Sunday, June 22, 2008

Education - What's up with Cuba?

On Friday the UNESCO's Latin America office released the report on an evaluation of the performance of 3rd and 6th graders in math, reading, and science.
There's is a huge amount of very interesting information, both in the executive summary
and the entire report (10MB pdf) (onfortunately both in Spanish only).
The usual suspects do pretty well - Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay. Argentina doesn't do as well as it used to (and people here are pretty concerned - rightly so).
And then there's Cuba, which doesn't beat, but crushes the competition. On every single imaginable count: They have higher average performances, their top 10% are light years better than the "elite" anywhere else and the lowest quartile still does better than the average of most other countries. Cuba has one of the smallest urban/rural divides and has a girls performing much better than in most other places (slightly better than boys in math and science, significantly better in reading, as is common in such stories).
Above, two of the report's graphs to illustrate (but all others look similar):

I'm not quite sure what to make of this - obviously there is a chance that the Cuban government tried to game the system for propaganda purposes, but that does seem quite unlikely given the look of this (you'd expect smaller rather than larger variation with cheating).
One of the things that always seems to come out of education testing is that not just do more equal countries tend to do better (no big surprise there), but - and I think that really is a surprise - the top students in more equal societies outperform their highly privileged counterparts in countries like Chile or Brazil.

A final thought - if Cuba were to move towards a more market driven system (and my guess would be that if that happens it will be along the lines of China's or Vietnam's gradual reforms) it should be in a very good position for a dramatic economic catch-up.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Some Observations from a Buenos Aires Rally

Wednesday I went to the rally "in defense for democracy", a pro-government demonstration on the Plaza de Mayo, including an address by Christina Fernández Kirchner. Some observations:

1. I guess this shouldn't have come as a big shock, still I was surprised by the amount of flags and blue and white, which were virtually the only colors present at the rally. The above picture gives a pretty accurate impression.

2. Christina is not a very good public speaker (or she doesn't have good speech writers). The speech (full text here) was very much about "me, me, me", while the age of Obama should have taught us that a much more powerful way to engage a big crowd (estimates are a solid 50.000) would be "we". I didn't pick up great enthusiasm in the crowd either.
I think her two strongest points are a law and order argument (you can't just have anyone block routes) and a democracy argument (she repeatedly refered to the leaders of the agricultural organizations as "four men nobody elected, (...) who decide who can use the roads and who cannot"

For me, the worst line was a "false consciousness" argument about the middle class:
esa clase media que muchas veces a partir de prejuicios culturales termina actuando contra sus propios intereses. Los intereses de la clase media son los de los trabajadores, son los de los empresarios comerciantes, son los de los argentinos que tienen sus intereses atados aquí a la tierra, que no pueden girar dólares al exterior, que tienen su casa aquí, sus hijos.
The middle-class support for the farmers has been striking so far (see my earlier post) and does seem a bit odd given their diverging interests, but I think that telling people they are just dumb isn't going to get them back into your camp.

3. Who was there? Most political allies of the Kirchners' were there, although with the notable absences of a couple of provincial governors and the so called "radicalism K", the pro-Kirchner wing of the (supposedly) opposition UCR party.
More interesting for me were the regular attendants. My sense is that most of them were bussed in from the suburbs, where the support for the government is strongest. As a piece of anecdotal evidence - I took the subway after the rally right of Plaza de Mayo towards Palermo and I don't think it was any more crowded than it would commonly be at that time. Página 12 disagrees, claming there was a sizable group of independent middle-class participants.
La Nación claims that there was a rather elaborate choreography in place to keep hostile groups (the truckers' union of CGT boss Moyano and the piqueteros of the notorious Luis D Elía) apart.

4. The fallout: Generally, her speech was perceived as rather hostile and might have destroyed some of the good-will that the decision to take the export taxes to congress may have created. I think a conciliatory speech would have put the agricultural sector in a much more difficult political position.

5. Press coverage - by and large the usual suspects: La Nación blasted it, Página 12 thought it was great. The picture above was the title page of La Nación, which initially surprised me, because I thought it was a pretty positive image to go along with damning coverage. I fear, however, it's actually quite pernicious. The caption read "Los Kirchner, al terminar el acto oficialista en la Plaza de Mayo: "Te amo mucho", le dijo él en ese momento". I think this was supposed to send two messages: First, that Christina is not governing alone, but with Nestor as co-President and secondly that she is weak an needs his encouragement.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Nicaragua - The Sad Decline of a Leftist Icon

By many accounts the Nicaraguan Sandinistas might have been the most decent and most promising of all leftist revolutionaries in Latin America (if not in the world). That makes the recent behavior of Daniel Ortega, the long time Sandinist leader and current president of Nicaragua, so sad:

While abandoning the ideals of the Sandinist revolution - the deal with the Catholic church on abortion seems particularly ugly - he keeps up a revolutionary guise when it is least desirable. His comments on the recently deceased Colombian FARC leader Manuel Marulanda:
"Nuestro hermano fue un luchador extraordinario, que batalló largos años y fue el guerrillero de más larga lucha en la historia de América latina y el Caribe"

(here an English summary by the IHT)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A good source on Venezuela

I have always found it hard to get credible assessments (or even factual accounts) about Venezuela. Some of my favorite news sources - NY Times, The Economist - are completely useless, with strong anti-Chavez positions and little interest in the other side of the story. Much of the left wing press is so enamored with Chavez that their views are equally useless. So where to turn?
I was fortunate to be at a recent talk of Margarita Lopez-Maya, a Venezuelan historian. She's of course well know to anyone working on Venezuela, but, well, I'm not. Lopez Maya usually gets grouped with the Chavistas, but doesn't shy away from harsh criticism against Chavez, especially concerning his recent attempted constitutional reform.
Here's a great, somewhat dated article.
Here a link to an interview with NPR,
and here a lenghty and sophisticated recent interview in Spanish, which includes an interesting application of Laclau's recent use of the idea of "empty signifiers".

She also seems to get interviewed by BBC with some frequency, which once again makes them look very good, too bad their coverage of Latin America is so thin.

Edit: She is also involved in a very interesting project on the Latin American left that Steve Levitsky has put together at Harvard and which (I think) will lead to an edited volume. Thankfully, all the papers from their recent conference have been made available online

Saturday, May 17, 2008


On March first, Colombian troops raided a FARC camp, killing 26 guerilleros (and causing a minor scuffle with Ecuador and Venezuela).
They also secured lots of computer files just described by Interpol. Here´s what they found:
"más de 600 gigas de datos, 37.862 documentos escritos, 452 hojas de cálculo, 210.888 imágenes, 22.481 páginas web, 7989 direcciones individuales de correo electrónico, 10.537 archivos de multimedia de sonido y video, y 983 archivos encriptados"

Two thoughts:
1. Studying criminal groups, terrorists groups, or rebel groups (I suppose the FARC have something of each) has become something of a fad in the social sciences. How cool would it be to get access to those 452 spreadsheets to understand the FARC's finances and logistics? I don't think it's going to happen, but making them available to academics would also (hopefully) lead to a better understanding of the FARC which should be in the Colombian government's interest?

2. 210888 pictures? I suppose they could all be images of tactical sites etc. But given that a rebel camp is probably one of the higher concentrations of testosterone you can find, my best guess would be something else...

Friday, May 16, 2008

Argentine Farmers and Collective Action

One of the less noticed and most interesting parts of the ongoing conflict between farmers and the government is the remarkable cohesion and capacity for collective action of the farmer. After all Marx once likened farmers to a "sack of potatoes" (or Kartoffelsack) because of their inability for collective action. And the Argentine farmers would not seem in a particularly favorable position: They are represented by four different organizations, spread out geographically, and have traditionally not been a very effective actor in Argentine politics. So what happened?
Certainly high world market prices for food have helped. More importantly, though, there seems to be a new generation of farmers, (such as the ones described in this NYT article) who are college educated, use modern technology for both farming and communication (both of which would help to overcome information problems in collective action), and, are apparently very politically savvy:
  • They stopped the first rounds of protests - which led to significant shortages in Buenos Aires - just in time before public opinion in the capital turned against them: According to a recent La Nación poll (to be taken with a thick grain of salt because of the papers' anti-Kirchner views) more than 70s of Porteños support the farmers. Now that they have resumed the protests they block exports, not transports to the city in order to not harm their support among the urban middle class.
  • Their alliance with the urban middle class is impressive - and quite unlikely - as the two groups have opposing interests in almost every economic sense. Yet middle class urbanites took to the streets with the pots and pans in cacerolazos in support of the farmers right after they resumed their protests.
  • As negotiations with the federal government seem stalled, the farmers increasingly address provincial governors, most of whom have ties to Kirchner, but are vulnerable to electoral pressure, especially in the agricultural provinces where large parts of the population sympathizes with the farmers.
  • Finally (and this is my favorite one) according to La Nación the farmers are learning from the best and have hired a French consultant to help organize and co-ordinate their protests. [is "collective action consultant" becoming a new potential field of work for political scientists?]
At the same time the Kirchner's, who have such an impressive record in outmaneuvering their political opponents domestically and internationally appear to be completely off their game. It seems to me that they are getting clobbered on the PR-side of the conflicts, with the farmers constantly emphasizing their willingness to negotiate, while the government appears almost stubborn. To make things worse, Kirchner has almost simultaneously started a bitter conflict with Clarín, the largest and most influential daily.

None of this is to say that in terms of actual policy the government is all wrong. The newest increase in export taxes was actually the result of a moving tax rate that depends on the world market price and is thus (if I understand correctly) in a sense progressive - which seems like a pretty sensible measure to me. In terms of agricultural export taxes I'm less certain. Domestically, I like their distributional effects, but I'm worried about some other effects: One, the obvious effect on world market prices - it increases them - which makes the situation even worse for people in food importing countries who are actually starving.
Secondly the mid-term effect that higher prices could have to increase supply, though I'm not sure how strong that effect would be in practice.
More remotely, it is also clear that Argentina will want to maintain its current trade and current account surplus (which will decrease as exports decrease), but as of now, I'm not very concerned about that: The current account surplus 2007 was as US$ 7bn or about 3% of GDP (for comparison, China is at about 8%).