February 25, 2005

Escalante talks Latin America at I-House

On Tuesday night, Fernando Escalante, the Tinker Visiting Professor in history, addressed the relationship between the government and civic culture in his lecture, "The Weakness of the State in Latin America" to a packed room at the International House.

Escalante introduced his talk with a major news event that occurred in Mexico City last November. Three policemen were lynched by a mob during a four-hour ordeal that was filmed live on TV. It took police three hours to arrive on the scene, and they were only able to rescue one of the victims; the other two were killed. For Escalante, this case was a prime example of the lack of coordination between the local and federal governments and representative of a more general weakness in Latin American governments.

According to Escalante, one of the fundamental problems that these governments face is that they cannot meet the goals promised by their constitutions. "It is obvious that our political institutions fall short of those ideals," Escalante said.

Using Max Weber's definition of a state, the government must impose order on society by creating a monopoly on the legitimate violence in a defined geographic region. This is not the case in Latin America, where corruption makes democratic elections impossible. "One of the main sources of disappointment is democracy," Escalante said.

These problems have repercussions on the financial sectors of Latin American societies as well. "The weakness of the state can be a major obstacle to economic development," Escalante said. Because of the rampant corruption, the states do not have the proper structure to collect taxes, which should be their main source of revenue.

In the absence of the needs that society demands, a new group has developed: the political brokers. These powerful leaders, who occur at all levels of government, act as intermediaries to provide the society's needs. In this corrupt system, however, they "produce selective imposition of the law," Escalante said.

Escalante also addressed the issue of modernization in the Latin American states. With a weak government that is linked to the society only by this corrupt broker system, there are only "patches of European or North American modernity," Escalante said. This, in turn, increases the society's inequality gap.

Tying together his lecture, Escalante concluded by discussing a town meeting after the lynching. While the local politician was leading the discussion, a man—using Escalante's definition, a political broker—stood up and frankly challenged the politician to more directly meet the community's needs.