Attempts to Map Latin America’s Political Spectrum

Latin America Pink Tide MapsThis’s week’s lecture for my class on the history and geography of current global events focused on the crisis in Venezuela, the slides from which are available at the link posted below. I framed this situation in terms of Latin America’s “democratic revolution” of the late 20th century followed by its electoral turn to the left (the so-called pink tide) in the early 21st century. In order to illustrate the latter phenomenon, I searched for maps showing the geographical extent of the “turn to the left” and quickly found a few. Most of these maps depict countries with “left” governments in red and “right” governments in blue; they do so for specific years, as with each national election the distribution of governing parties can easily change. Some of these maps also show the degree of leftward (or rightward) orientation of particular governments by using different shades of color, employing pink, for example, for center-left governments and darker hues of red for farther-left regimes.

Daily Kos Pink Tide MapSuch maps evidently prove confusing for some readers in the United States, who are accustomed to seeing electoral support for the center-left Democratic Party mapped in blue and that for the center-right Republican Party mapped in red. This usage, however, only goes back to 2000, and is generally limited to the U.S. The long-established international convention is to associate the political left with the color red. To translate the mapping of Latin America’s “pink tide” into the idiom of the United States, the website Daily Kos provided two maps in which the color scheme was reversed, proclaiming that the “Pink Tide = Blue Latin America.” The resulting maps are crude and not particularly accurate, but I have posted them here nonetheless.

My main problem with these maps, however, is not their crudity or inaccuracy, but rather that they seem to imply that a country with a far-left government, such as Venezuela, should be conceptualized like a “deep-blu”e U.S. state that generally votes for candidates from the Democratic Party, such as Massachusetts. As a result, I devoted part of my lecture to outlining criticisms of the standard one-dimensional political spectrum based on the left-right distinction. In the slides linked to below, one can find images of the competing “horseshoe” and “matrix” models, the former maintaining that the “ends” of the political spectrum converge, and the latter insisting on a two-dimensional political arena that differentiates social from economic beliefs. Another slides indicates that the manner in which such matters are conceptualized varies significantly from country to country and from region to region.

My own preference is actually that of a complex, multi-dimensional political space that acknowledges the fact that an individual can hold logically consistent beliefs on a great number of particular issues that that fail to mesh with either a one-dimensional spectrum or a two-dimensional matrix. Such a multi-dimensional scheme, however, would be too complicated for general use and too difficult to represent graphically. As a result, we must fall back on simplistic schemes, such as the left-right continuum, while recognizing their limitations.

Latin America Political Spectrum MapWith such considerations in mind, I tried to map the current governments of Latin America along the left-right spectrum. Doing so, however, is anything but easy, as it requires the making of subjective judgments about the political complexions of particular governments. How far to the right, for example, is the government of Paraguay as compared to that of Panama? Both the Panameñista Party that currently governs Panama and the Colorado Party that current governs Paraguay are members of the Union of Latin American Parties, which proclaims its political position to be center-right. Historically, however, the Colorado Party seems to be more conservative in many ways that the Panameñista Party, and hence I have mapped it accordingly. But I am not at all certain about this choice, and I am far from pleased with the map. Please feel free to criticize as you see fit.

Next week’s lecture will examine the current situation in Ukraine and Russia.

Venezuela Slides

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The Bizarre World of Thomas L. Friedman

FriedmanMapThe February 26th print edition of the New York Times featured an intriguing opinion piece by columnist Thomas L. Friedman entitled “Don’t Just Do Something. Sit There.” Here Friedman invokes a scheme of global geopolitical division that he evidently developed with his former co-author Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins. This three-fold scheme, designed to replace the Cold War vision, is based primarily on the attitudes of ruling elites. Quoting Mandelbaum, Friedman maintains that, “The biggest geopolitical divide in the world today ‘is between those countries who want their states to be powerful and those countries who want their people to be prosperous.’” Friedman does not flesh out a comprehensive division of the world here, as he only places only a select group of countries in each category. Still, what he does mention is both interesting and bizarre.

Friedman’s first category includes Russia, Iran, and North Korea, as well as, presumably, a number of unspecified countries. What they have in common, he claims, is “leaders [who] are focused on building their authority, dignity and influence through powerful states” and their ability to “defy the global system and survive, if not thrive — all while playing an old, traditional game of power politics to dominate their respective regions.” Although these three countries are all authoritarian (to varying degrees), Friedman’s larger argument is highly exaggerated. North Korea is certainly a deeply repressive state that seeks to intimidate its opponents, but is it realistic to claim that it is seeking to “dominate [its] respective region,” which includes China and Japan? Is that really the “game” (Friedman’s term) that its government is playing?

It is Friedman’s second category, however, that is the real problem. Here one finds countries that are supposedly

focused on building their dignity and influence through prosperous people … These countries understand that the biggest trend in the world today is not a new Cold War but the merger of globalization and the information technology revolution. They are focused on putting in place the right schools, infrastructure, bandwidth, trade regimes, investment openings and economic management so more of their people can thrive in a world in which every middle-class job will require more skill and the ability to constantly innovate will determine their standard of living. (The true source of sustainable power.)

That is an impressive list of attributes, and I would certainly cheer on any country so devoted to enhancing the skills and living standards of its citizens – but I am not sure if any exist. Certainly some states do a better job on these issues than others, and I would not object to placing, say, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Finland in such a category. I find Friedman’s list, however, downright delusional.

Here is how Friedman defines his second category: “all the countries in Nafta, the European Union, and the Mercosur trade bloc in Latin America and Asean in Asia.” All the countries of the EU? That seems a bit of a stretch. Can one really argue that the governments of Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria (to name just a few) have been “focused” on building mass prosperity in such a manner over the past decade? If so, they have hardly been successful. Including all of the ASEAN states of Southeast Asia is more problematic still. Burma has recently made some real and important reforms, but it has hardly transformed itself into a mega-Singapore, the only Southeast Asian country that really fits Friedman’s description—and which itself suffers a rather serious democracy deficit. But it is the placement of Mercosur in the same group that really boggles my mind. Argentina and Paraguay are troublesome enough, but to claim that Venezuela is focused on enhancing the prosperity of its people is beyond bizarre. Either Friedman has no idea of what has been happening in Venezuela over the past decade or he has no idea what Mercosur is. Either way, I must question his ability to serve as a columnist for the New York Times, supposedly the “newspaper of record” of the United States.

Friedman’s third category, composed of countries that “can’t project power or build prosperity,” makes more sense, although the question is not so much whether they can “project power” as whether they can maintain internal order—which they can’t. This “world of disorder” includes Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, D.R. Congo and “other hot spots.” But why is Afghanistan not mentioned? And what exactly are the world’s “other hot spots.” Could they include violence-torn Mindanao in the Philippines or the Kachin area of northern Burma? No, they can’t, as these regions have already been placed in the happy world of development and responsible leadership.

Finally, Friedman places Ukraine in a category of its own, claiming that it “actually straddles all three of these trends.” Actually, it does not. Ukraine is not trying to dominate its region; it just tries to avoid being dominated by Russia. Ukraine has not been “focused” on “building dignity and influence through prosperous people,” particularly when it comes to women. And finally, Ukraine is not a “world of disorder,” although unfortunately it might become one.

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