Latin American Governments Plug-In

Is the World Wide Web a Goldmine for Researchers?

by | Dec 19, 1999

Confused about where to get info on the latest legislation in Mexico or presidential speech in Chile, aggregated census data in Colombia or a chronology of the peace commission in Guatemala? Perhaps you should try the Internet.

It may come as a surprise to some, but nearly every Latin American nation is now on-line, with government-sponsored sites on the world wide web having sprouted rapidly over the last few years. The ‘virtual’ Argentine government, for example, is composed of at least 150 different web pages, diverse sites ranging from the Office of the President to the ministry of science and technology, from the Congress to the census bureau, from the army to the foreign consulates. Nor are the pages limited to the slick and professionally-designed sites of the federal government. State and local governments also make use of the Internet, as witnessed by the web pages for the city of Córdoba and the provincial legislature of Tierra del Fuego.

 

The Lay of the Land

I’ve found in my own research that the depth and breadth of the offerings vary greatly from one country to the next, as does the quality of individual sites within a country. Mexico and Brazil exhibit the highest level of Internet sophistication and many of their sites are quite excellent by any standard, followed closely by Costa Rica and Colombia.

In general, however, one’s expectations should be kept low, since most government agencies lack the personnel and resources required for maintaining informative, up-to-date sites. Most web pages are nothing more than electronic brochures for their agencies, including a few paragraphs of introductory text and a photograph or two. The sites often suffer from problems such as: links that look interesting but lead to nowhere (“dead-ends”), pages that are “under construction”, and already slow connections made almost unbearable by the heavy use of graphics. It seems that most governments view their sites as relatively low priorities, with the emphasis on presenting an impressive image to the viewer, rather than creating an inventive tool for transparent and participatory government-though one finds surprising and significant exceptions.

 

A Taxonomy of Websites

Perhaps the most high-profile group of websites is that for the office of the country’s chief executive, typically thepresidencia. Professional firms design and maintain such sites, making them attractive and bold, inviting visitors to learn more about the country and its leader. They almost always include a personal message from the executive, as well a biography and photos. In addition, these sites often display links to other government entities, information on tourism, virtual trips to palaces or capital cities, and general information about the geography, economy, and government of a country. I uniformly dislike these sites because of their bland nationalism and simplistic content (e.g. Chile, Argentina, Guatemala). They usually read like stump speeches or high school encyclopedia entries. I recommend you visit only if you are looking for good quotes on “the party line”; the best of these sites have the full text of presidential speeches and initiatives (Mexico is a good example).

Another next major class of sites are those of the legislative branch, generally a congress. I have the unscientific impression that the best legislative websites are in those nations with institutions that depend to a lesser degree on the executive, or at least those in which a strong opposition force exists. In such cases, the congressional sites seem to be more aggressive about promoting the outward flow of information, with updates about ongoing activities, commissions, as well as the full text of proposed or approved legislation. Some provide links to congressional libraries. Check out sites in Mexico, Peru, and Chile for examples.

Regarding legal matters, most judiciaries do not have strong sites, but there are impressive exceptions, like the Supreme Courts of Mexico and Brazil. These offer search capabilities and the full text of laws, the constitution, and other documents, as well as background on the practice of jurisprudence.

Typically however, the best sites are not the most obvious ones. In those nations with a high level of web development, cabinet-level ministries produce many of the best, information-packed sites. In Mexico, for example, the Secretary of the Environment offers considerable documentation that includes the full text of programs and policies, news, educational info, details and tips for regulatory compliance, even downloadable forms. The Secretary of Federal Receipts in Brazil contains forms and information for all aspects of federal tax payment, not to mention downloadable programs to help you fill them out! Planning ministries, electoral commissions, and departments of external relations present good opportunities for productive research in the form of quotable programs, data, and policies. Look for another outstanding example of transparent government at the website of the National Development Plan in Costa Rica.

Perhaps the best type of site for social science researchers is that of the agency responsible for collecting geographic and statistical information. Depending on the country, it may take the form of the census bureau, statistical office, or a subdepartment of the planning ministry or even the electoral tribune (as in Costa Rica). Here you will find a considerable amount of quantitative data as well as a catalogue of publications. Some of these sites have truly enabled academic research to cross frontiers. A Mexican colleague of mine in this country gets ‘everything he needs’ from the INEGI site to continue his research and writing, a situation which is becoming more and more common.

Finally, there are dozens of other government websites, most of which are the video equivalent of voicemail and not worth the bother. A few of these sites offer narrowly useful information, such as the ministry of tourism, or the national agency that administers student grants. State and municipal government sites are hit or miss, their excellence often depending on whether the party in power wants to be seen as an ‘innovator’-often the case with opposition parties. See the sites for Mexico City, Curitiba (Brazil), Quito (Ecuador), and Sucre (Bolivia) for examples. The government of Mexico City is especially interesting, as it invites public discussion and commentary on its proposals in an effort to increase its social base of support.

 

Hitting the Road

The Internet can be an absorbing but time-consuming tool for research. Before starting, think about those government entities which relate directly to your work and make a short list. Most importantly, don’t waste your time in countless frustrating net searches! I have provided a small list of useful and versatile links below. To find something not listed, trylatinworld.com, which is a kind of ‘master-site’, a phenomenal directory of all kinds of sites throughout Latin America. There you will find government links listed by country as well as countless informative pages sponsored by universities and NGOs, not to mention lists of links for music, culture, business, mass media, and on and on. But don’t get lost. Try to limit your first efforts to an hour of directed exploration, which should give you a good idea about which government sites on your list have substantive information-keep an eye out for primary documents and downloadable files. Happy hunting!

Winter 1999

 

André Leroux makes extensive use of the Internet to supplement his thesis research on Mexican environmental policy and remain informed about events across Latin America. He is the assistant to the director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

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