Violence, the State and Revolution in Latin America

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date




Publication Title

The Cambridge World History of Violence






Exceptionally high levels of state-centered or “public” violence have been a distinguishing feature of the nineteen Latin American republics ever since the separation of nearly all of them, two centuries ago, from the monarchies of Spain and Portugal. Largely unbidden by those upon whom it was conferred, independence proceeded from 1808 to 1824 in ways that strongly conditioned the secular crisis of order that followed. Four phases of state making can be correlated with shifts in the nature and intensity of the violence that accompanied each of them. By the early twenty-first century, expansive state institutions nominally subject to the authority of liberal-democratic ideas appeared to be firmly entrenched in most of the region. If an organized and strictly political kind of violence had largely faded, other kinds of violence, newly contoured, surged to historic highs, within and around state institutions that for the most part flaunted their customary tolerance for varying levels of nonfeasance, incompetence and venality. The underlying, historically patterned failure was not that of the state per se. Rather, it was the shallowness of allegiance, across society, to the authority (in the contemporary case, that of liberal democracy) to which the state appealed as the source of its legitimacy.


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Original Publication Citation

Holden, R. H. (2020). Violence, the state and revolution in Latin America. In L. Edwards, N. Penn, & J. Winter (Eds.), The Cambridge World History of Violence (Vol. 4 pp. 490-509). Cambridge University Press.