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date: 19 September 2017

The Latin American Puzzles for the Study of International Relations

Summary and Keywords

Puzzles for the scholar of international relations abound in Latin America, whether one focuses on unexpected outcomes or examines purported causal variables that, when properly specified, do not lead where theory expects. In fact, the Latin American experience is a great case to illustrate two problems in the empirical application of international relations theories: theoretical formulations tend to be poorly developed and articulated, and the empirical evaluations of those theories are not rigorously designed.

The empirical record of Latin American interstate violence is more present and varied than generally accepted by scholars and policy makers. The relationship between conflict and the region’s use of international fora to peacefully resolve some conflicts obscures this record. Puzzles also arise when explaining why the region has the empirical record it does since the causal logic underlying the variables is generally misspecified in studies of Latin American security relations. These analytic errors render most explanations offered in the literature drawing on Latin American cases incorrect. Indeed, the failed explanations themselves offer new puzzles for scholars of international relations. Scholars of international relations can, therefore, benefit from studying the actual empirical history of Latin American interstate relations with the correctly specified causal variables offered by the various theories of international relations.

Keywords: Latin America, interstate conflict, zone of peace, empirical international relations theory, fora


Create a region with disputed land and sea boundaries, jealous of its national sovereignty, with weak regional institutions, low levels of economic integration, high levels of populist political mobilizations, unstable democratic polities, domestically violent societies, governments with ideologies spanning right-wing Liberalism to State Socialism, and weak state presence in natural, resource-rich areas. Latin America fits this regional characterization like a glove. Most international relations theories about conflict would lead the analyst to expect regional relations to experience frequent and significant interstate violence. Yet the region has only an “average” amount of interstate wars and a handful of militarized interstate disputes annually.

Puzzles for the scholar of international relations abound in Latin America, whether one focuses on unexpected outcomes or examines purported causal variables that, when properly specified, do not lead where theory expects. In fact, the Latin American experience is a great case to illustrate two problems in the empirical application of international relations theories: theoretical formulations tend to be poorly developed and articulated, and the empirical evaluations of those theories are not rigorously designed.

This article presents empirical and theoretical puzzles that should be of interest to scholars of international security and international political economy across a regional focus. In the section, Empirical Record, the empirical record of Latin American interstate violence is presented and its relationship to the region’s use of international fora to peacefully resolve some conflicts is explored. A second section turns to the favored explanatory variables. Here it demonstrates that the causal logic underlying these variables is generally misspecified in studies of Latin American security relations. These analytic errors render most explanations offered in the literature drawing on Latin American cases incorrect. Unfortunately, much of Latin American academic research is not useful for scholarly purposes because it focuses on having an impact on perceptions and policy, rather than the pursuit of rigorous scientific research (whether qualitative or quantitative) (Mu & Pereyra-Rojas, 2015). In recognition of the different incentives for publication, scholars of Latin American international relations, or those scholars who would use Latin American cases, should not rely on most Latin American published accounts for explanations of Latin American international behavior. Indeed, the failed explanations themselves offer new puzzles for scholars of international relations. The conclusion suggests that scholars of international relations can benefit from studying the actual empirical history of Latin American interstate relations with the correctly specified causal variables offered by the various theories of international relations.

The Empirical Record

The Use of Force: Wars and MIDs

Latin American scholars and diplomats are fond of asserting that the region has been especially peaceful (cf. Amorim, 2010; Kacowicz, 2005; Martin, 2006; Oelsner, 2007; Pion-Berlin, 2016). The empirical record, however, does not bear out this claim, either in terms of war (defined by the standard 1,000 battlefield related deaths) or in the use of military force at lower levels of violence (cf. Alemán Benítez, 2004; Domínguez, 2003; Fuentes, 2008; Grabendorff, 2015; Mares, 2001; Nascimento França, 2011; Rodríguez Elizondo, 2006; Trinkunas, 2013). Misspecifying the dependent variable results in both the incorrect identification of the puzzle for analysis as well as the incorrect evaluation of arguments purporting to explain the identified puzzle. As noted in the introduction to this article, given the characteristics of the region, the puzzle regarding interstate violence should be “why is the use of force in the region not greater than average” rather than “why is the region especially peaceful.” To support that claim this section thus lays out the empirics regarding interstate violence.

In the 19th century after the Napoleonic Wars Europe had 15 interstate wars, Latin America had 17; in the post-WW II period, Europe has had 5 wars, Asia 5, and Latin America 3 wars. Only in the first half of the 20th century does Latin America have significantly fewer wars than Europe: 3 compared to 11 (Mares, 2001). In the post-World War II period (1946–2007), the latest Correlates of War database reports only 38 wars worldwide. Three of these wars occurred in Latin America (1969 El Salvador and Honduras, 1982 Argentina and Great Britain, and 1995 Ecuador and Peru). Western Europe and the North Atlantic had fewer wars in this period, East Asia the same number and Latin America had slightly more than Europe as a whole or Sub-Saharan Africa with 4 each; even the Indian subcontinent experienced only 5 wars in this period, with interstate war occurring mainly in the Middle East.

Some security analysts of Latin America wish to exclude the Falklands/Malvinas War from the discussion because a non-Latin American country, Great Britain, participated. Though the fact that Argentina began the war raises some problems for an argument about a peaceful Latin America, let’s use the same principle of excluding extraregional participants from all other war to reevaluate the comparative record. Western Europe, the North Atlantic community (i.e., North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO), and North America are all self-defined regions and none had any wars among their members. We would exclude the 3 wars in Northeast Asia (Korea 1950–1953, Offshore Islands 1954, and Taiwan Straits 1958), resulting in no wars in this region as well. The United States was the key player on one side of 3 wars in Southeast Asia; eliminating these would leave that region with 3wars, very close to Latin America’s adjusted total of 2. (One could debate the significance of the greater recency of war in Latin America—1995—in contrast to Southeast Asia in 1987.) In Sub-Saharan Africa we would eliminate the war in Angola because neither the apartheid government in South Africa nor Cuba were part of the African community; this adjustment brings the Sub-Saharan African region to only 3 wars in this period. The point of these comparisons is to demonstrate that, with consistent counting methods across regions, Latin America does not emerge as unusually peaceful. The reduced incident of war in Latin America in this period in contrast to prior periods actually mirrors “a general decline in the use of interstate war as a political instrument after World War II” (Thies, 2015).

The wars Latin America experienced in the 20th century were not “total wars” except for the Chaco War (1932–1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay. But that does not mean that these wars lacked major stakes for the societies involved. The 2,000–5,000 Honduran dead in the 1969 war is the equivalent of the United States losing 100,000–250,000 people (2000 Census). In 1941 Ecuador lost 40% of the territory it claimed. The loss in the 1982 war with Britain ended the Argentine military dictatorship’s horrific 15-year effort to redesign Argentine society and resulted in the imprisonment of many of its leaders.

There continue to be important stakes in contemporary Latin American interstate disputes. The boom in international commodity markets makes the many unclear and unresolved land and sea borders more consequential, with renewed attention to them as a result. New issues of environmental damage have brought conflict between Argentina and Uruguay as well as between Colombia and Ecuador (see Table 1).

Table 1. Currently Unresolved Interstate Disputes Within Latin America


Disputed Issue

Boundary Related Disputes


Guatemala claims more than half of Belize

Honduras-El Salvador-Nicaragua

Golfo de Fonseca delimitation


Maritime delimitation in Caribbean; migration


Maritime delimitation

Honduras-El Salvador

Sovereignty of Isla de Conejo


34 points on border in dispute; migration; guerrillas; contraband, including but not limited to drugs


Venezuela claims 40% of Guyana


Arroio Invernada (Arroyo de la Invernada) area of Rio Quarai (Rio Cuareim) and islands at confluence of Rio Quarai and Uruguay River


Territorial dispute re: outlet to the Pacific; Silala River


Territorial delimitation after 2014 ICJ maritime ruling


Demarcation of Ice Fields in Patagonia

Argentina- Great Britain

Sovereignty of Falklands/Malvinas Islands

Other Disputes


drug trafficker incursions and environmental impact of drug war on Ecuador


Environmental impacts on the River Uruguay

Haiti-Dominican Republic


(*) Latin American nations are also involved in multiple sea-based claims with the United States.

Sources: CIA, The World Factbook 2009, Department of Defense, Maritime Claims Reference Manual, available at; International Boundary Research Unit, available at

One of the most interesting empirical puzzles regarding interstate war in Latin America concerns the deep and broad institutional context and economic integration that developed in Central America from the early 1950s to 1969 and the eruption of war nevertheless. In 1969 El Salvador and Honduras fought a brief but bloody war, infamously known as the “Soccer War” but more appropriately labeled “The Hundred Hours War” since it had little to do with soccer. In roughly four days up to 4,000 people died in a conflict over territory and migration. Yet these two countries were intimately tied together by a dense and broad institutional context integrating society, economics, and state bureaucracies.

The Central American integration process began in 1951 with discussions among economists of the UN Economic Commission on Latin America and personnel of the Ministries of Economy of the various Central American countries. A series of bilateral free trade agreements led the way, and were followed by political, social, and bureaucratic linkages across Central America. The achievements of the Central American Common Market (CACM) from 1960–1968 were impressive: The value of intraregional trade increased almost 800% and the value of exports to CACM partners increased from 7% to 25% of total exports. In addition, the composition of trade changed markedly, with the value of industrial trade increasing over 800% and 3/4 of intraregional trade composed of manufactures and semi-manufactures. Practically all intraregional transactions were carried out in domestic currencies through settlements in the Central American Clearing House. The Central American Economic Integration Bank disbursed US$120m in loans, half to the private industrial sector and half for public infrastructure. The inflow of foreign capital increased by 300% (Grunwald, Wionczek, & Carnoy, 1972, pp. 42–47).

Table 2 lists the major organizations that structured the institutional context within which El Salvador and Honduras interacted. The number, character (public and private; global, hemispheric, and regional), and range of activities covered attest to the density and breadth of institutional ties. Consequently, the occurrence of war between two members of this integration project should provide excellent material for addressing the debate concerning the impact of international institutions upon security.

Table 2. Central America’s Institutional Context 1960s

Central American, Official:

Permanent Secretariat of the General Treaty on Central American Integration

Executive Council of the General Treaty

Central American Economic Council

Central American Bank for Economic Integration

Central American Institute of Research & Industrial Technology

Central American School of Public Administration

Central American Monetary Council

Central American Clearing House

Superior Council for Central American Universities

Institute of Nutrition of Central American & Panama

Regional Plant & Animal Sanitation Organization

Council of Labor and Social Welfare

Central American Tourism Secretariat

Central American, Private Sector

Central American Air Navigation Service Corporation

Central American Institute of Business Management

Federation of Central American Associations & Chambers of Industries

Central American Institute of Labor Union Studies

Central American Federation of Chambers of Commerce


UN Economic Commission on Latin America

U.S. Agency for International Development

Organization of American States

Inter-American Development Bank

Source: Central American Bank for Economic Integration, Investment Development Department, Investment Opportunities in the Central American Common Market. Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 1967, pp. 62–63.

War is not the only form in which interstate violence takes. IR analysts studying militarized interstate conflict outside Latin America do not equate the lack of “war” with peace, and discuss recurrent militarized conflict as an absence of peace (cf. Quackenbush & Venteicher, 2008). The Militarized Interstate Dispute (MID)1 database contains over 200 instances in the 20th century when politicians, whether military or civilian, used military force in their relations with neighbors. The MID database indicates that there were 47 such incidents among Latin American nations from 2000–2010 (Correlates of War, 2013). My research indicates that the MID team significantly undercounts MIDs in Latin America (Mares, 2001; for 2000–2010, see Table 3), but for our purposes here the exact numbers matter less than the fact of their occurrence.

Table 3. MIDS 2000–2010



Hostility Level







Costa Rica-Nicaragua



























Dominican Rep-Haiti









































Costa Rica-Nicaragua



In dispute over river navigation rights, Nicaraguan troop build-up on river; Nicaragua army commander visited posts to see if they needed reinforcement; and coincident with his visit, the Army paraded tanks and troops in Managua.




Venezuelan military blows up gold mining dredges in area it claims but is recognized internationally as Guyanese; Guyana government denounces attack.




In response to dispute with Nicaragua over sovereignty of San Andres, Colombia sent 1200 troops to march on Colombian Independence Day.




Colombia sent naval patrols to San Andres; Nicaraguan President says he’ll complain to UN of harassment of fishermen.




Paraguay complains to OAS that Brazilian military maneuvers on the border are meant to intimidate it on bilateral issues.




Guatemala official protest concerning Belizean construction of border posts and patrols.




President Ortega warns Colombia that Nicaragua may respond militarily if Colombia authorizes oil concessions in disputed waters.

The American Treaty on Pacific Settlement (Pact of Bogotá 1948), one of the region’s earliest confidence and security building mechanisms (CSBMs), stipulated that signatories “agree to refrain from the threat or the use of force, or from any other means of coercion for the settlement of their controversies, and to have recourse at all times to pacific procedures” [emphasis added] (United States, Department of State). Yet interstate violence has continued to occur. The phenomenon has largely been ignored, however, or when studied generally lacks theoretical rigor. The research challenge is to understand the use of military force within a regional/subregional context that has some characteristics of peace zones. Mares (2001) offers an eclectic model of militarized bargaining but the identification of its five variables (political-military strategy for the use of force, strategic balance, characteristics of force used, constituencies’ cost acceptance, and accountability of the leadership) needs to be made more concise and their interaction more theoretically developed.

It has been asserted that a stable peace or a pluralistic security community is developing in South America (Hurrell, 1998; Kacowicz, 2005). But the empirical record contradicts such claims. The rest of Latin America (Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean), has not had a war since 1969, while South America has had one intraregional war (1995) and one extraregional war (1982) in this period. We see a similar pattern with MIDs: since 2004, South America has had more MIDs than the rest of Latin America. South America is not as “peaceful” as the rest of Latin America, whether one discusses war or violent coercive diplomacy.

Some scholars seek to resolve the issue of why MIDs occur by dividing South America into two zones: north and south. In the north, a “hybrid peace” reigns where military threats exist although there is no war. In contrast, a “positive peace” is postulated to exist in the south because policy makers and society believe that the threat of force is nil (Battaglino, 2012; Kacowicz, 1997, 1998).

Empirically, however, these claims do not hold either. In the south, in 2008, Paraguay complained to the OAS about Brazil’s use of live ammunition military exercises with 10,000 soldiers, ships, planes, and tanks close to the border in order to pressure it on a new treaty for the joint Itaipú dam. A statement by the Brazilian general in charge of the exercises further aggravated the situation: “The time for hiding things is over. Today we have to demonstrate that we are a leader, and it is important that our neighbours understand this. We cannot continue to avoid exercising and demonstrating that we are strong, that we are present, and we have the capacity to confront any threat” (Zibechi, 2009). The subsection of this article on norms as explanatory variables provides other examples that indicate that the idea that force among southern South American nations is inconceivable does not stand up to empirical scrutiny.

The experience of interstate violence should lead to a number of important questions for social scientists that study Latin America’s international relations, especially with other Latin American countries. Why do governments use military force in their relations, especially given the rhetoric of peace? How does the threat of military violence against regional neighbors co-exist with institutional and normative frameworks that are widely offered as evidence that Latin America, or some part of it, is moving toward or even has achieved a “positive peace”? What is the relationship between militarizing a dispute and its settlement?

How Do Militarization and International Fora for Peaceful Resolution Co-Exist?

Countries in Latin America are the most likely of any region to take their international disputes to international arbitration (Sotomayor, 2008), and they do so at both the regional (Organization of American States, Central American Integration System, and the Union of South American Nations) and global ((International Court of Justice) levels. But we have also noted that these countries do not eschew the use of military force. The claim that the region has a norm for peaceful resolution of interstate conflict (see below in the section on norms) does not help one understand the co-existence of militarization and internationally mediated conflict resolution. Another puzzle in the region is thus why Latin American states engage in militarizing their disputes at the same time that the region makes significant use of international institutions to peacefully resolve disputes. The decision to pursue international involvement in conflict resolution is not simply an issue of which to use (“forum shopping”), but rather of how to combine the two approaches of using force and seeking peace. This puzzle reinforces my argument that the region’s interstate conflict situation has been, and continues to be, quite complex in ways that are empirically and theoretically underappreciated.

Scholars have used Latin American MIDs to test theories of international conflict and rivalry (cf., Miller & Elgün, 2011; Hensel, 2001; Goertz & Diehl, 1993). In other works, Mares elaborated on a number of reasons for militarization (Mares, 2001, 2015), two of which are relevant to the discussion of MIDs and international conflict resolution fora. Many of Latin America’s interstate disputes date from independence or its immediate aftermath almost 200 years ago. They are unresolved because at least one side is willing to live with the dispute rather than resolve it; usually that would be the stronger side that is also in effective possession of the disputed region. In this case, international conflict resolution fora have no role to play. Consequently, the weaker party has an incentive to initiate low-level militarization incidents as a way of keeping the issue alive in the minds of the more powerful government as well as those of third parties with interests in the region.

Although the dispute may be active, one party may prefer to keep it at the bilateral level and block efforts to involve third parties, including international conflict resolution fora. A stronger party might prefer the bilateral route because its relative strength could be diluted by a third party that is neutral or favors the weaker side, but a weak state with a problematic claim might also prefer to keep third parties out of the dispute. In such cases the party seeking third-party participation in conflict resolution might initiate a MID in order to persuade its rival to accept third-party mediation in some form. Third parties can only play an important role if the militarizing parties have convinced each other that war is likely and its costs would be higher than its benefits (e.g., the 1977–1978 series of MIDs between Argentina and Chile finally convinced the Argentine military that Chile was prepared and able to fight a significant war, leading them to accept Chile’s earlier suggestion that the Vatican mediate the conflict). To interrupt the escalation, a third party may offer the two sides an opportunity and a context in which to negotiate their way down the ladder.

The Search for Explanatory Variables

A review of the literature identifies three sets of variables that have been postulated to determine interstate behavior in Latin America: the prevalence of democratic political institutions, the proliferation of institutions designed to manage interstate conflict and facilitate trade, and a common culture with norms that mitigate conflict (Thies, 2015). The relevant norms have been argued to include uti possidetis (the principle that colonial borders are to be respected after independence has been achieved), peaceful settlement of international disputes, respect for sovereignty, and non-intervention in the affairs of other states (Kacowicz, 2005).


According to the democratic peace literature, democracies don’t fight each other either because of transparency issues or normative considerations, depending on which theory one subscribes to. Transparency and norms both have confidence building aspects. Because the second wave of democratic peace analysts recognizes that democracies can threaten each other, they focus on why those threats do not escalate to full scale war or high-level MIDs. The answers concentrate around the “confidence” that the democratic disputants have that the other will not take preemptive action to settle the dispute militarily; the theory anticipates that cooler heads prevail as non-militarized bargaining proceeds. According to the literature, democratic disputants develop that confidence through some combination of transparency and norms. With respect to transparency, the argument is that the democratic leader’s constituency will punish her for launching surprise attacks if they were not consulted and a free press quickly publicizes any consultations regarding the use of military force; and voters are reluctant to spend taxes and blood for benefits that could be generated peacefully (democratic leaders can’t concentrate the costs of war on non-voters). With respect to norms, because democratic citizens resolve even major domestic disputes through the voting process, they extrapolate possible peaceful resolution of disagreement to the international realm if the opponent is also democratic. According to the democratic peace advocates, this presumption of peaceful resolution (based on the confidence one has in the other) does not apply to non-democratic states. As a result, democracies fight each other less often and with less blood spilled than do dyads of democratic and non-democratic states.

Reliance on the democratic peace literature, which is based on classic liberal systems, for analysis of Latin America may not be appropriate. An example of the scholarly challenge for proponents of the democratic peace argument is that since 2005 and 2008, respectively, Venezuela and Ecuador have fallen out of the democratic ranks in the Polity IV database (Center for Systemic Peace, 2016). Yet Latin American analysts continue to include them in their democratic peace claims, categorizing them as “participatory democracies” along with Bolivia and Nicaragua and incorrectly conferring upon these political systems the same logic regarding war as that argued for liberal democracies.

Until “participatory democracy” is defined, its key components theorized in their effect on foreign policy behavior, and those hypotheses tested, one cannot assume that this type of democracy shares the critical characteristics of liberal democracy to positively affect interstate behavior. In fact, many reasons suggest the opposite. Liberal democratic theory takes limited state power, transparency of governmental processes, internationalism, and the right to dissent as institutional and normative elements that make democrats reject violence against other Liberal democrats while increasing their distrust and fear of non-liberal democratic polities. In contrast, participatory democracy is nationalist and majoritarian—leaders and followers assert their defense of the nation against domestic minorities that are perceived as impediments to the achievement of national goals; and they increase state power to limit the claims of opponents and punish them for expressing opposing views. Especially in the case of Venezuela, it would be difficult to claim that the government processes are transparent. If one were to apply the domestic institutional and normative causal logic of participatory democracy to foreign policy behavior, one might expect participatory democrats to adopt similar views against foreigners who compete for territory or resources or anything that impedes the populist democracy’s national development. In particular, the mix of Liberal and participatory democracies, given the logic of the argument, might be hypothesized to produce mistrust between opposing sides and increase the likelihood of the use of force.

Those analysts who see participatory democracy as a stage in the development of a mature democracy face another challenge. Mansfield and Snyder (2007) have argued that in a new democracy, politicians find it easier to mobilize voters by appealing to nationalism; this leads to greater involvement in international violence than would otherwise be expected given their democratic character. Thus, regardless of whether participatory democracies are mature or not, the logic of the democratic peace arguments suggest that they may be more violence prone. The 15 years of participatory democracies in Latin America (Hugo Chavez assumed office in Venezuela in 1999) has not yet been analyzed to evaluate theoretically derived hypotheses for either the peace- or conflict-inducing impact of participatory democracies.


Institutional design is influenced by past choices and events (Wendt, 2001). In the Western Hemisphere, institutional design borrowed heavily from the mythologized European experience with confidence building measures (Desjardins, 1996), but could not avoid being influenced by structural and conjunctural factors peculiar to the Western Hemisphere (Cheyre Espinosa, 2000). Institutions increase the credibility of commitments made by governments through the creation of indicators by which to judge state behavior and by generating costs for violating their commitments.

Latin Americans’ desire to protect maximum sovereignty (see discussion below in the norms subsection), however, led them to design weak institutions that depend heavily upon presidential summitry and refrain from critiquing member behavior (Mares, 2007, 2011; Serbin, 2010; Serbin & Serbín Pont, 2015) The puzzle for analysts then becomes how do weak institutions influence behavior? Answering this question requires empirical work specifying the domains in which institutions matter most, under what conditions will their influence be peace-enhancing or militarization-enhancing, and how their effects on behavior actually operate. Unfortunately, studies of Mercosur and now UNASUR consistently misread the empirical record and choose to explain “success” and not “sometimes success, sometimes failure.”

The priority given to national sovereignty and non-intervention has two negative impacts. First, there is no coherent regional vision of security (as in Western Europe), and thus each state defines threats to security as its current government sees fit. Second, the decision to militarize a dispute is regarded as a sovereign decision: if a government perceives a need to militarize that is its prerogative. Rather than insist on a norm of no first use of military force in a dispute among neighbors, the interstate security architecture is designed to become active after a government has decided that militarization is a good idea. This focus on the sovereign right of a government to militarize makes regional institutions unwilling to punish states that militarize a dispute. This reluctance, in turn, generates two incentives for militarization, one stimulating a search for quick gains and the other producing a “moral hazard” for risky behavior.2

The opportunities for short-term gain occur because of the time lag while interstate institutions build a consensus for becoming involved and seek to get information from all the disputing parties. When Nicaragua dispatched troops into disputed territory with Costa Rica in 2010, Costa Rica immediately denounced the action and asked for help. But the Central American Integration System (SICA) would not become involved and Nicaragua vetoed OAS mediation. By the time the dispute was referred to the International Court of Justice, Nicaragua was entrenched in the area, forcing Costa Rica to agree to arbitrate an issue it believed settled. Since Costa Rica does not have an army, Nicaragua did not fear its ability to impose punishment. Importantly, Nicaragua also realized that the issue could not be revived unless they made short-term gains that would force Costa Rica to ask for international arbitration (see the analysis in Mares, 2012a).

The “moral hazard” incentive for militarization arises because regional institutions respond to militarized conflict by using dialogue and negotiations to seek to lower the level of tensions. When the initiator of the use of force contests the status quo but is bilaterally weak, such a call for dialogue can create a “moral hazard” in the region’s security architecture. In previous works, Mares demonstrated that “moral hazard” possibilities may encourage weaker parties to take hard line positions, even violence, in the hope that an interested hemispheric community might increase pressure on a rival to settle (Mares, 2012b, 2012c). Although the hemisphere rejoices that Ecuador and Peru have settled their dispute, we must recognize that it took a small war in 1995 and the threat of a large one in 1998 to help convince the parties to settle. By guaranteeing that conquest will not be recognized and that escalation into a costly and long war will be unlikely, the OAS and the Four Guarantor countries of the prior peace treaty between Ecuador and Peru inadvertently encouraged Ecuador to engage in the adventurous behavior that developed into the short war of 1995. Ecuador achieved a settlement that had eluded it for 50 years, but militarizing disputes and a short war were fundamental to this Ecuadorian diplomatic victory (Mares, 1996/97; Mares & Palmer, 2012).

The way in which regional security institutions function may induce risky behavior even by more powerful countries that nevertheless do not want war with a neighbor. Colombia, involved in a decades-long civil war, certainly did not favor a war with its weaker neighbor Ecuador in 2008. But Colombian forces crossed the border when an opportunity arose to attack a FARC leader at his camp in Ecuador. Although the March 2008 incursion generated a flurry of Latin American diplomacy that defused the subsequent crisis, Colombia achieved its goal and faced no sanctions for its blatant attack on Ecuadorian soil. Because low-level militarization provides benefits to the initiator at low risk, we must acknowledge that ironically regional security institutions actually promote this risky behavior.

Latin America has had many institutions designed to facilitate trade and economic integration (Andean Pact, Central American Common Market, Mercosur, etc.). But in fact these institutions were designed to make trade conform to government desires for a market complementarity that runs counter to what economic forces and national endowments of financial and human capital drive trade patterns to be. Thus these institutions distort trade patterns in the short term and contribute to the stop-go growth patterns that buffet Latin America and create less trade among Latin American states in the medium term. Their economic weakness is illustrated by the history of Mercosur: initially conceived as a mechanism for economic integration, it is now being referred to as a political pact, not an economic one. Yet many Latin American analysts continue to use Mercosur as an economic integration variable in their arguments for why the region, or a subset of it, has no wars.

Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBM), by eliminating misperceptions about aggression, providing credible assurances about defensive intentions, and decreasing military options, are expected to minimize interstate conflict and make it more likely that when it does occur it can be defused without violence. Virtually every scholar working on contemporary Latin American interstate security claims that confidence building has proceeded and trust has been achieved, or is developing well. This claim is nearly ubiquitous despite the lack of empirical evaluation or methodological discussion of how to ascertain whether and how confidence has been achieved. To claim proof based on no war is to engage in circular reasoning. The relevance of CSBMs should be evaluated by demonstrating that the outcome would have been different or costlier in the absence of CSBMs. Ironically, Ecuador used CSBMs to lull Peru into vulnerable military and diplomatic positions in its strategy to provoke a conflict that could not be quickly settled by Peruvian military power and which would thus attract third-party mediators (Mares, 1996/97).

CSBM efforts have proliferated among Latin Americans at the bilateral, regional, and global levels. Participation by Latin American countries in UN peacekeeping efforts and by becoming a party to the Convention on the Prohibition of Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and On Their Destruction (Ottawa Convention) represent global CSBMs and are argued to reinforce CSBMs at the regional level. Defense White Papers ideally detail presumptions about the security environment a country faces, its defense structure, goals and policies, and represent an effort to provide confidence building information to neighbors in a transparent fashion. Nine states have published White Papers of varying quality and utility.

Without a methodology to distinguish between mere contact and the actual building of confidence, however, it is difficult to evaluate the impact of activities such as a military ski championship between Chile and Argentina or Brazilian military students taking courses in Mexico. Even countries engaged in ostensibly confidence-building measures with each other do not agree on what measures build confidence. Colombia listed five CSBMs of a military nature with Ecuador in 1995 while the latter reported nine such measures between them; Peru did not list Argentina as a country with which it was engaged in such measures, but the latter listed Peru 11 times in its inventory. Though OAS experts produced five single-spaced pages listing measures that could be considered CSBMs, as guidelines for the analysis of CSBMs they are virtually useless (OEA, 1995, 2003). Other issues to investigate include how much confidence is necessary for an initiative to have an impact on the decision to militarize; what determines those threshold levels; and whether they vary by issue area, country, or time. and if so, why.

Latin America’s continued emphasis on sovereignty limits the possibility of defining key terms in a manner consistent with what is necessary for confidence and security to be constructed in certain important arenas. CSBMs can lose their relevance, even while generating a great deal of press, if terms are ill-defined and states’ compliance is not evaluated.

Norms. Constructivists argue that ideas and even what passes as “facts” are socially constructed. Recognition of Latin America’s rich and complex history and its empirical puzzles and contradictions make it a good context to explore the insights of constructivism for the study of international relations.

Though the international relations literature on Latin America is filled with references to interstate norms, analyses generally fail to provide empirical evidence that particular norms exist and drive behavior. Many scholars engage in circular reasoning by postulating that norms that lead to peaceful resolution of conflict exist, and documenting instances of peaceful resolution or mitigation of developing tensions; they then claim that the postulated norms exist. The empirical support for the existence of such norms, when offered, is either taken from diplomatic exchanges, or declarations of their existence by other scholars who similarly lack empirical support for their claims. The puzzles regarding norms, therefore, are whether these purportedly major norms actually exist in Latin America and if they do, how they interact with other variables to produce behavior that sometimes adheres to the norm but other times does not.

Common Culture

“Culture” is a controversial variable for most students of international relations, but it is consistently cited in most Latin American explanations of the region’s interstate relations. Once again, the empirical record is presented selectively in ad hoc references to one of the heroes of Independence, Simon Bolivar, and various intellectuals like Jose Martí regarding a common regional solidarity and opposition to the United States. The empirical record, however, is richer and more complicated.

Brazil’s great statesman, the Barón Rio Branco, distrusted Spanish America, but believed it was necessary to get along with their neighbors. Conversely, Rio Branco maintained that Brazil and the United States had much in common and that there should be an informal alliance between the two countries (Burns, 1966). Contemporary scholarship favoring a Latin American unity against the United States writes as if Augusto Sandino and Farabundo Martí had common visions that lead to the current “Socialism of the 21st Century” movement. No one, however, seems to recall that Sandino rejected Communism and expelled Farabundo Martí from his entourage because he was a Communist (Macaulay, 1985).

Much work needs to be done on how Latin Americans historically viewed each other and whether that view has changed, using history textbooks, content analyses of newspapers, and politicians’ statements vying in electoral campaigns. A Peruvian social scientist undertook an analysis of contemporary textbooks in Chilean secondary schools and university to examine how they portrayed Chile and the neighboring countries with which it fought in the 19th century, Bolivia and Peru. According to the author, underlying the narrative of progress and modernization in Chile and the barbarism in its neighbors, is a discourse of “whiteness” in Chile versus indigeneity in Peru and Bolivia, along with animosity, treachery, and cowardness. The author also concludes that current efforts to develop a deep friendship between Chile and its Andean neighbors will be difficult and fruitless until these perceptions are modified (Revoredo, 2010).

One content analysis of Ecuadorian public statements by politicians (52% of total), journalists (40% of total), and military officers (6% of total) in the period 1950–1970 classified 66% of the statements regarding Peru as “hostile.” By the end of the study period, these negative sentiments had dropped significantly (Slaght, 1972, as referenced in Bákula, 1992, pp. 442–443), but the analytic point we need to consider is that they had been very high for a significant period of time, which is inconsistent with the idea that Latin Americans do not perceive their neighbors as “enemies” or potential threats. The study also found that respondents considered that the defining issue in the Ecuador-Peru relationship was the territorial delimitation issue (Bákula, p. 453), contravening the claim that Latin American countries value the territorial status quo. Reporting on a 1988 survey of 370 5th-year secondary school students in Lima, Peru, Bákula reports that Chile and Ecuador were identified as “not friendly” (Bákula, 1992, p. 477). These surveys might help us understand why a border war broke out between the two nations in 1995. But clearly the few and sporadic surveys that have been done demonstrate the need to study the perceptions of Latin American citizens before attributing certain allegedly positive beliefs regarding their relations with their neighbors as explanations for the state of Latin American intraregional relations. (cf. Oelsner, 2007).

Uti Possidetis

The newly independent Latin American states most often appealed to pre-Independence boundaries of the Spanish Empire to define their boundaries. Because the Spanish Crown divided its Empire into ecclesiastical, administrative, and military domains with overlapping boundaries, at Independence the new Spanish American states had competing legal and historical bases to determine the legitimate boundaries of their countries. Given the wide differences among these colonial jurisdictions, the analytical utility of the concept of uti possidetis for understanding boundary dispute resolution is unclear. For example, Ecuador rejected an arbitral decision by the King of Spain in 1910 because the king agreed with the Peruvian preferred jurisdiction rather than that favored by Ecuador.

In the discussion of legitimate bases for colonial boundaries, some Latin American states appealed to the principle of uti possidetis de jure, while others preferred uti possidetis de facto (the latter quite similar to European notions of “effective occupation” at the 1884 Berlin Conference as a means of regulating their competition in the division of Africa). Brazil, in particular, appealed to the de facto interpretation in gaining territory equivalent to the size of France from its Spanish American neighbors.

Peaceful Resolution of Conflict

It is argued that Latin America has a norm to peacefully settle disputes. One can certainly find treaties and agreements pledging to do so, and many disputes have been settled through international arbitration. Among the most intriguing cases that should be relevant to any argument about norms of peaceful resolution are two involving contemporary Argentina. In 2007, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vazquez consulted with his military chiefs and U.S. President George W. Bush concerning a possible Argentine military action over the disputed pulp paper mill on the Uruguayan side of the Rio de la Plata (Mercosur, 2011b). Also in 2007 the number of Chileans who believed that Argentina could attack Chile was more than half (53%), and 7.6% higher than in 1991 (46.1%) (Varas et al., 2008, p. 67). The British maintain a naval and air force presence in the Falklands/Malvinas, and sent their most advanced destroyer to the region in 2012 as Argentine rhetoric escalated before the 30th anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas War (Mercopress, 2011a). Even at its significantly reduced military since the devastating defeat in the Falklands/Malvinas War of 1982, Argentina is still, according to this empirical data, perceived as a military threat by its neighbors. Analysts who argue that violence in intra-Latin American relations is becoming inconceivable need to indicate how such data fit in their argument, rather than simply ignoring it and asserting that no one fears the use of military force by its neighbor.

Also relevant to the argument of a peaceful Latin America is the extreme violence in Latin American civil wars. Those who argue that Latin America is internationally peaceful because they have norms for peaceful settlement of disputes have much to reckon with on the domestic front. Latin American civil wars have been society-wide events, such as the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) and the Cristero Rebellions of 1925–1927 and 1930 in which over a million people perished; Colombia’s La Violencia (1948–1958), in which up to 200,000 deaths occurred; or Guatemala’s thirty-plus years of civil war that included genocide against indigenous peoples (1960s–1996). At least two cases of ethnic cleansing exist apart from the forced relocation of indigenous peoples when they lost their wars against the Latin American states intruding into their homelands. In Mexico’s Caste War of Yucatán (1847–1901), Mayans rebelled and massacred mestizos and Whites, who retaliated as the fighting lasted decades (Reed, 1964). In 1937, Dominicans slaughtered up to 12,000 Haitian migrants in their country. Brazil’s Canudos War, which killed 15,000–30,000 people in a northeast community, might also fit in this category, though it could arguably be classified as simply a secessionist movement that was brutally repressed (Levine, 1995).

Since the “democratic peace” model is based on the claim that citizens extrapolate to foreigners their experiences with fellow citizens at home, we can hypothesize a similar logic regarding extrapolating violence from within to abroad. Following that logic, in a society wracked by extreme violence, citizens should be quite willing to fight their neighbors to a decisive and bloody victory, as occurred in the War of the Triple Alliance in 1864–1870 during which some estimates place the total Paraguay dead at 60% of the population. If Latin Americans can be that bloody against domestic opponents, why should one believe that they would be willing to presume goodwill and fair dealing by foreign opponents?

Sovereignty and the Principle of Non-Intervention

Latin America’s conceptualization of sovereignty sees it as the ability of a state’s government to decide to do virtually whatever it wants. In line with this view, sovereignty can generate the state’s right to choose to bind itself, but it also includes the right to choose to unbind oneself from a prior commitment and often without paying a penalty for breaking a contract. Imposing sanctions on a government, and thus raising costs for its behavior, constitutes a violation of sovereignty and an act of intervention.

Latin American nations took an historic half-step away from their traditional emphasis on maximum sovereignty when the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1991 adopted the Santiago Commitment to Democracy and the Renewal of the Inter-American System. This policy required the suspension of OAS membership for states whose democratic governments were overthrown and thus prioritized the norm of democracy over national sovereignty. Other regional and subregional organizations followed suit. The July 2012 suspension of Paraguay from the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) and UNASUR was a potential watershed in the defense of democracy in the region, given that, while the legislature followed the letter of the law in impeaching President Fernando Lugo, it violated due process along the way. Previously, only efforts by the armed forces or police to force a president out of office fell into this sanctioned category (Venezuela 2002, Honduras 2009, Ecuador 2010). But the unwillingness of Latin Americans to recognize the authoritarian transformation occurring in Venezuela and its acceptance of Cuban membership in regional organizations that formally require democracy suggests that the region has moved back to emphasizing the absolute nature of sovereignty.

Latin American countries have historically intervened in the affairs of their neighbors even as they articulated doctrines that denounced Great Power assumptions of rights to intervene (Calvo and Drago Doctrines of 1896 and 1902). Brazil and Argentina repeatedly intervened in Uruguay and Bolivia, each backing domestic factions, at times with money, arms, and even men. Argentina’s Mitre government accused Chile of providing money and men for the rebellion it faced in the 1860s. Mexico intervened both covertly and overtly in Central American wars and civil conflicts from the 1860s to 1910. The Caribbean Legion of the 1940s and 1950s, centered in Guatemala, raised money and gathered men and weapons to fight dictators in the region and were instrumental in José Figueres’s victory in Costa Rica’s 1948 civil war (Ameringer, 1995). Castro’s Cuba provided covert aid to revolutionaries throughout Latin America from the 1960s and into the 1980s.


Most scholars err in recounting the history of interstate violence in the region. In addition, they offer explanations for a low level of interstate violence that are inconsistent with their favored theory—for example, economic interdependence, democratic peace, norms of peaceful resolution, or claims regarding “status quo” powers. Empirical evaluation of how the region scores on the relevant causal variables reveals that the levels of economic interdependence among regional states is low; liberal democratic norms and institutions do not characterize most states identified by these analysts as democracies in the region; there is little evidence that norms for peaceful resolution of conflict exist at the domestic level and thus they can’t be externalized to neighboring states; the claims for separate international norms of peaceful resolution of conflict are not theoretically developed and are either made tautologically or claimed on an incomplete and biased reading of the rhetorical record; and the claims for “status quo” preferences are clearly undermined by national maps, periodic MIDs, and the number of regional cases submitted for some form of international arbitration or mediation.

There are peaceful regional interactions in the region, but ignoring the empirical record of violent interactions results in a poorly selected dependent variable—“why peace and settlement” instead of “why sometimes violence, sometimes peace and sometimes settlement.” Overall, research on interstate relations in the region reflects a poor research design that suffers from incomplete and biased description of the dependent variable, independent variables that are poorly specified and that may actually not have the causally related characteristics in Latin America that are theorized to produce peace, and little systematic testing of the hypothesis.


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(1.) The Correlates of War project has usefully categorised the use of military force into five “Hostility Levels”: 1 = no use; 2 = threat; 3 = display; 4 = use < 1,000 battlefield related deaths; 5 = war.[1]. Militarized incidents between states do not include accidental cross-border crossings by military that are not protested by the country whose territory has been violated, nor military violence against criminals/illegal migrants who cross into countries and are attacked by the forces there, unless that home country protests. See; Jones, Daniel M., Stuart A. Bremer, and J. David Singer (1996), Militarized Interstate Disputes, 1816–1992: Rationale, Coding Rules, and Empirical Patterns, Conflict Management and Peace Studies, 15(2), 163–212.

(2.) A moral hazard results when a party is endowed with an “insurance policy” that diminishes the risks of a particular activity to a point at which the party perceives such risks to be low enough to engage in the activity; insurance providers seek to minimize moral hazard by excluding such activities from coverage or charging a premium that raises the cost to the insured to a point that dissuades such behavior.