administrator of the alitplano of Jujuy in the early 1920s. His program of workers’ rights and expropriation of latifundas ran up against conservative opposition in the local legislature, and was later overturned when a 1930 coup against Yrigoyen ushered in a dozen years of conservative government. Land reform in the altiplano would be revived only after another military coup in 1943 set the stage for the ascendance of Perón. Although appealing most directly to the urban working class, Perón’s rise offered rural communities the possibility to redress longstanding grievances as well. Perón took up this mantel in the 1946 campaign, proclaiming himself in favor of “land for those who work [it]” (p. 210). In Jujuy, the identification of the rural poor with Perón had dramatic political implications. The reactivation of dormant political networks associated with Tanco, delivered a commanding majority in the local legislature to Peronist parties in the elections of 1946 (Jujuy was the only province where anti-Peronist parties were completely shut out from the local legislature) and would later unite under one political party, forming the organizational basis for the consolidation of Peronism as the dominant political force in the province, under a vertical structure with power presiding in the person of the General himself in Buenos Aires. However, the author recounts how only the personal intervention of Tanco himself (who at the time was a Senator in Buenos Aires) secured the loyalty of the various groups in the province to the Peronist project.

17The old caudillo would also prove decisive in advancing the demands of the Jujuy altiplano. Despite embracing the cause of land reform in his campaign, Perón reversed course after becoming president. He disbanded the Agrarian Commission, which had been overseeing land reform in the provinces, including Jujuy, and expelled hundreds of demonstrators, including a contingent from Jujuy, who had descended on the capital to demand partition of the latifundias. However, Miguel Tanco continued the fight in his post in the National Senate, eventually winning the long-sought expropriations of latifundia in the Puna and receiving a hero’s welcome on his return from Buenos Aires.

18In concluding, Kindgard talks of redefinition of the identity of the Puna communities in their adherence to Perón, but the real protagonist in this story seems to be Tanco himself, whom the author puts forth as a charismatic leader for his direct, special relationship to the people of the region—a label often pinned to Perón himself. This detail, however, reveals an insight into the modus operandi of this movement, which depended on the support of local strongmen such as Tanco to consolidate its support, even as the national movement was at best a fickle advocate of the interests of rural communities. Their ability to satisfy their demands, in the end, depended on the political adeptness of local leaders in the upper echelons of a (largely ambivalent) national power structure.

19In the volume’s final substantive chapter, Virginia Mellado considers how the Peronist political structure sustained itself during the administration of Carlos Menem, who oversaw a period of economic reforms that threatened the party’s core base of political support. The chapter focuses on municipal delegates, a new position established in the context of administrative and fiscal decentralization in the province of Mendoza, who served as key political mediators between state and national power structures and the movements’ constituents.

20Of all the pieces, this chapter adheres most closely to the book’s stated methodological intentions of using micro-processes and individual experience to shed light on larger political phenomena. Extensive and enlightening interviews with a several former municipal delegates show how the job involved a heavy quotient of “working the street”—listening to people’s complaints, resolving their day-to-day problems, and relaying information back to superiors in the municipal authority. Through this communication and presence, they facilitate both the administration of public services (“the street is what tells you how the services are going, it is the best way to judge”) and the consolidation of political support for the Peronist party. Indeed, the political currency amassed by the delegates made them valuable allies for Peronist politicians, so much, so that different factions began to compete for the support of these individuals in the party’s internal elections.

21The chapter highlights interesting tensions between the dual roles of municipal delegate as political operative and public-minded bureaucrat (in the Weberian sense). On the one hand, the author asserts the ultimate objective is instrumental: to secure stable political support over time from the popular classes. At the same time, elements of the testimonies point to an ethos of working for the greater good, where party ties mattered less than communal solidarity. Still, the author concludes that the ultimate consequence of this was a novel merging of politics and administration, a “stateization” of the party, in which the party itself took on state-like functions, to the political benefit of the Peronists. This micro-analysis thus shows how decentralizing reforms nominally aimed at bringing power closer to the people can ultimately serve to reinforce vertical structures, in this case the Peronist party apparatus. (A lesson that finds resonance in many other decentralization experiments in the region and beyond).

22Of course, the chapter is not without flaws. For one, it is unclear on what basis Mellado can reliably draw conclusions about the “reconfiguration of the provinces” propelled by the “neoliberal government of Carlos Menem” (p. 273) when the institutional reform analyzed pertained to only one province and the primary material is collected from a single municipality, nor why the neoliberal context, so emphasized in the introduction, really matters for her analysis. As the first two chapters on Mexico show, the use of local political strategies vis-à-vis the poor to facilitate policies inimical to their economic interests was alive and well in Latin America long before the era of market reforms.

23Despite these and other quibbles mentioned above, I found the volume fulfills its stated mission. Through close examination of overlooked micro-processes, actors, and behaviors, the chapters lead the reader to a better understanding of the most significant macro-phenomena (states, political parties, ideas) that contemporary scholars and policymakers must grapple with. As such, it will be of interest both to specialists in the thematic areas treated in the chapters—Peronism, clientelism, land reform in Mexico, to name a few examples—as well as to Latin Americanists in general.

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1 See for example, Dell, Melissa, Path dependence in development: Evidence from the Mexican Revolution, Working Paper. Harvard University. 2012; and Magaloni, Beatriz, Weingast, Barry, and Díaz-Cayeros, Alberto, Why Developing Countries Sabotage Economic Growth: Land Reform in Mexico. Typescript. Stanford University. 2008.

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Theodore Kahn, « Fernando Ciaramitaro and Marcela Ferrari (coords.), A través de otros cristales: Viejos y nuevos problemas de la historia política de Iberoamérica  », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Comptes rendus et essais historiographiques, mis en ligne le 04 juillet 2016, consulté le 15 octobre 2019. URL :

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Theodore Kahn

Department of Latin America Studies, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (PhD candidate)

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