Venezuela’s Reformed Communal Council Law: When Laws Aren’t Just for Lawyers and Power Is Public

We talked about it in the car, we talked about it with friends, we met in one member’s house and talked about it over tea, and we talked about it in moonlit darkness caused by blackouts before various meetings. Our communal council had a few concerns and many praises about the reform to the communal council law, which had just been approved in first discussion.

Lisbeida Rangel helping to paint a community noticeboard (Tamara Pearson)

The Process

The reform to the original communal council law of 2006 was passed in first discussion by the National assembly on May 12 this year. Following that communal councils across the country received copies of the law and held discussions around it, and according to legislators, 61,850 council spokespeople were consulted before the law was finally approved in second discussion on November 26.

In just three years, since the law was first passed, Venezuelans have registered 30,179 communal councils. While it’s true that activity in such councils varies from nothing, to 5 or 10 people, to 50 or a 100, it’s also true that the whole registration process is a lot of work, and therefore this number is fairly meaningful and impressive.

The ongoing law-making and reforming process in Venezuela (where laws are reformed or passed a good couple of times a week) is a reflection of the fact that things are changing, and that through this process of change there have been, and are, mistakes, debates, experience, and lessons. The reformed communal council law should also be a reflection of how the whole community council project is going, and of where it wants to go, and of the context in which the councils exist.

The reformed law is about double in length (with 61 articles compared to 33 in the old version), contains a few fundamental changes, but more than that, it is clearer and more detailed and specific than before.

This is important because, apart from reflecting the change in Venezuela, something very interesting is happening here, where laws are becoming something other than tools for lawyers, and something talked about not just in the court room, but on campus, the streets, the media, among the old and the young, the educated and less educated, the opposition, and even those who thought politics wasn’t important.

Now, the laws are tools for raising awareness of people’s rights, obligations, and protagonist ability. Community council members feel a certain urgent need to know the law, and many will quote various articles from it when the relevant situation arises. So a reformed law means a re-reading, a reminder of elements forgotten, and a re-evaluation of how we are going.

“The law is a guide for the community in general, so the community knows its rights and obligations,” said Lisbeida Rangel, a criminology student and culture committee spokesperson for communal council La Columna in central Merida, referring both to the law in general and the communal council law.

New Quorums

One of the key changes is the new assembly quorums. Previously, there were no set quorums for assemblies (general meetings of the whole community, where all key decisions are made, that must then be implemented by the representatives). The only set quorum was of 20% of community residents for a constituting assembly, where representatives were first elected. 10% was needed for an initial assembly to elect the promoting team which would start off the process of setting up the communal council.

Now, an assembly must have 30% of community members at a first meeting, and if that fails, 20% at a second, in order to make any decision, including voting for representatives.

This is very important because it means that the assembly, or the general community, will have to play a much greater role in council life.

“I think they have included this quorum because there needs to be greater general consciousness of participation, after so many years building the communal councils, there should be this consciousness. Now though, we have to test the reality, to see how the building is going. If we can reach that level of participation, it would be fantastic. On the other hand, such rigidity could impede us,” Rangel said.

A More Inclusive Structure

Added to the current structure of the mass assembly, the elected 5 person finance unit, the executive unit (made up of all committee spokespeople) and the 5 person social auditing unit, there is now a community coordination collective.

This collective will be made up of all the spokespeople from all three units, essentially meaning better coordination between these units. The collective basically coordinates the implementation of the assembly’s decisions, and among 14 of its listed functions, it should “Coordinate with the Bolivarian Militia in relation to the integral defence of the nation,” something the opposition has taken great issue with, and which I’ll talk about later. The collective should meet a minimum of twice a month, and take minutes. In the previous law the three units had to meet at least once a month.

“I think one of the main problems with the old law was the way the various units were explained. They were isolated from each other; the law didn’t explain that the spokespeople worked together. In fact many thought they worked alone with their committee… so it was interesting because in our communal council we’ve made the effort to have the spokespeople and the financial and auditing units at the meetings, so when we were discussing the law, we said, well, we’re already doing this, we all work together,” Rangel commented.

The electoral commission, which is in charge of organising the elections of spokespeople, previously dissolved once the elections had taken place, but is now permanent. It has to maintain the community electoral registry, which includes all residents of the community over the age 15, and is in charge of recalls.

One problem which remains with the electoral commission is that the five people who make it up cannot run for any of the positions. While this makes sense on a democratic level, the reality is that many communal councils are struggling to find people with the time and commitment both to community and to social change and who are able to fulfill all the work and planning involved in the elected positions.

Only four people turned up to our communal council (or community coordination collective) meeting this week. Everyone else was either sick, studying, working, had a brother who recently died, child caring, or didn’t feel motivated to come. In low to middle class Merida, where half the population votes for the opposition, most communal councils are in a similar position.

Of course, up in the mountains, in the rural areas, in the barrios of Caracas, and other areas, the councils are thriving. But a spokesperson has a lot of responsibility; planning projects, wading through bureaucracy to get them approved and financed, implementing them, organising local cultural activities, looking after individual community problems as they arise such as holes in roads, disruptive neighbours and constant blackouts, informing the community of what has been decided and what is available, finding out what is available (such as space in government housing), even calling and organising an assembly is a lot of work, and really the list is very long.

So, it seems a waste to keep five people who are committed enough to be on the electoral committee, out of the coordination collective.

Finally, for the sake of accountability and to minimise corruption, the national assembly added that spokespeople can’t be related (within four degrees of blood relationship or two degrees of affinity) to members of the financial or social auditing units.

The Communal Bank

In practice, not a lot will change about the bank, and although its name has changed from “communal bank” to the “Administrative and Community Finance Unit,” it is still made of five people, elected by the assembly, implements the assembly’s decisions, can save, invest and so on. The key difference is more a legal one, that the bank now won’t be a cooperative, governed by the laws of cooperatives, but rather simply part of the communal council.

Legislator Rafael Delgado explained that, “The cooperatives were a boom in a specific moment, but some problems arose and now they have been eliminated from the communal council arena.”

And Legislator Dario Vivas said in May, “What it means is that from now on, the communal councils will act directly and won’t need the figure of the cooperatives in order to function. They are the primary cells of popular power, not an appendage of the government.”

Basically, the finance units now aren’t subject to private law or follow commercial procedures, and since the communal council has legal status it can take care of the functions of the bank directly. And, in a separate article in the law it also states that communal councils are exempt from all taxes, special contributions, national, state and municipal taxes.

Finally, the law now stipulates that the finance committee should form four internal funds: Social action, operating and administration expenses, savings and social credit, and risks. The law describes in detail what of each these funds are, what they include and also how the fund gets its money. For example the social action fund covers social needs such as health problems and emergencies and is made up of money from interest received, resources generated by community self management, and so on.

“It means now that there’ll be more awareness around the management of resources, a sense of the bank being closer and a part of our organisation and what we do,” Rangel summarised.

Revoking Spokespeople

In many sections the law simply goes into a lot more detail than before. Previously, the law had one sentence which said that spokespeople could be revoked, but that was it. Now, the law explains in great detail what revoking means, specifically, the “definite separation of the spokesperson of the communal council from exercising their functions.” In Article 36, it specifies that the electoral commission is in charge of organising the recalls including all the necessary resources and information for the community (previously it was not known how to do them nor who could), and there is an entire chapter, Chapter IV, devoted to the recall process.

The law then details the reasons why a spokesperson may be revoked. These include acting against decisions taken by the assembly, not fulfilling their functions, departing from the priorities set by the community, destroying electoral material, and eight more reasons.

The law specifies that 10% of the population over 15 or the auditing unit is needed to recall.  Once revoked, the person can not run again for two periods following the recall.

Communal Cycle

The new law also identifies a “communal cycle” with five stages: Diagnostic (identifying the needs, resources, potentials etc of the community); Plan (actions, projects, programs to meet needs identified in the first stage); Budget (determining funds, costs, resources); Execution (implementation through community participation); and Social auditing. These phases need to be approved by the assembly. Rather than being anything anyone would take someone to court over, this is just another part of the law that acts as a guide, and aids and promotes participatory planning.

More Responsibility and Flexibility

“Having clear proceedings now for revoking, having a permanent electoral commission, having this clarity helps strengthen our commitment,” Rangel said.

“The reformed law strengthens the structure and is more demanding of people who work in the communal councils and also strengthens the involvement of the community,” she continued.

For example, the promoter team, which is set up temporarily to conduct the census of the community and call an assembly, will have 60 days now instead of 30 days from its formation to call that assembly. This is recognition of just how much work is involved in the census and in promoting a first assembly.

To run for a spokesperson position the candidate must now have lived in the community for one year, where as before it was 6 months. The only criticism I have here is it makes it harder for students who constantly move, and those who rent, to be represented in general.

The population base for forming the councils has basically stayed the same, but the minimum number of families needed has lowered from 200 to 150 families. The maximum remains at 400 families, something that is occasionally problematic in dense apartment housing where a communal council can cover nothing more than a complex of six or so apartment buildings.

Communal Councils Are Now a Public Power

Finally, the communal council law is now an organic law, meaning it elaborates a fundamental principle of the constitution and the government. Legislator Rafael Delgado explained that this organic character now means that popular power has been converted into a public power. Venezuela’s public powers consist of municipal, state and national power. Delgado said under the reformed law, the people, organised through the communal councils, can govern along with the other constituted powers, that is the communal councils are a new expression of the government, legally as valid as any other government organ.

One ongoing issue we have had in our communal council, and that is not uncommon, has been a kind of power struggle with the municipal government. The mayor will assign street police or permission to a street vendor, without consulting the communal council. While many people from the community come to the council meetings requesting assistance in something, offering to conduct a survey or organise a project, or seeking advice, the communal councils are still struggling for authority, and we’ll have to see in practice whether this new status is enough to challenge the dominance of the old structures.

The new law does include a new chapter on the Popular Power Ministry which says that the ministry should “facilitate the articulation of relations between [the communal councils] and their participation in public affairs” and it says that the state organs must give preference to the communal councils, including providing attention, budget allocation and transference of public services. It seems to be a very good attempt at addressing the problem, but we will have to see how it is enforced.  

“The constitution supports citizen power, and the councils have this legal recognition, so now what we need is for the laws about other institutions to reflect this priority,” Rangel said, agreeing.

Opposition Critiques

Of the entire 31 page document, the opposition response to the reformed law has focused on a few small sentences, where one of the committees, previously called committee of security, is now called committee of security and integral defence, and where the law says that the coordination collective should work with the Bolivarian Militia.

The opposition media have reacted saying that the councils could “control citizens” (El Tiempo) and opposition leaders commenting in the media have said the security and defence committees will be a kind of intelligence organ to control communities and “determine who is and isn’t in favour of the revolution” as legislator Tomas Sanchez said.

Podemos legislator Jan Molina actually said, “The communal councils are like Cuba’s committees in defence of the revolution. It is regrettable what has happened in the [National] Assembly. We’re clear that this article is trying to institutionalise something that isn’t legitimate.”

Actually, it is clear the opposition is struggling to find criticisms of what has been one of the most successful and participatory projects of the Bolivarian revolution. However, to respond to them, the law actually lists 14 committees, all of which are suggestions and are not compulsory, and the 15th point says that councils can form any other committees that they feel they specifically need.

Secondly, many communal councils are controlled by or have a majority of opposition members, many councils have members without any particular political identity, so the opposition’s implication that the communal councils exist basically as electoral tools of Chavez is very misleading.

And thirdly, they have of course, intentionally, completely misinterpreted the point of the security and defence committees.

“I interpret integral defence, not as a system of attacking people, but rather as a way of attending to security needs, seeing what situations produce crime and trying to prevent it,” Rangel said.

Also, in the case of some communities that are harassed by the Colombian paramilitary, or drug dealing, corruption, violence, or any other similar situation, who better than the community itself to organise collectively against such harassment? It seems contradictory that the opposition, which focuses its rhetoric on the crime rates in Venezuela, chooses this as its main criticism of the reformed law.

In fact the community councils, although they still evolving, are, in my opinion, the organisations that are most independent of any party, are involving people from all sorts of tendencies, opinions, jobs, and are at the same time really starting to activate people and awaken their sense of collective responsibility.

“As a result of the reform, I think we [in communal council La Columna] are going to have to be more active, more demanding of ourselves. We have this responsibility because there are these procedures now… and for example, with the projects we’ve been planning, the security project, the communal house, I think the law can help us to concretise these actions and be more effective,” Rangel said.

“I feel that if this law is applied in reality it could give more meaning to the community efforts to evolve, to change… therefore contributing to social autonomy.”

“The reformed communal council law strengthens the process of constructing change from below,” she concluded, smiling, and rushing off to class.