Venezuela’s Promising Future

Local councils – Units of Popular Power – are being set up in the hope that their members, and the small groups they represent, will take responsibility for changing their lives.

JUAN Guerra, a lorry driver from Zulia state, knew that he looked out of place in an office in his dirty jeans and three-day beard. But he had spent a week crossing Venezuela and he would not be intimidated by a civil servant from the national assembly. He slammed his fist on the table and said: “No, we are not asking, we are demanding that the comrade deputy transmit our complaint to the citizen president.”

Juan and his colleague Jhonny Plogar represent 700 lorry drivers. In 2000 they filed a complaint against their employers, the coal haulage companies Cootransmapa, Coozugavol and Coomaxdi. According to the plaintiffs, the companies “misused their cooperative status to benefit from tax exemptions and state contracts”. Over the past five years the two men have been shunted from office to office and Jhonny has a bulging file of copies of letters written to ministries, town halls, the state government and the president.

When Venezuela’s National Superintendence of Cooperatives (Sunacoop) finally withdrew the companies’ cooperative status, the national coal mining company continued to use their services. The Zulia state governor and presidential candidate, Manuel Rosales, who signed a decree dismantling all bodies set up during the 2002 coup, is in no hurry to put Sunacoop’s decision into effect. The bosses are using the time to get organised. Hired killers known as sicarios will soon be threatening people.

This is a common situation in Venezuela. When the two men reached the national assembly to present their case, they found a crowd of other plaintiffs with similar cases. All support Hugo Chávez, the citizen president, and all demand an end to bureaucracy and corruption. They are hostile towards a government that they consider inefficient at best, reactionary at worst. Chávez himself has said: “Our internal enemies, the most dangerous enemies of the revolution, are bureaucracy and corruption”(1).

This language has been used before to blame incompetent activists for not applying presidential policies correctly. But the “Bolivarian process” stresses popular participation as a means of transforming the state apparatus. In Venezuela it is called “the revolution in the revolution”.

Before Chávez was elected in 1998, two parties shared power for 40 years: the Venezuelan Christian Democratic party (Copei), and the social democratic party, Democratic Action (AD). They were adept at using petrodollars to deal with problems. They handed out government posts to calm social unrest but had to comply with the neoliberal ideology of the North and the need to limit public policies. The only way to offset the bloated state apparatus was to organise its inefficiency. With Venezuela’s social divisions, skilled civil servants often come from backgrounds resistant to social change, sometimes because of ignorance of the conditions in which most Venezuelans live. Gilberto Gimenez, director of the foreign minister’s private office, has said his solution was: “Diplomats will be promoted only if they spend two weeks in the barrios (working class districts).” He was smiling when he said it.

Few political leaders are able to take an active role in transforming the state from within. Before the foreign minister, Ali Rodriguez (2), got the job, six others had tried their hand since 1998.

Not a political party

The Fifth Republic Movement that brought Chávez to power is not a political party. After 1994 (3) it grew out of a coalition of leftwing parties and former guerrilla movements disgruntled with their leaders, who some thought settled too comfortably into the society they had struggled against. Young activists trained by AD and Copei quickly realised that the Chávez candidature would open up new ways to reach power and many joined his ranks.

In November 2001, when Chávez tried to pass 49 decrees to start social reform, Luis Miquilena, who had been responsible for bringing the Venezuelan left and Chávez together, decided the decrees were too radical. He resigned as interior minister (4) and his followers in the National Assembly followed. “We lost a legislature,” explained sociologist Edgar Figuera, “They were passing those laws on the cheap. Venezuela is still stuck in the legal framework of the Fourth Republic” (5). Until the country could train its activists, a revolutionary project was being built with tools inherited from a state devoted to perpetuating the neoliberal model.

At the December 2005 parliamentary elections pro-government parties won all 167 seats in the national assembly and no longer had any excuse to delay legislative reforms. The 75% abstention rate in the elections may have been the result of a boycott by the opposition, realising that it would be beaten and preferring to abstain. Even so, it revealed dissatisfaction with a common failing in the revolutionary process, one with which Venezuela must deal: the replacement of a bourgeois elite by a political elite that has the same shortcomings and distances itself from the daily realities of the people.

Without a real party, a solid state, enough revolutionary activists or, for the moment, a coherent social movement, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela is no different from any other experiment in Latin America. Chávez said in 2004: “The people must be organised and take part in a new participative, social state so that the old rigid, bureaucratic, inefficient state is overthrown.” He was referring to “missions”, programmes managed by the community, that bypassed the old state to deal with social emergencies. The creation of communal councils this April is an important step towards building the new state and the type of local government on which it will be based.

A small house shelters the Unit of Popular Power (UPP) at Vela de Coro from the sun that scorches the Paraguana peninsula. A small poster explains that communal councils “are a push for participative democracy, for assisting social movements in their quest for solutions to collective problems and paying back the nation’s social debt”. Here, the town hall took the initiative to help set up these organisations. Xiomara Pirela, UPP coordinator, said: “We just supply the tools or help in the event of conflict. Only a citizen’s assembly can make decisions.”

The councils at work

The councils’ task is to coordinate and integrate activities of local missions, urban land and cultural committees. Pedro Morales, director for the Caracas region of Fundacomun, the organisation that finances the councils, said they do not “represent, but speak for the citizens’ assembly, which is the ultimate decision-making body”.

Xiomara Pirela showed us a pile of maps, some drawn in felt-tipped pen. “People start by making a social sketch of their community: houses, inhabitants, their income, infrastructure, social problems.” This work contributes to the “participative diagnosis” and highlights priorities: water supplies, drainage, a health centre. On that basis the communal council suggests projects to citizens’ assemblies, passes them to relevant authorities and manages resources allocated through a communal, cooperative bank. Each project can get up to $15,300; applications for more expensive projects can be made to public planning councils or town halls for the following year.

In Barinas, Mérida, Táchira and Trujillo, the four most advanced states of the Occidente region, more than $44.6m has already been paid for some 3,000 projects. After 2007 half the money allocated to the Intergovernmental Decentralisation Fund and the Special Economic Assignments Law for mines and hydrocarbons, nearly $1.2bn, will be earmarked to finance the councils. Town halls and states that used to benefit from these funds will have to make do with what is left over.

Some mayors are tempted to push their sympathisers for election to the councils, although it is illegal. According to Pedro Morales: “The councils are not only a response to the problems of bureaucracy and corruption; they also increase the accountability of people who were used to letting the state decide for them and then complain about the result.” The population is more than ready to take on the responsibilities.

On 16 July Block 45, a huge apartment building in the 23 de Enero barrio of western Caracas, leapt a political hurdle. After half a dozen preparatory assemblies, they elected a council. A resident pointed to the garbage piled carelessly around the block. “This building is known as one of the filthiest in all of South America,” she said, then added proudly, “but now people will get a grip on the situation.”

‘No vote, no meals!’

Something similar happened further up the hill in the El Observatorio district. A plastic sheet pinned in a corner served as a voting booth, a poster reminded voters “balloting must be direct and secret” and a queue formed in front of the cardboard urns, shown to be empty before voting began. As is so often true, the local women had taken matters in hand. The stakes were considerable and the law clear. Notices said: “If less than 20% of the community takes part (6) the election will be invalid and no complaints will be accepted afterwards. The women were confident: “The men will come,” one said. “I’ve told my husband: no vote, then no meals, no laundry, nothing!”

In a few months thousands of councils have been or are being set up. Those that existed before the law was passed are gradually being legalised. There are already more than 500 in Caracas and 50,000 are expected overall. Upper-class districts are also taking part — “that is, when people agree to provide information on salaries”, said a resident of Prado del Este. Xiomara Paraguán, an El Observatorio council member, said: “At least they’re taking part. Who would have thought that possible a few years ago?”

Why did the government wait seven years to set up the councils? Engels Riveira of the Camunare Rojo council said: “If the mayors and governors had done their jobs properly, we wouldn’t have needed the councils. In a way it’s thanks to them.”

The rush to set up the councils shows that they cater to a need for democratic process. Participation had already been encouraged in the workplace, as co-management, self-management or cooperatives (the number of these shot up from under 1,000 in 1999 to more than 100,000). There were local cultural committees. But political arrangements were still needed.

Now the community is the basic structural unit of government of the new state, legally defined as 200-400 families in urban areas, around 20 in the countryside and from 10 up for the indigenous population. The Spanish political analyst Juan Carlos Monedero observed that the main reason 20th-century socialism failed was a lack of participation by the people. Communal councils may be instrumental in the construction of Venezuela’s 21st-century socialism. “If we get the money,” said Xiomara Paraguán. Another El Observatorio council member countered, “If the money doesn’t come, we’ll go and get it.”

Since the elections things are moving in El Observatorio. Paraguán attended a workshop on social projects and showed off her diploma. All council members will have similar training.

Faced with the inertia of some bureaucrats and politicians, people have to rely on the vigour of Contraloría (social control), a citizens’ watch that defends the process. Councils may be more finely tuned version of the principle and help Venezuelans get the means to exercise co-responsibility with the state.

Juan Guerra is a grassroots expression of Contraloría. After he finally got to meet a deputy, he said: “Revolution is like an iron fence protecting the bourgeoisie. If we, the people, allow the rust to accumulate, the fence will fall.”

Translated by Krystyna Horko

(1) On Hugo Chávez’s Sunday evening chat show, “Aló Presidente”, 5 February 2006.

(2) Rodriguez resigned for health reasons on 8 August.

(3) The year Chávez was freed from prison after an attempted coup on 4 February 1992.

(4) Before taking part in the April 2002 coup.

(5) The 1999 constitution established the Fifth Republic.

(6) Anyone over the age of 15 who has lived in the district for more than six months is entitled to vote.

Renaud Lambert is a journalist