Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Latin America and Obama

Christopher Sabatini at the Americas Quarterly blog discusses the U.S. media hype about the left in Latin America:

Now journalists and bloggers are talking about a shift to the center. But much of this was evident in public opinion polls a few years ago. In countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia—the supposed bastions of extreme leftism in the region—the majority continues to support the fundamentals of "neo-liberalism," such as free trade and markets. The reasons are not difficult to discern: neither of these countries truly experienced open, free and fair markets. So while some leaders would rail against imperialism and neo-liberalism, for many of the voters in the countries those terms had become synonymous with privilege, exclusion and monopoly. But their inverse didn’t mean Bolivarianism.

Indeed, in the 2008 Latinobarómetro poll, 54 percent of Venezuelans and 54 percent of Bolivians agreed that the market was the "only system for a country to become developed" (p. 35).

I don't know if he chose his own headline, because although the post was interesting it never addressed the headline's point: "How the Media Oversold the Shift to the Left in the Americas, and How this is Good News for the Obama Admininstration." It didn't really address exactly how this was "good news," though I take it he means that there will be fewer ideological battles than the media tends to portray.


Justin Delacour 2:16 PM  

Sabatini draws some highly questionable inferences from the poll respondents' answers to a poorly worded question. Here's what I wrote about the Pew poll last year:

The Pew Global Attitudes Project has recently drawn some questionable inferences from its polling data about Venezuela. These inferences, which appear to be ideologically-motivated, are being replicated in the U.S. press. Bloomberg reports that, in Latin America, "market support is greatest in Venezuela, where 72 percent of respondents agreed 'most people are better off in a free market economy,' up from 63 percent in 2002, as President Hugo Chavez deepens his socialist policies, the poll said." Pew reports that "support for free markets is even strong among Venezuelans who express positive views about Chavez, a vocal critic of free market systems."

The clear implication is that Venezuela's government is doing exactly what most Venezuelans do not want it to do, which would be odd in light of continued popular support for the government. However, it should be obvious that some respondents simply answered in the affirmative about being "better off." As Pew's report notes, the percentage of Venezuelans satisfied with their income --up 26 points from 2002-- had increased more than that of any other country's respondents in the survey. While some respondents are likely to be confused as to the meaning of the phrase "free market economy," few would have any difficulty understanding what it means to be "better off."

Not surprisingly, Pew also reports that respondents in Argentina --whose left-of-center government has overseen a dramatic economic recovery since 2003-- have also become much more inclined to voice agreement with the statement that "most people are better off in a free market economy, even though some are rich and some are poor."

As a professional polling operation, Pew should act with much greater caution in attempting to interpret polling responses to questions that are not likely to be readily understood by many respondents. The ambiguity of such responses is illustrated by a simple hypothetical. Suppose that, in the statement submitted to respondents, the phrase "in a free market economy" were replaced with the essentially synonomous phrase "under neoliberalism" (which would probably be more recognizable to most Venezuelans and Argentines). Unless the interpreter of a poll can say with confidence that responses would not markedly differ in the event that the question were phrased differently, he or she has little grounds to draw any meaningful inferences.

Moreover, the responses to other questions posed by Pew contradict the notion that Latin Americans advocate a strictly "free market" economy. As Pew notes, Latin Americans overwhelmingly responded in the affirmative to the statement: "It is the responsibility of the government to take care of very poor people who can't take care of themselves." By definition, Latin American governments could not seriously take on such responsibilities under strictly "free market" conditions.

As an aside, Pew also reports that, among the seven Latin American countries studied, Venezuelans had the highest rate of satisfaction with the way things were going in the country (followed by Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, and Peru, in that order).

Other interesting tid-bits from the Pew poll include the following:

"Venezuelans and Argentines are the most likely in the region to see the United States as a threat. More than half in those countries (54% in Venezuela and 52% in Argentina) share this opinion."

"Opinions about Fidel Castro’s impact on Cuba are mixed. Pluralities in Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, and Peru think Castro has been good for his country, while a majority of Venezuelans and Mexicans and a plurality of Chileans disagree."

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