A New Model With Rough Edges: Venezuela’s Community Councils

For the Chavistas, the “revolutionary process” consists of people
gaining control of their lives in the areas where they live, more so
than in the workplace. This emphasis is reflected in the the fact that
the community councils have received far more attention and resources
than the worker-management schemes ever did.

By Steve Ellner - NACLA
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The main country road that passes by
Las Cuadras, a poor rural area in the zone of El Valle, in the
Venezuelan state of Mérida, sports a new roofed waiting area and
sidewalk. Julio Cerrada, a spokesman for the Las Cuadras community
council, shows me these and other recent projects, including a
decorative arch at the neighborhood’s entrance and a large metal
garbage container. Then Cerrada takes me to the end of the mountain
road, where the community council of La Culata has constructed a
pathway consisting of two paved tracks extending about 300 yards
uphill, which allows potato and carrot farmers to transport their
produce by vehicle and also opens the area to tourism. A small
cooperative, called Paseos a Caballo de La Culata, takes tourists on
horseback up the pathway, whose entrance is now marked by a large
plaque celebrating the figure of Simón Bolívar. Cerrada tells me the
cooperative is requesting state financing to construct a tourist
station at the pathway’s upper end.

Twenty-four community councils in El Valle have received government
financing for a diversity of such undertakings. Nationwide, Venezuela’s
some 20,000 local councils, legally established in 2006, are tackling
development projects considered priorities by their respective
communities. Most of the completed works in El Valle were carried out
by the voluntary labor of community members, while materials and tools
were purchased with state funds. About half of the able-bodied members
of Las Cuadras participated in that community’s joint efforts, Cerrada
tells me, and tools, including a wheelbarrow, shovels, pickaxes, and
machetes, are now being lent to families. “There is a greater sense of
trust and cooperation in communities of several hundred families than
you get when larger numbers of people are involved,” he says.

The Law of Community Councils, enacted in April 2006, offers
neighborhoods funding once they organize democratically and submit
feasible projects to state agencies. Each council represents between
200 and 400 families who approve of priority projects in neighborhood
assemblies. By planning, administering, and financing public works and
housing construction in their barrios, the community councils represent
not only the government’s most recent success in jump-starting popular
participation, but also a radical break with the past, when these
activities were undertaken by the city, state, or national government.

The structure of the community councils, as defined by the 2006 law,
differs from that of the Venezuelan worker cooperatives, which had
their heyday in 2004 and 2005. Whereas the cooperatives were headed by
presidents, some of whom abused their position by pocketing state
funds, the community councils are horizontally structured, with all of
their leaders (called voceros, or “spokespeople”) working free
of charge and considered of equal rank. Spokespeople can belong to no
more than one of their council’s various commissions, which include a
communal bank, which handles grant money; a “social controllership,”
which monitors spending; and an “employment commission,” which enlists
qualified community members for remunerative jobs and attempts to
ensure that they receive preferential hiring. All decisions, including
the selection of spokespeople, are ratified in an “assembly of
citizens,” which represents the community council’s “maximum instance
of decision making,” according to the 2006 law.

The large number of community councils established in 2006 eclipsed
the Local Planning Councils created by the Hugo Chávez government in
2002 to permit community members to devise projects, but which ended up
largely under the control of mayors who packed them with their own
followers.1 The 2006 law was designed to achieve greater
independence vis-à-vis local government by allowing the community
councils not only to conceive their own projects but also to execute
them.

The councils thereby put into practice the “participatory democracy”
embodied in the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution drafted by Chávez’s
followers. Some of their activities also reflect Chávez’s discourse,
which minimizes the importance of “experts” or “technocrats” and
stresses the will of the people and their capacity to solve all
problems, even highly technical ones. Thus, for example, the community
council members in charge of handling money act collectively in
commissions, but many lack prior financial experience or training,
following a “learn as you go” approach.

Advanced technical skills are required for some projects, like
extending electric lines to new communities and constructing dozens of
houses, as well as converting shacks into houses (known as ranchos por viviendas dignas).
Typically, community councils in nonprivileged sectors contract a
company or a cooperative for these more ambitious jobs, but insist that
a large number of positions, including skilled ones, be filled by
neighborhood residents.

The funding for the councils’ projects comes from a variety of
sources, including gubernatorial and municipal governments, the
Ministry of Participation and Social Protection, the state oil company
PDVSA, FIDES (a fund derived from the value-added tax), and LAEE
(derived from mining and oil revenue). Lengthy procedures are designed
to ensure that the money assigned to community councils is well spent,
unlike what happened with many of the cooperatives. However, due to the
diversity in sources of financing, the application and requirements for
funding vary, as do inspection procedures, thus complicating the
councils’ everyday operation.

In most cases, the state allocates money to the councils in two or
more tranches and inspects the results, taking numerous photographs
midway through the job. “Promoters” who work for the state government
or the FUNDACOMUNAL office of the Ministry of Participation and Social
Protection provide guidance to individual councils and then inspect
their work on the basis of “social criteria” in order to confirm that a
given project benefits the anticipated number of families. The Ministry
of Infrastructure and other ministries also carry out inspections on
the basis of “technical” criteria. The community council is required to
send a balance statement each year to the National Superintendency of
Cooperatives, which the Communal Bank is registered with (even though
it is not a “cooperative”).

The successful completion of these steps qualifies the council for
additional financing, either to complete a given project or begin work
on a new one. FUNDACOMUNAL keeps a registry of all community councils,
which other government offices check against in order to avoid funding
councils in bad standing. This year, FUNDACOMUNAL plans on making the
registry public by posting it on its Web page (www.fundacomun.gob.ve).

These procedures have proved just partly effective in ensuring
efficiency and discouraging corruption. The threat of state funding
being suspended weighs heavily on those community members who have
invested considerable time and effort in creating a community council.
Nevertheless, just as in the case of the workers’ cooperatives, the
state has failed to act decisively against unscrupulous council
spokespeople.

“Community activists who accuse fellow council members of
misspending money often complain that the case goes through the courts
at a snail’s pace, during which time they are unable to get further
funding,” says Leandro Rodríguez, adviser to the National Assembly’s
Commission of Citizen Participation, Decentralization and Regional
Development. He adds that the 2006 law fails to establish any formal
link between the community council’s social controllership commission
and the National Controller, who should be in charge of working closely
with the communities to give them legal information.

In addition to these problems, the councils’ downsides include their
use for political purposes and the government’s laxness in enforcing
requirements, which in turn is conducive to snags and deficiencies in
performance. On balance, the government has leaned over backward in
implementing its various social programs, including the community
councils, as it lifts controls, provides diverse monetary and
non-monetary incentives, and in general assumes a flexible position in
order to avoid dampening popular enthusiasm.

The creation of community councils was partly a reaction to the
inefficiency of the state bureaucracy, particularly at the municipal
level. In his congressional address unveiling a constitutional reform
proposal in August 2007, Chávez affirmed that he had “misgivings
regarding established local authorities” and had greater faith in the
capacity of the people at the local level. He went on to point to the
high abstention rates in city and state elections as placing in doubt
the legitimacy of local officials.2 More recently, Chávez’s
proposal to group community councils in a given zone in “communes”
(which in turn would form part of a “commune city”), in order to solve
common problems, threatens to substantially undermine the power of
municipal government by creating a parallel structure. In private,
local authorities, including mayors, have expressed fear that the
scheme is designed to phase out city government, as National Assembly
adviser Rodríguez and Sergio Lugo, an adviser to the Mérida
municipality’s Department of Local Planning Councils, told me.

Nevertheless, the community councils are not in a position to
supplant municipal government. At this point, they are undertaking work
only on priority projects, a far cry from taking on the myriad
functions of municipal government. Applied to the community councils,
the Rousseau-inspired utopian ideal of direct democracy displacing
representative institutions—a vision sometimes embraced by Chavistas—is
thus highly misleading.3 A more realistic assessment comes
from Marisol Pérez, who heads the state government of Anzoátegui’s
community council office. “This is an experimental process,” she says.
“The celebrated phrase of Simón Rodríguez [Simón Bolívar’s tutor] so
frequently invoked by our president, ‘Either we invent or we err,’ is
applicable in a big way to the community councils.”

*

Chavista political leaders, whose rhetoric typically emphasizes
popular decision making, have increasingly highlighted the activities
of the community councils. Aristóbulo Istúriz and Jorge Rodríguez, the
Chavista candidates in Caracas’s two major mayoral races in November,
divided their respective platforms into two parts: programs directly
undertaken by the state and support for “popular power” consisting
mainly of the community councils. In another mayoral race in Caracas,
the Chavista candidate pledged to construct a “metrocable” up the
slum-ridden hills of Petare, similar to another one that is near
completion in the barrios of San Agustín. According to the plan, each
station would contain a facility, such as a library or theater, that
would be placed under the administration of a community council.

Meanwhile, government critics argue that the community councils are
inefficient and warn that they weaken representative democracy by
undermining all intermediate bodies between the national executive and
the people—be it the municipal government, state planning agencies, or
even the Chavista party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela
(PSUV). Américo Martín, a former leftist who ran for president in 1978,
calls the community councils an “atom bomb” bound to produce chaos by
making clientelistic demands of a magnitude impossible to satisfy.4
Another leftist turned anti-Chavista, Teodoro Petkoff, harps on the
quixotic nature of community councils, which he likens to the worker
cooperatives and worker-management schemes also promoted by the Chávez
government. Petkoff argues that these experiments bring to mind Marx’s
indictment of the utopian socialists: “Instead of recognizing the
historical conditions of emancipation, they envisioned fantastic
conditions and a reorganization of society invented by themselves.”5

These arguments against the viability of the community councils
overstate the case against them. The fact is that thousands of projects
throughout Venezuela have already been satisfactorily completed, and
many more are under way—an accomplishment entirely new in the nation’s
history. In addition, community council leaders are engaged in a wide
variety of activities and programs that have no precedent in
Venezuela’s community movement.

Politics and the state are very much at the center of the community
council phenomenon. Council leaders often find themselves on both sides
of the line separating civil society and political activism. Thus, for
instance, council meetings sometimes devote time to discussing
electoral strategy and logistics. After the PSUV was created in 2007,
it canvassed for Chavista candidates in the communities, causing the
community councils to recede somewhat from the electoral arena.
Nevertheless, in early 2009, Minister of Participation and Social
Protection Erika Farías called on the community councils to form
brigades to campaign in favor of the Chávez-sponsored constitutional
amendment to eliminate term limits on all elected positions, a
proposition that was approved in a referendum held February 15. The
electoral activity of those connected with the community councils and
other government-funded social programs overshadowed the PSUV in the
campaign.

Some writers stress the need for Venezuelan social organizations,
including community councils, to strive for absolute autonomy vis-à-vis
state and party.6 These include leading Venezuelan activists
and writers Roland Denis, Javier Biardeau, and Rafael Uzcátegui (of the
anarchist periodical El Libertario). John Holloway, a renowned
theoretician who defends this viewpoint, stated at the time of the
World Social Forum in Caracas in 2006: “The great danger that exists in
Venezuela today . . . is that the movement ‘from above’ will swallow .
. . the movement ‘from below.’ ”7

The fixation on autonomy, however, is somewhat misplaced. Social
programs and the organizations they create—and not autonomous social
movements—are the backbone of the Chavista movement. Prior to Chávez’s
election in 1998, Venezuela lacked the type of vibrant, well-organized
social movements that paved the way for the election of Evo Morales in
Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. For many years in Venezuela,
neighborhood and worker cooperative movements were independent of the
state, but they failed to flourish or play a major role in the lives of
nonprivileged Venezuelans.

In contrast, the Chávez government’s injection of large sums of
money into community councils and other social programs has served to
stimulate the marginalized sectors and show them ways to take control
of their lives. Specifically, state resources in the form of allotments
for community council projects, loans for worker cooperatives, and
stipends for students enrolled in makeshift educational programs (known
as “missions”) have been essential in activating people along organized
lines. In spite of financial dependence on the state, rank-and-file
Chavistas tend to be critical, and their support for the government is
hardly unqualified, thus explaining, for instance, Chávez’s defeat in
the constitutional referendum of 2007.8

For the Chavistas, the “revolutionary process” consists of people
gaining control of their lives in the areas where they live, more so
than in the workplace (as Communists, Trotskyists, and other hard-line
Chavistas advocate). This emphasis is reflected in the the fact that
the community councils have received far more attention and resources
than the worker-management schemes ever did.

The councils are subject to a host of problems, including poor
management of financing, “free riders,” and the deep-rooted skepticism
among many community members toward neighborhood leaders’ intentions.
Pro-Chávez writers who focus on the community councils and similar
social programs, while providing useful information, generally skirt
these thorny issues.9 The pro-government media also shy away from open
discussion of knotty problems of this type, even though they frequently
refer to the community councils. Furthermore, critical debate is
lacking within the PSUV. By avoiding nitty-gritty problems, the
Chavista leadership ends up glorifying the community councils and
creating the myth that they are a panacea for countless problems, a
notion that may be designed to pay electoral dividends. The shortcoming
is particularly serious given the government’s stated commitment to
more than double the program’s funding in 2009.

As the community councils gain experience, two processes fraught
with tension are under way. First, marginalized and semi-marginalized
sectors of the population gain confidence and experience in collective
decision making. Second, steps toward institutionalization are designed
to create viable mechanisms that monitor and guard against
ill-conceived projects and misuse of public funds.

But the effort to achieve incorporation, on the one hand, and
institutionalization, on the other, is a complicated balancing act.
Mechanisms and procedures to ensure efficiency cannot be imposed all at
once. The massive and ongoing participation of the nonprivileged
depends on the flexibility and comprehension of those in charge of
public financing.

“We don’t hound the council spokespeople, and we give them the
benefit of the doubt,” says Marisol Pérez of the Anzoátegui state
government. “After all, many of them are novices who could easily drop
out if they perceive that the obstacles are too great.”

In addition to the social and institutional dimensions, a third
objective is political: the mobilization of those who benefit from the
community councils in order to defend the government in the face of an
intransigent opposition with extensive resources. Indeed, achieving
distinct and not always compatible objectives is a formidable challenge
for Venezuela’s unchartered path to socialism.


Steve Ellner has been teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in
Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, since 1977. His Rethinking Venezuelan
Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon Lynne Rienner
Publishers, 2008) will be released in paperback in October.


1. Luis Bonilla-Molina and Haiman El Troudi, Historia de la
revolución bolivariana: pequeña crónica, 1948–2004 (Caracas: Impresos
Publigráfica, 2005), 232.

2. Hugo Chávez, Ahora la batalla es por el sí: discurso de
presentación del Proyecto de Reforma Constitucional (Caracas:
Biblioteca Construcción del Socialismo, 2007), 63–65.

3. Steve Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and
the Chávez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008), 176–80.

4. Américo Martín, “Segunda Parte,” in Martín and Freddy Muñoz,
Socialismo del siglo XXI: huida en el laberinto? (Caracas: Editorial
Alfa, 2007), 160–70.

5. Teodoro Petkoff, “Comuna Comeflor,” Tal Cual, September 30, 2008.

6. See Roland Denis, “Venezuela: The Popular Movements and the
Government,” International Socialist Review 110 (spring 2006): 29–35,
and Hilary Wainwright, “Democracy Diary,” Red Pepper, December 2007.
For a discussion of community council autonomy, see Sara C. Motta
“Venezuela: Reinventing Social Democracy From Below?” in Geraldine
Lievesley and Steve Ludlam, eds., Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments
in Radical Social Democracy (Zed Books, 2008), 84–88; George
Ciccariello-Maher, “Dual Power in the Venezuelan Revolution,” Monthly
Review 59, no. 4 (September 2007): 42–56.

7. Quoted in María Pilar García-Guadilla and Carlos Lagorio, “La
cuestión del poder y los movimientos sociales: reflexión pos-Foro
Social Mundial Caracas 2006,” Revista Venezolana de Economía y Ciencias
Sociales 12, no. 3 (December 2006).

8. Sujatha Fernandes, In the Spirit of Negro Primero: Urban Social
Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela (Duke University Press, forthcoming
2010).

9. Enrique Rodríguez, “Política social actual: una visión desde el
gobierno,” in Thais Maingon, ed., Balance y perspectiva de la política
social en Venezuela (Caracas: ILDIS and CENDES, 2006), 281–90; Camila
Piñeiro Harnecker, “Workplace Democracy and Collective Consciousness:
An Empirical Study of Venezuelan Cooperatives,” Monthly Review 59, no.
6 (November 2007): 27–40.