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PORTSIDE  August 2010, Week 2

PORTSIDE August 2010, Week 2

Subject:

Venezuela: The Quiet Revolution

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Date:

Tue, 10 Aug 2010 22:48:56 -0400

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The Quiet Revolution: 
Venezuelans Experiment with Participatory Democracy

By Andrew Kennis

August 10, 2010,In These Times 

http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/6202/

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. © 2010 In These Times

_____________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.

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