The Quiet Revolution

Venezuelans experiment with participatory democracy.

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. 

Communal councils are an effort to combat red tape and the corruption related to it. They are also the product of a long history of movement politics.

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.

Andrew Ken­nis is an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist, an adjunct pro­fes­sor and a researcher who is receiv­ing his Ph.D. from the Insti­tute of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Research at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois, Urbana-Cham­paign. More of Ken­nis’ arti­cles can be accessed here.
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