LS/PT 353: Political Violence in Latin America

Course Overview: Why are politics and public life in contemporary Latin America so violent? Political violence is inherent to revolutions, civil wars, and authoritarian regimes. In contrast, one of the merits of democracy is that it facilitates the peaceful allocation resources and power among competing actors. In theory, “losers” do not have to resort to violence to achieve their demands, while “winners” recognize that they might become losers and do not resort to violence to maintain the status quo. For much of the 20th century, Latin America struggled with insurgencies, civil war, and repressive authoritarian regimes. The 1980s and 1990s brought about a wave of democratic transitions throughout the region and renewed hope for peace, justice, the protection of civil liberties, and representative government. Following this turn to democracy, however, political violence persists throughout the region. In many countries it has even intensified and spread.

This course examines the puzzling persistence of political violence in democratic Latin America through the study of three countries in the region: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. To better understand the sources of violence in these countries and throughout the region, we explore politics in each case both before and after their transitions to democracy. Through in-class discussions, presentations, and short writing exercises, we strengthen our understanding of the role and sources of violence in contemporary democracies, and how and why we might reduce this violence. Finally students use the concepts, theories and analytical methods we learn through the study of the three cases to conduct independent research on political violence in a country of their own choice.

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