Brazil: Sacrificing Anti-Poverty Success?

By Hayley Jones*

Bolsa Familia

Photo Credit: Senado Federal / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s flagship antipoverty program, the Bolsa Família, faces an uncertain future as the government of Interim President Michel Temer confronts adverse economic and political circumstances.  The program, which provides direct cash benefits to poor households on the condition that children fulfill education and health-related targets, was an important factor in Brazil’s progress on poverty and inequality since the early 2000s – between 2001 and 2013 the poverty headcount ratio declined from 24.7 percent to 8.9 percent, and the Gini coefficient declined from 59.3 to 52.9.  The Bolsa Família (formerly called Bolsa Escola) was a pioneer in the use of cash transfers in social policy in the 1990s.  The idea is enticingly simple: the cash allows families to meet immediate needs, while the education and health conditions ensure poor children are better equipped to lift themselves out of poverty in the long run.  Under Presidents Lula and Dilma, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) put the policy at the heart of its platform, and reaped advantages at the polls with the expansion of coverage and benefits.  The program now reaches about one-quarter of the population.

The social gains made in part thanks to the Bolsa Família may now be at risk.  Brazil has been hit hard by the collapse of commodity and oil prices over the last two years and is currently experiencing what is predicted to be the country’s worst recession since the 1930s.  GDP fell by roughly 4 percent in 2015 and is expected to do the same in 2016.  The deep political crisis gripping the country since earlier this year further threatens the program.  Temer, his party (PMDB), and Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles have stressed the need to cut spending to reduce the deficit.  While many areas of social spending, such as pensions and education, are protected in the budget under the 1988 Constitution,  the Bolsa Família is not.  With the large political constituency benefitting from the program, there is likely little appetite in the interim government to ax the program altogether.  In fact, at the end of June Temer announced a 12.5 percent increase to the Bolsa Família – more than the 9 percent promised by Dilma – to compensate for inflation.  But he also emphasized that benefits should be temporary and that there is a need to focus on exit doors from the program.  Social Development Minister, Osmar Terra, has suggested that the program could be made more efficient and costs cut by 10 percent.

Temer may not be entirely wrong to highlight the need for exit strategies, but they should be exit strategies from poverty rather than from the Bolsa Família itself.  There is so far little evidence that it has done much to change the life trajectories of poor young people that would allow them to move out of poverty. The emphasis on increased school enrollment and attendance as transformative obscures much deeper problems, including poor school progression and completion rates in low-quality schools, a lack of educational infrastructure and resources, poorly trained teachers, and outdated curricula, among others.  If Temer is serious about moving beneficiaries out of poverty and the program, priority will have to be given to correcting regressive spending in public education (which prioritizes higher over basic education); better aligning curricula with labor market demand; and addressing the poor job opportunities for low- and semi-skilled workers. Economic realities and the rhetoric on efficiency and exit strategies do not bode well for such changes.  Under Temer, the Bolsa Família seems likely be limited to a policy tool for risk insurance and meeting basic needs rather than a platform for extending the social gains of the last decade.

July 12, 2016

*Hayley Jones is a DPhil (PhD) Candidate in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.  Her thesis examines long-term poverty reduction in the Bolsa Família program.

How Sustainable are Latin America’s Advances on Poverty and Inequality?

By Eric Hershberg

Brazil Contrasts

“Projeto Contrastes.” Photo Credit: Gabriela Sakamoto / Flickr / Creative Commons

The significant decline in poverty rates and income inequality in Latin America over the past two decades – driven by a combination of sustained economic growth and intelligently designed social policies – may slow or even be reversed as economic conditions deteriorate across much of the region.  Poverty had begun to drop in most countries even before the commodity boom accelerated growth rates in South America beginning around 2003.  The “Washington Consensus” policies of the 1990s impacted wage income and employment negatively, but other factors diminished their impact on poverty.  By overcoming profound macro-economic instability, which among other things produced hyperinflation that devastated disadvantaged sectors of the population, the economic adjustments of that period were not entirely regressive.  Moreover, a concurrent shift toward targeted social programs – which redirected subsidies away from less vulnerable segments of the population in order to protect the poorest of the poor.  By 2002, the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day had declined 4.6 per cent from where it had been at the beginning of the 1990s, according to the World Bank, while the number living on less than $3.10 stayed flat and actually rose (from 135.6 million to 138.1 million).  Performance varied across countries.  By 2012, after a strong decade of growth and a wave of progressive governments, the progress was much more impressive, with poverty dropping to 33.7 million ($1.90/day) and 72.2 million ($3.10/day).

Inequality declined also – a different challenge in the region that Kelly Hoffman and Miguel Centeno aptly labeled the “lopsided continent.”  Measured by GINI coefficients, income inequality in Latin America, which exceeded that of any other world region at the beginning of the century, grew less pronounced under governments of various ideological proclivities.  A substantial body of research shows that this was a product of two factors.

  • Investments in primary and secondary education, which accelerated during the neo-liberal years, meant lower wage premiums for those with more than basic skills: near universal attendance in secondary school reduced the significance of gaps between workers who had secondary education and those who had little schooling.
  • Innovative social policies – particularly conditional cash transfers – meant that the lower rungs of the income ladder received meaningful transfers from the state, enabling them to narrow the income gaps vis-à-vis less disadvantaged sectors. Less frequently acknowledged was the positive impact of reforms on minimum wage policies and the creation or expansion of non-contributory pensions, both of which were pushed aggressively by several governments associated with the “Left Turns.”  Non-contributory pensions were especially important since the most vulnerable of Latin American aged populations, having spent their working years toiling in the informal sector, had previously lacked any sort of retirement pension.  (Read further analysis of pension reform.)

The region’s slowdown in economic growth and the pressure on public finance brought about by the end of the commodity boom – and the infusion of cash into state coffers that it afforded – raise questions about the sustainability of these advances.  The benefits of investments in education will endure for some time.  Even if education budgets decline, the costs in terms of lower educational achievement would take years to become evident, and it is not at all certain that the funding will decline.  However, the social programs are much more vulnerable, as are the ambitious efforts to increase minimum wages and labor protections more broadly.  Should the economic contraction underway in some countries and on the horizon in others generate an increase in informality, the labor market achievements of recent years could be quickly eroded.   This would impact inequality, and it might soon exacerbate poverty as well.

June 3, 2016

The Critical Role of Universities in Latin America’s Future

By Rodrigo Arocena*

Tec de Monterrey

University students in Monterrey, Mexico. Photo Credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the latest commodity boom winds down, universities in Latin America can play a leading role in helping the region rebound from the resulting economic slowdown and build itself a more prosperous and equitable future.  The consequences of the boom for economic, political, and social conditions in the region are hotly (and rightly) contested.  But one inescapable conclusion is that inadequate attention was paid to raising societies’ knowledge and qualifications in the production of goods and services.  This matters greatly, because knowledge gaps and skill deficits lie at the heart of what underdevelopment means today.  If the focus in the decades following World War II was on addressing disparities in industrialization, one of the challenges now is over-specialization in productive activities with low added-value of knowledge and qualifications.  When such specialization persists, social and environmental problems are not manageable in the long term.  Differences concerning knowledge and higher education are also one of the main factors behind inequality, in both North and South.  In Latin America, traditionally considered the most unequal region in the world, inequality in recent years has been reduced in a handful of countries and so has poverty in almost all of them.  But such social progress may be jeopardized soon not only because of economic and political changes but also because of quite weak progress made expanding knowledge capabilities and applying them to collective problems.

Universities are at the heart of the solution.  In the knowledge-based and innovation-driven economies that emerged in the North during the last decades of the 20th century, universities obviously made a difference.  They were fundamental actors in the accelerated expansion of advanced education that is closely connected with that type of economy.  They generated new scientific and technological knowledge and often channeled its use into productive activities.  Even then, in the advanced economies of the North private sector firms perform a quite larger proportion of total research and development than universities.  Moreover, Northern universities are mainly oriented by market demand, meaning that actors who are already knowledge-strong obtain most of the benefits of what universities do, fostering what could be called knowledge-based inequality.  This is different from Latin America in several ways:

  • Public universities in Latin America are the main generators of new knowledge, which is why they should get priority when thinking about the future of the region’s development.
  • They are frequently well plugged into National Innovation Systems, the web of actors and institutions responsible for upgrading productivity through the generation and effective use of new knowledge.
  • They represent a continuation, although at a weakened level, of the tradition of the socially committed university forged by the Latin American University Reform Movement.

In any country of the world, knowledge democratization deserves high priority in every progressive agenda – and Latin American universities are, at least potentially, fundamental actors in this task.  Democratizing access and success in higher education, and thus trying to overcome an ancient social divide that stymies development, is key.  The task also means fostering research in all disciplines and applying it to collective problems, as has occurred with research and innovation oriented to social inclusion.  The Latin American ideal highlights merging the modern university’s two long-established missions – teaching and research – with a third one, called “extension,” which entails cooperation with external actors in knowledge generation, cultural creation, and problem-solving, with priority given to the situation of deprived sectors.  As motors for knowledge expansion, and thus for social inclusion, Latin American universities make an invaluable contribution to development and the deepening of democracy.

April 28, 2016

* Rodrigo Arocena served as Rector of the Universidad de la República, Uruguay, from 2006 to 2014.

 

Remittances and Sustainable Community Development in Latin America

By Aaron T. Bell and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: Futureatlas.com / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Futureatlas.com / Flickr / Creative Commons

Remittances to Latin America hit a record high in 2014 at $65.3 billion, according to the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, but their impact on development would be much greater with better coordination between sending  and recipient communities.  Mexico receives over one third of those funds, but remittances represent a significant component of GDP for many countries across the region.  The bulk comes from the United States, where 54 million Hispanics include 19 million first-generation immigrants, according to 2013 U.S. census figures.  In several Central American and Caribbean countries, funds sent home by migrants represent the largest single source of foreign exchange.

  • Remittances alleviate poverty by contributing to household income, helping to satisfy basic consumption needs, and sometimes enabling savings and investments in education.
  • Groups of migrants from particular communities sometimes pool resources through hometown associations to support shared objectives back home. A paved road or a new soccer field affects quality of life in tangible ways, and émigré financing of local political campaigns can determine the results of elections for mayors and other officials.
  • But remittances seldom promote local economic development initiatives that will generate sustainable incomes and opportunities for wide segments of the population – missing opportunities to address the causes of migration in the first place.

Some governments, development agencies, and philanthropies look to remittances as a potential mechanism for ensuring that Latin American citizens enjoy living conditions that afford them the “right not to migrate” from home communities.  Last month the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) and the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) convened a workshop to explore the challenges and opportunities for linking diaspora organizations in the United States, their communities of origin in Latin America and the Caribbean, and potential philanthropic partners to advance community development in the region through the effective deployment of remittancesParticipants identified several challenges.

  • Cooperation between immigrant-led diaspora organizations and their sending communities and governments is not a given.
  • Despite some research into hometown associations – created in the United States by migrants to connect with their communities of origin – we have relatively limited knowledge about how they function and the conditions that enable them to support community development.
  • Effective transnational cooperation requires broad multi-sectoral partnerships aligning immigrant-led groups, sending community organizations, and possibly governments and international funding institutions.

Despite information gaps and practical obstacles, there are successes to celebrate, such as the Salvadoran Fundación para la Educación Social, Económico y Cultural, with which the IAF has partnered.  Technical training on how to handle incoming funds and face-to-face meetings between participants and supporters in the United States and El Salvador have promoted transparency and trust.  Participants in the CLALS/IAF workshop offered several potential avenues for community organizations and philanthropic foundations to build enduring institutional connections.  It was agreed that further research should be conducted on hometown associations and other forms of diaspora organization to better understand how they function, how they relate to their affiliated sending communities, and how they can be catalysts to promote local development.  Policy-based research institutions in Latin America should be brought into the conversation, as should mainstream Latino organizations in the United States.  And immigrant associations and their counterparts in Latin America should not have to grapple with complex development challenges alone.  Indeed, U.S.-based community organizations and philanthropies could play a valuable role in catalyzing cooperation aimed at promoting development by making the case for public policies and transnational collaborative efforts that support “the right not to migrate.” Such development-supporting initiatives could, at least in theory, gain resonance across political groupings in the United States, appealing both to those interested in fostering global development and those concerned about immigration.

August 4, 2015

Pope Francis’s Pastoral Mission

By Alexander Wilde*

Photo Credit: Ministério da Defesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ministério da Defesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

The primary purpose of Pope Francis’s trip to Latin America – like all papal visits since Pope Paul VI made the first in 1968 before the historic meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia – is pastoral.  The media are grasping for the implications of his visiting Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay this week, looking for a theme, for example, in the common factors of their poverty, indigenous populations, and environmental conflicts.  Others wonder if this Argentine pope, well acquainted with Peronism, carries a political message about the dangers of left-wing populism.  Yet others posit this trip in terms of religious “competition” to recapture market share from Evangelicals.

This visit and this extraordinary pope, however, are focused on his broader pastoral message – conveying to the faithful his deepest beliefs about what their faith demands of him and of them.  Francis, in contrast to his immediate predecessors, has given a strongly social orientation to this pastoral ministry, while reinforcing its spiritual foundation in personal faith.  In doing this, he has embraced the renewal wrought by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and what he apparently judges the positive insights of liberation theology.  Christians must live their faith in the world and their times, and that includes engaging with other “men and women of good will” to realize God’s purposes for humanity.  Pope Francis repeats that phrase, taken from Pope John XXIII, in his new environmental encyclical Laudato Si’.  Visiting these three countries – in which conflicts over land, oil, forests, and water have mobilized social protests – presents clear opportunities to speak out about how the encyclical’s analysis and moral judgments may apply in concrete settings.

Pope Francis brings to his pastoral visit a belief that he and the Catholic Church should “meet people where they are.”  During 15 years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, that meant being an active presence among the poor in the villas miserias.  Now he links that pastoral injunction to global issues of poverty, development, and the environment.  He appears to feel a deep responsibility to spur action but at the same time a strong grasp of the intractability of the larger processes, political and natural, involved.  He has said more than once that he expects his papacy to be brief, suggesting that he may view this trip within a God-given responsibility to use his limited time and moral authority to help us confront the most fundamental problems of our future together in this world.  Latin Americans have shown growing awareness of these problems.  Their response to this trip is probably not best judged by Mass attendance but rather by whether they can take concrete steps to link, as Francis does, the “cry of the poor” and the “cry of the earth” in their societies. 

July 7, 2015

* Alexander Wilde is editor of Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming December 2015). 

The Papal Encyclical: Driving Debate in Latin America

By Evan Berry*

Pope Francis

Photo Credit: Raffaele Esposito / Flickr / Creative Commons

Pope Francis’s encyclical on human ecology, due to be published this week, seems likely to contribute to a range of ongoing debates.  Entitled Laudato Sii, the document has already become a touchstone for debates about the moral dimension of climate politics and triggered heated debate within the global Catholic community about the pontiff’s authority on climate change.  It links care for the poor with environmental stewardship and makes a theological case against the “culture of consumerism.”  A vocal Catholic environmental movement has embraced it, while detractors are raising concerns about the fusion of theology and science, and some Church conservatives fear it will feed into arguments for “population control.”  Non-Catholics, including secular environmental organizations, the progressive media, and leaders from other religious traditions, are also studying it.

Champions of the document claim that it could have broad implications.  They expect it to legitimize civil society organizations committed to the climate and justice; affect the behavior of millions of individual Catholics; influence Catholic political leaders who are skeptical or obstructionist about climate change; and become a factor in ongoing international negotiations.  Perhaps zealously, these claims imply that tectonic changes are underway in the international political landscape, especially in the United States, where Hispanic Catholics are the demographic group most concerned about climate change, and in Latin America, a region both shaped heavily by Catholic tradition and uniquely imperiled by the threat of global warming.

For Latin America, which has been front and center in climate politics in recent years, the implications of the encyclical are potentially deep.  Peru and Brazil have hosted recent international conferences on climate change, and the Amazon, a key global carbon sink, ensures governments’ high interest in the international environmental dialogue.  The region’s vulnerability to glacial melt, storm intensification, drought, and rising sea levels also give the issue salience.  The challenges posed by climate change come at a time that many lower-income countries believe that Latin America can be a source of development models that address income gaps, raise literacy rates, and expand access to health care while protecting the environment.  Francis’s teachings on ecology and consumerism will resonate with and reinforce existing ecological movements – Buen Vivir and other groups link the issues – and his imprimatur could even facilitate rapprochement between leftists and centrists within the Church.  On a political level, the region’s reliance on energy exports, such as in the Pope’s native Argentina, may make it harder for public officials to advocate oil and gas development without seriously addressing the climatic impact.  The situation is similar in Brazil, where Pope Francis’ popularity and ecological orientation are starkly contrasted with the President Rousseff’s abysmal ratings and poor oversight of Petrobras.  But religion, environment, and politics are nowhere more likely to come into confluence than in Peru, where an upcoming election touches on several intensive socio-environmental conflicts, and where public awareness about climate change is well established.  Whether or not the Latin American leader of the region’s historically dominant religion has all the solutions, his encyclical seems likely to play into the moral and political debates the region needs and welcomes.

June 16, 2015

*Evan Berry is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University.

Panama: A Central American Singapore?

By Tom Long*

Singapore (left) and Panama City (right) / William Cho and Jim Nix / Flickr / Creative Commons

Singapore (left) and Panama City (right) / William Cho and Jim Nix / Flickr / Creative Commons

As a transportation hub, logistics center, and regional financial player, Panama has long been painted by investment bankers and Panamanian politicians as a potential “Singapore of Latin America,” but that vision still seems a way off.  In some respects, Panama’s story has been quite impressive.  For a decade, it has boasted GDP growth far beyond the regional average, even surpassing 10 percent in some recent years.  Unlike many of its neighbors, its dollar-based economy relies on services, not exports of commodities or low-value-added light manufacturing.  Since the 1989-1990 U.S. invasion to unseat General Manuel Noriega, the total size of the Panamanian economy has quadrupled in constant dollars.  It is also different from Singapore in important ways.  Singapore’s approach to planning and public housing might be helpful in Panama City, which has suffered traffic, environmental degradation, and inadequate housing for the poor as a consequence of poorly planned growth.

In other important ways, however, the Panama-Singapore comparison is less apt.

  • Singapore is a city, with nearly two million more people than Panama has spread across 100 times the landmass. Urban-rural divides are wide in Panama, with poor delivery of health and education services outside the cities, exacerbating inequality.  A Singapore-style strategy in Panama would leave the countryside behind – and indigenous and Afro-Caribbean populations would benefit much less.
  • Differences between the two countries in governance – for better and worse – are profound. The Panamanian people are much freer under the country’s democracy than they would be under a single-party-dominated system like Singapore’s.  In other ways, though, Panama’s governance leaves much to be desired.  Corruption is a massive problem, and watchdog groups highlight weakness in the rule of law, judicial independence, and press freedom.  Projects to expand the Panama Canal and build a capital city subway are over budget and behind schedule, and have suffered from strikes, contract disputes, and questionable bidding practices.  While it may seem easy to blame the corruption on former President Martinelli, who faces criminal charges, the problem has much deeper roots.
  • The two countries have very different policies toward education. Singapore invested, and continues to invest, heavily in world-class universities.  Panama lacks these, weakening its ability to compete globally in industries where innovation is key.  While Panama’s primary education has improved, its research and development lags.
  • A final difference is where the countries find themselves in their political and economic evolution. Singapore became independent 50 years ago, but it has been only a quarter century since Panama ended its kleptocratic, military rule.  It has been just 15 since the United States officially turned control of the canal over to Panamanian authorities.  The roots of its problems cannot be easily or quickly extirpated.

Panama’s boosters often use the comparison to highlight the areas in which Panama excels – economic growth, unique geography, and infrastructure crucial to global shipping and air transit.  The comparison might be more helpful in highlighting areas where Panama needs to improve.  These include dedicating resources to higher education and R&D, addressing inequality, rooting out corruption, and enhancing political and bureaucratic accountability.  Singaporean scholar Alan Chong argues that Singapore’s attempt to present itself as a model, global city is in part a foreign policy strategy of “virtual enlargement.”  The city-state’s wealth, reputation, and active role in international organizations allow it to “punch above its weight” in Southeast Asia and beyond.  Some chapters of Panama’s recent economic story might be the envy of neighbors with their own canal dreams, but the country will need to focus on governance and accountability if even its logistics-hub strategy is in fact going to deliver shared welfare at home and enhanced influence abroad – let alone become a Latin American equivalent of an Asian Tiger.

March 2, 2015

* Dr. Long is a visiting professor in International Relations at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, which is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

Haiti: Another Crisis on the Anniversary of a Crisis

By Emma Fawcett*

Cinco anos depois do terremoto que devastou o Haiti / Agência Brasil Fotografias / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Cinco anos depois do terremoto que devastou o Haiti / Agência Brasil Fotografias / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Haiti recently marked the five-year anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquake and missed yet another deadline for reaching an agreement on the country’s long-overdue elections.  On January 12, the parliament was effectively dissolved as the terms of all but 10 senators expired.  Without quorum or a new electoral law, President Martelly now rules by decree.  Many in the opposition, whose protests in the last several months forced the resignation of Prime Minister Lamothe, now also seek Martelly’s resignation.  Martelly has asked protesters to be patient, but some claim the electoral impasse is part of the president’s larger strategy for consolidating his power.  The U.S. Embassy in Haiti has expressed commitment to continue working with him and “whatever legitimate Haitian government institutions remain,” and hopes that Martelly will use his “powers responsibly to organize inclusive, credible and transparent elections.”  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Martelly by phone, reiterating support for his administration and acknowledging his “efforts to work with the Haitian parliament and political parties to resolve outstanding issues.”  On Sunday, the UN Security Council concluded its three-day visit by urging politicians to work together to ensure elections can proceed, and refrained from commenting on whether the planned cuts to UN peacekeeping forces would take place in June.

Although there is continued handwringing over how $13.5 billion pledged in earthquake relief has been spent, there are some signs of economic growth.  Capacity in the apparel and hospitality sectors has increased dramatically, priming the pump for further private-sector development, but the results to date are weak.  Caracol Industrial Park (in the northeast) and the Lafito Industrial Free Zone (outside Port-au-Prince) are moving forward, though Caracol has thus far generated just 5,000 of the 65,000 jobs it was expected to create.  Minister of Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin has pushed tourism hard to attract foreign direct investment (FDI).  Tourism was a natural outgrowth of earthquake recovery: hotels rooms were urgently needed first for relief workers, now for engineers and businesspeople, and eventually (Haitians hope) for tourists.  Pétionville, located in the hills above Port-au-Prince and home to much of the country’s elite, has received a remarkable facelift.  It now boasts several renovated or newly-constructed international class hotels, though guests remain elusive.  Some of the tent cities have been cleared.  In Jalousie, one of the slums above Pétionville, concrete homes were painted in bright tropical shades, designed to evoke the work of Haitian artist Préfète Duffau.  (Critics of the project pointed out the neighborhood has more pressing needs than cans of paint, and wryly noted that while Port-au-Prince’s hillsides are covered in slums, only those overlooking Pétionville’s wealthiest residents received cosmetic treatment.)

Despite the political uncertainties and stalled reconstruction efforts, there is a sense among Haitian and international private-sector actors that moving forward is “now or never.”  Many point to Martelly’s unprecedented focus on attracting FDI and willingness to create incentive frameworks.  In field interviews, investors in Haiti and neighboring countries speak of hope that the country’s natural, cultural, and historical resources will make it a viable destination – as well as hope that U.S. and other foreign backing continues to expand the apparel and tourism sectors.  There are enormous challenges ahead, to be sure, compounded by the political crisis and potential for instability.  The government-led strategic planning process has been described as “opaque” and “accelerated” without much room for consultation with either the private sector or local communities.  Carnival Cruise Lines’ plans to build a new port on Ǐle de la Tortue have become mired in land tenure issues.  And inclusive growth – strategically targeted and yet expansive enough to lift Haitians out of poverty – will be hard to come by without improved institutional capacity, made all the more difficult by the events of the last three weeks. 

January 29, 2015

* Emma Fawcett is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at American University.

Social Science that Matters: Pérez Sáinz on Latin America’s Inequalities

By Eric Hershberg

Image courtesy of FLACSO-Costa Rica

Latin America has made important advances dealing with income inequality over the past decade, but sustaining this modest progress requires a deeper grasp of its underlying causes.  Since Princeton sociologists Miguel Centeno and Kelly Hoffman in 2003 published their provocative article “The Lopsided Continent” probing Latin America’s infelicitous distinction as the region with the most unequal income distribution, the GINI coefficients – indicators of the gap between rich and poor – have declined in a number of Latin American countries.  Most of the advances, which admittedly appear tenuous and were slowed by the Great Recession of 2008-2009, can be traced to the expansion of secondary education and, particularly in countries governed by the left, unprecedented investments in social programs that have benefited the most disadvantaged sectors of the population.  Even now, however, income distribution in the region remains as unequal as anywhere on the planet – sapping productivity by depriving populations of opportunities to upgrade skills that could be deployed in knowledge-intensive economic activities.  Inequality also provokes social dislocations that undermine the welfare of the poor and non-poor alike, place burdens on over-extended state institutions and generate pathologies, such as crime, that undermine economic performance.  Moreover, the task of sustaining democratic political regimes is rendered much more difficult.

A new book by Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz, a sociologist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, takes a fresh look at the dynamics of unequal power that influence how the fruits of economic activity become concentrated in some individuals and social groups – and remain beyond the reach of large swathes of a country’s inhabitants.  MERCADOS Y BÁRBAROS: La persistencia de las desigualdades de excedente en América Latina is in my view a landmark contribution to the sociological literature, and it identifies four intertwined processes that account for the disempowerment of important segments of the population, often characterized by subordinate status associated with gender, race, ethnicity or region.

  • The prevalence of precarious employment in labor markets, as a result of which people are condemned to toil endlessly but never enjoy the benefits of having a stable job.
  • The impossibility for most small-landholders or petty entrepreneurs to accumulate capital that might enable them to invest in the future of themselves, their families and their communities.
  • The weakness or absence of state institutions that might contribute to forging social citizenship encompassing all of a country’s inhabitants, the result of which is that vulnerable individuals and communities are left to fend entirely for themselves.
  • The overwhelming weight in Latin America of social categorizations – motivated by pervasive sexism, racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia – that define excluded populations as less deserving of rights and opportunities than others.

If societies are to be expected to invest in social science, then it is reasonable to expect that social scientists strive to illuminate the underlying roots of their greatest challenges, such as the yawning inequalities in Latin America, and the sources of their persistence over time.  Through his historically informed and empirically rich analysis, drawing on theoretical insights from Marxian traditions and from the work of sociologists such as the late Charles Tilly, Pérez Sáinz has made an invaluable contribution to intellectual debates about inequality which should inform efforts to consolidate the modest gains we have seen in Latin America and thus help the region outgrow its enduring legacy of debilitating inequality.

December 4, 2014

The Open Veins of Latin America: Disowned?

By Núria Vilanova

tintincai / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

tintincai / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Forty-three years after its publication, the emblematic and widely read Latin American anti-colonialist bestseller The Open Veins of Latin America has been disowned by its creator, 74-year-old Eduardo Galeano – but its literary message remains vital.  Interviewed last May about the book often called the “Bible of the Latin American Left,” Galeano said, “I don’t regret having written it, but it belongs to a time that to me has been overcome.”  His words left a sense of abandonment and deceit among many, who asked:  What had happened to the bleeding veins of Latin America drained by European and U.S. colonial powers?  Hadn’t the region been sacrificed since Columbus to profit diabolic foreign interests?  When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of the book in 2009, was he clinging to an interpretation of Latin American history no longer embraced by the region’s leading thinkers?  Others asked, however well-deserved a denunciation of the exploitation and oppression laid out in the book was, were they to be blamed for all of the damage inflicted in the region?

Galeano’s interview signaled a refocussing of his analysis rather than wholesale rejection of it.  He said Open Veins was too boring and written in a tedious style and with the doctrinal tone of the traditional left.  He added that in those early days of his career he did not know enough politics and economics to write a book of such reach.  What Galeano has demonstrated by this unassuming recognition is that he has evolved through the years and, like many others, realizes that the dependentista paradigm, with its rejection of western capitalism, that fueled his book had important shortcomings, and overlooked other key problems.  He underestimated the impact of weak institutions – anticipated by Bolívar in the early 19th Century – and internal political and economic issues such as government corruption and the unwillingness of the ruling classes to contribute to the development of more democratic and egalitarian societies, as Marx himself would argue when writing about Southern countries.

The real – and not insignificant – value of Open Veins today lies in its literary character.  Its capacity to capture the spirit, the hope and the rage of those turbulent times in the region lives on.  Filled with metaphors and symbolism, it is an essay, whose literary dimension makes it current and ageless.  Stemming from a deep Latin American tradition, the book crosses the blurred borders between literature and history, sociology, politics and other disciplines alike.  Like José Martí, Ricardo Palma and Octavio Paz, Galeano attempted to transgress the boundaries between literature – subjectivity, imagination and hyperbole – and disciplines based on empiricism and factuality.  This practice can lead to challenges over facts, but the messages remain compelling.  Elizabeth Burgos’s testimonial account of Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchú in I Rigoberta Menchú (1984) was criticized for alleged inaccuracies, yet it is difficult for anyone to deny that the suffering of the Mayan Quiché community in the 70s and 80s was at least as cruel as Rigoberta depicted in the book.  Carlos Fuentes once said that reality will always overpower fiction, no matter how hard writers tried.  The intellectual evolution that Galeano has displayed is welcome, and it is also an inspiration to reread Open Veins and Latin America with much-needed fresh eyes.

December 2, 2014