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Today we’re going to talk about the forces that affect a country’s stability. We’ll take a closer look at Costa Rica, Venezuela, Cuba, and Brazil and examine how the cohesiveness of these Latin American countries varies dramatically even though they are in a region with similar characteristics. As you’ll see, a country is like a figure skater, and maintaining peace and stability is much like a pair performing a “death spiral” balancing the forces attempting to pull a country apart and keep it together.

CIA Factbook:
Getis, Bjelland, and Getis. Introduction to Geography, 15 ed. McGraw-Hill Education. 2017. ISBN: 978-1-259-57000-1
Gregory, Derek, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael Watts, and Sarah Whatmore, eds. 2009. The Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th ed. Willey-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-1-4051-3288-6

For a free and open source option for Intro to Human Geography:
For a free and open source option for World Regional Geography:

Cracking the AP Human Geography Exam: 2020 edition. The Princeton Review.
Checkerboards and Shatterbelts: The Geopolitics of South America by Philip Kelly

Costa Rica .



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A country is like a figure skater. Stick with me for a second. When a pair of figure skaters go into the death spiral, one skater pivots around a central point and holds onto the second skater's arm as they rotate while basically being parallel to the ice. The skater in the center is like centripetal force, which you may have heard of in physics, because they pull the other skater toward the center, and we can use the same term in geography to talk about the forces that bring people together.

At the same, probably while their life is flashing before their eyes, because mine certainly would be if someone was swinging me around while figure skating, the skater parallel to the ice is like a centrifugal force, trying to pull the skaters apart. Technically, centrifugal force doesn't exist in real life physics, but, in geography, we can still use the terms to visualize the way there can be forces pulling a state apart from the inside and threatening the stability of the state's power.

Tension like we see on display in the death spiral exists everywhere - in physics, in figure skating, and between the many centripetal and centrifugal forces in geography. And no one event or force is enough to pull a state apart or together. A state has to master the waves of external forces and internal needs of their neighbors and their citizens, which makes creating stability and peace a delicate balancing act.

I'm Alizé Carrère, and this is Crash Course: Geography,

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Really, a country is mostly just another name for a state, or a unit of government that controls borders, but states are held together by power systems, so today, we're diving into geopolitics, which is the term we use for studying international relationships across space. We'll be looking across borders, but also within borders, because how a state builds a relationship with other states is often colored by how it builds internal relationships.

Trying to maintain power is a big part of how any state interacts with the nations, or groups of people with a shared ethnic or cultural background, within its borders and the states outside of its borders. Like we learned before, power is never in balance, so we can talk about the cohesiveness of a state, or how stable it is, and realize that states are trying to balance a host of factors to create stability.

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But that itsn't as easy as it sounds, because there's no strict formula that creates a stable state. If there were, there'd be a lot more world peace. We wouldn't even have to leave a formal region like Latin America, which is a region that contains similar characteristics, to find examples of the shifting dynamics of state cohesiveness.

Take Costa Rica - in the 200 years since becoming independent from Spain, it's had several different types of governments, which sounds volatile, but Costa Rica is considered a stable state in the Fragile State Index, an annual report that assesses how vulnerable states are to conflict or collapse.

One way Costa Rica has achieved stability is with the type of government those in power create. Costa Rica's current constitution became law in 1949 and forms a democratic republic, which means that at least some general citizens have a say in who is in power. This is a form of democracy, which has a relationship between the people and elected officials through voting and civic involvement.

Popular support for leadership is one of the centripetal forces, and a state maintains power by finding ways by keeping most of the people satisfied. In the early 2020s, Costa Rica has been able to address most group grievances fairly adequately, or at least adequately enough to keep the majority of the people satisfied, though this can mean that minority groups don't share in the feeling of political unity.

But stable states often have other centripetal forces working together, like a common set of cultural traits like language and religion, although diversity doesn't have to create tension. For instance, Costa Rica is considered stable, and it's a fairly diverse state that's a popular location for immigrants to look for work, which in other states can highlight differences and bring discord.

Costa Rica is also known for having a strong infrastructure, like clean energy, education, and healthcare, which in turn enables a fairly stable economy, and both strong infrastructure and a stable economy are unifying forces. As a people, they're also committed to conserving their rainforests, and ecotourism is another major component of the economy.

So by investing in their people and their environment, Costa Rica has created a place where people feel connected and cared for. That doesn't mean all people feel that way - for instance, there have been issues with indigenous populations being pushed off rainforest land - but enough Costa Ricans do feel supported

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that Costa Rica is seen as a stable state.

But if any of those unifying forces starts to weaken - especially when there's less economic opportunity and people's needs are no longer met, or leadership doesn't feel legitimate and communication across the state starts to break down - then the centrifugal forces of disunity get the upper hand. It's hard work to keep a state unified, and, throughout the rest of Latin America, there are more fragile than stable states, as each country's colonial history has created difficult economic situations.

Venezuela is one of the less stable states. Since the mid-1920s, Venezuela's economy has been based on oil exports, which we think of as bringing in a lot of wealth, but, when the entire economy is dependent on oil prices, it becomes extremely vulnerable to oil price drops, which first happened in the 1980s. This drop led the way for political reforms that didn't actually change Venezuela's economic reliance on oil, and, when oil prices crashed again in 2014, it caused a commodity crisis and reinforced how vulnerable petro-state economies are.

And after a political movement to reinvest in agriculture failed to build a strong, diversified economy, and with their oil refining capabilities further diminished, by 2019 Venezuela experienced a deepening economic crisis that continues into the 2020s. And with more than 2/3 of the population experiencing multidimensional poverty, the government is susceptible to instability.

Disasters, whether they're natural or human-caused ones like war or the collapse of an economic sector, can also upend internal stability, especially if the country doesn't have the infrastructure and capacity to help people in the aftermath of a disaster. In response, people have been emigrating, or moving out of Venezuela, in huge numbers, so as it stands now in 2021, Venezuela is being pulled apart from the inside.

But centrifugal forces can also come from outside a state. There are a host of economic sanctions, or ways to limit trade and economic opportunities, that outside groups have imposed against Venezuela for lots of reasons, like Venezuela's involvement in drug trade, but sanctions have also been imposed because countries disapprove of the increasingly restrictive socialist government structure, which in this case means the economy is structured so that the state owns and controls large parts of it. And other external forces,

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like agreements with groups like the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, can also be prominent centrifugal forces that have created a lot of tension all over the world.

So yeah, keeping a country stable is no easy task, but it's really fascinating to examine the interconnected forces that lead to people working together or pulling apart. Political geographers throughout the 1900s even developed models to try to predict potential conflict by mapping out disagreements between states, especially over resources like agricultural land, and the spread of different political economic systems like communism or capitalism.

One idea that emerged from that work is that there's often a central area of power and then a zone around that area that's less stable, because it's caught between those two larger powers. This is known as a shatter belt. We can see this happening in the way the United States and Russia interacted through Cuba beginning in the 1950s. In 1959, the U.S.S.R. and the United States were in the midst of a Cold War, which is a geopolitical conflict that's fought indirectly with economics and military competition, and, in the midst of this, Cuba experienced a communist revolution that aligned it with the U.S.S.R.

Communism is an economic and political model that strived to replace private property and a profit-based economy with public ownership and communal control of, well, everything, and this includes ultimately getting away from a society that has class divisions or government. Technically, communism is a form of socialism, though not all socialists are communists. The closest thing we have right now to a socialist economy is Norway, kind of. Capitalism, on the other hand, is a free market economic system that's commonly associated with democracies. Unlike communism that's trying to get away from focusing on profit, under capitalism, individuals are motivated by profit, and whatever they're profiting from is owned by individuals, not governments or collectives.

The Soviet Union favored communism, and the U.S. is pro-capitalism, and, with Cuba just over 500 kilometers from Miami, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump compared to how far away teh U.S.S.R. was, this put a communist government within the democracy buffer zone that the U.S. and its allies tried to create to keep communism from spreading to other countries.

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This is called containment theory, and even over 60 years after Cuba's communist revolution, much of how the U.S. interacts with governments throughout Latin America is influenced by containment theory. Trying to contain different government and economic policies means constantly negotiating and renegotiating alliances and is part of redrawing the map of who has power and who does not over time.

Beyond the Cold War, in the wake of the disunity caused by forces like economic failure in either communist or capitalist states, another force of disunity can emerge - populism. Populism is an ideology that claims to express the will of the people, which some enemy - like the current leader or system - is supposedly oppressing. When people lose trust in the government, they can push for people in power who act, look, or share similar beliefs in hopes of creating a government that's more sympathetic to their economic or political situation.

Like in Brazil, where they've had two different populist movements just since the beginning of the 21st century. The first was a type of economic populism in the early 2000s, where leaders came to power promising to create a better economic situation for the average person. By 2017, leaders also began to leverage cultural tensions, and those who came to power ran on a platform promising an end to corruption among the government and to reduce migration.

Now, we've labeled many of the forces we've talked about like infrastructure or economics as either unifying or divisive, but a state is a lot more complicated than that. Like, take nationalism, which is an ideology focused on uniting the people of the state. We can think about nationalism as a slider bar, measuring how united a state is, with full cohesion on one side and divisive chaos on the other.

On one side, nationalism is something patriotic, a sense of belonging and having a voice in the nation. It's the most quintessential picture of the whole community celebrating their favorite holiday together, complete with parades and picnics, but, especially in multinational states, if that celebration or event is just for part of the population and the point is meant to reaffirm the other part of the population doesn't belong, then nationalism displays its most sinister divisive side. We also see nationalism's dark side on a global scale

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when it deepens the us versus them dynamic between people from different states.

There's nothing saying ideologies or forces can't collaborate, either. Populism often combines with nationalism as a response to economic or representational frustration. This can mean that those in power push against trade agreements or being part of alliances, like what we saw with Brexit, or it can mean there's more pressure on the cultural landscape to solidify into one identity and violently marginalize others, especially those seen as threats to the populist group's economic well-being.

Since the 2008 global financial collapse, the world has experienced a rise of populism and nationalism that have worked together to create tensions and violence between different nations around the world, and this has affected our forms of government, too. In the early 2000s, the nationalism populism combo has led to more and more authoritarianism creeping in. Like, Brazil in the early 2020s had a strong central leader with weak supporting institutions and the check and balance systems are being eroded.

So the delicate balance we see in figure skaters who can do a perfect death spiral is similar to all the efforts that go into managing the forces within a state. What happens politically and economically within a state is incredibly important, because it impacts how that state functions, how stable it is, and how it relates to other states. As economic conditions change, or war or disaster breaks out, there are fresh waves of issues for a state to handle to maintain their own power.

As political geographers, we can still ask, "Why is this happening here and not there?" Only now, we're focused on where and why power shapes the cohesiveness of the state and where conflicts might arise, and, as we'll see more next time, there are patterns to how states behave and what they fight over, and they're always shifting.

Many maps and borders represent modern geopolitical divisions that have often been decided without the consultation, permission, or recognition of the land's original inhabitants. Many geographical place names also don't reflect the indigenous or aboriginal people's languages. So we at Crash Course want to acknowledge these people's traditional and ongoing relationship with that land and all the physical and human geographical elements of it. We encourage you to learn about the history of the place you call home through resources like

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and by engaging with your local indigenous and aboriginal nations through the websites and resources they provide.

Thanks for watching this episode of Crash Course: Geography, which is filmed at the Team Sandoval Pier Studio and was made with the help of all these nice people. If you want to help keep Crash Course free for everyone forever, you can join our community on Patreon.