Learning from Latin America

To mark the recent publication of Lessons from Latin America: Innovations in Politics, Culture, and Development, authors Felipe Arocena and Kirk Bowman provide an overview of what inspired them to write the book, and Kirk Bowman discusses the benefits of using it in his Latin American politics course.

lessons from latin americaWe were inspired to write Lessons from Latin America largely by one of our students on a study abroad more than a decade ago. We visited the United States embassies in Montevideo, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina with twenty undergraduate students. At each embassy, a series of government officials would spend about thirty minutes explaining their job and some of their impressions. When each speaker was finished, one determined and perspicacious student would always ask the same question: What lessons could the United States learn from Uruguay (or Argentina)? The response was invariably a look of disbelief and some statement that the question was ridiculous or not serious. How could it be that the United States could learn anything from Latin America? The United States is the model to learn from. Latin America is the failure to avoid.

We reflected regularly on that experience as our paths crossed in Montreal, Atlanta, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and Montevideo. As researchers, we wanted to write a book that included original scholarship, where each chapter would be self-contained and article-length, and include an introduction of some important literature and original scholarly analysis. As teachers, we wanted to produce a book that was accessible to undergraduate students and that would cause students to think about the lessons of Latin America in politics, culture, and development and to challenge the conventional wisdom that Latin America is beneath the United States and Canada and a region of negatives—corruption, violence, hyperinflation, coups, and laziness. We also wanted a book that would explain the past, but also inform the events of today and perhaps even help students and readers make predictions about the future.

After using the final book in a Latin American politics class for the first time this semester at Georgia Tech, this unique format is surpassing my expectations. There are a number of positive benefits of using this book. Some were not anticipated.

  • The readings lead to excellent classroom discussions. The book is explicitly comparative with many cases from Latin America in most chapters. The book is also comparative with the advanced industrial democracies. For example, Chapter 3 presents the lessons from Latin America in aggregating preferences and holding elections, and it is clear that the United States has much to learn from places like Brazil and Costa Rica. This flows into a conversation about power and why the United States maintains an electoral system with clear weaknesses. The questions at the end of each chapter are very useful for class discussion.
  • The book allows students to better understand current events in the region and to make informed predictions about future outcomes. After learning about the Conditional Cash Transfer programs in Brazil, the reduction in income inequality, the substantial increases in the minimum wage, and the lifting of 40 million people out of poverty, students could predict not only the Dilma electoral victory in October 2014, but could identify the Brazilian states that would likely vote overwhelmingly for the Workers Party (PT).
  • The cases highlight not only the well-known and large countries, but also introduce the readers to the innovative policies of many of the ignored cases such as Panama and Uruguay.
  • One of my greatest joys in using this book in class is the effect on the Latin American and minority students in the class. A typical Latin American politics class focuses too heavily on the challenges in the region: the economic lost decade, military regimes, machismo, massive human rights abuses and the like. This book elevates, without cheerleading, the extensive attempts at innovation, many of which are pioneering and now being copied around the world. Latino and Latin American students in the class are uniquely positioned to benefit from these chapters, and to understand and emphasize the heterogeneity in the region.

Finally, the attitude of students towards Latin America experiences a profound shift, and they are quick to pick out new examples of policy innovations in the regions. Just this past week, the international media covered a new policy in Chile, where the government is providing land to a private company to produce medical marijuana products. The private-public partnership is novel and interesting. The continued experience of Latin America in developing and modifying policies in politics, culture, and development will make some of the students lifetime learners and maybe even lead to a second edition of the book.

Kirk Bowman is Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His most recent book is Peddling Paradise: The Politics of Tourism in Latin America (2013).

Felipe Arocena is Professor of Sociology at the Universidad de la República, Uruguay. He has published or edited 10 books, including 2 in the United States: William Henry Hudson: Life, Literature, and Science (2003) and Entrevistas Cubanas: Historias de una Nación Dividida (2004). He has been Visiting Professor at several universities in Europe, Latin America, and North America, including Dartmouth College, Université du Québec à Montréal, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the Catholic University of America.

Note: If you are an instructor and would like to consider adding Lesson from Latin America to the required reading list for an upcoming course, please email requests@utphighereducation.com to request an examination copy.


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