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Opinion and Analysis: Land Reform

Venezuela’s Urban Land Committees and Participatory Democracy

Nidia Lopez stood on one side of the brick built shack. It was like one of the thousands that made up the barrio of Andres Bello. The barrios, or slums, are where the majority of the Venezuelan population lives. Thirty people looked at Nidia. Some of them stood outside in the mud. The building was too small to fit them all.

Nidia spoke and her voice was clear and loud. She said, “There are 23 families living on the street in this barrio. In eight years what has this government done for them? In three years what has this Committee done for them? They need help now! What are we going to do for them now?”

The “we” that Nidia was talking about was the Urban Land Committee for the Andres Bello barrio. The Urban Land Committees, known in Spanish as Comites de Tierras Urbanas, or CTUs, exist everywhere there are barrios in Venezuela and barrios are everywhere in Venezuela.

The barrios are a symbol of the uneven development of the country. The process of people moving from the land to the cities that happened across Latin America over the twentieth century as living conditions became unbearably bad in the countryside.

The discovery of oil in Venezuela in the 1920s, followed by the rapid collapse of agriculture, meant this process happened earlier and in a more complete way than in the rest of the continent.

When this wave of rural people came to the cities they found few jobs, no infrastructure and nowhere to live. There were no houses free so they built their own where they could. These were often on land owned by others. As a result, the barrios where created.

Crowded, chaotic, often without decent access to water or electricity, the barrios are where the majority of Venezuelans live. Often barrio houses are built on unsafe hillside land. Many are so poorly built they are destroyed when there is heavy rain.

Social housing had always been inadequate in Venezuela. Too few affordable apartments for too many poor people. When Hugo Chavez came into government in 1998 he made promises about social housing but improvement was not rapid.

Then, on February 04, 2002 Chavez issued Presidential Decree 1,666 and the CTUs were born. The Presidential Order said that any family that could prove they had built their own home could apply to become the legal owner.

To do this they had to join with 100 to 200 other families to form a CTU. When this was done, each family could provide the details to the Technical Office for Urban Land Tenancy and Regularization (OTNRTTU) and become the owners of their own homes.

This very simple sounding suggestion from above has resulted in an amazing and widespread acceptance from below. In a short time there were hundreds of CTUs across the country.

Millions of people applied for the land to be registered so they could own their own home. According to OTNRTTU there are currently 5,212 across the country each representing an average of 147 families.

As the average Venezuelan family has five members this means that the CTUs represent close to 5.7 million people out of a total Venezuelan population of 25 million.

Partly because of the numbers involved, but also because of what they signify, the CTUs are one of the most interesting parts of Venezuelan society today. They have not received as much attention as the health or social missions, such as barrio adentro.

They are, however, just as critical to the process of change in Venezuela as the missions, if not more so. They embody the three key themes, or questions, of the Venezuelan process. These are ownership, participation, and state-community relations.

Ownership

The CTUs bring up the question of property ownership from two different directions. On one hand it can be seen as another example of the Chavez government’s radical disrespect for the sanctity of private property.

The people of the barrios are taking ownership of land that technically belongs to someone else. However, CTU activists such as Andrés Antillano argue that there is nothing wrong with this.

Antillano, who is also a University Lecturer in Law, said, “these people have built on this land, developed it and been living on it, in some cases, for decades. In many countries in Europe they would already be the legal owners.”

Many might find no problem with this. Others can make the argument that any infringement of private property endangers it all. In Andres Bello Nidia Lopez’s suggestion of how to help the 23 homeless people would give fuel to this fear.

Lopez said there was a large mansion bordering the Andres Bello, which could house all of the families. She said that it had originally been built and used by military officers. Then a woman had come to privately own it.

There had long been suspicions the sale was corrupt and the house was technically still state property. Lopez said the CTU should try and prove the lady did not legitimately own the mansion. Then they could confiscate it on the behalf of the homeless families.

Although Lopez’s suggestion to confiscate the house was based on the condition that the lady was not the legal owner, it still contributes to the fears that wealthy Venezuelans have.

This fear is that with social organization and a legal mandate from the government the poor will start to turn their attention outside of the barrio. They might want to expand their property at the expense of the rich, invading their pockets of wealth and security.

Recent events cannot have made the fearful wealthy feel better about this. After mudslides that happened on January 5, 2006, groups of desperate homeless people took over abandoned residential buildings in the center of Caracas.

The Mayor of Caracas, Juan Barreto, has said he will not tolerate this. Parts of the opposition have blamed the government for the recent occupations. They say legal takeovers of farms and businesses by the state encourage illegal takeovers by the people.

The land registration process can be seen in a much less radical way though. An economically conservative party was the first to propose the idea formally in the Venezuelan Congress.

The opposition party Primero Justicia proposed a law in 2000 for transferring property rights to people living in the barrios. Their ideas were heavily influenced by the Peruvian writer Hernando de Soto.

De Soto argues strongly for property ownership as a means of bringing capitalist values to life in the third world. People such as free market economist, Milton Friedman and the former Conservative British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher love his works.

Ivan Martinez, the Director of OTNRTTU, spoke about why he felt the land registration scheme would not make Venezuela a more capitalist country. Martinez said it was important to look at the overall Venezuelan context to understand this.

Martinez said, “when neoliberal capitalists want to increase home ownership they also want to privatize everything else in society. They reduce welfare and destroy the unions and the workers. They make profit the priority of society above everything else.”

This is the total opposite of what is happening in Venezuela now, Martinez argued.

He said the CTUs gave people the right to own their own their homes along with encouraging, “organization, planning and community reinforcement.”

This was about “democratizing ownership,” Martinez argued. As part of this “democratizing” process, Martinez did admit that the government does not consider all property rights to be as sacred as others.

Most obviously they do not believe those who own vast idle rural estates called latifundios, are free from expropriation by the state. Martinez said just because huge farms can be taken over to help the country’s difficult food situation, does not mean that private homes would be expropriated. Martinez stressed, “Owning your home, your house where you live, this is sacred.”

Democratic Participation

The CTUs are about much more than property ownership, whether it is politically interpreted as privatization or as the right to a home. They are also the most widely accepted form of participatory democracy in Venezuela now.

The CTUs are about people debating, agreeing, and taking action collectively about things that directly affect every aspect of their daily lives. Self organization is the most striking thing about them.

What the Committees discuss besides land registration is up to them. Each CTU decides its own agenda collectively. Some things discussed can be quite technical and related to housing, such as clean water supply or electricity.

Other things talked about are more abstract, such as culture, education, or social production. Many CTUs have drawn up popular charters or constitutions for their barrios.

The spirit of direct participation can be felt with every part of the process. Even the very technical aspects of the land registration are done by the residents themselves. They make the maps that register where their houses in the barrio are. Only afterwards does a government official confirm them.

When barrio problems are discussed in the CTUs, the most common suggestion is to get organized. At the Andres Bello meeting, barrio resident Hector Madera said, “When the people of our barrio have a problem they mustn’t rely on the media, or go and whisper in the ear of a friend in a Chavista party, we need to organize ourselves.”

Nidia Lopez felt the best way the Andres Bello CTU could help the 23 homeless families was to take the appeal to the President. Everybody else in the meeting argued it was more important that organization happen first.

The families should organize together. They needed to discuss with each other about what they wanted. They should also talk with the owner of the mansion. Only then should they approach the government for assistance if they still needed it.

Madera said the barrios needed to organize together, “When organized we can involve the people from nearby barrios, like Chapellin, and get their support. We will help them and them us. Together we solve our problems ourselves. We can march together.”

There are already structures in place to allow for this. As well as the individual CTU meetings that on average represent 147 families each, there are also Parroquia, or borough-wide meetings, involving between 10-20 CTUs.

Also, there is a Metropolitan meeting that is for all the CTUs in Caracas, although attendance is not always full. These meetings allow for CTU members from different barrios to meet and discuss problems, share ideas as well as plan joint action.

When looking at the CTU process, a common criticism that opponents’ of participatory democracy have appears. This criticism is that participatory democracy is an endless series of meetings.

The individual CTU, Parroquia, and Metropolitan meetings are typically weekly. This means a committed CTU activist can end up going to 10 hours of meetings every week.  In spite of this, the meetings have been going strong for three years now.

This is a testament to the remarkable success of the CTUs. This is especially true when you take into account that all the CTU activists work around their normal jobs and on an entirely voluntary basis. They receive no money for their work.

Onerkys Reyes, an activist involved with the technical side of the process, spoke about why people came. Onerkys said, “When people see that by participating, speaking, and acting things actually change around them, they want to do it more and more.”

Genuine concern for their communities does seem to be the main motivation for people to attend. Party politics makes very little visible presence. In fact it is purposefully excluded.

In Andres Bello one of the people there started to make a speech which began to sound like a party presentation for the group he represented. The other people got angry and shouted him down reminding him, “This is not the place for that!”

That party politics is not present does not mean that people are not political or not pro-Chavez. Topics discussed beyond the need to physically improve the barrio range from a desire to encourage social production to transcending the capitalist system entirely.

Most CTU people appear to favor the President. This seems to be for the same reason that most of the other poor people in Venezuela support him. They feel Chavez essentially represents their interests.

What is more significant, though, is that anti-Chavez people participate in the CTUs too. In a country that is so politically polarized this is very encouraging. It represents a more genuine form of participatory democracy than has been tried in the past.

The Bolivarian circles have been previously identified with Venezuelan participatory democracy, especially by foreign observers. As their name implies, they were not very welcoming for people who did not support Chavez and thus did not have much staying power.

State – Community Relations

One thing is clear with the CTUs, and that is if the Venezuelan state was not sympathetic, they would find it much harder to exist. Militant social organization in the Third World is more often met with state repression rather than encouragement by the government.

Not only did the Presidential Decree allow for the whole process to begin in a legal way, but the government has also begun to give significant amounts of money to the CTUs. There are two main ways CTUs can access money.

Some of Venezuela’s vast oil profits were used to set up a $142.5 million fund on October 4, 2005. This money is to help complete barrio-wide projects focused on house building and infrastructure improvement. These are proposed by the CTUs themselves.

A smaller source of ongoing financial support that is no less important is through the Ministry of Housing. The CTUs decide on projects with definite aims. These could be quite simple, such as repairing an old lady’s house that is about to collapse.

CTU representatives take these proposals to the Ministry of Housing and Habitat. If the project is approved, the money to pay for it is given an account in the Venezuelan state bank, Banfonades. From this contractors or suppliers are paid.

Both types of projects need clear budgets. Things included are quotes from builders and engineers and materials involved. What cannot be paid for are administrative costs. It is expected that those involved volunteer their time for free.

No money passes directly through the hands of the people of the CTU. On top of this, CTU accounts are audited on a monthly basis by the Ministry of Housing. CTU accounts are also open to the public.

All of these measures are to make sure that the CTUs avoid the claims of corruption and nepotism that have so often harmed the image of the other social programs. So far, the ever-watchful opposition media have not attacked the CTUs on either of these points.

Even without any fraud involved, some might argue the process of the government giving this money to the people is corrupting in itself. They could argue that when people appeal for money from the government they become beggars to the state

Rather than using their own initiative to solve their situation they come to rely on money from others. It could be argued this is creating a “dependency culture” in the barrios and enslaving where it means to liberate.

Onerkys Reyes argues against this. She said the people of the barrio have lived the same way for decades. Now there is encouragement to do more. Even those who get the best in terms of land title allocation and funding are those who are best organized.

Reyes said, “Once people are organized, for whatever reason, they have more power over their own lives and they can use that when and how they want. Even against the government where it doesn’t work.”

The words of CTU Coordinator Rosalba Baque agreed with this. Baque reminded the 100 CTU representatives at a Caracas-wide CTU meeting, “This government and this President need us just as much as we need them and we can’t let them forget that.”

The CTUs did feel like reminding the government of their importance when several hundred members marched on the Housing Ministry on December 3, 2005. Even though it was a small number, the date chosen was significant.

It was the day before the elections for the Venezuelan National Assembly. There had been several demonstrations before that. These were an attempt to not let the Government forget who they need to care for.

These protests happened mainly because CTU people sometimes feel the Housing Ministry does not care for them. Often people talk about feeling ignored and dismissed. Another big complaint is how slowly everything is processed.

Ivan Martinez, when asked why he felt there were these problems with the Ministry, said, “One problem is that the facilities aren’t sufficient to process the resources, the accounts are complicated and take time. We are looking for a solution.”

Martinez also said, “another is the mentality of bureaucracy. We are trying to change this and to involve the people in the barrios as much as possible in the process with the aid of the technical specialists.”

Martinez pointed out, “There may be problems with intermediaries in the Ministry, but you have to realize no civil society groups could distribute these sorts of funds. Charities in the 70s and 80s dreamed of, but could never do what we are doing.”

As positive as many of the aspects of the CTUs may sound, there is one important question to be asked. What good is it that people gain a title to their home, when that home, even with some government-funded improvements, is still a slum house?

Why didn’t the government want to follow the European example? Clear the slums and build clean, decent social housing as a replacement with fully functioning infrastructure in its place. Martinez was swift to deal with this argument.

“When looking at 40 days of rioting in the suburbs of Paris recently, the European social housing model looks less attractive. Our model is different. The barrios were created by the people, with their own hands, not by a private company or the government. These people should decide their own lives.”

“The thing is, this about more than just housing. It’s a cultural and social process as well as a physical one. Each barrio has its own spirit its own idiosyncrasies. People don’t want to lose these things when they improve the barrio.”

Andres Antillano echoed these sentiments when he talked about a new sense of pride in the barrio that had started with Chavez’s victory in 1998 and had been greatly strengthened by the creation of the CTUs.

Antillano said, “In the past everything was about getting out of the barrio, becoming middle class, escape. Now there is a change. People aren’t ashamed to live there. They want to stay, to make it better. This is a profound change.”

It is this “profound change” in people’s outlooks that the government has been hoping for and explains their enthusiasm for the CTUs. Rapid improvement in living standards, a sense of owning the new system, social organization, and mass participation are all coming together.

All of these make the CTUs one of the most important and potentially long-lasting parts of the process happening in Venezuela now. This is especially critical for government supporters.

The worst fear of many is that the changes that have been made may be swept away in the future if they do not root firmly in the people. This fear becomes especially strong when supporters think of a Venezuela without Chavez.

However, the CTUs, linked as they are through social networks and physical property, seem like they will become a bastion of the progressive changes being made in Venezuela, with or without Chavez.