The Quiet Revolution: Venezuelans Experiment with Participatory Democracy

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In These Times

The Quiet Revolution: Venezuelans Experiment with Participatory Democracy

by
Andrew Kennis

Members of the 13 de Abril communal council, located in the worker residential district 23 de Enero in Caracas, deliberate over and plan community development projects. (Photo courtesy of Sílvia Leindecker)

Selling goods to passersby on the street, Jenny Caraballo describes
her local communal council. "Some of our members are homemakers who
want their community to be pretty," Caraballo says while trying to make
eye contact with potential clients in 23 de Enero, a barrio popular that
is one of many rough areas in Caracas, Venezuela.

The balmy weather southwest of Caracas, in the state of Táchira, does
not stop Pedro Hernandez, 77, from playing chess with his retired
friends in San Crist-bal's city square. "Before, the government didn't
help the people," he says. "Now they give us benefits. "Now there is
culture, dance and programs free to the public and organized by our
communal council." Hernandez does his part by organizing chess
tournaments.

And in the picturesque mountain town of Merida, Alidio Sosa says:
"The councils are a symbol of how the old parties are dead and won't
ever come back-the parties of the past never concerned themselves with
the community."

Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's megalomaniac president who has spearheaded
the country's Bolivarian revolution and garnered so much attention, is
not the only one shaking up the country's political system. A
community-based revolution is underway in Venezuela. Ordinary people all
over are changing how their communities are governed.

In the past four years, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have
been organizing tens of thousands of consejos comunales (communal
councils). Each council is composed of about 150 families in urban
areas, while in rural and indigenous areas, each council is composed of
20 and 10 families, respectively. The councils are involved in
everything from road building and maintenance to cultural activities and
events, housing improvements, and providing basic services like water
and electricity-all while struggling for the official government
recognition that provides the opportunity to get funding for their
community projects.

Communal councils were modeled after participatory democracy in
Kerala, India, and community budgeting practices pioneered in Porto
Alegre, Brazil. In Kerala, citizens play an important role in conceiving
and implementing development projects at the local level. Since 1989,
Porto Alegre has successfully run a system of decentralized planning
whereby citizens determine local spending priorities through a series of
public meetings. Communal councils in Venezuela embody both of these
municipal participatory reforms.

The councils are both Chávista and anti-Chávista; working-class and
oligarchical. The former mayor of Carora, Julio Chávez, told Michael
Albert of Z-Net and Greg Wilpert of Venezuela Analysis in September
2008:

The communal councils are an expression of the territory where
people live, and within that area they are the natural leadership. In
some communal councils, our candidates, ones supporting the revolution,
were not elected, but instead anti-Chávistas were elected. In our area
there is a communal council that belongs to the oligarchy, essentially.
They aren't with us, but they have invited us to meetings where we
discuss their concerns.

The paperwork required to start and maintain a council is one of the
greatest obstacles to communal council organizing. Completion of a
multi-step process, including conducting a census and numerous
elections, is required. Despite these complexities, councils have taken
on government bureaucracy by creating a participatory model of
governance that bypasses large institutions and municipal officials.

Local officials and bureaucrats feel threatened by this growing form
of self-governance, which is fueled by billions of dollars from the
central government. Of the many national Bolivarian social projects, the
communal councils have arguably become the most popular and successful
innovations of the Chávez administration.

Beyond bureaucracy

Most of Venezuela's workforce is divided between an informal economy,
in which people hawk consumer goods in the street, and the government
agencies connected to the nationalized petroleum industry, which
accounts for more than half of government revenue and about 90 percent
of the country's exports. Given the large amount of funding state
agencies receive based on petro-dollars and the under-employment outside
the public sector, government bodies have strong incentives to prolong
their own existence. This breeds an Orwellian bureaucracy of sorts,
which roils the Venezuelan public.

Communal councils are an effort to combat Venezuela's bureaucratic
red tape and the corruption related to it. But they are also the latest
manifestation of Venezuela's long tradition of community activism and
social struggle.

The councils were not immediately successful, given the challenges
inherent to community organizing. The first attempt at participatory
democratic reform was the 2001 institution of Bolivarian Circles. These
neighborhood councils were largely viewed as electoral organizing arms
of the Chávez administration.

Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs) were next, but elected council
leaders found it difficult to rub elbows with powerful public officials
while representing districts which contained, in some cases, upwards of
1 million people. By 2005, most CLPPs were deadlocked and ineffective.

The third try has been the charm. Communal councils sprung up across
the country in the wake of National Assembly legislation in November
2006. Their success is attributed to their more decentralized and
democratic structure-each council is run by and serves a relatively
small number of people.

Direct inspiration for the Law of Communal Councils was drawn from
Cumaná, a coastal state capital located some 250 miles northeast of
Caracas. In Cumaná, communal councils had been operating successfully
because citizens were comfortable deliberating in small,
community-oriented bodies. The Cumaná experience was translated into a
national success story, as the number of officially sanctioned communal
councils rose from about 21,000 in 2007 to 30,179 by 2009, with some
5,000 more slated for formation.

This organizing frenzy was accompanied by significant federal
funding. Starting at $1.5 billion in 2006, funding for communal councils
increased to $5 billion by 2007. That same year, laws governing the
distribution of petroleum revenues were modified so that 50 percent of
funds-the portion previously directed to state and municipal
governments-went to communal councils.

Despite the abundance of financing, legislation limits each council
to project spending caps of between about $14,000 and $28,000. The caps
mean projects can do little more than pave a new road, so councils
frequently depend on volunteer labor, a problem for impoverished
communities. Still, councils are often able to rely on volunteers due to
the councils' popularity. A lack of competitive contracts for council
work has also been a source of criticism from opponents of the
government.

An ‘alternative economy'?

New laws passed by the National Assembly since November 2009 have
helped councils expand their focus into the economic sphere. According
to the legislation, councils should now promote new forms of "social
property, based on the potentialities of their community," through a
tax-exempt "social, popular, and alternative economy."

Since the councils were created in part to combat bureaucracy, some
reforms aim to streamline council finances and prevent corruption.
Financial management of the councils was transferred from communal banks
to finance commissions with elected council administrators, and recall
measures were instituted for council spokespersons (elected citizens who
manage the councils). Ostensibly, these measures grant more financial
autonomy and independence from meddling local officials, who often feel
threatened by or are in conflict with the councils.

In May 2010, about 15,000 elected spokespeople participated in
workshops-conducted by the government's Foundation for Development and
Promotion of Communal Power-on how to implement the new reforms.

Socialist communes created through additional federal initiatives
since last November represent an effort to strengthen councils and
expand their scope into the economic realm. As of February 2010, more
than 184 communes-each of which coordinates between various councils
around the country-were being organized to help councils focus on
"social-productive" projects and provide Venezuelans with access to
cheaper goods. These projects include growing medicinal and agricultural
plants in the coastal state of Miranda, and operating nonprofit arepa
shops, which sell food in Caracas at half the market price. Other
initiatives take advantage of cheap goods produced or distributed by
certain communes.

An experiment evolves

"Before, neighborhood associations took on the responsibilities of
many of the community's needs," says Caraballo, the community activist
in Caracas. "Now, the communal council does much of the same work, but
with the financial support of the government-giving us more resources to
do the things we need to do."

As with any experiment in participatory democracy, the councils are
not perfect. Dedicated citizen activists are often overburdened with
what arguably should be governmental responsibilities. In addition, much
of Venezuela's most important communal council work is being done by
un- or under-employed volunteers often mired in poverty.

Others are concerned that citizens still lack a way, other than
elected officials, to be part of higher-level government decisions that
impact their lives. Some Venezuelans ask: Why can't councils also have a
say over foreign, macroeconomic and national policies that impact their
communities?

Lofty pronouncements about communal councils from federal officials
abound. Chávez himself has declared the councils to be "the great motors
of the new era of the Revolution," "a basic cell of the future
society," and "fundamental ... for revolutionary democracy." Yet questions
remain about the future role of councils in larger political and
economic spheres.

If they continue to push for and realize the ambitious aim of
assuming the powers of bloated, sometimes corrupt, bureaucracies, they
could perhaps overtake local government's function altogether.

Regardless of how they evolve, if local citizens control the future
of the councils, they will surely remain an important part of the
far-reaching political changes that have reshaped Venezuela during the
last decade.

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