From issue: Energy in the Americas (Summer 2013)

Fresh Look Reviews

Fresh, unique perspectives on recent books from across the hemisphere originally published in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

In this issue:
Photo: Lars Klove

Blogging the Revolution: Caracas Chronicles and the Hugo Chávez Era by Francisco Toro and Juan Cristobal Nagel

José de Córdoba

Venezuela has been on a wild ride since Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998. Now that the Comandante—as he liked to be called—has left us, things could get loonier a lot faster. That’s one reason why Caracas Chronicles, an English-language blog that has provided a running narration since 2002 of the Chávez era, will continue to be an indispensable tool of analysis and information for addicts of the Chávez story—a story that so far has managed to outlive the flamboyant president.

With the death of Chávez and his spectacular funeral still fresh in the collective memory, the publication of Blogging the Revolution: Caracas Chronicles and the Hugo Chávez Era, a compilation of some of the blog’s best postings, is well timed. It provides an opportunity to look back on the past and to meditate on the future of Venezuela as it teeters between comedy and tragedy. This is an essential read for anybody interested in Venezuela.

 The primary audience of both the book and the blog appear to be bilingual professional Venezuelans, many of whom have left the country. The authors are members of this group: Francisco Toro, a political scientist who lives in Montreal and Juan Cristobal Nagel, an economist who lives in Chile. Their blog benefits both from their frequent visits home and their close contacts with sources inside the country, combining keen analytic abilities with a cool reportorial style. But apart from Venezuelan émigrés, Caracas Chronicles attracts readers drawn to the region’s most interesting stories of the past decade.

 The book features only a small number (about 100) of the more than 6,000—and counting—posts published over the past 11 years. But the vignettes capture the reality of the Chávez era, ranging from daily life events to the period of sometimes violent confrontation between chavistas and anti-chavistas.

 The postings in the first section are essential for anybody who wants to get beyond what the authors call the “static chaos” of Venezuela since Chávez came to power. The authors regularly return to a key theme: how Venezuela’s politics and psychology have been shaped by the discovery of the country’s enormous oil resources early in the twentieth century, and by the resulting patronage machine.

As the authors suggest, oil riches also translate into the “magical thinking” that permeates Venezuelan society. A part of that magical thinking is the deeply held belief by many Venezuelans that despite the inability of oil money to keep up with population growth, the country is fabulously wealthy and the state’s only job is to redistribute the wealth, making all Venezuelans rich.  “In the end, breaking the petrostate as [a] social system is child’s play compared to the monumental task of breaking the petrostate as an idea,” writes Toro.

Also, the authors tackle the question of why Venezuela remains polarized. A blog post titled “Towards a critical theory of Chavismo” draws on the work of Venezuelan intellectual J.M. Briceño, who posits that Venezuelans and Venezuelan culture have three co-existing types of discourse: a rational Western one; a colonial authoritarian one; and a “savage” discourse stemming from the wounds left by the Spanish conquest and African slavery. This third mindset, which amounts to nostalgia for a non-Western way of life, considers the European rationalist critique common to most of the Chávez opposition as profoundly oppressive. Chávez’ ability to exploit this both infuriates and baffles the opposition, who are reluctant to admit, says Toro, that this non-Western tradition strikes a deep chord with millions of Venezuelans for whom Chávez served as a spokesman.

 Not to be overlooked are the many funny, well-reported profiles of Venezuelans that illustrate the contradictions and absurdities of everyday life in this allegedly revolutionary country. On one occasion, Nagel goes to a seminar where chavistas must listen to humorless officials as they try to define Bolivarian socialism. One chavista says he is ready to let go of capitalist tastes such as eating at McDonald’s. A line is drawn, an alarm is sounded. Groans arise from the audience, and a woman behind him mutters “Don’t mess with MacDonald’s. I like my McNuggets.” 

Nowhere in the annals of human history has so much revolutionary rhetoric about the awfulness of the rich coexisted so peacefully and happily with over-the-top conspicuous consumption as in the Chávez era. This is true for the Boliburgueses, the new class of politically connected chavista businessmen who have made millions and in some cases billions of dollars from a state that is breaking all previous records for corruption and opacity. And it is also true for the many Venezuelans who manage even today to make lots of money by gaming currency controls and arbitraging dollars. Under Chávez, Caracas was a place where one could attend a Byelorussian fashion fair one day, and on the next day watch huge cartoon-like hot-air Chávez figures tower over the city, as in a Venezuelan version of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Many of the blog postings capture these at times surreal scenes. One night, Nagel takes readers to a lavish wedding in red Caracas. Champagne flows all night. There is a sushi bar and a Chinese chef. Astounded at the luxury, Nagel asks himself: “In what chapter of Das Kapital is the bit about the sushi bars?” A friend tells him this is nothing compared to a Boliburgués wedding where the bride’s mother had demanded furniture be brought in from Paris to set the right tone.

 There is a lot more. A long post dissects the traumatic events of April 2002, when Chávez was forced out of the Miraflores Palace, only to return to power three days later. The post, acknowledging the work of journalists who minutely investigated the series of events, performs a great service in helping to understand this crucial episode. The authors may be unashamedly anti-chavista, but they are unsparing in their analysis of the opposition’s foibles, mistakes and painful triumphs. The book, like the blogs that inspired it, is a labor of love. One hopes that Venezuelans, and everyone else interested in the fate of the country, will continue to be served by the entertaining and insightful dispatches of Caracas Chronicles.

Reforma fiscal e equidade social by Fernando Rezende

Britta Crandall

For over a decade, Brazil has been a model of fiscal responsibility. Brazil’s success makes it easy to forget that it once suffered from one of the worst fiscal performances in Latin America, complicated by hyperinflation, short-lived currencies, and massive debt-to-GDP ratios. Today’s economic stability also makes it easy to assume that Brazil’s fiscal house is in order. But while chronic public profligacy—driving inflation and currency overvaluation—may be ancient history, the need for fiscal reform remains pressing.

In his compelling book, Reforma fiscal e equidade social (Fiscal Reform and Social Equity)—the third in his trilogy of scholarly works on Brazil’s economy—Fernando Rezende, an economist and professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, makes a strong case for such reform.

Rezende provides a compelling overview of the steps Brazil took to achieve its economic turnaround, capped by a 2000 law that set strict limits on debt levels for both states and the federal government, and mandated fiscal surpluses that successive presidential administrations have almost religiously followed.

However, as Rezende notes, the nation is still plagued by excessive corporate tax burdens, high payroll taxes, and the lack of coordination among all levels of government on collection and expenditures—just to name a few areas where fiscal reform is sorely needed. While these factors have long been recognized, Rezende adds a convincing additional incentive: Brazil’s income inequality. Without comprehensive reform, he writes, “it won’t be possible to correct the enormous social injustice that has been accumulating over time.”

Brazil’s skewed income distribution is no secret. While improving, Brazil’s Gini coefficient is one of the worst in a notoriously unequal region. The debate revolves around how to address it. Brazil’s Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program, created in 2003, is now a worldwide model for reducing poverty and inequality. But Rezende believes more can be done, and advocates more efficient spending rather than additional spending on the poor.

Perhaps more important, he argues that incremental changes won’t be effective. Instead, he writes, Brazil needs broad, sweeping fiscal reform that deals with the tax system, the budget, social guarantees, and improved resource sharing among states. That includes raising the quality of public spending, which he says involves maintaining a balanced fiscal budget, protecting the neediest citizens, improving cooperation between federal entities, and increasing transparency so that citizens know how their taxes are being spent. He notes that Brazil’s level of budgetary transparency falls below that of Costa Rica, Peru and Panama.1

In short, he writes, money should go where the problems are. For example, Brazil needs to modernize its red-tape-clogged tax system, which has fostered the notorious “Custo Brasil”—the catchphrase describing the high costs of doing business in Brazil. Policymakers could also find better ways of allocating tax revenues among strong and weak tax bases. He makes the logical argument that “the larger the interregional gap, the larger the imbalances in the distribution of tax bases will be, creating the need to design a system of transfers that will correct these fiscal imbalances.”

Rezende also argues for an ambitious look at the limitations imposed by Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, implemented at the end of Brazil’s military regime. The constitution mandated fiscal decentralization, but without a corresponding transfer of responsibility—leading to a situation in which state and municipal governments enriched themselves at the expense of federal coffers. While the 2000 Fiscal Responsibility Law partially addressed the situation by setting strict debt limits for all levels of government, the budget is still rigid. The result, concludes Rezende, leaves “the future […] tied to the past.”

Rezende directly addresses the most important question surrounding the fiscal reform debate: is it possible? Surprisingly, perhaps, public support for fiscal reform has been strong in Brazil since the early 1990s, with over 60 fiscal reform proposals circulated in Congress in the 1990s alone. Rezende correctly points out that comprehensive reform reduces uncertainty over its impact on public revenue, as it creates automatic systems of compensation. Rezende acknowledges that while “the mere mention of sweeping fiscal reform is met with skepticism,” the nature of all-embracing reform is indeed possible, as it mitigates some resistance by limiting specific winners and losers.

But on the larger point of whether broad reform is possible—or likely—the answer may not be as clear as Rezende hopes. Efforts to deal with the budget, taxation, transfers, and welfare programs have been stymied by the country’s reluctance to change a system that actually works in meeting fiscal targets. Brazil’s tax system may be inefficient and regressive, but it brings in massive amounts of income (thanks in part to strict enforcement). It is also important to remember that Brazil’s three major reforms in fiscal governance were prompted by crises.2 The current economic environment, while not perfect, can hardly qualify as a crisis.

President Dilma Rousseff remains among the most popular leaders in the world, with approval ratings surpassing 75 percent, until the protests in June. Adjusting the tax system now— in the absence of a crisis demanding it—could be deemed political suicide. While high, Brazil’s level of income inequality improved over the past decade. For these reasons alone, without even addressing Brazil’s unwieldy political system, all-encompassing fiscal reform is unlikely in the near future.

All the same, Rezende’s detailed analysis makes Reforma fiscal e equidade social a mandatory read for practitioners and students interested in the fiscal performance of Brazil. And his proposal that the Rousseff administration should abandon the current path of partial reform in favor of a new course of more embracing reform deserves attention.

This is especially true, given recent signs of “fiscal slippage.” The Rousseff administration recently admitted that it would meet its 2013 primary fiscal surplus only by using creative accounting and by tapping the sovereign wealth fund established in 2008. Congress is also debating ways to loosen the Fiscal Responsibility Law of 2000, to allow the federal government to cut taxes without having to specify—as it currently must—how it will pay for it. While a strong case can be made that such changes would enable Brazil to cut its overbearing tax burden after two years of slow economic growth, they could also signify a slow creep toward higher inflation and fiscal looseness, making Rezende’s book and prescription all the more relevant and pressing.

View Endnotes

La integración de las tecnologías digitales en las escuelas de América Latina y el Caribe: Una mirada multidimensional by Guillermo Sunkel, Daniela Trucco and Andrés Espejo

Gabriel Sánchez Zinny

The rising use of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) in education—including distance learning, online courses and Internet-based curriculum and testing—has become a hotly debated topic. Some educators, experts and policymakers believe that technology has the potential to increase not just access to education, but its quality. Others respond that technology is too often imposed as a one-size-fits-all solution to deeper problems, and may actually divert resources and attention away from the real issues.

La integración de las tecnologías digitales en las escuelas de América Latina y el Caribe: Una mirada multidimensional (The Integration of Digital Technologies in Latin American and Caribbean Schools: A Multidimensional Appraisal), published by the UN Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the EU-backed Alliance for an Information Society, demonstrates that the debate is especially relevant in the region. The authors—Guillermo Sunkel of the University of Chile, Daniela Trucco of ECLAC and Andrés Espejo, an MSc candidate at the London School of Economics—have written a comprehensive analysis of ICTs and their role in the classroom.

But while they have moved the conversation forward in several important ways, their analysis suffers from noticeable and, unfortunately, common blind spots.

The report correctly begins with the premise that reducing the “digital divide” between traditional and highly connected schools should be a priority for Latin America. The authors acknowledge that “it is urgent to massively increase the incorporation of ICTs in formal education, since it is the most expeditious, economical, and widely available method of reducing the digital gap both between countries and within societies.”

At the same time, they are careful not to oversell the benefits. They note the danger of acquiring technology for its own sake, without strategies for using it effectively to improve actual teaching and learning outcomes. “The great challenge,” they write, “is to incorporate these digital technologies into the learning environment […] which goes far beyond purely technical advancements to touch on a wide array of other variables.”

The renewed push for quality is encouraging. It is a timely recognition of the growing consensus that the drive for access (to schools and to technology), while necessary, is not sufficient without quality. After all, what is the benefit if students are not actually learning once they are in the classroom? Unfortunately, prominent institutions have been slow to embrace this idea. Even the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education mentions nothing about the quality of that education—a lacuna many are seeking to address in formulating the post-2015 UN development strategy.

The report states that “a truly quality education must respond to the diversity of student needs and be relevant to their lives, in addition to providing for a common educational experience that provides all citizens with the necessary skills.”

However, this is not followed by any specific policy suggestions; nor does it address the inherent challenge of providing a “diversity” of educational options in systems defined by heavy regulation and monopoly government providers. The lack of practical specificity is a weakness throughout the book.

At the heart of the authors’ analysis are five factors identified as key to the effective integration of technology in the classroom: access, use, content, skill acquisition, and management. Several chapters are devoted to describing the state of Latin American ICT content, infrastructure and connectivity. While these factors are important, the authors only discuss briefly how these new technologies are affecting the classroom and can be better adapted to it.

Such exciting implications of the tech revolution (such as the way technology is flipping the priorities of the classroom, putting the student at the center and offering the possibility of data-driven school systems—allowing for outcome-based, not input-based, policies) are given short shrift.

Only chapters five and six—on skill acquisition and classroom management—provide original insight into the most up-to-date developments in education and technology, including the challenges of making full use of these new opportunities. In these sections, we are assured that “the mere introduction of digital technologies does not by itself guarantee improved academic results or learning.”

 They then point out that “the difficulty inherent in the introduction of ICTs to the education sector lies in the lack of harmony between the teaching styles that currently predominate and the new learning styles that increasingly lie outside the mainstream of the teaching establishment. Most classroom teaching styles are presented in linear formats, based on a hierarchy with the teacher at the top, while elsewhere we see, instead, the success of horizontally based and collaborative learning dynamics.”

In other words, what we know about how kids learn—and how technology can help them—is increasingly at odds with traditional teaching methods. Throughout much of the report, however, it does not appear that the authors recognize the implications of their own conclusions.

Not until chapter five does the report address the “horizontally based and collaborative” skills necessary for the twenty-first century workforce, which are lacking in traditional education—skills like critical thinking, problem solving, persistence, and emotional intelligence. They stop short of connecting the importance of these abilities to ways in which ICTs could help students develop them.

The previous chapter looks at the influx of data as another technological possibility that can positively affect the classroom. As they report, more and better data on learning outcomes will have profound effects—especially by allowing for more personalized education that will enable us, in real time, to adapt curricula to the interests, aptitudes and progress of individual students. Unfortunately, the full implications of this are only hinted at.

The insistence on analyzing ICTs from a top-down perspective is the book’s key weakness. Technology is not something external that governments bring into the classroom and confer onto students. Unlike many other education reforms, ICTs are already embedded in students’ everyday life. In fact, the classroom is one of the least connected parts of their daily experience.

Latin American children are already enjoying near-constant information access, surfing wireless broadband, texting and messaging their peers and parents, and connecting on Facebook and Twitter. Mobile phone penetration in the region is around 84 percent1, while Internet use is at 43 percent(although high-speed broadband access is considerably lower).

The focus on high-level government policies, summit meetings, and regulations regarding access to education technologies fundamentally misses the nature of the knowledge society. Instantaneous connectivity radically broadens participation in all aspects of the economy and society, and the students of today need a new set of skills to navigate the new reality. Today, everyone can be a producer, a seller, a student, or a teacher, reaching customers or collaborators anywhere in the world. Sparking innovation, entrepreneurship and initiative is critical, not only for individuals, but also for national economies.

Government can help facilitate the transition from a commodity-based to a knowledge-based economy, but it must go beyond simply spending more money. Many Latin American countries are already spending at or above the OECD average on education, yet consistently place in the bottom third of international education rankings, such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).3 Purchasing ICT for classrooms will not be enough. Instead, governments must work to transform the very way students learn. This means creating data-driven evaluation systems, pushing for the personalization of education and incentivizing attendance to reduce dropout rates. That means leveraging technology’s unique attributes to ensure a higher quality education for all.

The authors of this report correctly argue that we will need a better system to incorporate ICTs into our educational systems. But their narrow, traditional, top-down perspective and approach also reveal that the mainstream conversation on the subject is worrisomely outdated.

In our increasingly decentralized, data-driven, bottom-up world, we cannot simply plug new technologies into our old ways of doing things. It is time for the classroom to return to the forefront of innovation, rather than be constantly behind it.

View Endnotes

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