So I applied for a Fulbright scholarship…

After a three month writing process with multiple drafts (ten to be exact) of two essays, a great interview with the university committee, and a last minute foreign language evaluation, I have finally completed and successfully submitted my Fulbright application. I wouldn’t have been able to complete this without the support of my Fulbright adviser and friends.

I’m not really sure where it goes from here, but I hope to get the honor of being selected by the National Screening Committee as a finalist.

I have decided to share my Statement of Grant Purpose. It’s on the Communal Councils in Venezuela, about 1200 words, and it will be translated and uploaded in Spanish on my other blog. Of course, feedback and criticism is always welcomed. Enjoy.

Participatory Governance of the Communal Councils in Venezuela

I propose to conduct research on the Communal Councils (CCs) in Valencia, Venezuela and to publish the findings of my inquiry in an academic journal with the dual purpose of contributing to the scholarly literature on the theory of participatory democracy and enriching the debate centered on the quality of Venezuela’s democratic credentials. My research will address how participation is framed in the context of the Bolivarian Revolution, a social and political movement that aims to transform the state into a democratic socialist one. The research additionally seeks to examine what participation involves, what goals of social and political transformation through participation may be achieved, how state resources and public goods are accessed, and to what extent are (or are not) the Councils used by the government to enable the centralization of political power at the top.

Participatory approaches to democracy in Venezuela were many decades in the making and emerged as a reform strategy to mitigate the systemic crisis experienced by the Fourth Republic in the 1980s and 1990s. The economic and political crisis was triggered by the collapse of international oil prices and rising external debt. Many social movements expressed their skepticism about the idea that representative institutions would be capable of solving their problems. They thus demanded a reform of the state. The re-founding of the republic culminated in the 1999 Constitution which mandated a new geometry of power through the promotion of “participatory and protagonistic” democracy. This strategy has been perceived by many supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution as a significant improvement on the two-party system, which they viewed as ineffective. As a result, they view community-driven development as an essential feature for facilitating active political involvement and an imperative for the construction of a strong, functional state.

Yet scholars of Venezuela have yet to come to a consensus on the quality of the country’s democracy, with detractors categorizing it as semi-authoritarian or as radical populism. There are fewer agreements about the impact of the CCs themselves. On the one hand, supporters contend that the councils have the vast potential to correct the ineffectiveness of political representation in traditional liberal institutions because they encourage social transformation through participatory governance. They argue further that the rapid expansion of the CCs is verification of the government’s commitment to developing participatory democracy. On the other hand, critics argue that the CCs simply serve the state’s strategic interest and the lack of autonomy of the CCs is demonstrated through their reliance on the government for funding to implement their projects. While both perspectives have a degree of validity, they are both limited because each fails to fully capture the social agency of the CCs – that is, their ability to independently assert their collective identities – and the struggles that occur outside of state institutions. Such injudicious perceptions are commonplace due to the scarcity of research and fieldwork.

For that reason, research on the CCs is an important step towards grasping a more complete understanding of their organizational structure, their contributions to the development of civil society, their function in resolving social problems, and their role in confronting institutional and social inequities based on race, class and gender. The existing literature in English on the Communal Councils largely focuses on the laws that institutionalize their formation along with anecdotal case studies that provides only a partial perspective of the councils. It tends to overlook racial balance and gender parity, the internal dynamics within the CCs, and political economy. My research will build on the existing literature in Spanish and push knowledge further by highlighting how the CCs are driven by a grassroots movement with the goal of developing an alternative model of democracy.

The research additionally seeks to highlight the relationship between the councils and the state: how they reinforce each other, on what issues they pull in different directions, and how the relationship between the CCs and the state enabled or hindered the personalistic rule of Hugo Chávez. Moreover, I want to consider whether there has been any difference in how that relationship has functioned under the current President Nicolás Maduro. The latter is of particular importance for two reasons: (a) nothing has been produced on the CCs in the post-Chávez era and (b) President Maduro passed two laws in the past year that strengthened the role of the CCs in the state structure. These legal changes are significant in the context of the current fiscal limitations of the Venezuelan state, which have been exacerbated by the fall in global oil prices. My project provides a unique opportunity to examine the efficacy of the CCs since part of the rationale behind participatory democracy is their purported ability to improve state performance in the time of economic crisis.

I intend to conduct my research at the Universidad de Carabobo (UC) and join the Research Group for Policy and Institutions (GIPI). GIPI is a leading institution in the country and renowned for its first-rate academic staff and innovative work. My work will be mentored by Professor María Isabel Puerta Riera whose guidance and expertise on the CCs and sociopolitical mobilization and participation in Venezuela has already informed my research. The proposed timeframe for the research will be between September 2016 and May 2017.

The methodology of my research will involve conducting open-ended interviews and participant observations. Attending CC meetings and living in the same community with its members will allow me to observe the day-to-day operations of the councils, as well as the daily lives of its members. Open-ended interviews will be conducted with council members and leaders, local and national politicians, opponents and non-participants, all of which will provide me with the opportunity to learn how Venezuelans have experienced changes brought to their country by the CCs. The interviews will be conducted in Spanish, a language I speak at an advanced level. I will offer to share my findings with the participants of the research and other research and academic institutions in Venezuela.

I also plan to engage with the cultural collective named Hip Hop Revolución (HHR). HHR was founded in 2003 and view hip hop music as essential in the process of social transformation. Since their establishment, HHR has founded 31 hip hop schools across Venezuela and organized an annual international festival. I intend to contact the organizers at one of the local schools with the proposal of preparing a workshop. The workshop will meet weekly and consist of lectures, film screenings, open mic shows, and other related cultural events. A blog will be setup to facilitate the exchange of music and document the events organized.

Most of the literature on Venezuela is highly polarized and I wish to add a more nuanced view of the country. This is what drives me to pursue this research project on the highly overlooked establishment of the CCs and their contribution to participatory democracy in Venezuela. My research will serve to develop the genre of scholarly work that examines local trajectories and grassroots mobilization. This distinction is important for achieving not only a better understanding of the democratic process in Venezuela, but to better inform the framers of U.S. foreign policy towards the country. The effects of this research will be enormous on the praxis of participatory politics in Latin America and the world, and will undoubtedly further the field of democratic theory. For these reasons, I respectfully urge you to kindly review my proposal and give me every consideration as you search for the most qualified candidates.

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