December 8, 2010 — In her native Venezuela, Maria Pilar Garcia-Guadilla is a tenured professor at the University Simón Bolìvar, an active contributor to books and journals about South American politics and an activist in environmental, human and women's rights. This semester she has taken a break and come to the University of Virginia, where she has been working on her fourth book.
Garcia-Guadilla received a semester-long fellowship from the Center for International Studies to join the faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Sociology while she researches and writes her book about participatory democracies in Latin America, focusing on Venezuela as a showcase for other Latin American countries. The culmination of 10 years of research, Garcia-Guadilla's book will examine socio-political conflict resolution in Latin America, specifically in countries, like Venezuela, that have relatively new constitutions.
In particular, Garcia-Guadilla turns a critical eye on the construction of the so-called "civil society." Venezuelans worked together in the 1980s and '90s to promote democratization in their country. After Venezuela's new constitution went into effect in 1999, however, the nation became polarized.
"In countries where there were still high levels of poverty and social inequalities, the result was that this unifying civil society got divided" along class lines, Garcia-Guadilla explained. Middle- and upper-class citizens lobby for increased freedom of expression and property rights, while the lower class fights to ensure its basic needs are met. The lower class also wants to be more included in governmental practices.
In her book, Garcia-Guadilla argues that the government should make an effort to improve the living conditions of the lower classes.
"There are certain problems you have to resolve," Garcia-Guadilla said. The conflicts between the classes have the potential to lead to violence, she explained, and may even eventually result in war.
A professor in the undergraduate urban planning department and political science graduate program at her home university, Garcia-Guadilla is particularly interested in how grassroots political movements work together and influence each other. At the University Simón Bolìvar, Garcia-Guadilla also directs of the Interdisciplinary Research Laboratory Center, where she performed much of her research for her upcoming book.
"The Center for International Studies has a marvelous international fellowship. It gives you so much freedom," she said. "It's great for scholars like me who already know what they want to do."
Additionally, Garcia-Guadilla said that she was particularly impressed with U.Va.'s library system.
"I've been spending a lot of time in the library facilities," she said, adding that she is grateful not only for the number of volumes at the library, but also the very helpful staff. While Garcia-Guadilla has a wealth of primary sources from her native Venezuela, she said she was very impressed with the number of books written in American universities about Latin American politics. The U.Va. Library had many such books in house, and was also able to easily borrow more from other libraries.
Though Garcia-Guadilla had a number of different fellowship offers, she chose U.Va. because of the flexibility it provided. She was grateful not to be responsible for teaching a class alongside her writing; instead, she has been able to focus her energies on her book, while leading seminars and speaking to various graduate and undergraduate classes.
The opportunity for new scholarly discussion, Garcia-Guadilla said, has been one of the highlights of her time at the University. In particular, she said she has enjoyed conversing with sociology professor Rae Blumberg.
"She always has really prolific ideas," Garcia-Guadilla said, adding that Blumberg has been helping her prepare for her upcoming colloquium.
On Nov. 18, she led a seminar through the Center for International Studies' Interdisciplinary Series on Human Rights. Her topic, "Participatory Democracy, Polarization and Human Rights in Venezuela," directly reflected the topic of her forthcoming book, allowing Garcia-Guadilla to engage in a helpful dialogue with other experts in the field.
At home in Venezuela, Garcia-Guadilla is lauded as one of the founders of the women's movement, which sought to bring discussion of women's issues into the public domain, as well as to apply pressure to the government to pass laws in support of women's rights.
Having earned her master's degree from the University of Chicago in the 1970s, Garcia-Guadilla returned to Venezuela after being heavily influenced by the American feminist movement. She and other women – many of whom had also spent time in the United States – came together to create the feminist women's movement.
"We created a space to discuss issues," she explained, noting that the movement formed a cohesive network of women, including women in politics, to look out for feminist interests.
Now, however, Garcia-Guadilla said that the movement is becoming polarized by socio-economic class divisions as well. Instead of working together for common interests, upper-class women are focusing their attention on making changes to the government, while lower-class women are struggling just to survive.
"Women are the poorest of the poor," she explained. Working-class women struggle to get childcare so that they can work to support themselves, and many do not have access to clean drinking water. These issues should be addressed, Garcia-Guadilla said, so that the civil society can continue to be effective.
Prior to coming to Charlottesville, Garcia-Guadilla received an M.A. in social sciences and a Ph.D. in human ecology and urban sociology from the University of Chicago. She also was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of London.
She has been visiting professor at the Université de Paris III and the Universidad Complutense de Madrid; British Council distinguished research scholar at the University of London; research scholar at the Kellogg Institute of the University of Notre Dame; a Fulbright professor at the College of Charleston; Andrés Bello Chair at the Universidad de Salamanca in Spain; and visiting professor and research scholar at many other universities in Latin America, Europe and the U.S.