In This Review

Latecomer State Formation: Political Geography and Capacity Failure in Latin America
Latecomer State Formation: Political Geography and Capacity Failure in Latin America
By Sebastián Mazzuca
Yale University Press, 2021, 464 pp.

In this extraordinarily ambitious tome, Mazzuca attributes the political and economic shortcomings of contemporary Latin America to the complex interactions of geography and history. He contrasts Latin American struggles with the European experience of state formation. In Europe, vulnerable midsize states had to learn how to fund armies and provide other public goods in order to survive. The new countries of nineteenth-century Latin America did not face the same level of external threats as their European counterparts. Instead of building internal state capacities, they focused on international trade, an economic model made possible by the free-trade capitalism of the era. The region’s export-led growth did not, by itself, preclude successful development—and here is perhaps Mazzuca’s most provocative insight. Development in Latin America slowed when dynamic commercial hubs in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico annexed backward provinces that were governed by patronage machines that chronically sapped national treasuries. Smaller countries, such as Chile and Uruguay, escaped this fatal dysfunction but were held back by the recurrent crises in their larger neighbors. In a creative counterfactual, Mazzuca imagines a more viable midsize nation centered on Buenos Aires, Uruguay, southern Brazil, and the surrounding resource-rich pampas—a prosperous South American Australia.