I tell my students that considering the percentage of the U.S. population composed of immigrants from Latin America, studying the region’s people and politics really means gaining a better understanding of ourselves.

Douglas Hecock

Latin American politics and economic development fascinate Professor Douglas Hecock, political science. "There is so much to study," he explains. "And most of these democracies are fairly young. It's interesting to see who benefits from the electoral process and why."

Educational reform is of particular interest to Hecock. It's a common assumption that democratization leads to better education, he says, because improvements in education are widely popular. However, his research shows that in Mexico this is clearly not the case.

Hecock explains that powerful and corrupt special-interest groups to whom newly elected leaders are especially vulnerable have consistently hijacked reforms in Mexico. Resources are diverted, cosmetic fixes emphasized, and education for the masses suffers.

International industries that build manufacturing plants and seek cheap, low-skilled labor only exacerbate the problem. "But," asks Hecock, "shouldn't a pool of well-educated workers also be attractive to investors?" He argues that investment in sectors that use highly skilled labor would contribute to broad-based economic development and could even lead to improvements in the quality of Mexico's democracy. "The politics of improving education are therefore a high-stakes game."

In the 1990s, Hecock says, there was a strong U.S. focus on investment and development in Latin America. After 9/11, the country's resources shifted towards the Middle East and Asia. Although the U.S still considers Mexico a strong economic partner, Hecock sees much more potential in the region and says he's glad to see students taking an increased interest in Mexico and Latin America in general.

As director of the Latin American Studies program, Hecock works with affiliated faculty from a range of disciplines including sociology and anthropology, Spanish, history and international relations. The faculty encourage students to study abroad and participate in service-learning trips. Destinations have included Nicaragua, Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile, Brazil and Ecuador. "I tell my students that considering the percentage of the U.S. population composed of immigrants from Latin America, studying the region's people and politics really means gaining a better understanding of ourselves."

Posted Sept. 22, 2014

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