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Falleti discusses contradictory research on participatory democracy in Latin America

Participatory democracy is a work in progress, Tulia Falleti, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a lecture Wednesday on the introduction, spread and evolution of local participatory democracy in Latin America.

Falleti is a fellow with the University’s quarterly political science journal, World Politics. She is also a senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, a recipient of the Latin American Studies Association’s Donna Lee Van Cott Award and a former professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires.

To provide a larger context for her findings, Falleti discussed the “explosion” of neoliberal democracies and economic institutions in Latin America in the last 30 years and noted that recent research on participatory democracy in Latin America has produced conflicting results.

Some studies, she noted, indicate that higher-class citizens have a greater impact on participatory democracy in Latin American countries, while others find that lower-class, or need-based citizens, are more likely to participate and have an influence.

These conflicting results may be the result of various factors such as a stretched concept of participatory democracy or an urban bias in previously conducted studies, Falleti said.

However, resolving this issue is important because it can shed light on which groups are mainly involved in local participatory democratic institutions and help researchers determine if these new institutions are having a positive effect on addressing the needs of local Latin American communities, Falleti noted.

Initial case studies that she has conducted in Bolivia and Ecuador indicate that mainly lower-middle-class citizens are involved in participatory democratic institutions in Latin America, Falleti said.

The implementation of certain elements of participatory democracy, however, remains contentious. Falleti particularly noted the “ineffective” recognition of prior consultation, or the right of a community to be consulted before natural resource extraction in its environment is conducted, in Bolivia and Ecuador.

The national government’s economic interest in capital brought in by natural resource extraction, combined with its capacity to control or construct regulations on the conduct of prior regulation, removes power from the hands of local communities, Falleti argued.

For example, Bolivian President Evo Morales has supported legislation that expedites the process of local consultation.

“This takes away the only resource that communities have against corporations during these consultations, which is time,” Falletti said.

Nevertheless, mobilization in national efforts to improve the implementation of prior consultation is making a positive, though incremental, impact, Falleti said.

Moving forward, further examination of local participatory democracy and its interactions with the state is critical in developing new ideas of democracy and its function.

“There are overlapping areas between different types of democracy and we need to think more about the implications of different institutions,” Falletti said. “We are in a post-liberal time, and there are features of it that we do not fully understand yet.”

The lecture, “Participatory Democracy in Latin America,” was held at 4:30 p.m. in Burr Hall 216. It was cosponsored by World Politics, the Project on Democracy and Development, the University’s Program in Latin American Studies and Comparative Politics.

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