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Sociologist visits Venezuela on Fulbright

Leslie C. Gates, an assistant professor in the Sociology Department, is studying and teaching as a Fulbright scholar in Venezuela this academic year. Her previous research has examined the social consequences of market-oriented reforms on labor movements and gender inequality in Mexico. This project will extend her interest in the effects of market-oriented reforms in Latin America to the political arena.

“Recently we have seen growing resistance to market-oriented reforms in Latin America — demonstrated most recently in the meeting of Latin American heads of state in Argentina,” she said. “At the same time, some countries — like Mexico and Chile — remain firmly committed to further economic integration and trade liberalization. My research seeks to understand, on the one hand, what types of policies and conditions facilitate a sustained commitment to neoliberal or market-oriented eco-nomic reforms in some countries, and on the other hand, what economic and political conditions may create opportunities for politicians opposed to neoliberal reforms.”

She’s focusing on Venezuela because of the unique political situation there. The country, once viewed as the region’s model democracy, elected as president Hugo Chavez, who has a military background.

“My research seeks to understand this perplexing turn of events by focusing on understanding the historical development of state-business relations in Venezuela and utilizing Mexico as a comparative case study,” Gates said.

While she plans to write a book based on this work, Gates also sees it having practical implications for social movements and policy makers. “For example,” she said, “it may indicate that anti-globalization social movements would be better received in some countries than others due to their particular political institutions, socio-economic structure or political culture. Similarly, my research may underscore the importance of certain social policies or political party constellations for facili-tating successful neoliberal reform efforts.”

Gates, 37, holds master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from the University of Arizona as well as a bachelor’s in history from Princeton University. She has taught at Binghamton since 2001.

This semester, she’s teaching a graduate- level class in Spanish titled The Politics of Neoliberalism at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, the country’s main public university. In the spring, she’ll teach the same course at a very different institution, the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administracion, a private business and public policy school.

“Unlike at Binghamton, where most graduate students are full-time students, most graduate students in Venezuela work full time,” Gates said. “So for example, one of my students works for the superintendent of banking, another is a social worker, another is a full-time professor at a university.” One of the most striking things about Venezuela is the degree to which average citizens are engaged in politics, she said.

“President Chavez is a political figure that evokes passionate political convictions from nearly everyone I’ve spoken to here — and not necessarily the ones you might expect,” Gates said. One longtime community activist is cynical about the motivations of those around Chavez; some professors are sympathetic to the pres-ident’s critical stance on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

Last year, Gates won a Dr. Nuala McGann Drescher Award, which she will use to take a semester leave next year and work on her book manuscript. She’s also the recipient of a Women’s Leadership Award from the alumni associ-ation of Princeton University’s Women’s Center. That honored not only her academic achievements but also her work along Mexico’s northern border. Gates is a found-ing committee member and fundraiser for the Border Alliance of Women Workers, through which Mexican women teach fellow workers about their labor and human rights.

While in Venezuela, Gates is renting a house from a faculty member at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administracion who’s on leave in the United States.

“The house is divine, on a quiet street, which is hard to find in Caracas,” Gates said. “One of the best features is its lush garden that fills the air with sweet aromas of flowers and fruits. At night, the garden’s tiny frogs come out, producing a hypnotic tropical symphony.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08