While much of the nation’s attention is focussed on the December 4 National Assembly elections, another set of important elections are scheduled to take place during November in the municipality of Sucre. Here it is hoped that up to 300 community governments will be elected for the first time as part of a pilot project that is set to spread across the country to make concrete the idea of giving power to the people.
The election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of Venezuela in 1998 signalled the end of the old corrupt representative democracy of the “Fourth Republic”, in which the two major parties — each representing the interests of the rich elites — shared power between themselves, while the poor 80% were excluded. From its ashes rose the Fifth Republic based on the idea of active and participatory democracy, which was enshrined in the new constitution one year later, following a popular consultation and referendum. The aim was not only that the poor were to be given access to health, education and basic services, but they would play an active role in deciding how these areas would function.
There was a rise in health committees, which worked side by side with Cuban doctors in Mission Barrio Adentro, taking health care into the poorest barrios of Venezuela. Local neighbourhood groups, Urban Land Committees, gas and electricity work-tables, water work-tables and many more forms of community organisation sprang up, each attempting, with help from the government, to change the lives of the excluded.
While these organisations continue to exist, many of the participants have encountered problems, including difficulties working with some of the bureaucratic structures inherited from the Fourth Republic. Many people from the old structures have continued to work in the administrations, hindering the work of the community. Some state institutions worked in a counterproductive way in the establishment of these community organisations, with party politics influencing who received funds or was given official recognition. This seems to have been particularly the case with a number of the Local Councils for Public Planning (CLPPs), which although meant to allow the organised communities to participate side by side with the municipal councils, were manipulated by parties to only give representation to fellow party members, turning them into rubber stamps for the municipal council.
The explosion in community organisation meant that in any one community, multiple organisations are found, each working away on their own projects, sometimes competing for resources and weakening their combined ability to tackle some of the problems inherited by taking over the old bureaucratic structures.
Problems have also arisen from the old practices and culture that are still dominate within the communities. For example, it is not uncommon for community members who for decades have been told that all of Venezuela’s problems can be solved by simply distributing petrodollars, to hand over a project to an institution and just wait for the job to be done, in many cases being disappointed and disillusioned with the outcome.
In order to tackle some of these issues, a group of long-time revolutionaries from the 1970s, some of whom are now active within Chavez’s party the MVR (Movement for a Fifth Republic) and others in the Bolivarian Circles, began to work on the idea of community governments in the municipality of Sucre. One of these revolutionaries, Freddy Gil, who now works in the office of the mayor of Sucre, spoke to Green Left Weekly about this project, which the Ministry of Popular Participation and Social Development (MINPADES) hopes to extend the country.
The idea was that in a smaller space it is easier for people to exercise their power, and by bringing all the people and different organisations present in the community together, they could work out a single plan for their community, tackling issues from public works to health and education. The concept already had a legal basis established in the law regarding CLPPs.
Gil explained that there was some resistance to the name community government, as some were scared of the implications calling them that. At the national level they are being referred to as communal councils. Yet what is important, Gil said, is that the project of building the new society is starting from the grassroots upwards to avoid some of the problems that up to now have occurred with the CLPPs.
A pamphlet on the communal councils produced by MINPADES explains this idea by noting 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”.
The way the communal councils are being set up is that an assembly is called by convoking 200 to 400 families in a local community. “We count the houses, the number of families that were in a determined community, a set geographical space, a commune that we said had to have certain characteristics like use of common services, traditions, common culture that identified them.
“Once it is determined that in this area it is possible to form a community government then we would go with an invitation calling on all of the community, taken to each house independent of their ideology or political ideas. It would be taken to them with the name of the community saying that this was from the directors and assistants of the mayor’s office. There we would guarantee that everyone was invited to attend.
“There would be an assembly where a talk was given about what we understood the community governments to be. They would be asked to choose 20 people to form the promotion team for the comunity government. This team was made up of those people who put themselves forward at the assemblies, which the majority of the times had 200 people, 80, 70, 50 up to 300 people in attendance.”
I went to a meeting with 50 people in attendance, representing the same amount of families. Twenty people stepped forward as social promoters, the majority of them women, as was the case with the overall attendance. Because of the geographical nature of the communal councils and its proximity to family homes, the participation of women is made easier and women tend to play the biggest role.
The promotion teams are entrusted with the job of carrying out a census of the population to find out exactly who lives in the area and what their specific problems are. Within three to six months, this work is expected to be carried out by door knocking every house in the community. This time frame is important to make everyone aware of the communal council and to notify them of elections. Thirteen members of the communal council will be elected, each with a designated role such as education, culture, science and technology; or citizen and community security.
Gil explained that such a measure helped to ensure the full participation of the community and to ensure no party or organisation could self declare themselves a communal council without the knowledge of the community. Unfortunately in the rush by some mayors and councillors to prove their credentials in establishing the most communal councils in their respective areas, some have neglected this aspect of its formation.
For radical Latin American journalist Marta Harnecker, who is working with MINPADES on the promotion of the communal councils, broad participation in this project is a very important of the revolutionary process in Venezuela. She explained to Green Left Weekly that “participation will help consolidate this process at the grassroots, take it forward and broaden it, creating more forces in favour of the process”.
“Participation needs to be a lot broader”. Many people who may not yet be in support of the process due to the “politicking and the defects of the process ... could be won to the construction of a new humanist society” based on solidarity. “There are many people who are not Chavistas but would help construct this new society. It needs to be opened up to all those people.”
Harnecker said it would be a “grave mistake to politicise participation. Participation itself can politicise people, for instance in the case of the participatory budget in Porto Alegre [in Brazil] where people from other parties were involved, but who began to sympathise with the Worker’s Party after they participated in a process that wasn’t politicised. I believe that is the road to win people over to this project.”
The next stage will involve the community in discussing the problems they face and how to tackle them. Harnecker explained: “With the idea of a participatory diagnosis, it is important to first look at prioritising problems that the community can resolve itself, firstly because there is a habit in general of people who organise themselves to propose a project in order to get money. They are able to formulate a project, but then they are left waiting for the money ... they are left with there arms crossed waiting for a response, and because the response is slow, if it comes at all, that is where apathy will appear.
“Instead, if you organise yourself to see what the community can resolve, it can be much more successful, because they can resolve many things with the resources they have in the community.”
That is why citizen’s assemblies are given the clear role of decision making, while the communal councils are meant to work on executing the projects of the community at each stage, involving the community in carrying out and supervising the jobs.
Gil explained, “The country has economically advanced, it has some resources, but the social debt here is so big that many of the problems won’t be fixed in a budget ... we need to work in the communities to help create cooperatives and the nucleus of endogenous [national] development that can allow employment and enable many things to occur. This will come about as we get more organised in this and we know more about the community through the creation of the communal councils and learn more about the latent potential in each community.”
Discussing, debating, executing and supervising projects that tackle the entirety of the problems faced at the local level would give the communities real power. Not all problems would be able to be fixed in the first round, and some projects of a bigger nature would need to be taken to higher authorities, but with a solid organisational base the communities could make sure that more and more power would reside there and not in the old structures.
Gil commented that for him the communal councils “are a school where people learn and take up the idea that they can socialise their potential, that they can generate the well-being of all and of course community advances, learning what we would need for a bigger system, because this is a micro system ... If we all learn in this collective exercise about the socialisation of things, of course we are going to advance further in the socialisation of what is much bigger.
“Of course, when some of us ‘revolutionaries’ reach [positions in government], we begin to work a lot like the Fourth Republic. So when the people learn about their rights and put forward projects to tackle their necessities, taking them through the regular channels and demanding respect, the people in power, the governors, mayors ... will begin disappearing ... But we know that, accustomed to old vices, they will try to escape, but they will find themselves confronted with the people.
“Here, anyone who wants to be governor or mayor to serve the public will need to really serve the public ... they will not be able to give out resources to where they want to benefit their votes. It will be nice for this to happen because the people have become organised, active and with the article in the constitution that refers to referendums, if the governor doesn’t get to work, well, how easy is it for the organised community to collect signatures ... This will be a very important mechanism of control, it will be an education for the leaders and managers, if they want to really serve the people, and it will be good for the people because it will be them who decide what fundamental projects need to be carried out first and which afterwards.”
“We used to talk about socialism”, said Gil, “of taking power from the enemy through arms, but where the people did not exercise anything. Today we have political power, we have a president that calls for a debate on “socialism of the 21st century” and we have a whole community debating, discussing and experimenting with what is the socialisation of things, of their potentials and resources.”