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Is Latin America Transforming Itself? Remarks by CIPR Director Ludovico Feoli, Ph.D.

Latin America has recently been in the spotlight for its resiliency in the wake of the financial crisis and progress in the reduction of poverty and inequality. However, the challenges confronting democracy-including the weak performance of key political institutions and the authoritarian bent of some governments-and widespread and increasing violent crime, cast a shadow on the region’s prospects. There is also concern that Latin America ‘s economic boom-so dependent on world commodity prices-might be short-lived.

As part of the “Is Latin America Transforming Itself?” panel held during the Fall 2010 semester, CIPR Director, Ludovico Feoli, Ph.D writes the following on the topic:

Is Latin America Transforming Itself?
Ludovico Feoli, Ph.D.
(Click here for PDF version)

In the advent of the global financial crisis the media has showcased Latin America as a poster child of resiliency and economic vitality. Consistently, it is named among the emergent regions with greater promise for upcoming years. The fact that for the first time in many decades it has not been at the center of an international financial crisis, was prepared to counter its effects, and has emerged from crisis much faster than developed economies has created the sense that the region is actually transforming itself. But, is it?

From a political perspective, one might say that it is, but not in a single direction, and not in every case with positive consequences. From a general perspective the region has moved towards greater political openness and inclusion. All countries have democratically elected governments, save Cuba. Previously marginalized groups, including women and ethnic and racial minorities have gained special constitutional rights. Several countries, like Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, have undertaken vast constitutional re-founding. And direct political participation has expanded both at the municipal level, through new models of participatory democracy, and at the national level, through diverse referenda and plebiscites.

In the course of the past year two years we have witnessed two historical political transitions, both held democratically and peacefully: in El Salvador, from the right to the left; in Chile, from the left to the right. In both cases the transition came on the heels of a decades-long period of political control by a single coalition or party. But the losers respected the rule of the ballot and in both cases went into the democratic opposition.

Yet, these trends towards democratic consolidation are not unequivocal. On the one hand, there is evidence that leaders recognize the cost of personalistic leadership and are prepared to step aside from power. In Colombia, Uribe accepted the verdict from the Constitutional Court that denied him an opportunity to run for a third term. In Brazil, Lula resisted the temptation to even seek a similar kind of constitutional reform to run for a third term. Both presidents where at the peak of their popularity and it is likely that, had they run, they would have secured their reelection easily. But they did not.

On the other hand, this experience is countered by the behavior of politicians elsewhere. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega secured a chance to run for reelection through a crass and strong-handed manipulation of the Constitutional Court. When the opposition objected he unleashed the “turbas divinas” who descended with fury on the legislature, impeding it from holding session. In Venezuela, Chávez has made clear his intention to remain in power until he can complete his revolutionary project. In order to do so he has recurred to intimidation and persecution of the opposition and has not hesitated to clamp down on the press. Whether grounded in fact or fiction, allegations that Zelaya was following similar tactics to perpetuate himself in power led to the coup against him in Honduras. The case of Ecuador, more recently, gives grounds for concern: was Correa the victim of a coup plot, or was his display of bravado, followed by days of martial law, designed to justify a strong hand against his opponents?

Moreover, not everywhere has the rule of the ballot reigned supreme. The existence of fraud in municipal elections in Nicaragua has been broadly established, while intimidation and an environment of fear marred Lobo’s election in Honduras. The very regime that Lobo succeeded was a stark reminder that coups are not altogether gone from the political landscape of the region. Opposition leaders elected in local and regional elections in Venezuela were emasculated by administrative and political maneuvers, the denial of funds, and in some cases by physical impediment to take over their offices. And other examples are not hard to come by.

The clearest form of transformation that the region has experienced is in the form of greater openness, and with greater openness comes greater contestation. As previously marginalized groups have become empowered, some of these societies have become more conflictive. This can be good insofar as conflict drives change. But conflict can also imply instability. The way to keep conflict manageable is to bind it within democratic institutions—and here is where we encounter the boundaries of our transformation, since for the most part, these institutions in the region are weak. Political parties lack coherent structures, are ideologically muddled, and not very democratic internally. As such, they are hard-pressed to serve as able intermediaries. Legislatures, and the legislators within them, are broadly discredited and mistrusted by the people. Paradoxically, it is precisely the least democratic institutions within these societies, like the army and the church, that enjoy the highest levels of trust among the population. This serves as an enormous temptation for them to act as the ultimate arbiters of the common good.

Yet, as Chavez himself is fond of reminding us, the emergence of illiberal alternatives is a not a cause but a consequence. Political inclusion has advanced much faster than economic inclusion in our region, despite recent favorable trends. The period of economic opening that even preceded the political one, failed to live up to the expectations it generated, and many feel defrauded. Democratic institutions without economic inclusion produce cynical and disenchanted citizens that lose faith in those institutions and become willing to abandon them.

To be sure, this has led to a recognition that large disparities of income will not necessarily disappear as a side product of economic growth, that active policies specifically designed to improve the plight of the most disadvantaged are also necessary and can actually compound the effects of growth through improvements in human capital. Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) are the best policy expression of this recognition. Together with a broad prevalence of prudential macroeconomic management, these policy responses represent an important transformative aspect.

At the same time, this model of social policy transformation is not unique in the region. Some countries have vied for a greater level of state discretion in economic management and more direct redistribution of income. They have also privileged state control of productive sectors, national savings, and foreign reserves. Which model will prove more effective and resilient will be determined in time, but the effects of the more direct approach are already being observed in higher inflation levels, lower investor trust, and weaker currencies.

However significant the transformations we have discussed are, there is a deeper sense in which the region has been unable to effectively transform. For the most part, and with notable exceptions, the region lacks the type of administration of justice that could ensure the proper functioning of the rule of law. This constrains states from stanching corruption and impunity in the face of crime, but also from being able to guarantee personal safety and property rights. This is one dimension of a broader weakness that the region has yet to redress: a lack of state capacity. With the exception of Brazil, tax burdens in the region are far too low to endow states with the resources necessary to pursue effective policies. While in many cases the scope of the state is broad, in most of the cases its strength is low. Low levels of competence, high levels of patronage, and the absence of merit-based structures plague public bureaucracies in the region.

To the extent that the region is far more globalized, it is being transformed as much as it is transforming itself. It is exposed to transnational forces that it cannot control entirely. These include migration, trade, financial flows and remittances, but also drugs and its multiple forms of organized crime. The question then becomes whether states in the region have the wherewithal to manage, and where necessary counter, these forces. This speaks about a different kind of transformation, a pernicious kind, one where the state finds itself in competition with criminalized organizations—to retain a monopoly of the legitimate use of force, to provide social services, and to provide employment.

Latin America is indeed transforming itself, but in more ways than one. Policies must continue to translate into steady improvements of material conditions for the poor, a reduction of inequality, and a strengthening of state capacities if citizens are to retain their faith in the kind of transformation that follows along a democratic path.

October 27, 2010.




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Chantalle Verna to Present Research on U.S. and Haitian Relationships in Post-Occupation Haiti

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Join us at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies in welcoming Dr. Chantalle Verna for a talk on her book Haiti and the Uses of America: Post- U.S. Occupation Promises on April 26, 2018, at 6:00 PM.

In her book, Dr. Verna makes evident that there have been key moments of cooperation that contributed to nation-building in both countries. Dr. Verna emphasizes the importance of examining the post-occupation period: the decades that followed the U.S. military occupation of Haiti (1915-34) and considering how Haiti’s public officials and privileged citizens rationalized nurturing ties with the United States at the very moment when the two nations began negotiating the reinstatement of Haitian sovereignty in 1930. Their efforts, Dr. Verna shows, helped favorable ideas about the United States, once held by a small segment of Haitian society, circulate more widely. In this way, Haitians contributed to and capitalized upon the spread of internationalism in the Americas and the larger world.

Dr. Verna received her Ph.D. from Michigan State University and is currently a professor in the History Department in Florida International University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Dr. Verna focuses on the culture of foreign relations, specifically concerning Haiti and the United States during the mid-twentieth century.

Apply for the Teaching Cuban Culture & Society: A Summer Educator Institute in Cuba

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Teaching Cuban Culture & Society: A Summer Educator Institute in Cuba
Havana, Cuba | June 23 – July 7, 2018
Program Application
Application Deadline: March 2, 2018

Tulane University’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies and the Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute at Tulane University join forces with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies to take K-16 educators to Cuba. This is our fourth year running the Cuban Culture & Society K-16 Educator Institute and we are excited about this year’s itinerary. The institute will approach Cuban society and culture form a multidisciplinary perspective focused on the arts, the geography, and history of the country. Innovative programming and annual summer teacher institutes over the past three years provide the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and studying the region. Taking advantage of Tulane’s relationship with the University of Havana and Cuba’s National Union of Writers and Artists, the institute equips teachers with multidisciplinary content, curricular resources, and methods of inquiry for developing that approach in their K-16 classrooms. Conducted in English by Professor Carolina Caballero, the institute will explore current trends and issues in Cuban culture and society through readings, films, and lectures. The program includes a series of talks by prominent Cuban intellectuals and local field trips to important political and cultural sights throughout Havana.

This two-week program provides the unique opportunity to work on developing lesson plans while exploring the sights and sounds of a nation and country that remain obscured behind political rhetoric and misinformation. Recent economic changes on the island have provoked a series of social and cultural transformations that have left Cubans and the entire world wondering what could be next for the island and the Revolution. Don’t miss the chance to witness some of these challenges and triumphs firsthand and get the opportunity to bring your experience back to your students in the classroom.

The trip will include a pre-departure orientation and two weeks in Cuba. The institute incorporates visits to local museums and exposes participants to arts organizations, schools, and teachers from the country’s national literacy campaign. Participants will stay within walking distance of the Malecón, the university, and many cultural venues. There will be group excursions to the historic Che Guevara monument, a visit to the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and a special visit to the town of Hershey, the town developed by Milton Hershey to begin his chocolate enterprise with the sugar from Cuba’s plantations. There will also be group excursions to the historic cities of Trinidad and Cienfuegos, Playa Girón, and Viñales, focusing on their role in the development of the economy and culture of the country

The cost will include a shared room and two meals a day, medical insurance, airfare to/from Havana from Tampa, Florida*, airport transportation in Havana to/from residence, OFAC-licensed academic visa, and specialized tours and outings.

*Airfare to/from Tampa, Florida, a one-night hotel stay in Tampa, incidental costs, and extra meals and expenses are not included in the program cost. You are responsible for your own air flight to/from Tampa, FL.

Those interested in applying must be a K-16 educator or librarian. There is no Spanish language requirement for this program. The application deadline is March 2, 2018, at 5:00 PM.

Please note: This program is only open to K-16 educators who are currently teaching, are pre-service teachers or are serving in a school or public library.

Please be advised that this itinerary is subject to change based on availability in Cuba. The itinerary below is the schedule from the 2017 institute.

  • Day 1 – U.S./HAVANA, CUBA
    Depart from Tampa, FL, Upon arrival, enjoy dinner and a welcome reception followed by an informal walk and people watching on the Malecón.
  • Day 2 – HAVANA
    Habana Vieja (Old Havana) Tour with local preservation experts to discuss in depth the history of local landmarks, historical preservation efforts, and future plans. Visit Muraleando Lawton, a community art project in the Lawton neighborhood of Havana. Hear from the founders of this project on how the neighborhood developed to promote skills in the community and support the local economy and meet with local community leaders, students and elderly folks at the community center.
  • Day 3 – HAVANA
    Lecture with Professor Carlos Alzugaray on Cuba Since the Special Period. Visit the elementary school Sergio Luis Ferriol in Habana Vieja. Connect with teachers and administrators about their experiences in the classroom.
  • Day 4 – HAVANA
    Visit the Museo Nacional de la Alfabetización (National Museum of the Literacy Campaign) and connect with members of the literacy brigade, teachers from the literacy campaign.
  • Day 5 – HAVANA
    Visit and explore Ernest Hemingway’s house. Have lunch in the infamous fishing village of Cojimar. In the afternoon, explore art by taking a tour of the Cuban Collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes accompanied by a curator then visit with artists at the Taller de Gráfica.
  • Day 6 – HERSHEY
    Day trip to the Hershey, Cuba and nature park. The site where famous chocolatier Milton Hershey developed his chocolate business by setting up sugar mills in the early 1900’s. Explore the natural side of Cuba in this country town.
  • Day 7 – HAVANA
    Learn about children’s literature and the book publishing business in Cuba by visiting Cuba’s national publisher UNEAC and hear first hand from children’s book authors. We will hear from children’s book author Olga Marta Pérez about the children’s/ youth Literacy Scene in Cuba today.
  • Day 8 – HAVANA/REGLA
    Take the ferry across the bay in Havana to the town of Regla to learn about Afro-Cuban dance and music from musicologist Cari Diez and an Afro-Cuban dance performance group.
    Travel to Trinidad via Santa Clara, a town founded by 175 people on July 15, 1689. It is the site of the last battle in the Cuban Revolution in 1958. Visit to the Che Mausoleum in Santa Clara. Also visit the historic sugar plantation of Manaca Iznaga before arriving in Trinidad.
  • Day 10 – TRINIDAD
    Explore this UNESCO World Heritage site, founded on December 23, 1514 by Diego Velázquez de Cuellar. Trinidad was a central piece of Cuba’s sugar-based economy. Guided city tour with the city historian. Visit the Trinidad library to learn about the importance of libraries and debate questions of intellectual freedom with the staff.
  • Day 11 – PLAYA GIRON (SITE OF BAY OF PIGS) Ciénega de Zapata, Playa Larga
    Day excursion to the historic site of the Bay of Pigs, one of the landing sites for the 1961 US-backed invasion. Visit the Finca Fiesta Campesina farm, the Playa Girón museum, the Parque Ciénaga de Zapata, the Laguna del Tesoro, and the Taino Indian village. Snorkel in the Bay of Pigs!
  • Day 12 – HAVANA
    Visit the U.S. Embassy and hear first-hand about the state of current relations between the U.S. and Cuba. In the afternoon, we head over to meet up with the famous hip-hop group, Obsesión to hear about their music and experience as hip-hop artists in Cuba.
    Take a day trip to Matanzas, the capital of the Cuban province of Matanzas. Known for its poets, culture, and Afro-Cuban folklore, we will explore the Triunvirato Plantation and the Castillo San Severino where we will hear about the history of slavery in Cuba. The rest of the afternoon we relax and explore the beautiful beaches of Varadero, a popular resort town covering Cuba’s narrow Hicacos Peninsula.
  • Day 14 – HAVANA
    Wrap-up curriculum workshop followed by a free afternoon ending in a celebratory dinner.
  • Day 15 – HAVANA/U.S.
    Morning departure for the U.S.

Explore our past trips through these photos and curricula:

Program Application

For more information, please contact Denise Woltering-Vargas at or call the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at 504-862-3143.