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Opinion and Analysis: Participation

Power to the People: Communal Councils in Venezuela

With 80% of the population living in poverty, Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution, led by President Hugo Chavez, has faced an enormous challenge. For Chavez, the only way to get rid of poverty was to give power to the people. On April 9, on Chavez’s weekly Alo Presidente TV program, the Bolivarian revolution took another important step forward with the enactment of a new law on communal councils.

According to the text of the law, communal councils will “represent the means through which the organised masses can take over the direct administration of policies and projects that are created in response to the needs and aspirations of the communities, in the construction of a fair and just society”.

This is not the first attempt at giving people greater control over the running of their communities. Several years ago, the government attempted to make the Local Councils of Public Planification (CLPP) a reality at the level of the municipal governments. The idea was for elected community spokespeople to work side-by-side with the elected government officials to discuss the council’s budget. Yet this project didn’t ever get off the ground, largely because the political parties only gave representation to fellow party members, turning them into rubber stamps for the municipal council. It was also difficult to have genuine election and control by the community when spokespeople were expected to voice the concerns of up to 1 million people in some municipal councils.

Taking the idea of the communal councils from the CLPP law, a pilot project was launched by a group of revolutionaries who previously belonged to the Socialist League in the city of Cumana. From there the concept was taken up nationally and placed in the hands of the newly created Ministry for Popular Participation and Social Development (MINPADES), which explained in its information pamphlet that “just as a house can collapse easily if its base is not sufficiently strong, this can also happen to our new democracy that we are constructing: it will only be invincible if its base is strong and its base is the communal councils”.

Already more than 4000 communal councils exist, with the projection for more than 15,000 to be active across all of Venezuela by the end of the year.

Based on 200 to 400 families in urban areas, or 20 in rural areas, the principal decision making body of a communal council is the citizens’ assembly. All members of the community above the age of 15 can participate in these assemblies, which have the power to elect and revoke community spokespeople to the communal council, as well as put forward projects and a development plan for the community.

The citizens’ assembly is also required to set up a financial management unit, a unit of social control to monitor and watch over the work of the communal council, as well as a variety of work committees, each with its respective spokesperson. The aim is to draw upon voluntary work by community members, along with promoting cooperatives, in order to carry out the projects, relying on the skills and resources of the community rather than private companies or state bureaucracies.

Iruma Sanchez, the general coordinator of the Bolivarian House in Petare, explained on the January 15 Alo Presidente that the councils are not a substitute for existing organisational forms, “because we already have land committees, health committees, Bolivarian cirles, UBEs [units of electoral battle], even party militants inside the communities, but each of us carried out our work on our own, doing in some cases the same work” but organised separately. “So for us the communal council is the maximum instance of planning, of organisation of the community.”

The law states that another task of the communal council is to “promote the birth of new organisations wherever it may be necessary, in defence of their collective interests and the integral development of the communities”.

David Velasquez, Venezuelan Communist Party deputy to the national parliament and president of the commission of citizen’s participation, noted in an interview published on the Venezuelan ministry of communications website that the functions of the communal council also “go beyond the management of resources to resolve their problems. Among these is the recuperation of shut-down factories, because in a great number of industrial zones — located in the communities — there are abandoned buildings that belong to companies, factories or commercial areas. They will also participate in the full exercise of the defence of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Venezuela through the territorial guards.”

One part of the new law that has caused some controversy is the autonomy the communal councils have in regards to the existing governmental structures. In the initial law on CLPPs, the communal councils were envisaged as the lowest level of a national system that worked side by side with all levels of government. Under the new law, a commission will be responsible for monitoring and approving the formation of communal councils, ensuring that they are set up with real legitimacy. The pre-existing local and municipal councils will have no power in relation to the projects or funding of the communal councils.

According to the new law, the communal councils will be funded by a new National Fund Company for a Popular Government, which has already been allocated an initial US$1 billion.

Chavez was quoted by Prensa Presidential on April 9 as saying that the communal councils are “not about, as some are trying to say, a parallel power, rather it is the same power of revolutionary democracy”, adding that the work of the communal councils needs to go hand in hand with that of the regional and local authorities.

According to Velasquez, “the communal councils are instances of constituent power that need to complement the constituted power. These new institutions will strengthen the new state apparatus that needs to emerge from the Bolivarian revolutionary process. This would imply that we need to restructure the functioning of the mayor’s offices, municipal councils and local councils. If we want to create a socialist society, we need to create a superstructure of the state that is obedient to this new reality.”

This is the essence of the communal councils — a power built from below becoming the foundations of Venezuela’s new “socialism of the 21st century”. This move comes after the complete victory of the Bolivarian forces in last December’s national assembly election and as the self-organisation of the masses continues to move forward in leaps and bounds.

 

 

 

From Green Left Weekly, April 26, 2006.