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By Louis Berney

Latin America is hot—and not just when it comes to the weather.

GW has ratcheted up its Latin American studies and research programs as student and faculty interest has escalated in the United States’ neighbors to the south. Joining the University’s Elliott School of International Affairs Latin American and Hemispheric Studies program are new offerings in GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and School of Business.

Campus Andres Bello of the University of Chile, Santiago, Chile

Columbian College, for example, is developing a new degree program in Latin American and Latino literatures and cultures. Also, an increasing number of GW students, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, are taking courses or specializing in Latin America studies, as well as taking Spanish language courses.

The School of Business is creating a focus on Latin American studies. And more GW students than ever are traveling to Latin American nations to study. At the same time, GW is forging new relationships with universities in countries such as Chile, Peru, Brazil, and Argentina as it attempts to open up a wider array of venues for students interested in studying abroad. Additionally, the University’s faculty members are conducting research on Latin American themes, including governance and the region’s role in international affairs.

What’s more, GW’s schools of medicine and law also are engaged in projects that touch the lives of people living in Latin American nations and those who have moved to the United States.

Latin American Studies

Interest in learning about Latin America has taken off. The number of students majoring in Spanish at GW has tripled during the past five years.

“There are hundreds of students who take Spanish as their language requirement and dozens who major in Spanish,” says Sergio Waisman, associate professor of Spanish.

Similarly, as recently as three years ago, the number of applicants seeking to enroll in GW’s Latin American Studies Program was 25, according to Jim Ferrer, associate research professor of international business in the Elliott School, who directed the program through July. Now, he says, the number of applicants has more than doubled.

“The region is already becoming the major trade area for the United States,” Ferrer says, explaining why attention to Latin America is booming at GW. “Also, we have a growing U.S. population that traces its roots to Latin America.”

Because of the hike in interest in Latin American studies, the program has been adding new courses, expanding its conference series, and is presenting new opportunities for students to study abroad. The program offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees in Latin American and hemispheric studies.

Among the newer offerings are courses on immigration and Latin American sociology, as well as classes focusing on individual countries including Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, and the Andean region in general.

GW’s existing Latin American programs may soon be augmented by a new program in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences that will provide students with an opportunity to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Latin American and Latino cultures and literatures. The emphasis of the new program, currently in the planning stages, will be on cultures and literatures.

The literary and cultural dimensions of the new program will distinguish it from current course offerings by infusing Latino culture and literature, that is, culture evolving from America’s own Latino community.

The impetus for the new program grew from the recognition by CCAS officials that faculty members were doing important research in Latin American literatures and cultures and that the discipline presented itself as an area of potential growth for the University.

Waisman says the new literary and cultural initiative will fill an important gap at GW. “It’s an important area to study today,” he explains. “It would reflect the changing demographics in the United States and at GW. So it seemed like a natural fit.”

Faculty Research

Cynthia McClintock, professor of political science and international affairs, is one of GW’s faculty members who specializes in Latin America—Peru, in particular. As a recipient of the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars fellowship, McClintock will continue to conduct research on the implications of run-off election procedures, as opposed to elections that rely on pluralities, in the countries of Chile, Venezuela, Peru, and Mexico. She points out that three decades ago, all Latin American countries relied on pluralities to decide national elections. Today, however, a majority of the countries in the region hold run-off elections instead. Her research is exploring why the change occurred and what the impact is “from a systemic perspective.” Her research, one of several projects on Latin America now being conducted by GW professors, will lead to a preliminary report this fall and, she hopes, a book next summer.

A former president of the international Latin American Studies Association, McClintock says the region is generating interest at GW and other academic institutions in the United States. “Latin American countries are our neighbors,” she points out, “and because of that proximity, there are all sorts of crucial relationships, human and otherwise.”

Courtney Goike, assistant director of GW's Office for Study Abroad; Paul Duff, associate professor of religon; and former CCAS dean William Frawley, on a day trip near Farellones, a skiing site near Santiago, Chile, during the Summer 2005 Global Scholars in Globalization program.

Like Ferrer, McClintock believes one reason Latin America also holds appeal for GW students is because of the economic relationships between the United States and countries south of the border, spurred by a dramatic increase in both exports and imports.

For students of international relations, political science, and history, there’s also the issue of national security. While much of the national security interest today is focused on the Middle East, McClintock recalls that the closest the United States ever came to World War III likely was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the United States and Russia sparred over Soviet missiles located less than 100 miles south of Florida in Cuba.

U.S. policymakers and students of global affairs also can turn to Latin America for a blueprint on how to transform autocratic states in the Middle East into democracies, as the United States currently is attempting to do in Iraq. “We can look at these countries in Latin America that got their starts as democracies about 20 years ago and are well ahead of the Middle East,” McClintock says. “We can see from them what lessons can be learned.” Latin American democratization efforts, she believes, can serve as “a kind of prism to help see what went right and what went wrong.” For example, the United States intervened militarily in Panama in 1989, and a democratic state emerged in that Central American nation; the Panamanian experience can provide insights for U.S. policy in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.

Study Abroad

The University launched a center in the spring of this year for students to study for a semester or for a full academic year in Santiago, Chile. GW has a similar program available in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This summer, 17 GW students spent five weeks in Costa Rica in preparation for studying abroad in the fall semester in either Santiago or Buenos Aires. “We wanted to give our students a sense of what’s important to Latin Americans right now, as well as to help them be prepared linguistically to go to one of the two partner universities,” says Courtney Goike, assistant director of GW’s Office for Study Abroad. The classes in Costa Rica are all given in Spanish so the GW students will be prepared to understand more complex discussions when they arrive in Chile and Argentina.

Goike says GW established the relationships with institutions in Chile, Argentina, and Costa Rica because, “the University saw a need to go beyond Europe.” A report by a faculty committee several years ago recommended that the University establish study abroad centers first in London and Paris and then in Latin America, with a program to be initiated later in Asia. The idea was to establish GW centers in foreign countries so the University could ensure quality programs and at the same time maximize the contributions of faculty members to help enrich the experience of students choosing to study out of the country.

Donna Scarboro, assistant vice president for special and international programs, sees the GW centers in Latin American countries dovetailing with the Latin American programs presented on campus. “The University recognizes the importance of our Latin American neighbors and that our own immediate community is influenced by relations with Latin America and enriched by the culture of Latin America,” she says.

Throughout the year, some graduate students in the School of Business study in Chile and undergraduates in Columbian College’s global scholars program interact with Chilean students, first in Chile and then in Washington, with a group of Chilean students visiting GW.

Practical Applications

Another component of the University’s involvement in Latin America involves the University’s professional schools engaging in practical projects.

Workers prepare materials at a hookworm vaccine research test site in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences has been engaged for six years in developing a hookworm vaccine to help eradicate a disease common in rural regions of Latin American countries. Peter Hotez, professor of microbiology and tropical medicine and chair of the school’s microbiology department, has been working with the Sabin Vaccine Institute, with the help of an $18-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop a vaccine to combat the hookworm disease. Much of the research was conducted in the school’s laboratories. Now several vaccine candidates are being administered in clinical trials in rural Brazil by GW researchers and investigators on behalf of the Sabin Institute under a second grant from the Gates Foundation for $21.8 million.

Professor Jeffrey Bethony, a member of the medical school faculty, currently is in Brazil and taking leadership in coordinating the first phase of the clinical trials of the larval stage vaccine candidates, together with adjunct assistant professor David Diemert. Bethony has pioneered clinical immunological approaches to solving health problems in the poorest regions of Minas Gerais State.

Hotez says GW and Sabin are working to transfer the vaccine process development technology to Instituto Butantan in Sao Paolo, Brazil, a state-owned vaccine manufacturer. These efforts are being headed by Gaddam Goud, a research professor, and Maria Elena Bottazzi, an associate research professor, as well as GW staff members Aaron Miles, Vehid Deumic, and Jordan Plieskatt. Finally, Bottazzi is heading up outreach efforts in Honduras, Panama, and elsewhere in Central America.

At GW Law School, students handle immigration cases under the guidance of Alberto Manuel Benitez, professor of clinical law and director of the school’s Immigration Clinic. A great majority of the clinic’s cases involve immigrants from Latin American countries. In fact, Benitez says, immigrants from virtually every country in Latin America have been represented by the clinic in the 10 years he has been at GW.

“We always have way more clients and potential clients than we can possibly represent,” he says.
Through the Immigration Clinic, frequently GW is the first institution some of the immigrant clients have had contact with since entering the United States. “The GW Immigration Clinic always strives to perform in a professional manner,” Benitez says. “We hope that they can see how things are done here and hopefully that can be adaptable. And if the clients talk with their friends and neighbors in Latin America, it can increase the profile of GW.”

The clinic receives cases from immigration judges, other attorneys, immigration agencies, friends and neighbors of immigrants, and from previous clients who were pleased with their representation by the GW clinic.

Because participation in the Immigration Clinic is voluntary, interested students must apply and be admitted by Benitez. This spring, of the seven students who worked with Benitez in the clinic, five spoke Spanish, an advantage in serving clients who may understand little or no English.

“I tend to get dedicated, motivated students,” Benitez explains. “They are here because they want to be here.” And even more significantly, he adds, the students have been quite successful in their representation of Latin American aliens. “The results have been excellent,” he says.

From law to medicine, from culture to business, from linguistics to study abroad, from faculty research to South and Central American students coming to GW, the University’s interest and involvement in Latin America is significant—and continues to grow. Just this summer the Elliott School’s Ferrer visited Brazil to negotiate with two universities to establish new exchange programs for business students. The distance between GW and countries south of the U.S. border seems to shrink almost daily as the University broadens its Latin American ties.

Louis Berney, BA ’72, is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.