Civil Society, Social Movements, and Participation in Venezuela’s Fifth Republic

Ever since the election of President Chavez, Venezuela's social movements have become more active than ever in the country's social and political life. This article explores some of the dimensions of and reasons for this involvement.

In 1999, by popular referendum, a constituent assembly was called. The undertaking of re-writing the constitution had been mulled over and discussed for so many years that it took only six months to write the document and ratify it, by yet another referendum. The Constitution marked the beginning of a new era: the Fifth Republic. Not only had the name of the country been changed, but also the rulebook had been re-written, with the participation of and to the advantage of el pueblo (the people).

The preamble of the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela states that one of the Constitution’s goals is to establish a participatory democracy achieved through elected representatives, popular votes by referendum, and popular mobilization. It points to the document itself as being a product of this new participation, and it in fact was.

Social organizations were invited to participate through a multitude of venues such as forums, workshops, and committees. They were also encouraged to draft their own proposals for consideration by the Assembly. Unlike in the years of Constitutional reform when social actors had little success getting their concerns met,[1] more than 50 percent of the 624 proposals brought to the table by civil society were included in the 1999 Constitution (Garcia- Guadilla, 2003: 185). The document’s coverage of a broad range of issues reflects this diverse public participation.

There are no less than 111 articles spelling out civic rights that address topics such as culture and education, Indigenous rights, adequate housing, land distribution, worker safety, protection of family and children, and priority of the environment. Political participation is addressed in articles 71 through 74, which describe the popular referendum mechanism that affords the public a direct voice in legislation and the power to recall any publicly elected figure. Article 341 explains the public's right to initiate constitutional amendments and subjects all proposed amendments, regardless of their origin, to referendum vote. The military was granted the right to vote, allowing a large sector of young (mostly) males from predominately poor backgrounds to participate in the political character of the country they defend.

Importantly, the document not only lays out the rights of the citizenry, but also the duties of the state and the public in attaining and maintaining the ideals of the nation. There are six articles elaborating the duties of all citizens. These articles formally establish the intent of the Fifth Republic administration to enlist the general public in the pursuit of national goals. Article 132 states that everyone has the duty to fulfill his or her social responsibilities through participation in the political, civic, and community life of the country with the goal of promoting and protecting human rights as the foundation of democratic coexistence and social peace. Article 133 repeals forcible recruitment into the armed forces, but recognizes everyone’s duty to perform civilian or military service as may be necessary for the defense, preservation, and development of the country. Article 135 says that the state’s obligation to the general welfare of society does not preclude the obligation of private individuals to participate according to their abilities. These duties describe participation much beyond the electoral process. They compel the public to see themselves as not so much the governed masses, but as active builders of their own society. 

It is evident by the hyper- participation in social movements and other forms of political expression that the public does feel that they have a say in the direction of the country in a way that they never had before. Although many of the organizations whose fundamental goal was to open up the decision making process dissolved once this goal was reached, other groups found themselves freed up to pursue their specific concerns such as the environment, housing, or education. Beyond these previous players, there are now literally hundreds of thousands of new neighborhood groups, community organizations, cooperatives, and social networks.  

According to PROVEA, a Venezuelan, non-profit human rights organization, the most notable social movement in the country since the beginning of the Fifth Republic is that of cooperatives. Cooperatives are forming in every sector of society and within every social movement. There are artisan, security, cultivation, sanitation, community media, and women’s cooperatives to name few. According to the National Superintendency of Cooperatives (SUNACOOP) there were 1900 cooperatives in 2001. By July 2003 this number has risen to 10,000 representing 659,000 individuals. SUNACOOP lists 34 percent of all coops in the category of goods and services, 31 percent in food production, and 23 percent in transportation (Gov. pub. 2003) 

In June 2003 the president announced that 15 billion Bolivars of the federal budget would go to finance cooperatives. In addition, the 2001 Special Law of Cooperative Associations that lays down the ground rules for registering and managing a cooperative, states that “In equal conditions, cooperatives will be given preference by financing and credit institutes” as well as preference for government contracts.  In a country where the business sector has been traditionally dependent on government and oil industry contracts, this is a significant incentive. Also in favor of cooperatives is Article 24 of the Law of the Intergovernmental Decentralization Fund (FIDES), which assigns at least 20 percent of the annual resources allotted to States and Municipalities to the financing of projects presented by organized communities, neighborhood associations and NGO’s.[2]

A cooperative is a legally registered association united with the aim of fulfilling common needs and solving common problems. Cooperatives are flexible autonomous bodies whose members each have an equal voice and whose properties belong to each member equally. Cooperatives are based on values such as mutual assistance, self-reliance and responsibility, democracy, equality, and solidarity. Members are held to the ethical standards of honesty, transparency, social responsibility and duty.

In an effort to overcome party politics and to bring governance closer to the people, the State has begun to impel a social development that raises public awareness, harnesses human resources and stimulates a communitarian lifestyle. Through cooperatives the State aims to induce communities to assume responsibilities of co-governance in the supervision, control, administration and execution of public works and services, education and culture. This model of social organization decentralizes power beyond Mayorships and town councils to the citizen, giving the public legal instruments for a modern exercise of sovereignty (Red de Redes Politico Social, 2001). Cooperatives have taken hold in nearly all threads of social movements. Individual cells within each organizational entity have begun to group themselves in neighborhood cooperatives, which in turn are joining regional cooperatives that are nested within national networks of cooperatives.

For example, the Women’s Development Bank (BANMUJER), which was established in 2001 to award women low interest, small business loans and to provide counseling to women through all stages of business creation and management, has moved into the cooperative mode as well. Economic Association Units (UEA) are cooperatives of five to nine women involved in productive activities within a community. Groups of UEA’s within the same geographical area are further united into networks. The idea is the same as with other collectives: more complex cooperative structures can address more complex issues. In this spirit, BANMUJER also provides free counseling to women on issues such as sexual and reproductive rights and political participation and empowerment.

Another example of the spread of cooperatives can be found within the campesino and barrio movements as well. Land redistribution is being managed through “land committees.” These are elected popular councils each representing up to 200 families. Around 150,000 people are involved in these committees directly participating in the formation of the laws pertaining to land distribution (Kerrilla, 2003). Working within regional and national cooperative networks they obtain the technical support necessary to organize activities such as demarcation of land plots and building of houses, roads, parks, and utility infrastructures. Land Committees encourage the formation of cooperative neighborhood base units to participate in carrying out the work listed above as well as to provide community services such cooperative childcare, neighborhood vigilance, and cultural activities.

Many regional and national networks of cooperatives include base units from various types of community organizations. These diverse collections of mobilized, purposeful entities are taking an integral approach at developing community participation and self-governance. Community based media is a crucial means of linking participants, allowing for the sharing of concerns, experiences and successes. 

The Bolivarian administration granted organized communities throughout Venezuela the right to local broadcasting licenses. Despite opposition from traditional professional media associations such as the Venezuelan Broadcasting Guild  (Cámara Venezolana de la Industria de la Radiodifusión), at least 9 TV and 38 radio stations, some of which started out as “pirate” broadcasters, are now legally on the air, along with a host of yet unlicensed broadcasters. In compliment there are nearly 500 community newspapers and countless news websites as well. 

Many of these news sources originate in barrio communities and all of them are run by grassroots, “amateur” teams that have learned their trade in hopes of serving their communities and breaking the monopoly of information distribution that has strangled the nation. Venezuelan community media is gaining much attention and support from international independent media. Many are seeing the important role of community media vs. alternative media; whereas the latter generally cover the same topics as corporate media, community media dig deeper and reveal how the people experience national and worldwide events. Community reporters gather and present stories of life in areas that the corporate media have not bothered to visit. They put cameras in the hands of the people themselves so that they can tell their own story and share it with others.

This is crucial in Venezuela today where the opposition-run corporate media completely ignore the programs being carried out by the state and the people throughout the nation. Instead, the private mass media keep the public busy with arguments about oil rents, Colombian guerillas, and Chavez’ manners. Until recently, Venezuelan media consisted of four corporate television channels and 10 corporate national newspapers, all but one of which was blatantly and directly involved in the April 2002 coup. These outlets are in fact the skeleton of the opposition. They unabashedly incite demonstrations, slander government figures, manipulate footage, and blatantly publish obvious lies. During the two month oil strike that spanned the turning of the last year, the TV stations ran not a single commercial advertisement, but instead ran an average of 12 anti- Chavez advertisements per hour (Maryknoll Lay Missioners, 2003; author’s pers. obs.) 

Another major social movement sweeping the country is the Bolivarian Circles (Circulos Bolivarianos or CB’s). CB’s began appearing in 2000.[3] The government did not start them. They began as community groups studying the Constitution and Venezuelan history and went on to work on local community improvement projects. Later, neighboring groups began addressing larger issues such as health and education. Eventually these groups expressed their desire to participate directly in the making of decisions that affect their communities. Realizing this desire, the president called for the creation of the CBs as a mechanism for this participation and many of the aforementioned community groups became CBs (Bruschtein, 2002). 

There are now 2.2 million people formally registered as CB members. Each Circle consists of 7- 10 individuals whose members enjoy equal status. Each Circle’s immediate function is community involvement consistent with the needs of their specific location. This participation may manifest in diverse forms such as repairing neighborhood infrastructure, promoting cultural events, or participating in nationwide programs. But as Ulisis Castro, a member of the national coordination team points out, many of these 200,000 Circles, due to a lack of guidance and assistance, are not actively functioning in their communities (2003, pers. comm.) 

Recognizing this deficiency and as if in response to Garcia-Guadilla’s (2003: 193) concern that such small community groups with narrow, material demands may disappear when their particular needs are met and never grow into broad social movements, the Circles have taken their organizational structure to a more complex level in addition to their traditional, local character. 

The CBs are now organizing themselves into Bolivarian Houses (Casas Bolivarianas). This new structure seeks to unify the efforts of the Circles, along with various other civil society associations, in order to tackle complex issues that are regional, national or even international in character. The first House was opened in the Caracas township “23 de Enero” (“23rd of January”): a long time activist, barrio community. In the next two years 1078 Casas will be opened: roughly one per parroquia. 

CB literature describes Bolivarian Houses as “community spaces for meetings, interchanges, articulation, unity and fortification of the organizations, movements, and institutions linked to the construction and consolidation of popular power and oriented in the defense, construction, and development of the proposed project of the country and the new society described by the Constitution.” 

Participating civil associations will organize themselves among 10 areas of activity according to their interests and abilities: planning and development; education; social economy and productive work; culture, and communications; food security; health and environment; safety and social services; infrastructure, urbanization and transport; tourism, recreation and sports; and Latin American integration, international solidarity, and sovereignty.[4]  

While opponents claim that Circles receive preferential treatment in comparison to other neighborhood associations, the truth is that Circles are eligible for funds under the same guidelines and from the same sources as any other organized group as defined by FIDES, the Special Law of Cooperatives, and similar laws regarding public resources. Circles get no funding as an entity. Neither the national coordinator, nor any members of the national coordination team staff, receives a salary. The national coordinator specifically instructs Circles to seek funding through the local channels established by the government for all groups of organized citizens. The national office offers oversight, organizational infrastructure, logistical and technical support, but has no resources itself. This is in keeping with the Bolivarian imperative that the Revolution is of the people. They must create it themselves. 

Even Prior to the Bolivarian House Project, Bolivarian Circles have worked in cooperation with other grassroots organizations on an equal basis or in fact sometimes in a subordinate role to longer-lived organizations. For example in the parroqia 23 de Enero, where there is a long tradition of community activism, the Circles are seen as the new kids on the block by older groups such as the Tupamaros and Coordinadora Simon Bolivar, which continue to enjoy a more influential status in the eyes of the community and the state. 

With little resources and while often dealing with harassment from local authorities, these types of community organizations have been the cultural lifelines of barrio communities over the past several decades.  The revolutionary government has granted them official legitimacy and recognition for their past work by piloting many of the new social programs in their neighborhoods and handing over management of these programs to them. In response, traditional groups are boldly tackling ever more ambitious projects.

Some of these projects are being aided by the military. In a country that has not fought a foreign war since colonial times, many find it appropriate to broaden the definition of national security to include domestic issues, therefore adding to the duty of the military the defense of the public’s health and well-being. Taking on this new role, the military has participated in disaster relief, school construction, road building, and more. Twenty thousand homes were built through an Army-community alliance called Avispa, a similar civil- military project called Reviba has rebuilt 10,000 homes (Argerich, 2003), and soldier-aided Mega Markets are selling 112,000 tons of food each month in poor regions at discount prices (Toothaker, 2003).

To combat undernourishment in Venezuela and to secure national food self-sufficiency the plan All hands to the Planting (Todas las Manos a la Siembra) incorporates several programs such as the Urban and Suburban Agricultural Program (Programa de Agricultura Urbana y Periurbana) and Zamoran Farms (Fundos Zamoranos). The first program is a campaign to turn abandoned urban land into community gardens. Army personnel, Cuban agricultural experts, and neighborhood volunteers are working to move 2,470 acres of Caracas and surrounding areas into vegetable cultivation within the year. The second program seeks to build civic- academic alliances. With two pilot farms already in action, university students are earning degrees in agricultural disciplines working alongside experienced farmers employed from the surrounding community.

Along with the unconventional social movements mentioned above, Venezuela has its share of traditional-style social organizations. What is interesting is that there are a large number of parallel organizations separated by whether or not they are in agreement with the Bolivarian Plan. For example, along side the traditional National Women’s Organization is the Bolivarian Women’s Movement, accompanying the Venezuelan Workers Confederation and the is the Bolivarian Workers Federation, countering the Accion Democratica Youth is the Bolivarian Youth Foundation. There are Bolivarian student organizations and Bolivarian federations of doctors and the list goes on. These Bolivarian versions tend to concern themselves with the same issues as their counterparts, but usually see a completely different path to resolution. While some feel that this factionalism has diluted the forces of the movements as a whole (Garcia-Guadilla, 2003: 193), many recognize these new groups to be stepping outside the usual boundaries of “issue activism,” to see the goals of their movement as part of a larger overall transformation of society.

It is important not to disqualify the networks of cooperatives, Bolivarian Circles, community media, civil- military alliances, and Bolivarian versions of traditional social organizations, from being considered popular social movements just because they share the ideology of the current administration and because they enjoy official logistical, moral and sometimes indirect financial support. Hugo Chavez is not only the president of a country, the commander and chief of a military, and the figurehead of a political coalition, but also the leader of a grassroots social movement that began decades ago.

More and more sectors of society are organizing themselves and aligning themselves with ‘el proceso” (The Process: the popular colloquialism for the overall Bolivarian Plan) the stated ultimate goal of which is to create a new society that is fueled by universal participation and based on social justice and equality. Numerous associations are attempting to insure that this process will continue whether or not they have a representative in the presidential palace by cultivating current popular enthusiasm for participation that stems from the people’s newfound sense of power and purpose.

Social organizations that are opposed to the Bolivarian movement complain that they are not being taken into account by the current administration. A good many of these groups were active participants in the writing of the Fifth Republic Constitution, but discovered that in the end they were not in agreement with the document or at least not with its interpretation.  Some complain that the established rules of dialog between civil society and the state are not functioning. Bolstered by the old economic elites who are losing their grasp on the nation’s wealth, many of these groups have promoted and participated in civil disturbances, strikes, and the unprecedented propaganda war.

“…Civil Society recognizes the democratic legitimacy of the new provisional President of the Republic of Venezuela, Dr. Pedro Carmona Estanga …” This document of recognition signed by directors of upper-middle-class social organizations such as Queremos Elegir (We Want to Choose), Ciudadanía Activa  (Active Citizenship), Visión Emergente (Emergent Vision), Frente Institucional Militar (Institutional Military Front), Red de Veedores (Electoral Observers Network) illustrates the complicity of these social organizations in the April, 2002 coup d'état that cost the country over $1 billion (PROVEA, 2002).

Later these same disgruntled groups, who still hold the keys to much of the nation’s money making apparatus, participated in a strike that immediately cost Venezuela an estimated $7 billion, or about 9 percent of gross domestic product (Roth 2003). The long-term damage is not assessable. If the Chavez government did not have a legitimate excuse for excluding these groups from the definition of Civil Society before 2002, as the opposition claims, certainly the reasoning behind exclusion at this date, if it were in fact the case, would be clear.

Detractors also claim that they are being discriminated against for access to public resources and they complain that government contracts should be given out according to free market competition. In reality, laws pertaining to the allocation of public funds do not contain any wording that can be used to discriminate against any project based on political affiliation. However, as the opposition is typically comprised of citizens of the upper economic echelon and the Fourth Republic business community, they are less likely to be interested in forming cooperatives and doing community service that would fulfill criteria for funding eligibility. Also, the Law of FIDES does state that funds will be prioritized to the most vulnerable areas and for the most critical needs. This would, in all likelihood, lead to the exclusion of upper class Altamira residents, unless they requested funds for projects that transcend their communities. [5]

Is this fair? It is well known that for at least forty years, Venezuelan businesses and their foreign custodians were furnished government contracts based not on free market competition, but on friendships or in exchange for campaign contributions and kickbacks. The earnings from these deals by and large were converted to dollars and kept in foreign banks. Very little private money was invested in research and development of new technologies and industries. In fact, many industries were completely abandoned, leading to such strange phenomena as a rich-soiled, large-landed country importing most of its food.

The Fourth Republic business community could have spearheaded the diversification of the productive economy, but instead, narrow self-interest and lack of patriotic commitment greatly contributed to the economic disaster of the 80’s and 90’s. Because the traditional business community did not step up to the plate when the opportunity was given them in the past, the government today is looking to the new movers and shakers of the country: “el pueblo unido” (the organized community).

Some critics assert that campesinos, barrio dwellers, and Indigenous peoples are incapable or at least ill equipped to take on the rebuilding of a nation; this outlook is little more than thinly veiled vanguardist prejudice and it is much resented by the barrio activists who have struggled within their communities for decades with no outside help at all. While it is true that much training and technical and organizational support will be necessary, it is being provided. The principal obstacles confronting the success of the Bolivarian project, from the official point of view is the absence of a culture of participation and the persistence of the values of representative democracy. Lack of cultural and national identity, passivity, apathy, corruption, and individualism stand in the way of Venezuela’s transformation (Red de Redes Politico Social, 2001). The Bolivarian model asserts that everyone has the right, duty and ability to participate in the molding and governing of society.

Nowhere has this faith been officially extended to include Indigenous communities as it has been in Venezuela. The Bolivarian Constitution recognizes the Indigenous community in a way that is unequalled anywhere on the continent. It has raised the bar and set the standard of expectation for natives all across the Americas. In general terms the Constitution gives indigenous peoples ownership rights to their traditionally held lands. It recognizes their culture and political traditions and the right to self-governance. It considers native languages as the official language in their respective communities and formalizes intercultural, bilingual education. Thirty Indigenous organizations together make up the second most active social sector in the nation today, participating in various movements, cooperatives, and programs.

The integration of movements across issues is probably the most significant feature of the Revolution. Across the globe social movements separately tackle a diverse array of concerns. Occasionally movements belonging to the same “camp” will form alliances, but quite often, narrow specific interests create factionalism and conflict. Rarely, and only recently have coalitions been formed between different camps, such as between labor and environmental activists. The Bolivarian Revolution is formally taking a bold, unique road of integration via networks of cooperatives, Bolivarian Houses, etc., that function to pull together the efforts of traditional activist camps in hopes of eliminating the inefficiency and clashes that plague “issue” activism. The world is watching as the experiment unfolds and some are even signing on.

While traditional solidarity movements exist throughout the world that support the Bolivarian Revolution, specific issues of civil society, or simply Venezuela’s right to sovereignty; there is a more profound and peculiar phenomenon occurring. Members of the international community are adopting the Revolution’s fundamental principles and joining “el processo” by taking them home with them.  For example, there are 22 Bolivarian Circles in the United States, Canada and Western Europe. According to CB literature, the function of international Circles is not only to perform acts of solidarity, but also to work for the improvement and empowerment of their own communities. This is an important departure from the usual patronizing stance of solidarity movements. It shows genuine recognition and emulation of the Bolivarian process.

These types of cross border relationships are forming among Indigenous peoples, land workers, independent media, etc. Government supporters claim that Venezuela’s vision for the future is not based on leaving behind its history and discarding its culture to mimic another, but instead is based on Venezuela’s ability to embrace its history and to draw from its own culture so as to construct a unique model of development that is flexible and transferable across nations. The Bolivarian Revolution invites us all to join in the making of our collective future.


Argerich, John (2003) Accomplishments of the Bolivarian Process. Malmoe, Sweden: Centro de Estudios Simon Bolivar, http://hem.fyistorg.com/bolivar.media

Bruschtein, Luis 2002 “Rodrigo Chaves, Coordinador General de los Circulos Bolivarianos de Venezuela: Charla Bolivariana” En Marcha 185 (August) http://www.patrialibre.org.ar/n185.htm#int

Garcia- Guadilla, Maria Pilar 2003 “ Civil Society” pp.179-196 in Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger (eds.) , Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class, Polarization & Conflict. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

Government Publication 2003 “Gestion en Graphicos” Caracas: SUNACOOP http://www.sunacoop.gov.ve/

Kerrilla, Christano 2003 “Venezuela: Class struggle on the rise in urban and rural areas” Green Left Weekly (May 21)

Ley Especial de Asociaciones Cooperativas 2001 Caracas: Gaceta Oficial 37.285 (September 18) (http://www.colac.com/leyes/pdf/venezuela.pdf)

Maryknoll Lay Missioners, 2003 “The unheard voices in the Venezuelan crisis: A Statement by the Maryknoll Lay Missioners In Venezuela” Washington D.C.: Catholic News Service

PROVEA 2002 Situation de los Derechos Humanos en Venezuela: Informe Anual (Octubre 2001/ Septiembre) Caracas: PROVEA http://www.derechos.org.ve/ongs_ven/provea

Red de Redes Politico Social 2001 “El Papel de la Redes Sociales en el Proceso de Transformacion de Venezuela” Convocation speech: Primer Encuentro Nacional de Redes y Organizaciones Sociales. Caracas: Constituyente Universitaria http://members.fortunecity.com/constituyenteuc/id70_m.htm

Roth, Charles 2003 “Ex- PDVSA exec: Venezuela Chavez using oil co as weapon.” Petroleum World.com (March 7) http://www.petroleumworld.com/storyT699.htm

Toothaker, Christopher 2003 “Venezuela sends soldiers, seeds to fight city hunger” Modesto Bee (August, 18)

[1] During 1989-92 Constitutional reforms, of 36 proposals considered only two were presented by social organizations. Of 128 articles making up the 1992 reforms, only five were drafted by social groups (Garcia- Guadilla, 2003: 184-185).

[2] Of these three eligible entities, the most loosely defined is “organized communities”. The law's description is: any group that shares a common territory and that associates itself to attend to common situations and problems. In order to attain funds for projects all entities must demonstrate that they have the experience and institutional and structural capacity required for the efficient development of projects that are related to the attendance of communities of high vulnerability. The law further defines eligible projects under two categories: Productive investment, oriented towards the generation of goods and services according to the needs and priorities of their respective communities; and self- or co- governance, the definition of which is extensive, including creating daycare centers and drug rehabilitation programs, neighborhood vigilance and protection of local flora and fauna.

[3] Lopez Maya (2003: 80) states that the Bolivarian Circles were the base unit of the MBR-200 in its formative years. Summing up accounts, it appears that these cells were actually called Circulos Bolivarianos Revolucionarios (Revolutionary Bolivarian Circles) and are not directly related to the current CB’s.

[4]  For complete information on the Casas Bolivarianos project visit http://www.circulosbolivarianos.org

[5]  Retired University of Caracas ecology professor Luis Levin explained to the author that after more than one year of solicitation, he has found almost no interest from his neighbors in collaborating with him on the renovation of an amphitheater in an upper-class region of Caracas. Dr. Levin has struggled to create a nature trail and wildlife feeding station that school groups frequent for field trips.