A Delicate Balance

“As academics we can try to find ways to decrease the conflict instead of exacerbating it.” ~Diana Orces, graduate student from Ecuador
Photo by Daniel Dubois.

America’s political scholars keep a close eye not only on our own democratic process, but on attitudes about democracy worldwide. And Vanderbilt political scientists studying the level of citizen support for democracy in other countries have turned some interesting findings.

Mitchell Seligson, Centennial Professor of Political Science and founder and director of LAPOP (the Latin American Public Opinion Project), recently received up to $11 million in grant support in new and continuing funding through 2014 to support a project known as the AmericasBarometer, a series of surveys conducted throughout North, Central and South America and the Caribbean that explores attitudes about democracy in various regions.

In 2006-07, LAPOP interviewed more than 34,000 people in 22 countries (including the U.S. and Canada) to measure their democratic values and behaviors. Partnering with university scholars and think tanks in those nations–and also receiving support from the United Nations Development Program, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Center for the Americas at Vanderbilt, the LAPOP group in Nashville includes a team of 11 political science Ph.D. students.

The team collects and analyzes data to determine, among other things, whether people in a particular region prefer a system of democracy or a dictatorship, their experience with street-level corruption and crime, whether they prefer a centralized or decentralized form of government, how much they trust their political systems, and how tolerant they are of diversity.

In 1998, Bolivia was the darling of policymakers, says Seligson, because it was making tremendous strides toward a decentralized government. However, the LAPOP survey numbers didn’t match the rhetoric. LAPOP assessments showed that people didn’t believe such reforms were having any impact.

“Those opinions did not fall on welcome ears,” Seligson recalls. “The policymakers said, ‘We’ve reformed Bolivia.’ A few years later the place was in flames. Presidents were being dismissed. There was a series of protests with a lot of violence. That level of discontent was clear to us in many ways from the surveys we did. We said, ‘Even though the reforms in institutions have been important, the average citizen is not getting the message.'”

Because many of the LAPOP graduate students are from Latin America, South America and the Caribbean, they are able to approach problems from both sides of the divide. “We have a saying in Ecuador: When America sneezes, Ecuador gets a cold,” says graduate student Daniel Montalvo. “Whatever happens in the next few months with the American election will determine the future of the relationship between Ecuador and the United States.”

Many people in South America, Montalvo adds, resent the U.S. open-market policy because, since its implementation, poor countries have been flooded with foreign products. As a result, local manufacturing has dried up and local economies have suffered.

“We can show, through these public-opinion
surveys, Ecuadorians’ opinions about their political system,” Montalvo says. “You now see in the U.S. that people are complaining about these same open-market policies that are causing some people in this country to lose their jobs. It’s a problem of globalization.”

Through LAPOP, Vanderbilt is also collecting and analyzing information that catapults it into the immigration debate. Jon Hiskey, associate professor of political science, notes a correlation between the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on certain states in Mexico and waves of illegal immigrants entering the United States.

During the past 15 years, the corn-producing southern states in Mexico have been hardest hit by NAFTA–the same states that also spawn the greatest number of undocumented workers. “Once Mexico was pushed to eliminate subsidies on corn, these producers started migrating,” Hiskey says.

Another graduate student, José Miguel Cruz from El Salvador, was recruited away from Oxford’s Ph.D. program and studies crime and violence in Central America. He says on-the-fly immigration policies often aggravate, rather than alleviate, problems in the United States.

Cruz cites deportation policies in which the U.S. captured Salvadoran gang members, deported them, and then simply released them into the streets of Central America. Without jobs or income, they reformed their gangs, collected guns and ammunition, and are now considered a major security threat in the region. “The U.S. has to understand that it is partially responsible for creating this monster by implementing these policies, without thinking about all the implications,” Cruz says.

Ecuadorian graduate student Diana Orces believes these issues highlight the importance of spreading democratic values, and that it will be impossible to deport the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. “That’s why you have to have a democratic attitude,” she says. “You have to assist them and tolerate them until you find the solution. You have to mitigate the conflict between citizens and immigrants. As academics we can try to find ways to decrease the conflict instead of exacerbating it.”

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