A Political Pas de Deux in the Andes

A book review by Jennifer Cyr

La danza hostil: Poderes sub-nacionales y Estado central en Bolivia y Perú (1952-2012) by Alberto Vergara (Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2015)

La danza hostil revisits an age-old question in political science: how is political power constructed (and re-constructed)? Alberto Vergara tackles this question by examining state/society relations in contemporary Bolivia and Peru. His explanation is both timely and insightful.

It is timely because the two countries have experienced remarkable upheavals over the past half century,
yet thoughtful, theory-driven comparisons have been largely absent. Vergara’s treatment of decades of political crisis fills a much-needed gap in the literature on Andean politics.

Additionally, the book represents an insightful re-imagination of recent Bolivian and Peruvian political history. Vergara characterizes the struggle for power in each country as a contentious back-and-forth between the state and the regions. Into this account he weaves in each the major moments of crisis and change from the 1950s on, situating each in the political pas de deux at the book’s core. In all, the book represents a theoretically grounded and rich interpretation of the evolution of political power in the Central Andes.

Vergara addresses an important empirical puzzle—one that is a reflection of his own deep knowledge of the two countries. Southern Peru, he notes, had an active, powerful regional elite through the 1950s. That same elite was essentially absent from politics in the country by the turn of the century. Elites from eastern Bolivia, by contrast, were practically nonexistent on the political scene well into the mid-20th century, but they became a driving force of national politics by century’s end. How, he asks, can we account for this dramatic contrast between the two countries? Why do we see the birth of territorial conflict in one country and its death in another?

The answer, Vergara contends, rests in the adverse but intimately linked relationship between the state (the country’s center) and regional elites (its periphery). This relationship is defined in part by what Vergara calls a territorial distribution of assets (estructura territorial de activos). When a region is rich in natural resources and has an important concentration of citizens, especially vis à vis the capital city, then it will have the demographic and economic resources to mount an offensive against the state and control what it can of national politics.

These assets make the eruption of territorial conflict possible. But resources, in and of themselves, are of little use without actors to exploit them. For Vergara, a cohesive elite is essential for erecting a successful challenge against the state. This cohesion is the byproduct of these leaders’ ability to build an organizational apparatus and fashion a unified discourse. Ultimately, a territorial cleavage becomes nationally salient when a cohesive elite has a strong asset base with which to challenge the center. This occurred with the cruceña elite in eastern Bolivia, who forced their regional demands onto the national stage in
the early 2000s, reigniting a territorial cleavage. A cleavage can be deactivated, alternatively, when a region’s asset base is depleted and the elites, divided. This occurred in southern Peru in the second half of the 20th century. No territorial cleavage emerged at the end of the century, even though, as Vergara demonstrates, electoral and institutional conditions clearly incentivized conflict.

La danza hostil is innovative for several reasons. For one, it looks within each country to analyze configurations of political power. Vergara examines the role that spatial—or what Gibson (Boundary Control, Cambridge University Press, 2012) calls territorial—politics play in shaping state/society relations in Bolivia and Peru. Vergara emphasizes that the state in the Andes is not autonomous from society. The question, therefore, is not whether the state is intertwined with society—it most certainly is in Peru and Bolivia. Instead, the point is to identify who leads and who follows in the “hostile dance” that drives politics in each country. In Bolivia, the state never fully subordinated society. At most, it depoliticized some groups by empowering others. Therefore, the eruption of conflict—that is, the activation of a territorial cleavage—was always a possibility.

In Peru, by contrast, a territorial cleavage became increasingly unlikely over
the second half of the 20th century. For one, the state became stronger vis à vis society thanks to policies pursued by two caudillo rulers, Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968- 75) and Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000). Moreover, the south was slowly depleted of its asset advantage, stripping the “anti-oligarchic peripheral elite” of any resources with which to challenge the center. Overall, what Vergara convincingly shows is that national political power and state autonomy are forged just as much from within— that is, from the subnational level—as from without, as a function of each country’s relative position of power regionally and internationally.

Second, Vergara demonstrates that state/society relations are anything but static. This was especially the case in Bolivia. There, the balance of power between the center and the periphery was in constant flux. A department like Santa Cruz was isolated and weak in one period, only to emerge to effectively challenge the center in another. The emergence of Santa Cruz as a powerful, national political protagonist shows that the condition of being in the center or in the periphery is temporary.

Additionally, territorial cleavages themselves are dynamic. At times, they can be highly salient in national politics, as in Bolivia after 2005 or in Peru prior to the 1950s. In other moments, however, they can lie dormant. Like the “arc of an accordion” (p. 23), the intensity of territorial cleavages can expand and contract.

Perhaps less intuitively, Vergara shows that the territorial distribution of assets can also vary. Populations can migrate internally, leaving one part of the country
to inhabit another. Natural resources can be discovered. This evolution in resource wealth can enrich previously poor regions. It can also strip wealthy regions of their treasure.

Why is this so theoretically important? For one, there
has been a tendency in the literature to edify the spatial distribution of power in a country. Consequently, particular cleavages become “frozen” in time (e.g., Stein and Rokkan, Party Systems and Voter Alignments, The Free Press, 1967). Politics, by this account, is constrained within the institutional architecture of the national political system. Vergara demonstrates that this approach to conflict makes little sense in Peru and Bolivia, where state institutions are essentially contested spaces.

Furthermore, Vergara implicitly engages with some recent literature on patterns of long-term development (for example, Mahoney, Colonialism and Postcolonial Development, Cambridge University Press, 2010). These works show that a country’s economic and social development is relatively stable vis
à vis other countries. This means that countries like Bolivia, which were the least developed at the start of the 20th century, tend to remain among the least developed at century’s end.

These relatively static patterns of development at the national level obscure much more dynamic processes of growth sub-nationally. By looking beyond the national level, Vergara uncovers quite significant potential for developmental change across a country’s territory. Moreover, he shows that these sub-national demographic and economic shifts can have real consequences for national politics. In Peru, for example, the depletion of assets in the south led to the dissipation of a territorial cleavage and the consolidation of an electoral authoritarian regime under Fujimori.

Less clearly developed
is the connection between certain assets and elite capacity. Vergara asserts that two resources—organizations and discourse—allow for elite cohesion, which is necessary for creating a regional project (p. 73). The implication is that, in the absence of a unified discourse and representative organizations, a cohesive elite would be less likely.

One is left wondering, however, if a unified discourse can exist prior to the existence of a cohesive (and therefore unified) elite. Similarly, it is likely that the effectiveness of a representative organization is in part a function of the unity of the group it represents, rather than the other way around. We can call this a chicken-or-egg problem. This confusion is problematic insofar as it renders the historical narrative vulnerable to post hoc definitions of elite cohesion. That is, we might conclude that the cruceña elite was cohesive simply because it successfully challenged the central state.

Setting that quibble aside, the value of this book is unquestionable. In addition to its theoretical contributions, the book represents a truly impressive comparative- historical effort. In La danza hostil, Vergara has managed to be both theoretically provocative and empirically rigorous. The book will certainly become a must-read for Andean scholars.

Jennifer Cyr is assistant professor of political science and Latin American studies at the University of Arizona. She writes about and publishes on political representation and political identity in Latin America, as well as qualitative methods in the social sciences.