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Tulane University

Central America & the Circum-Caribbean

Central America & the Circum-Caribbean

The Central American and circum-Caribbean region is an ecological, human, and material corridor of great relevance to hemispheric exchanges, both historically and contemporarily. A point of transition between north and south, the region literally bridges the two parts of the continent, allowing for their distinctive characters, while establishing its own. The implications are multiple, biological as well as political, social as well as economic.
For Tulane University, Central America and the circum-Caribbean have long held historical relevance. It was in this area that the University first established Latin American expertise through archaeological and anthropological research and exploration dating back to the early part of the twentieth century. This in turn reflected the region’s connection to New Orleans and its port, a natural gateway for the region thanks to its strategic location at the mouth of the Mississippi. Trade and transportation routes have long generated flows of goods and people from the region, contributing to the development of business and the establishment of migrant communities with significant transnational ties.

To the U.S. as a whole Central America and the circum-Caribbean have also had longstanding historical relevance. In the nineteenth century the region was seen as coextensive with national interests, not merely as a part of the U.S.‘s sphere of influence, but perhaps even as a frontier for the fulfillment of its “manifest destiny” of continental expansion. This led to unfortunate incidents of filibustering, most notoriously under William Walker, who lived briefly in New Orleans, and later, intervention in Cuba and Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. The U.S. continued to assert its preeminence in the region throughout the twentieth century, starting with the 1903 intervention that led to the independence of Panama, followed a year later by the takeover of the transoceanic canal project, a global strategic asset that it developed and then controlled until the end of the century. The U.S. intervened militarily throughout the region over the ensuing decades, including in Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, and Haiti, with covert operations also occurring in Guatemala and Cuba, and later in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Such a level and kind of intervention has had longstanding implications for how the region views the United States.

U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America in general, and Central America and the circum-Caribbean in particular, has consistently posited the strategic relevance of the area on the basis of its location and proximity to the U.S.. The Monroe Doctrine claimed the area as its exclusive sphere of interest, and its subsequent restatements – the Platt Amendment, the Roosevelt Corollary, the Truman and Johnson Doctrines – served as justifications for intervention, military or otherwise, to protect the U.S. from external threats, perceived or real. U.S. leaders constantly reasserted the strategic significance of the region, including President Johnson, who justified intervention in the Dominican Republic by referring to it as “our doorstep”, and President Reagan, who did the same by labeling Central America as “our own backyard”. More positive policy responses, like Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, or Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative, were premised on the notion that the U.S. would benefit by addressing the structural causes of regional social and political unrest, fostering economic and political development.
Regional conflicts receded at the end of the 1980s and countries completed their transitions to democracy and market economies as the Cold War and the economic shocks of the 1970s retreated and finally ended. This created new opportunities and challenges. Economic growth increased with trade and investment, driving improvements in general wellbeing. But poverty and inequality levels remained high and state capabilities low. Crime rates and violence surged to some of the highest levels in the world with the proliferation of gangs and the arrival of drug cartels. The challenges emerging from the region were now of a different nature, characterized by having domestic as well as international dimensions, with the implication that they could not be solved by a single party, not even the regional hegemony, instead requiring a multilateral approach. This was the case of immigration, transnational crime, and environmental degradation.

U.S. interest in the region waned in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As the focus shifted to the War on Terror, policy towards the region was dominated by security concerns, particularly with regard to drugs and immigration. The framework of a “war” on drugs set the policy onus on the supply side – eradication and interdiction – doing little to prevent demand, relying mostly on the use of repressive and militaristic tactics. At the same time, domestic political pressures to “secure the border” drove policies towards erecting physical and technological barriers to prevent border crossings, while a comprehensive immigration reform could not garner sufficient political support to pass in a polarized political climate. Regional engagement otherwise focused mostly on trade and investment, with the signing of a free trade agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic, and later with Panama.
As the U.S. fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attempted to mediate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, subsequently, “pivoted” to Asia, Central America and the circum-Caribbean appeared to fade out of focus. Extra regional powers benefitted from the area’s opening, with China developing strong economic and political ties throughout the region, and Russia and Iran doing the same with Venezuela and its ALBA partners. Battered by the Great Recession, American regional predominance, let alone hegemony, was seriously questioned as Russia conducted joint military maneuvers with Venezuela and Chinese investors announced their intention to build a new transoceanic canal through Nicaragua. Countries in the region, buoyed by strong commodity prices, also asserted greater autonomy from the U.S. forming new regional institutions that excluded it and distancing themselves from American foreign policy objectives. This became particularly poignant in the case of Cuba where U.S. efforts to isolate the country economically through its longstanding embargo while excluding it from regional and diplomatic fora have faced continued and growing regional opposition.

Most recently, the appearance of thousands of Central American child migrants at the U.S. border fleeing the violence and despondency of their hometowns, brought the region’s relevance back into perspective. While geopolitical realities and the terms of engagement have changed, the United States and the circum-Caribbean are linked inextricably. The challenges the region faces are not solely its own, nor will the effects of success or failure confronting them be confined to it alone. These challenges are extremely complex, with deep historical roots, that defy simplistic solutions.

Some key general research questions in this area include the following:

  • How can Central America and the circum-Caribbean best confront the drug trade and transnational crime, including ways that focus on prevention and community engagement What are the terms for a more fruitful collaboration with the U.S. in this area? What are the potential costs and benefits for the region of drug legalization?
  • How may countries in the region foster state strength, enhancing their ability to confront crime and build strong economies, while ensuring the rule of law, transparency and accountability, and the respect for human rights?
  • How can countries in Central America and the circum-Caribbean develop greater resilience as they confront increasingly extreme weather events in a region greatly susceptible to the effects of global warming? What are the bases for building sustainable development in Central America and the circum-Caribbean? What is the region’s potential for developing green economies? How may countries best take advantage of existent sources of renewable energy?
  • How may countries articulate the triple challenge of increasing economic growth, promoting social inclusion, and confronting climate change? How can countries reverse the loss of human capital and the social dislocation generated by migration? What are the regional implications of deepening social and political conflict in Mexico?
  • What are the challenges for democratic consolidation in the region and how might they be confronted? How do they affect the prospects for deeper regional integration? What would be the regional implications of a deepening internal conflict in Venezuela?
  • How likely is Cuba to follow a belated transition to democracy and the market? Will the economic changes adopted by Raul Castro continue to deepen or will they backtrack? What alternatives exist for a more constructive U.S. engagement of Cuba and the opening of a post-embargo era?
  • What are the challenges posed by the potential development of a transoceanic canal in Nicaragua and how might they be confronted? More broadly, does the Chinese and Russian presence in the region imply potential risks in the case of a deeper strategic cleavage of those powers with the West?

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Life without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay

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Join the Environmental Studies Program and the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University in welcoming Daniel Renfrew, West Virginia University, who will giving a talk titled Life without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay on Thursday, February 21 at 5:00 PM in the Stone Auditorium as part of the EVST Focus on the Environment (FOTE) Speaker Series.

Life without Lead examines the social, political and environmental dimensions of a devastating lead poisoning epidemic. Drawing from a political ecology of health perspective, Daniel Renfrew situates the Uruguayan lead contamination crisis in relation to neoliberal reform, globalization, and the resurgence of the political Left in Latin America. He traces the rise of an environmental social justice movement and the local and transnational circulation of environmental ideologies and contested science. Through fine-grained ethnographic analysis, this book shows how combating contamination intersected with class politics, explores the relationship of lead poisoning to poverty, and debates the best way to identify and manage an unprecedented local environmental health problem.

Daniel Renfrew is an associate professor of Anthropology. He received a Ph.D. in anthropology from Binghamton University, State University of New York in 2007. Dr. Renfrew joined the WVU faculty in Fall 2008 after a year as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Towson University. Dr. Renfrew’s research interests span the environmental, urban, critical medical and political anthropology sub-fields, and his research draws from and contributes to interdisciplinary scholarship on political ecology, social movements, science and technology studies, and Latin American studies. His research has focused in particular on anthropological and political ecological analyses of environmental conflicts.

CIPR Speaker Series Critical Issues in Democractic Governance welcomes Sara Niedzwiecki

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Join the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research and the Stone Center for Latin American Studies in welcoming Dr. Sara Niedzwieckia as part of the spring speaker series Critical Issues in Democratic Governance, on Friday, February 22, in 110A Jones Hall. Dr. Niedzwiecki will give a talk entitled Uneven Social Policies: The Politics of Subnational Variation in Latin America. Social policies can transform the lives of the poor and marginalized, yet implementation often limits their access. By examining variation in political motivations, state capacity, and policy legacies, it explains why some social policies are implemented more effectively than others, why some deliver votes to incumbent governments while others do not, and why regionally elected executives block the implementation of some but not all national policies. This analysis combines case studies with statistical analysis of conditional cash transfers and health policies in Argentina and Brazil.

The event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP to cipr@tulane.edu.

Dr. Niedzwiecki is an assistant professor of Politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (2014). Her research focuses on comparative welfare states, multilevel governance, and Latin America. She is interested in the process through which social policies are formed and implemented in Latin America and beyond. Additionally, she studies the territorial structure of government, with an emphasis on the measurement of the authority of regional governments across countries.

Dr. Niedzwiecki’s forthcoming book examines the conditions under which social policies are successfully implemented in decentralized countries. More specifically, she examines how politics and capacity at state and local levels shape the implementation of healthcare and Conditional Cash Transfers. It draws from extensive fieldwork conducted in Brazil and Argentina.

David Smilde to join TULASO and debate team to discuss Venezuelan politics and US involvement

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Tulane Undergraduate Latin American Studies Organization (TULASO) and the Tulane Debate Team are proud to present a debate on the recent political crisis in Venezuela on Tuesday, February 26th at 8:00 PM in Jones 102. Professor David Smilde, the Charles A. And Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations and a Senior Fellow for the Washington Office on Latin America, will be participating in the event. Professor Smilde will be providing his expertise to give a background on Venezuelan internal politics while the debate will focus on U.S. involvement in Venezuela.

All are welcome to come view and learn from the debate as well as enjoy some delicious Latin American food.

Email Sofia Zemser at szemser@tulane.edu for additional information.

Follow TULASO on Facebook and Instagram (@tulanetulaso) to stay up to date on upcoming events.

Exiles within Exiles: The Extraordinary Life of Herbert Daniel, Gay Brazilian Revolutionary

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Join us in welcoming James N. Green for a talk entitled Exiles within Exiles: The Extraordinary Life of Herbert Daniel, Gay Brazilian Revolutionary on Wednesday, February 27, at 4:00 PM in Jones Hall 100A.

The talk is free and open to the public. For more information, please contact Christopher Dunn.

James N. Green is the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Professor of Modern Latin American History and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies Director of the Brazil Initiative at Brown University. He received his doctorate in Latin American history, with a specialization in Brazil, at UCLA in 1996. He has traveled extensively throughout Latin America and lived eight years in Brazil. He served as the Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Brown University from 2005 to 2008. He is a past president of the Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA) and served as the President of the New England Council on Latin American Studies (NECLAS) in 2008 and 2009. He is currently the Director of Brown’s Brazil Initiative; the Executive Director of the Brazilian Studies Association, housed at Brown; and the Director of the Opening the Archives Project.

The event is sponsored by the Stone Center for Latin American Studies, the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the Department of History.

Critical Issues in Democratic Governance: Spring 2019 CIPR Series

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Latin America faces major threats to democratic governance, but there are also new opportunities for grassroots mobilization and social policy expansion. In Critical Issues in Democratic Governance the Stone Center for Latin American Studies and the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research will host speakers to discuss emerging issues that have surfaced in democratic governance in the region. In Brazil, the AIDS movement constructed a powerful new advocacy coalition, with coordination between bureaucrats and activities. In Argentina and Brazil, there are sharp contrasts in the social welfare policies that governors and mayors have implemented, with profound consequences for livelihood of the poor and marginalized. Finally, the outbreak of violence across Latin America, under democratic regimes raises questions about how criminal organizations compete for influence over transnational illicit networks and infiltrate the state.

Spring 2019 Schedule

February 8, 2019
State-Sponsored Activism: Bureaucrats and Social Movements in Democratic Brazil
Jessica Rich, Marquette University

February 22, 2019
4:00 – 6:00 PM
Greenleaf Conference Room in Jones 100A
Uneven Social Policies: The Politics of Subnational Variation in Latin America
Sara Niedzwiecki, University of California, Santa Cruz

April 5, 2019
Homicidal Ecologies: Illicit Economies and Complicit States in Latin America
Deborah Yashar, Princeton University

Please RSVP to cipr@tulane.edu.