Inter-American Educational Exchange: A Drop in the Bucket

By Aaron T. Bell

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Photo Credit: Public Domain

The Obama administration’s program for strengthening inter-American ties through cooperative education – “100,000 Strong in the Americas” – is now several years old and making incremental progress toward its stated goal of a multilateral exchange of 100,000 students between the United States and Latin America.

  • The latest Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education shows that the number of Latin American students studying in the United States during the 2013-14 academic year (AY) rose 8.2 percent from the previous AY to 72,318 – the largest number to date and the largest annual percentage increase in at least 15 years. Mexico and Brazil now rank ninth and tenth respectively as places of origin for foreign students in the United States.
  • The most recent data on U.S. students studying in Latin America is less promising. In the 2012-13 AY, 45,473 U.S. students studied in Latin America, the highest number to date but a smaller annual percentage increase (1.8 percent) compared to the late 2000s.

Countries’ investments in such exchanges vary widely.  Under “100,000 Strong,” figures for U.S. spending are elusive.  In early 2014 the State Department announced the creation of the Innovation Fund, partnership grants that will be awarded over the next several years to strengthen collaboration between higher education institutions – including 38 grants totaling over one million dollars last year.   Mexican President Peña Nieto has introduced Proyecta 100 Mil, which in addition to sending 100,000 students to the United States by 2018, hopes to entice 50,000 U.S. students to study at its own universities.  (U.S. students in Mexico dropped from 10,000 in 2005-06 to less than 4,000 in 2012-13 because of security concerns.)  Both countries’ financial commitment to international education pales next to that of Brazil.  President Rousseff announced last summer the renewal of its Science Without Borders program, the first phase of which cost US$1.36 billion.

These programs, universally seen as laudable, have thus far let certain countries fall through the cracks.  Vice President Joe Biden recognized in his recent New York Times editorial that “inadequate education” is one of the barriers holding back Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, from which thousands of children have fled in recent years.  The development assistance portion of President Obama’s proposed $1 billion budget for Central American assistance is in part slated for strengthening literacy and vocational education.  Bringing Central America into the Innovation Fund program is a logical addition to the President’s efforts, yet Central American partners were notably absent in 2014.  Only one of the five grant rounds was open to Central American countries – where it arguably could have a greater national-level impact – and of the 109 recipient institutions of Innovation Fund grants, only two were from the region – and none from the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador).  That disparity suggests that, in spite of the rhetoric, education exchange is considered a supplementary tool rather than a leading means of bolstering development in Latin America.  While the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program deserves applause as a cooperative, multilateral program, it remains an underutilized tool of U.S. engagement in much of the hemisphere.

February 16, 2015

Mexico: Missing Demographic Opportunity

By Yazmín A. García Trejo

Javier Armas / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Javier Armas / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Mexico appears to be squandering a historic opportunity to take advantage of the “demographic bonus” represented by its surge in working-age citizens.  The Mexican government estimates that about 32 percent of the Mexican population today is between the ages of 12 and 29 years.  During this demographic bonus, a disproportionate percentage of the population enters the workforce—compared to those who are retired or nearing retirement—and drives economic growth.  Workers passing through this demographic window of opportunity are supposed to generate wealth that will help support a soon-to-be-aging population.  These opportunities don’t come around twice: age profiles in developing countries change quickly, and societies need to make the most of those few years during which the economically active population far surpasses that of the economically dependent.  The portrayal of Mexico as a young country in the media and the adoption of labor reforms in 2012 brought an initial optimism about its ability to take advantage of this bonus, but the current state of affairs casts a shadow over the potential of its young population.  According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Education at a Glance 2014 Report, 22 percent of people between 15 and 29 years old in Mexico are neither employed nor in education or training.  These “ni-ni’s” represent a demographic bust because of a lack of jobs.

The lack of employment also influences young Mexicans’ attitudes toward education.  According to the OECD, even high educational attainment is not a guarantee of employment in Mexico.  A 2012 report by the McKinsey Center for Government found that only half of educated young people in Mexico believe that their post-secondary education has improved their job prospects.  According to a National Survey of High School Dropouts in 2012, moreover, many young men leave high school to contribute to their households’ finances, and young women quit to take on family responsibilities related to marriage and pregnancy.  Once out of school, they have no option but to participate in low productivity niches of the informal economy—severely reducing the benefits that their entry into the labor market could bring to the national economy.

The fate of young people has profound implications for Mexico’s economic future.  Without a comprehensive plan to expand employment opportunities and access to higher education that enables youth to flourish and lead Mexico into a new stage of development, Mexico will find itself a generation from now with the demographic profile of a developed country—with an aging population producing less but needing more care—but with a middle-income level of wealth.  Budgets will be stretched, and social tensions could be great.  Many of the most capable young people will leave the country for better opportunities.  Young Mexicans appreciate what’s at stake and are using the tools at their disposal to make their voices heard. Lately, student movements have attracted international attention using social media, but it’s far from clear whether the Mexican government and political, economic, and social elites are listening and have the vision necessary to avoid a crisis.

November 4, 2014

Elections in Uruguay: A Bellwether for the Latin American Left?

By Aaron T. Bell

Photo credit: Frente Amplio (FA) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: Frente Amplio (FA) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Uruguay’s elections on October 26 – once seen as a sure bet for the ruling Frente Amplio’s presidential candidate, former president Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010) – have become a tight race, perhaps signaling challenges for other left-leaning Latin American governments as well.  The FA’s slight slip in the polls since the beginning of 2014 has been matched by sustained growth by the Partido Nacional, led by Luis Lacalle Pou, the son of a former president.  While Vázquez still holds a ten-point lead, he’s well below the absolute majority needed to avoid a run-off election, whose numbers look even bleaker for the ruling party.  In February, Lacalle Pou was running twenty-five points behind Vázquez in a head-to-head matchup, but the latest polls now show him only two points back.  Lacalle Pou will need the support of his party’s long-time rival, the Colorado Party, to win a second round against the FA, but Colorado candidate Pedro Bordaberry has thus far refused to concede the first round to the PN despite trailing them by 17 points.  Nonetheless, Vázquez was defeated by just such a second-round alliance in 1999.  Complicating things for him, polling strongly suggests that FA could lose control of both houses of the national legislature this fall.

The Lacalle Pou campaign has focused on public security and education.  Uruguay’s homicide rate remains one of the lowest in the region, but a modest increase in crime in recent years has spurred both urban and rural Uruguayans to rank security as the principal problem facing the nation – well ahead of the second leading concern, education.  The October elections will coincide with a referendum on lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 for serious offensives, with polls showing Uruguayans closely divided but leaning toward approval.  On the education front, the FA’s Plan Ceiba has helped provide laptops to every student, but 2012 assessment data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development still place Uruguay’s students well below the international average in math, science, and reading.

The FA’s political situation is paradoxical: it has presided over major socioeconomic improvements in the last decade and won international acclaim, but earned a more tepid response at home.  Uruguay’s decision to legalize marijuana was widely celebrated abroad as a step toward a more progressive drug policy in the region, but polls continue to show that a majority of Uruguayans oppose legalization, and it has not won the FA much support even among proponents of cannabis, who have resisted the creation of a registry of buyers.  (Vázquez recently suggested the registry would be used to develop rehabilitation programs.)  The FA seems to have not yet figured out how to respond effectively to the perception of insecurity, nor has it overseen a decided improvement in education, which is central to long-term development prospects.  With Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores facing an uncertain future, and political crises in Argentina and Venezuela simmering, the FA may be the first case of a larger regional rollback of the first wave of 21st century leftwing movements.

September 30, 2014

Middle Class Abandons Public Education

By Osvaldo Larrañaga*

Photo credit: NoticiasUFM / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo credit: NoticiasUFM / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Seven of the most developed countries of Latin America – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru and Uruguay – are experiencing an exodus of the middle class from public schools to private schools.  In Clases Medias y Educación en América Latina, my colleague María Eugenia Rodríguez and I present evidence that in these countries private schools offer primary and secondary middle-class students better opportunities to learn, better resources, and in almost every country a more disciplined learning environment.  However, the shift may worsen the region’s already deep inequality because private education is likely to multiply inequality.  Private schools show signs of high levels of social segregation, with implications for countries’ social cohesion and development.  On average, 87 percent of the students in these schools belong to the same social class (be it middle- or upper-class), as compared to 42 percent in the public schools.  According to our research, the challenge for governments is to strike the balance between allowing families to give children the best education they can and ensuring social cohesion and equity.

Some countries outside Latin America have achieved this virtuous balance. In the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland, governments finance private schools so that families’ financial resources are not a factor in school selection.  In those countries, 60-70 percent of students from different social classes attend private schools, with excellent academic results.  Dutch and Belgian students place at the top in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, while Irish students score at the average of the OECD nations.  Another model – in Finland, Canada and New Zealand – produced the highest PISA scores outside Asia.  In those countries, 93-97 percent of students attend public schools, proving that public management of education is not incompatible with excellence.

Another key development needing attention in the region is that the number of students in higher education has tripled in the past 15 years as the middle and emerging classes see education as the most effective means for social mobility.  Increased demand for tertiary education has been covered primarily by private rather than public institutions, yet governments have done little to ensure the quality of the education students receive or to assist them in financing it.  Failure to address these issues invites a scenario that could result in frustration and social tensions.  Our research indicates that the problem – and its solution – has three principal aspects: the need to create information systems that enable the evaluation of graduates; the need to introduce mechanisms for financial aid for students attending private institutions; and the need for an accreditation process that ensures that financial aid goes to students attending quality institutions of higher education.  With such reforms, Latin America stands a much better chance of advancing social equity even while relying increasingly on the private provision of education.

*Dr. Larrañaga coordinates the poverty and inequality reduction area at UNDP in Chile.

Is Affirmative Action in the U.S. Dead?

By Lázaro Lima*

Photo credit: commonwealth.club / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo credit: commonwealth.club / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision two weeks ago to uphold a law that prohibits colleges from considering applicants’ race in the admissions process underscored U.S. conservatives’ power on the issue – but also the forceful vision of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  In the decision of “Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action,” six out of the nine Justices supported Michigan’s “Proposal 2”; Sotomayor and one other opposed it, and Justice Kagan, who had worked on the case as President Obama’s Solicitor General, recused herself.  Ironically named “Michigan Civil Rights Initiative,” MCRI was passed in a state referendum with the support of 58 percent of Michigan’s voters in 2006.  It outlawed the use of all race considerations in public college admissions, resulting in a decline of 25-30 percent of the minority population at universities and colleges in the state.  The majority argued that “there is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”  They cited it as a case of respecting states’ rights and claimed that “it is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that the voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds.”

In a 58-page dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor made the case against the law, arguing that Michigan schools were within their rights and responsibilities to society to take reasonable steps to encourage minority presence on state university and college campuses.  She plaintively stated the obvious: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of racial discrimination.”  She wrote: “Yet to know the history of our Nation is to understand its long and lamentable record of stymieing the right of racial minorities to participate in the political process. […] And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away.”

The U.S. debate on affirmative action has deep roots and will surely continue.  The Supreme Court decision – and Sotomayor’s candid and necessary assessment of race relations – came over 35 years after the Court in 1978 ordered a University of California medical school to admit a white man who claimed that affirmative action unfairly led to the rejection of his application.  The “Bakke Decision” outlawed racial and gender quotas and delimited “race” to the managerial interests of academic institutions and employers.  Historical accounts of affirmative action policies often trace back to President John F.  Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 of 1961, which required government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”  President Lyndon Johnson extended these mandates through the Civil Rights Act and with his own executive order.  But it was Sotomayor, decades later, who shined in her statement last month.  When she read her dissent from the bench, for the first time in her five years, her colleagues – who already had made up their minds – were not her intended audience.  Her audience was the democratic commons.

*Lázaro Lima is a professor of Latin American literature and Latino Studies at the University of Richmond, and a CLALS research fellow.

Prospects for U.S.-Latin American Educational Exchange

By Aaron Bell

Picture3Regional educational exchange has become an important talking point for U.S. administrations in recent years, but data is still lacking to judge it a success or failure.  In 2011, the Obama administration announced the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, intended to promote a north-south multilateral exchange of 100,000 students by 2020.  The State Department casts it as a means for students in the hemisphere to develop the relationships and skills necessary to meet four contemporary challenges: citizen security, economic opportunity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability.  The organizations tasked with fulfilling the program’s goals include the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs, whose 60-plus years of advocacy on behalf of international education is based on the belief that “international education leads to a more peaceful world.” Whether such lofty aspirations are possible is subject to some debate, but the more-easily measured effect of 100,000 Strong will become clearer when the Institute of International Education releases its report later this year on international study to and from the United States during the past academic year.

Latin American countries as diverse as Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and El Salvador have student exchange programs of their own, with the U.S. a leading destination.  Mexico sent the most students to the U.S. of any Latin American nation in 2011-12, but its 13,000 students were only the ninth largest source of international students in the U.S.  The most commonly touted example of U.S.-Latin American exchange is cooperation with the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program, part of the Brazilian government’s plan to send 100,000 students abroad by 2015 to study in key science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.  Responding to the weakness of these fields in many Brazilian universities and to the growing demand for highly qualified graduates in high-tech industries, so far over 7,000 Brazilian students have studied at over 200 U.S. universities and interned at 300 companies, with another estimated 3,900 now in such programs.  Cooperation in education exchange is not limited to high-tech fields.  In Washington, for example, Georgetown University administers leadership training to “disadvantaged communities” and “historically underserved populations” from Latin America through the State Department’s Central America Youth Ambassadors Program and the USAID’s Scholarships for Economic Education and Development (SEED) Program.

While governments like Brazil’s have financed their international study programs, the U.S. has asked the private sector to take the lead in expanding pre-existing programs like Fulbright.  Two years ago, 64,000 Latin American students studied in the U.S., compared to 40,000 U.S. students in Latin America, of which one third stayed only for a summer.  If part of the purpose of 100,000 Strong is to improve regional relations through personal contact and exposure to the region’s sociocultural diversity, educational exchanges will need to flow north-south on a more equal footing.  It remains to be seen if the U.S. private sector is willing to meet such a commitment.  There is also the perennial question of whether educational exchange programs enhance economic development and mobility in Latin America or instead contribute to “brain drain.”  The development of high tech industries in places like Brazil offers a more promising future for returning students, but their absence in poorer regions like Central America is a source of concern.  Finally, 100,000 Strong and similar programs should be judged on how they respond to the largest challenges facing universities throughout the Americas: affordability, providing quality education for students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and in Latin America specifically, making local universities appealing settings for internationally-trained intellectuals and experts.

Ben Kohl: The Loss of a Scholar-Activist who Taught About Bolivia

By Eric Hershberg

This AULA blog post does not follow our standard format, but it is one that I hope will motivate readers to seek out some singularly insightful analyses of contemporary Bolivia.

Los marchistas del TIPNIS llegan a La Paz (19/10/2011) Photo credit: Szymon Kochanski / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Los marchistas del TIPNIS llegan a La Paz (19/10/2011) Photo credit: Szymon Kochanski / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

I was terribly distressed to learn that Temple University Professor Ben Kohl, a noted expert on Bolivia, passed away suddenly in late July, at the age of 59. I had the privilege of meeting Ben briefly on two occasions, on both of which he struck me as charming and intellectually lively. But I already knew of Kohl through his writings, which had taught me, and many of my students, a great deal about how and why Bolivian politics and society have evolved in such remarkable ways in recent years.  Faculty, students and non-academic audiences in Washington and beyond would be well served by surveying his writings, in part because of how effectively they make sense of a country with which the U.S. government has often related unproductively.

Most of Kohl’s work was co-authored with his journalist wife, Linda Farthing (he also collaborated with my CLALS colleague Rob Albro on a fine collection of articles on Bolivia that was published by Latin American Perspectives). Among their prolific writings on Bolivia, two books stand out as especially significant. Impasse in Bolivia and From the Mines to the Streets: an Activist’s Life in Bolivia established Kohl and Farthing as pivotal voices in shaping understanding of that Andean country’s politics and society.  Their work is unusual in the effectiveness with which it speaks simultaneously to advanced scholarly readers and to students and people in advocacy and policy circles who are engaged sympathetically with that country’s remarkable social movements and transformations.

What stands out for me about Impasse, aside from its deep and nuanced understanding of the fault lines dividing Bolivian society, is that it successfully blends attention to social dynamics and political mobilization at the micro-level with an appreciation for how those phenomena interact and reflect larger scale, deeply embedded social structures.  Written on the eve of Evo Morales’ rise to the Presidency, in the wake of several years of social and political “impasse,” the study combines ethnographic insight with sophisticated interpretation of macro-level historical and sociological processes.  Impasse in particular highlights how and why Bolivia took a decisively “indigenous turn” in its national politics beginning around 2000, and ably portrays the resistance that this elicited from long dominant elites. The book was an especially novel and eloquent contribution to the literature on Bolivia at a crucial juncture in the country’s history, a juncture that ushered in fundamental changes in the political system.

Mines, like Impasse, was written for more than a strictly scholarly audience, but it is a very different sort of monograph.  The autobiographical story told to Kohl and Farthing by labor activist Félix Muruchi Poma, and very intelligently framed for a foreign audience, brings to life aspects of contemporary Bolivia (and other parts of Latin America) that are rarely presented in such a compelling and readable form.  As noted in the brief bibliographic note at the conclusion of the book, several previous books provide historical accounts of issues and events covered in Muruchi’s story, but none of the English language literature does so in this “testimonial” genre.  That genre is difficult to pull off well, as Kohl acknowledged in an insightful article for the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, but this work is up to the task, and points to the activist side of Kohl and Farthing’s scholarship.  One is reminded, inevitably, of the classic I, Rigoberta Menchu, which focused on the life and politicization of an indigenous Guatemalan woman during a period that overlaps in part with that covered by Muruchi’s chronicle.  The many university faculty who assign the Menchu book for introductory Latin American Studies courses would do well to consider assigning this one alongside of it.

A number of Kohl’s recent articles and book chapters were aimed more strictly at scholarly audiences than were either Impasse or Mines. A 2012 essay published in Political Geography is the most insightful analysis I have encountered of the contradictions between what Kohl and Farthing label “resource nationalist imaginaries,” articulated in practice by strong social movements in Bolivia and more disparate actors in neighboring countries, and the circumstances of economies that remain as dependent as ever on revenues derived from natural resources. The study’s use of the theoretical concepts of “imaginaries” and “framing” strikes me as an especially valuable lens through which to understand the roots of social movement resistance to an economic model that has persisted despite the rise to power of Bolivia’s first indigenous President. Re-reading that piece as I was drafting this blog post, I am reminded of how Kohl’s passing is a great loss to those of us for whom innovative scholarship motivated by concerns about fairness and justice in Latin America is to be treasured, not unlike tin or gas or water for many Bolivians, as a precious commodity.

U.S.-Cuba: Time to End the Visa Charade

By Eric Hershberg

Slide1Bad habits die hard, especially when they involve Cuba and American bureaucrats eager to appease the right wing.  For more than 50 years, Washington has been at loggerheads with a revolutionary regime eager to reciprocate incessant aggression and stick its finger in the eye of the Colossus to the North.  Although nothing as absurd as a confrontation at the brink of nuclear war has occurred since 1962, during the ensuing decades both governments have repeatedly provoked one another to exacerbate a conflict that even in 2013 bizarrely perpetuates the Cold War.  To this day, the U.S. proclaims “regime change” as its bottom line condition for normalizing relations with a sovereign country for which such imperial proclamations are justly anathema.  Havana, in turn, is not beyond demonizing American citizens – people who have no connections to the U.S. government or its misguided regime-change programs – who seek to engage their Cuban counterparts.  Last month I spent two hours in the Havana airport answering hostile questions from government goons for whom my assurances that my visit was academic in nature were mysteriously insufficient to get me smoothly admitted through immigration.  An American University colleague reports that she suffered similar harassment at the Havana airport in March.

One manifestation of the anachronistic dispute between the two governments is the infantile tit for tat that both parties play with permitting travel across the Florida Straits even for purposes both claim to support. The dynamic is pernicious, and reflects a combination of ideological extremism and petty bureaucratic behavior on both sides.  Organizers of scholarly meetings in Cuba are increasingly being told that the participation of one person or another would not be acceptable to unspecified authorities in Havana, and the result has been that they have been “disinvited” from workshops in which their participation would have been appropriate.  More troubling, from my perspective as an American citizen, is that since the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies was established three years ago, on three separate occasions the State Department delayed the visas of Cuban academics who I had invited to the University and refused to say why.  Last week, when the Latin American Studies Association convened its annual meeting in Washington, assembling 5,000 scholars from around the world, Cuban researchers who have long traveled to and from the U.S. were denied visas, again for no stated reason. They included three individuals with whom the Center has time-tested, ongoing working relationships:  Rafael Hernández, who edits one of Cuba’s principal journal of society and culture and has taught as a Visiting Professor at Harvard and Columbia; Milagros Martínez, who directs international academic affairs at the University of Havana; and Juan Luís Martín, arguably Cuba’s most innovative sociologist.

That the Cuban government interferes with academic life should be no surprise.  That the practice continues on the U.S. side is another matter.  One would think that Washington would by now have gotten beyond this shameful charade, five years into an administration that knows better.  Somewhere in the system and its mysterious processes –the opacity contradicts our democratic principles – bureaucrats are denying visas arbitrarily and with no accountability.  What threat do these academics, whose work has at times catalyzed important debates in Havana, conceivably pose to the United States?  What is the U.S. national interest in slamming the door on people eager to hear what we have to say in our universities and academic conferences?  The State Department’s visa denials undermine the professional activities of American citizens and contradict the Administration’s own policy of “people-to-people” relations.  It may be too much to expect President Obama to risk incurring the wrath of a shrinking minority in the Cuban-American community and in the Congress to put forth a rational Cuba policy.  But one would have thought that Secretary of State Kerry has the wherewithal and influence required to put an end to the use of visa requests as a means of restaging scenes from a cold war era that ought to have been left behind twenty years ago. The State Department’s actions over the past month evidence its disregard for academic freedom and the hollowness of its assurances to the scholarly community that it does not intend to interfere with our work.  I say: Enough is enough.

 

Mexico: A Hard Road for Reforms

By Tom Long

Enrique Peña Nieto by Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño | Flickr | Creative Commons

Enrique Peña Nieto by Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño | Flickr | Creative Commons

During the campaign, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proclaimed in thousands of advertisements, “Me comprometo y cumplo” – I make a promise and I keep it.  Offering a list of potentially transformative reforms – regulations, security, telecommunications, energy, and more – he began with one of the most intractable:  the struggling public education system.  In December, at his instigation, the Mexican congress passed a constitutional reform to create stricter standards for teachers and move hiring authority from the teachers’ union to the government.  Enough states had ratified the amendment by the end of February to make it law.  After years of stagnation and interest-group politics, education reform suddenly became politically expedient, passing with support from the PRI, PAN, and PRD.  Last week, the government put an exclamation point on the reform by arresting the teachers’ union boss, Elba Esther Gordillo, on charges of using her post for illicit gains surpassing $100 million.  A PRI apostate whose opposing alliance was credited with helping former President Felipe Calderón win his razor-thin victory in 2006, she was not just expendable, but an obstacle.

According to OECD education data, just 45 percent of Mexican students complete their secondary education, though the rate has improved over the last decade.  Mexico spends 3.7 percent of GDP on primary and secondary learning, — less than Chile, Argentina, and Brazil but in line with the OECD average.  Experts believe that Mexico’s educational  problems are largely political, not budgetary.  A full 97 percent of spending goes to salaries, feeding a teachers’ union that has a history of patronage and graft.  The problem has deep roots in the clientelistic structure through which the old PRI governed during its 70 years in power before losing in 2000 – and with which the PAN governments coexisted for 12 years.

The storyline shares certain similarities with PRI President Carlos Salinas’ sacking of the head of oil workers’ union in the 1990s, presaging limited reforms in that sector.  Peña Nieto probably intends the removal of the most visible representative of old-style patronage politics as a clear signal that the PRI will not bring back the bad old ways – despite the possible appearance of the firing and arrest being driven by revenge – but the reform legislation is widely seen as a positive step forward.  Rhetorically at least, the major parties have agreed to a multi-pronged effort for more reforms in the “Pact of Mexico.”  However, forging consensus on further reforms will be more difficult, as entrenched PRI politicians at the local level are already resisting many of the president’s proposals.  The PAN and PRD are already criticizing Peña Nieto for being too cozy with media barons and for handling telecommunications reform behind closed doors.  Security policies and proposed energy reforms are more contentious still.  Reforming other sectors will require going after harder targets than Gordillo and will pose greater tests of Peña Nieto’s ability to win votes in the Mexican Congress.

Chilean Student Protests and Inequality

Photo by Davidlohr Bueso, Santiago, Chile via http://www.flickr.com

Following a year of student demonstrations, Chilean students have renewed their demands for education reform with a massive street protest in Santiago. According to a report from the BBC News, 25,000-50,000 students participated in a march for free education on Wednesday. The protest came despite President Sebastián Piñera’s announcement that a state agency would be created to finance university-level education and that private banks would no longer be permitted to provide loans to university students. Piñera also announced that interest rates on student loans would be reduced from 6 to 2 percent. The student protests are just one of several political issues confronting Piñera, such as the construction of dams in Patagonia and government handling of political protests in the southern region of Aysén. The students’ cause has reverberated throughout Latin America and indicates widespread discontent with high levels of socioeconomic inequality in Chile.