Grabendorff Tracks Democracy in Latin America

Fifty years ago, when Dr. Wolf Grabendorff studied in Grinnell as a Fullbright Scholar, the world was a very different place. His native Germany was divided between the East, where he grew up, and the West, where he later lived. His education has taken him to different corners of the world, where he has witnessed historical events. He has lived in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina and Chile; he was in Cuba when the Berlin Wall fell. Dr. Grabendorff is a Senior Fellow in Western Hemisphere Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at the Johns Hopkins University. His more than one hundred works have been published in eight different languages. He visited Grinnell to present a lecture, “The Changing Relationship between Latin America and the United States,” on Monday night. He sat down with S&B correspondent David Achio-Mendez to talk about Latin America Democracies.

How did your experience in Grinnell shape your future career as a political scientist?
I was a political science major when I arrived here, but my interest in Latin America was in part formed here. The year I was in Grinnell was the year of the Cuba missile crisis. The whole issue, international relations and security and Latin America, it kind of became the triangle of my professional life later on. Also, we did have some, very few, foreign students at the time. But most of the foreign students were Latin American. So that was also a possibility, to get to know a little bit better the other part of America.

What has been your experience as a first hand witness of the consolidation of many democracies in Latin America since around the 1980s?
The democracy issue is a very important issue in Latin America. But it is an issue in which there is no consensus … we have various types of democracy in Latin America. And one should always take into account that Latin America is a very diverse region. There are only two traditional democracies in Latin America; they are Uruguay and Costa Rica. Then, there are two countries now, which are considered fairly democratic from the outside; they are Chile and Brazil. But all others are already considered kind of democracies, which have some defects. And therefore, one should not try to apply one democracy model to Latin America. I think it depends very much on the society itself. And I think that is sometimes mistakenly seen from the outside when we judge democracy by criteria, which we have developed our own in the West, and which are not necessarily met in the countries we are talking about.

Do you think Latin America, especially South America, is working closer together to form a political alternative to the United States? And if so, how does that influence the economic role that the region is supposed to play in the following years? Can it detract from it?
We know from experience, not only in Latin America, but now also in the US and Europe, that economic growth is always stoppable. There is no kind of highway, which leads to progress. … Their economic well-being and political management are closely intertwined. I think you are right about South America. Latin America is a cultural and historical entity. It is not an economic or political entity. But, we have, in South America now, a trend for stronger, I would not say integration, but regional governance. There is a positive development of cooperation between different types of democracies because Chavez’s and Santos’ in Colombia democracies are very different democracies. I find it very positive that despite that, different development models also, there are you know “let’s try and do certain things together.” This is done outside of US tutelage, and I see a positive development there. Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico for obvious reasons, like trade and migration patterns, will always be much closer to the US. South America has its own hegemon now, which is Brazil. How those two hegemons relate to each other in the future remains an open question.

 Why do you think there is a tendency towards stronger or tougher presidents in many countries, some of which are former military leaders like Santos in Colombia? Is this only the result of current conflicts, like the war against cartels in Mexico?
I think if one would have to identify the biggest challenge to democracy and development in Latin America, it is security. That has to be explained because our systems of law, our rule of law are not designed to really address transnational activities. All defense structures, all police structures [are] always meant to be on a national scale. But the new violence wave, the wave of international drugs and crime, is a transnational phenomenon. This means it is at the same time local, national, regional and global. But, the police systems haven’t adapted to that. And the reaction for “strong men,” quote-unquote, is understandable because people don’t want to have more violence. But it is not logical because what you need is more trans-border cooperation.

What role can a small college’s students, like ours, play in influencing the political situations faced by these countries?
I think one has to look there at the general problem of education in a globalized world. I think many errors of our previous generations in international relations have resulted from false perceptions of the other. An open college–this college has 11 percent foreign students, very open type of discussions, very much diversity oriented–can give a great message to change in the next generation that people will not use the same stereotypes. … Unfortunately, politics lives very strongly on stereotypes, and the better-educated people you have the less stereotypes you will have in international relations. To understand for example, … the drug war in Mexico has a great deal to do with the drug policy in the United States. It is not something the Mexicans have invented, but they are suffering from it.