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Tulane University

David Smilde speaks to PRI about Venezuela's economic crisis

Listen to PRI’s The World speak with Tulane University professor David Smilde who lives in Caracas, where he also works with the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO. Smilde believes the immediate cause of the current crisis in Venezuela is the decline in oil prices. But he says at least 10 years of economic mismanagement are to blame, too.

July 06, 2016
By Daniel Ofman

Not too long ago Venezuela was an oil-rich nation, with a seemingly bright future filled with economic prospects and great potential for growth.

Now Venezuela has an 180 percent inflation rate — and there are shortages of food, basic goods and power.

Tulane University professor David Smilde lives in Caracas, where he also works with the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO. He believes the immediate cause of the current crisis in Venezuela is the decline in oil prices. But he says at least 10 years of economic mismanagement are to blame, too.

“Nicolas Maduro inherited a set of policies from Hugo Chávez that were created during the good times. These were policies that were completely unsustainable, they were based on continual growth of income from oil,” Smilde said.

According to Smilde, when oil prices were high in the early 2000s the national revenue was mismanaged through the so-called “Bolivarian missions,” a series of government-funded social programs which Chávez started and Maduro has continued.

The Bolivarian missions included anti-poverty initiatives, the construction of free medical clinics, educational campaigns, and the enactment of food and housing subsidies. Critics have called these initiatives irresponsible handouts that didn’t account for potential recessions.

“Now oil revenues have dropped and Venezuela has very little productive capacity, so it can’t produce its own food really and it doesn’t have enough money to import what it needs,” Smilde said.

Venezuela is also suffering because it lacks economic diversity. During the years when oil prices were high, the country relied on oil revenues and imported most of its food. Declining oil prices took down the nation’s economy as a whole.

Venezuela has also accumulated large debt, which is making it even more difficult for the country to climb out of the current crisis.

So far the government has been “making sure to pay its foreign creditors but it has really been reducing the number of dollars that are assigned to importing food and other basic goods. People are really suffering,” Smilde said.

People are standing in lines for hours just to buy food at the grocery store. Others go to the streets and protest, carrying signs demanding food. “Bachaqueros,” nicknamed for carpenter ants which carry big loads on their backs, sell black-market goods to fill the void and turn a profit.

They may be making the crisis more tolerable, but the government doesn’t approve of them.

“The government sees this as sabotage,” Smilde said, “sees these people as traitors and so it has tried to clamp down on this bachaquerismo.”

Instead the Venezuelan government has promoted committees on local production and supply that are charged with taking bags of food directly to people. However, the system is incredibly inefficient.

“The real problem is that there’s just not enough food,” Smilde said. “It’s not a distribution problem, it’s a production problem.”

And Smilde says the committees makes supermarket lines worse by pulling merchandise from their shelves. Looting is becoming an increasing threat. Since May there have been an average of 10 lootings a day.

Smilde is fortunate to be able to visit the United States frequently, where he can pack suitcases full of goods to live on. Most Venezuelans do not have that luxury.

“My heart really goes out to them and it’s one of the reasons that keeps me working on this issue,” Smilde said. “There’s not a night that I don’t think about this: ‘What’s going to happen in the next six months?’ Because things are really ugly right now, but they can get significantly worse.”




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Chantalle Verna to Present Research on U.S. and Haitian Relationships in Post-Occupation Haiti

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Join us at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies in welcoming Dr. Chantalle Verna for a talk on her book Haiti and the Uses of America: Post- U.S. Occupation Promises on April 26, 2018, at 6:00 PM.

In her book, Dr. Verna makes evident that there have been key moments of cooperation that contributed to nation-building in both countries. Dr. Verna emphasizes the importance of examining the post-occupation period: the decades that followed the U.S. military occupation of Haiti (1915-34) and considering how Haiti’s public officials and privileged citizens rationalized nurturing ties with the United States at the very moment when the two nations began negotiating the reinstatement of Haitian sovereignty in 1930. Their efforts, Dr. Verna shows, helped favorable ideas about the United States, once held by a small segment of Haitian society, circulate more widely. In this way, Haitians contributed to and capitalized upon the spread of internationalism in the Americas and the larger world.

Dr. Verna received her Ph.D. from Michigan State University and is currently a professor in the History Department in Florida International University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Dr. Verna focuses on the culture of foreign relations, specifically concerning Haiti and the United States during the mid-twentieth century.

Apply for the Teaching Cuban Culture & Society: A Summer Educator Institute in Cuba

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Teaching Cuban Culture & Society: A Summer Educator Institute in Cuba
Havana, Cuba | June 23 – July 7, 2018
Program Application
Application Deadline: March 2, 2018

Tulane University’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies and the Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute at Tulane University join forces with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies to take K-16 educators to Cuba. This is our fourth year running the Cuban Culture & Society K-16 Educator Institute and we are excited about this year’s itinerary. The institute will approach Cuban society and culture form a multidisciplinary perspective focused on the arts, the geography, and history of the country. Innovative programming and annual summer teacher institutes over the past three years provide the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and studying the region. Taking advantage of Tulane’s relationship with the University of Havana and Cuba’s National Union of Writers and Artists, the institute equips teachers with multidisciplinary content, curricular resources, and methods of inquiry for developing that approach in their K-16 classrooms. Conducted in English by Professor Carolina Caballero, the institute will explore current trends and issues in Cuban culture and society through readings, films, and lectures. The program includes a series of talks by prominent Cuban intellectuals and local field trips to important political and cultural sights throughout Havana.

This two-week program provides the unique opportunity to work on developing lesson plans while exploring the sights and sounds of a nation and country that remain obscured behind political rhetoric and misinformation. Recent economic changes on the island have provoked a series of social and cultural transformations that have left Cubans and the entire world wondering what could be next for the island and the Revolution. Don’t miss the chance to witness some of these challenges and triumphs firsthand and get the opportunity to bring your experience back to your students in the classroom.

The trip will include a pre-departure orientation and two weeks in Cuba. The institute incorporates visits to local museums and exposes participants to arts organizations, schools, and teachers from the country’s national literacy campaign. Participants will stay within walking distance of the Malecón, the university, and many cultural venues. There will be group excursions to the historic Che Guevara monument, a visit to the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and a special visit to the town of Hershey, the town developed by Milton Hershey to begin his chocolate enterprise with the sugar from Cuba’s plantations. There will also be group excursions to the historic cities of Trinidad and Cienfuegos, Playa Girón, and Viñales, focusing on their role in the development of the economy and culture of the country

The cost will include a shared room and two meals a day, medical insurance, airfare to/from Havana from Tampa, Florida*, airport transportation in Havana to/from residence, OFAC-licensed academic visa, and specialized tours and outings.

*Airfare to/from Tampa, Florida, a one-night hotel stay in Tampa, incidental costs, and extra meals and expenses are not included in the program cost. You are responsible for your own air flight to/from Tampa, FL.

Those interested in applying must be a K-16 educator or librarian. There is no Spanish language requirement for this program. The application deadline is March 2, 2018, at 5:00 PM.

Please note: This program is only open to K-16 educators who are currently teaching, are pre-service teachers or are serving in a school or public library.

Please be advised that this itinerary is subject to change based on availability in Cuba. The itinerary below is the schedule from the 2017 institute.

  • Day 1 – U.S./HAVANA, CUBA
    Depart from Tampa, FL, Upon arrival, enjoy dinner and a welcome reception followed by an informal walk and people watching on the Malecón.
  • Day 2 – HAVANA
    Habana Vieja (Old Havana) Tour with local preservation experts to discuss in depth the history of local landmarks, historical preservation efforts, and future plans. Visit Muraleando Lawton, a community art project in the Lawton neighborhood of Havana. Hear from the founders of this project on how the neighborhood developed to promote skills in the community and support the local economy and meet with local community leaders, students and elderly folks at the community center.
  • Day 3 – HAVANA
    Lecture with Professor Carlos Alzugaray on Cuba Since the Special Period. Visit the elementary school Sergio Luis Ferriol in Habana Vieja. Connect with teachers and administrators about their experiences in the classroom.
  • Day 4 – HAVANA
    Visit the Museo Nacional de la Alfabetización (National Museum of the Literacy Campaign) and connect with members of the literacy brigade, teachers from the literacy campaign.
  • Day 5 – HAVANA
    Visit and explore Ernest Hemingway’s house. Have lunch in the infamous fishing village of Cojimar. In the afternoon, explore art by taking a tour of the Cuban Collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes accompanied by a curator then visit with artists at the Taller de Gráfica.
  • Day 6 – HERSHEY
    Day trip to the Hershey, Cuba and nature park. The site where famous chocolatier Milton Hershey developed his chocolate business by setting up sugar mills in the early 1900’s. Explore the natural side of Cuba in this country town.
  • Day 7 – HAVANA
    Learn about children’s literature and the book publishing business in Cuba by visiting Cuba’s national publisher UNEAC and hear first hand from children’s book authors. We will hear from children’s book author Olga Marta Pérez about the children’s/ youth Literacy Scene in Cuba today.
  • Day 8 – HAVANA/REGLA
    Take the ferry across the bay in Havana to the town of Regla to learn about Afro-Cuban dance and music from musicologist Cari Diez and an Afro-Cuban dance performance group.
    Travel to Trinidad via Santa Clara, a town founded by 175 people on July 15, 1689. It is the site of the last battle in the Cuban Revolution in 1958. Visit to the Che Mausoleum in Santa Clara. Also visit the historic sugar plantation of Manaca Iznaga before arriving in Trinidad.
  • Day 10 – TRINIDAD
    Explore this UNESCO World Heritage site, founded on December 23, 1514 by Diego Velázquez de Cuellar. Trinidad was a central piece of Cuba’s sugar-based economy. Guided city tour with the city historian. Visit the Trinidad library to learn about the importance of libraries and debate questions of intellectual freedom with the staff.
  • Day 11 – PLAYA GIRON (SITE OF BAY OF PIGS) Ciénega de Zapata, Playa Larga
    Day excursion to the historic site of the Bay of Pigs, one of the landing sites for the 1961 US-backed invasion. Visit the Finca Fiesta Campesina farm, the Playa Girón museum, the Parque Ciénaga de Zapata, the Laguna del Tesoro, and the Taino Indian village. Snorkel in the Bay of Pigs!
  • Day 12 – HAVANA
    Visit the U.S. Embassy and hear first-hand about the state of current relations between the U.S. and Cuba. In the afternoon, we head over to meet up with the famous hip-hop group, Obsesión to hear about their music and experience as hip-hop artists in Cuba.
    Take a day trip to Matanzas, the capital of the Cuban province of Matanzas. Known for its poets, culture, and Afro-Cuban folklore, we will explore the Triunvirato Plantation and the Castillo San Severino where we will hear about the history of slavery in Cuba. The rest of the afternoon we relax and explore the beautiful beaches of Varadero, a popular resort town covering Cuba’s narrow Hicacos Peninsula.
  • Day 14 – HAVANA
    Wrap-up curriculum workshop followed by a free afternoon ending in a celebratory dinner.
  • Day 15 – HAVANA/U.S.
    Morning departure for the U.S.

Explore our past trips through these photos and curricula:

Program Application

For more information, please contact Denise Woltering-Vargas at or call the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at 504-862-3143.