Amherst Magazine

My Life: Javier Corrales, Associate Professor of Political Science

All politics

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Interview by Katherine Duke '05

Javier Corrales is an expert on economic and social policy reform in developing countries, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has served as a consultant to the World Bank and the United Nations. In the summer of 2008, he testified about Venezuelan politics before a Congressional subcommittee in Washington, D.C. In 2000, he became one of the youngest scholars ever to be selected as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of Presidents Without Parties: The Politics of Economic Reform in Argentina and Venezuela in the 1990s (2002) and is now at work on a second book, about constitutional reform in Latin America.

On (not) escaping Latin American politics

My parents left Cuba as a result of the intensification of political repression after the revolution, and they settled in Puerto Rico as exiles. We are products—you could say victims—of the Cold War. For us, the Cold War was anything but cold, and in many ways, it hasn’t really ended. This separates us from most Latin Americans, Americans and Europeans, for whom the Cold War is a settled affair. Because we are so directly affected by politics, all Cuban households, perhaps more than most Latin American households, talk about politics all the time—it is not a subject that is avoided for reasons of politeness or, for that matter, lack of knowledge. That’s where my interest in politics emerged—at home. As an undergraduate, I went to the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and my focus was European politics. When I went to graduate school [at Harvard], I started out thinking that I would do comparative politics of Europe, maybe international relations. The Latin American interest came almost a year and a half after I started in graduate school. I was avoiding studying Latin America, feeling like, “I’m not going to graduate school to study something I already know.” Which is false—I didn’t know the region—and it’s also false that one should only study things one is unfamiliar with.

On an experiment

I’ve always felt that Amherst could do a lot more in combining the social sciences with language training. So I teamed up with [Associate Professor of Spanish] Lucia Suárez to create a new class titled “Argentina, Brazil and Chile: Films and Politics of Democratization.” Professor Jack Cameron, in English, introduced me to film studies shortly after I arrived here, when he invited me to teach a film class with him. This was very courageous of him, since he hardly knew me. My class with Professor Suárez has two sections: an advanced seminar in Spanish and a political science class. On Tuesdays, we all meet together—two professors in the same classroom—and discuss common themes, in English. On Thursdays, we split into sections. One week, I do political science and Professor Suárez does Spanish; next week, we reverse roles. Language students enjoy talking politics in Spanish. Political science students respond creatively to social science theory when they see films. And my feeling is that most students enjoy seeing two professors agree and disagree while still having fun and learning from each other.

On “my day in Congress”

You go into this large room, exactly as you see it on C-SPAN. Usually there is somebody else in the room that day who’s a star, normally a member of the executive branch, and during that deposition, the room is full, and there are tons of cameras. When time came for the academic experts, attention waned a little. It was less of a show, but cozier, one could say. I am proud that the Congress does these things—they want to hear testimony. The problem is that you don’t know what kind of impact you have. They listen to you; they ask you these questions; you turn in your report; presumably they discuss it. But you don’t give them a test. They don’t have to write a paper to show if they got it. So as a professor, the whole experience struck me as a bit incomplete.

On national security

I wanted [the Congressional subcommittee] to understand that Venezuela is governed by an anti-American administration that could turn far more threatening to the security of the Western Hemisphere than it is presently. But to take a pre-emptive, punitive approach won’t work, and to try to be appeasing might also be naïve. The challenge is to find a response that departs from the traditional dichotomy of containment and appeasement. I think the best thing political scientists can do is to give an analysis of the pros and cons of different approaches; I try to refrain from offering policy solutions, with one exception: the United States ought to identify members of the [Venezuelan] government whose conduct is demonstrably illegal and then denounce individual members, rather than to go after the entire administration. But in general, overreacting to this type of regime raises unreasonable risks. We need Venezuelan oil, but a lot less than Venezuela needs our markets. Here is one example in which some degree of mutual energy dependence serves as a moderating factor and thus enhances our national security.

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Javier Corrales found a big audience
for his cover story on Hugo Chávez.
On Hugo Boss

I’m always embarrassed by what I write. When somebody says, “I read your piece,” I am, of course, delighted, because that’s why we write: so that other people can learn from what we study. But at the same time, I get embarrassed, and I don’t want to hear it. My article “Hugo Boss” [whose title is a pun on the names of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, and a German fashion designer] is probably the most widely read thing that I’ve written. It was the cover story for Foreign Policy magazine [January/February 2006]. I had no idea, in the initial stages, what exactly I was going to say. But—I had the title! And I was like, “I have to make sure that I write this before anybody else steals the title.” So the title came before the article. Normally it’s the other way around: normally I suffer with the titles.

On three good things

A definition of a good life, since you asked, would have to be having someone to talk to. I would also add: a life without traffic jams and without tummy aches. I’ve always had lots of episodes of traffic jams and tummy aches, sometimes simultaneously, and never enjoyed them.

On pride

I try to work with Pride Alliance [a student organization that addresses matters of sexual orientation]. Precisely because they’re a tiny minority on campus, I feel it’s critical that they have faculty allies. I think I’m out to people who know me on campus. I’ve been with my partner for more than 20 years. He has a Ph.D. in applied linguistics. He was in academia; now he’s an editor. Discrimination can be very invisible to its target, so the fact that I haven’t noticed any at Amherst doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it hasn’t existed. But I have found nothing other than respect and encouragement and best wishes from everybody at Amherst. I find this to be one of the safest places in America. This has been not the result of magic or serendipity, but rather the product of the type of policies, classes, outreach and discourse that the college encourages. It’s a triumph.

Duke, a writer and editor at Amherst, wrote “Life with Neavey,” the cover story in the Summer 2008 Amherst magazine.

Top photo by Samuel Masinter '04. Bottom image copyright 2006, Foreign Policy.