To introduce participatory democracy in Venezuela as a parallel to representative democracy is one of the hardest, but also one of the most interesting, challenges the country is facing. If they succeed it would mean having a society in power, that is more powerful than state power. The proclaimed Bolivarian revolution is made up of parallels. The idea of parallelism is to it create parallels that are better than the original tracks. Introducing participatory democracy in several parts and levels of the country would make democracy develop. Participatory democracy is also the most effective way to make the other parallels more even.
Participation and participatory democracy is mentioned over 40 times in the Venezuelan constitution – a bestseller. People often talk about the constitution, quote it and strengthen their arguments with it. The key articles for participatory democracy on the local level are paragraph 166 and 184 that speaks about the creation of Local Public Planning Councils and the decentralisation and transfer of power to the people. In spite of this, constitutional implementation has been slow. Planning councils have still not been instituted everywhere. Most of them have been newly implemented. The Constitution was adopted in 1999; the city of Caracas formed a Local Public Planning Council in 2004. Although some competent forces are trying to make the councils functional, people are not happy with how they are operating. That process is developing too slowly according to many. Why is that in a country were everybody speaks about participatory democracy?
The Bolivarian revolution has been in a constant state of conflict. The president and his policies have trigged the upper classes worst nightmares. Opposition has been met – not with repression as they claim – but different acts of deepening democracy. President Hugo Chavez should have a place in the Guinness world of records for the numerous times he has called for elections; nine times in seven years! That has not changed the opposition’s accusations of lack of freedom of expression voiced in their privately owned TV, – radio stations and newspapers nor calmed US concerns over lack of democracy. But it has created a certain ritual of mobilisations among the people that so often have been asked to vote. They have campaigned, and mobilised and voted and then started all over again, and again, and again…
To win one election you have to have a political party, to win 10 you have to have a Strong and Big political party, which is not exactly a parallel to grassroots democracy. Chavez invented one political party, MVR, the 5th Republic Movement for the first presidential election in 1998. Facing so many elections he couldn’t do anything but strengthen his political party. In February 2005, Chavez called for people to sign up for the MVR in the run up for their internal elections on April 10th. 2 million listened and the campaign to elect candidates for the August local elections got the same character as a municipal election. All over Caracas there were big fancy colour posters with names and photographs of the candidates and the slogan was not: “we will organise garbage collection!” Rather they competed in how many times you could get the word Chavez into a poster without covering the candidates´ photographs. Judging from the posters you could choose between “chavistas de verdad”, a real chavista, or “chavista de verdad verdad”, a real real chavista.
The never ending exercises in electing people have created a lot of mini leaders apparently afraid of loosing their power. Even though women are decisive force in the revolution, the number of women in parliament, or female mayors or governors is extremely low. Leadership is surprisingly white compared to the colourful barrios. “I think that the MVR elections were nothing more than a performance in old school bad politics and they have a lot in common with the AD (old government party) and the fourth republic.” The man talking in the worn out microphone in the community radio Ali Primera, named after the most loved Venezuelan folksinger, blushes when he says that out to the ether. People in the control room cheer. People’s judgements about the elections and the development of the MVR party are harsh. The MVR is probably the biggest failure of all parallels in the country, simply because it never became a parallel –on the contrary it seems to have reproduced traditional politics. Elections, male candidate saying the same thing, candidates fighting for power, candidates wanting to keep power – that is remnants of the past people don’t want to return to.
Participatory democracy does not mean voting in excess. Participatory democracy means to give people the right to decide over politics, including fiscal and economic decision making, within a process that is simple and explanatory. People have made these demands in the past. In the three month period between the referendum and the regional elections in 2004 several communities demanded changes and power to the communities (documented in a brilliant article by Jonah Ginden, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1291). In big assemblies, in barrios like El Valle, Petare, and Catia, people drafted manifestos with demands to all chavista candidates. It was an effort to de-personalise elections, to demand decentralisations and power transfer from leaders to communities.
It takes a lot to introduce participatory democracy, but a lot can be gained in return. A participatory budget in cities, like Belem in northern Brazil, paved the way for people’s planning. Transparency fought corruption and collective intelligence meant effective development. Everywhere you have to build on what you have and in Venezuela there is a lot to build on. I think of this when I talk to Iruma Sanchez, coordinator of Casa Bolivariana, in Petare, which consists of more than 180 Bolivarian circles. The energy in that house could change more than their municipality. So why doesn’t the mayor of Sucre organise budget meetings there, letting people decide how to allocate part of the money?
The non-transfer of power to the people is already a problem. Garbage became a symbol of failure in my travel in Venezuela. The poor in Caracas get the best view; most of the barrios are situated on hill sides, surrounding and looking down on condos and shopping malls. When you look up at them you see thousands of small fragile houses and beside them, on the slopes, black bin bags. Garbage collection is an unsolved problem, but it provokes debate. When I ask why I get responses like: “It is because the opposition controls garbage collection and they want to fuck up the process.” “… because the mayor doesn’t know how to run this city.” “… because the president has not solved it.”
In Cuidad Bolivar on my way to the historic centre I ask the cab driver if he is happy with the mayor. “No” he says and nods at all the garbage on the side of the streets. In the beautiful Mochima National Park, the most touristic beaches look like garbage stations, the stink of rubbish makes it hard to walk from one beach to another, and in the fishing village Santa Fé I get the same no and the same nod at the garbage when I ask if they are happy with the mayor there.
Garbage is not a Venezuelan problem; the first garbage dump ever mentioned was situated in the cradle of democracy – Athens. Through exercising participatory democracy you can solve the problem. People made garbage recycling into a collective process in the Brazilian town Porto Alegre. Money was allocated through the Participatory Budget to cooperatives that collect and then recycle garbage in factories giving people work, income and education – literacy courses are part of the work schedule there. On one visit to a barrio, high up on a hill I see that they are already doing what the Local Public Planning Councils should, but as a parallel, without power and resources.
Still the Venezuelan people are what the constitution entitles them to be, participants and protagonist of the process. The Venezuelan people are highly impressive. They did, what no other people have done, they went against a coup and won. When the opposition was offensive the people endured hunger, general strikes and humiliations. And when the opposition managed to orchestrate a coup and kidnapped President Chavez they took to the streets and reclaimed him. On April 13, 2002 thanks to the people the President was back in office. The people are patient but it would be a mistake to think that their patience will last forever. The courageous people that took to the streets to reclaim a kidnapped President would do it again in a state of emergency. In the meantime they want to develop their communities – maybe starting with organising garbage collection. They should be given the power they deserve.