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Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project

Moving Beyond Representation: Participatory Democracy and Communal Councils in Venezuela

Introduction:

As two college students living and studying in the United States, we have long been frustrated and discouraged by the limiting representative democracy seen by the U.S. government and media as the only viable form of democracy. We traveled to Venezuela to learn about a more substantive form of democracy based on the values of inclusion and participation that has emerged during the last decade. This new model, referred to as participatory democracy, utilizes local entities of self-governance to allocate decision-making power and resources to the people themselves. While the U.S. system of representative democracy works to undermine true democratic values through excluding those without capital, participatory democracy goes beyond elections to place the power of the government and the country's resources directly in the hands of the people. We drew upon research and our personal experiences in Venezuela to make this exciting new form of democracy accessible to the people of the United States.

The United States prides itself on being a democracy, but what does that mean? Democracy is a term that can be used to describe a form of political representation or used as a justification for military intervention abroad. It is a term with countless definitions and understandings worldwide that that can mean anything from checking a box every four years to widespread participation in societal change and self-governance. The United States subscribes to a liberal, representative form of democracy, one that was created with numerous "safeguards" meant to prevent true popular control over the government. This allowed the elite governing class to maintain power and control while pacifying an entire electorate (at the time of the ratification of the constitution this meant white male landowners). These "safeguards," though some have been modified, were never removed, and continue to prevent true citizen participation in their own government.[1]

The electoral college is the most problematic of these safeguards, implemented to distance the electorate from the electoral process by having them vote on electors rather than representatives. It continues to hinder true democracy. The candidate who wins the greatest number of electoral votes does not necessarily have a popular majority, as seen in the 2000 US presidential election where the Supreme Court, rather than the citizens, chose George W. Bush over Al Gore. And who chose the Supreme Court? The President of the United States. Gore won the popular vote, meaning the American people cast more votes for him, but their voices were ignored and their votes were discarded because Bush "won" the electoral college. Was that democracy? The electoral college continues to rely on electors to vote for the president, and while electors are strongly encouraged to go with their states decision, they are not legally bound to and occasionally defy their state's decision.[2] There is an absolute lack of accountability.

Again, is this democracy?

Because each state receives a number of electors that represents the number of citizens plus their two senators, voters in small states have approximately 60% more power and influence than those in large states.[3] This merely serves to amplify the power that small states have in the senate, where Rhode Island has the same amount of power and influence as California. In addition, because all electoral votes go to the candidate that wins the majority in any given state, over 90 percent of campaign money, time and resources as well as party platforms cater to the 15 "swing states" or states in which polls have not already predicted a guaranteed outcome. In other, predetermined states, opposition votes are not counted in the electoral college, and have no bearing over the presidential election results.[4] This has lead to widespread disillusionment with the system and abstention from the electoral process, perhaps accounting for the low voter turnout in the U.S.

Although the US claims to be a pluralist system, there is no place for third parties. Third party candidates are scorned by the two major parties for "taking away" their votes. Those on the left, especially those in swing states, feel tremendous pressure to choose the more progressive of the two major parties rather than voting for who truly represents their views. The dominance of the two party system creates a narrow ideological range of debate, with the two parties representing nearly ideological values. In our current system, this two party dominance seems to be inescapable, furthering the rates of disillusionment and abstention.

Our representative democracy functions to represent transnational corporations and their economic interests more than those of citizens. Individuals running for office rely on the contributions of corporations to cover enormous campaign costs. Based on this sponsorship corporations can expect politicians to represent their interests. Corporate lobbies are another form of this interest and undermine the power and influence of citizens.[5]

Although politicians are voted upon by citizens (or the electors in electoral college presidential elections), they end up accountable to corporations, not the people. If a public official is not living up to their campaign promises and is failing to represent the interests of their constituencies, there is no way for citizens to revoke their power.[6]

Not only is our representative democracy held captive by the interests of capitalism and corporate interests in the United States, but we are exporting the same model of "democracy" abroad to further global economic control.[7]

While the corporate voice is heard loud and clear in our representative democratic systems, citizens are increasingly excluded. For example, as an 18-year old college freshman eager to participate in our democratic system for the first time, I filled out a voter registration card at my college orientation. The day before election day, nearly two months after I had filled out the registration card, I received a letter saying the paper I had filled out had been a copy, and therefore was invalid. Then the next year I went to the polls with my voter registration card, birth certificate, driver's license, and student ID. I was told I could not vote because, although I was a registered voter in the state of Ohio and attended a 100% residential college, I did not have "proof of residence." This is just one experience, but it demonstrates the larger problem that elections are not facilitated to honor peoples' right to vote.

So what is the solution? How can democracy function in a way that truly involves citizens and builds inclusive popular participation and governance from the bottom up rather than the top down?

Participatory democracy is a model that is becoming increasingly popular in Latin America, taking many different forms in the region. This form of democracy relies on the abilities of the people and creates a system that emphasizes the importance of direct and active involvement of citizens in political structures.

While in Venezuela, we experienced a unique new form of participatory democracy that has been created and implemented successfully in the last ten years. Venezuela had previously been functioning under a representative governing model, directly imported from the United States. Like in the US, participation in politics was very limited, with high abstention rates, predominately among the poor and working classes, who at the time made up 70% of the nation's population. A strongly limiting two-party system was in place for over 40 years before Chavez's election in 1998.

The first formal step towards participatory democracy was the re-drafting of the Venezuelan constitution in 1999. This progressive document, was both written and ratified by the citizens themselves. The constitution outlines the new system of participatory democracy, giving a number of rights to citizens which had never had before. Reasoning for the move to a participatory democratic system is quoted below:

"This regulation [in favor of participatory democracy] responds to a felt aspiration of organized civil society that strives to change the political culture, which so many decades of state paternalism and the dominance of party heads generated that hindered the development of democratic values. In this sense, participation is not limited to electoral processes, since the need for intervention of the people is recognized in the processes of formation, formulation, and execution of public policy, which would result in the overcoming of the governability deficits that have affected our political system due to the lack of harmony between state and society. To conceive public administration as a process which a fluid communication between governed and the people is established, implies a modification of the orientation of state-society relations, so as to return to the latter its legitimate protagonism."[8]

With the constitution of 1999, Venezuelans now have the right of popular recall of elected officials and the power to amend the constitution by popular vote. Civil society is now included, with decision-making power, in all levels of government. For the first time the constitution also stated that access to all levels of education, comprehensive healthcare, and meaningful participation in government and media are basic human rights rather than privileges based on one's resources, and the state has the responsibility to ensure that those basic human rights were met.[9]

A host of social programs, most famously the misiones, or social "missions" followed the constitutional revision to bring the language of these rights to fruition. The programs are seen as meeting constitutional rights rather than providing charity, and are centered around participation and empowerment. Because of this, the social programs have truly worked to equalize society rather than divide it.[10] By addressing the fact that survival rights and economy stability are a prerequisite to truly participating in government and democracy, the misiones laid the framework for participatory democracy.

Other efforts by the national government help to make horizontal decision-making part of popular culture. For example there has been widespread promotion of cooperatives, co- and self-management of factories, student and workers' councils. This has begun to create a mental and cultural shift in which people are beginning to see themselves as active participants in governing rather than governed people.

One of the most exciting and accessible examples of participatory democracy are Venezuela's communal councils. These are community or popular assemblies. In 2006, the Organic Law of Communal Councils was passed to help communities form and fund these governing assemblies, constituting a new move towards localized grassroots government. The goal? To give the decision making power to those who know the community best. This moves beyond electing people to make decisions about a community and instead gives control to the community itself. People can use their own experiential knowledge to identify and solve the problems in their community.[11]

This new law was an effort to solidify popular power as part of the country's governing structure and to address corrupt and inadequate local authorities. Local governments, like mayorships, were not distributing funds to areas needing them the most, especially rural areas. They also oversaw intensely corrupt law enforcement agencies that were contributing significantly to crime rates in the country.

Communal councils do not replace mayorships but act as a parallel local governing system, where community members horizontally and directly participate in local decision-making. The most important part of the councils is that funds bypass regional and local governments, going directly to council projects. In 2007, only a year after the communal council law was passed, five billion dollars was funneled into councils directly from the national government without interference of local governments.[12] This exemplifies the re-directing of state funding, taking money out of the hands of governors and mayors, placing into the hands of the people themselves. In 2007, 30% of money allotted for local governments went directly to communal councils, and the National Assembly has proposed to increase this number to 50%.[13]

On a structural level, the councils, or popular assemblies themselves are made up of 200-400 households in metropolitan districts, 20 households in rural districts, and 10 households in indigenous districts. In an effort to avoid hierarchy and domination, the Law of Communal Councils allocated all decision-making power to these all-inclusive popular assemblies. Anyone can attend assembly meetings, and all members above the age of 15 share equal decision- making power. Over 20% of the eligible community residents must be present in order for decisions to be binding.[14]

The communal councils are organized into comités, or work groups around certain issues affecting the community like clean water, sanitation, housing, etc. Many of these comités actually pre-date the existence of communal councils, having previously been set up to democratize the work of the social misiones within communities. The communal council also incorporates a financial committee, the banco comunal, who manages the financial resources of the council. An oversight committee, the contraloria social, documents and legalizes all decisions made by the council and provides oversight to the financial committee to ensure that the money allocated follows the legal framework, avoiding corruption.[15]

Each comité has elected voceros and voceras, or spokespeople, expected to attend each meeting or assembly, and speak on behalf of the comité or, in the case of larger assemblies, the community's popular assembly. A vocero acts as a point-person for projects but they do not have extra decision-making power; all decisions are made in assembly form by popular vote. Voceros of a communal council meet periodically in assemblies with voceros from other councils in their sector. These larger popular assemblies, called comunas, give the opportunity for numerous councils to identify similar issues and do large-scale local and regional projects. Because a comuna contains several communal councils, together they have a greater capacity to keep local government systems in check and unify neighboring communities than a communal council itself.[16]

What does this look like in practice? We had a number of experiences during our stay in Venezuela related to communal councils and participatory democracy. We'd like to share some of these experiences in story form to help paint a better picture of what this system means and how it affects real people. These stories are from four different communities; Pueblo Nuevo, La Guajira, Palo Verde and La Paroquia San Juan.

Pueblo Nuevo (Katie Bowen)

"Don't walk here", they said to me, "this isn't your place", the first time I got anywhere near barrio Pueblo Nuevo. The word barrio can mean a lot of different things. Directly translated, it means neighborhood, but in Venezuela, barrio usually refers to the poorer areas of town, slum communities, where people build their homes from scrap materials, whatever they can find. I was living in Merida at the time, a colonial city at the base of the Andes, full of opposition to the revolution and adventure tourists. I could see the barrio under the bridge when I'd take the bus downtown from my house. For Venezuela, it was strange for the barrio to be right downtown, usually they keep to the outskirts. The next time I visited was on a tour to the ECOs community radio station of the barrio, an old school that the residents had taken over and begun broadcasting low frequency news, for the community, by the community. As part of a country-wide movement of the revolution, community media a response to the corporate control of the nation's media. The station had a time slot reserved for the communal council's show every Monday night.

Communal councils were new for this community. After only a year, they had organized themselves around issues that were affecting the barrio the most. They had previously been neglected by the state and corrupt local governments, and money had been spent in more viable areas of town. Now the community itself was organizing to meet their own needs. It was difficult for a number of reasons. The barrio had no culture of political participation after being marginalized for so long. Most of the residents had known each other their whole lives. Not everyone had the same opinions or values, and making collective decisions with family and neighbors was hard. The communal council had been working to pave the streets and allow for public transportation in that part of the city. They fought for clean, accessible water, for a sewage system in the barrio, to fix broken electricity lines, and improvements within in the local school to help keep children out of gangs and off drugs, a major issue in Pueblo Nuevo and surrounding barrios.

Slowly, the community was learning to organize at the grassroots level. Sometimes, they didn't need to turn to the national government for support, realizing they could meet some collective needs for themselves. They kept having trouble with the drainage for the street. After some unsuccessful bouts with the city government, they got together with supplies and tools they already had and fixed it themselves.

A central issue in the community was drug trafficking, and, very much related, gangs. The school system was the worst in the city, and because of the lack of resources there were not many options for young people.

"One of the biggest problems is the destruction of families. Lots of kids grow up without a father, or without a mother. Violence in the home happens a lot. Imagine having five children in a tiny space, and no economic resources. Often times, the response is violence, for example, to a child who makes a big mess. What happens then? The school that the children go to is also very very bad. Realistically, the most concrete life that they have is one of gangs and dealing drugs. It's the most real, most tangible. We are trying to work with children of this age. This neighborhood doesn't have young people because they have died or left. These children, they end up in gangs and don't care about anybody" -Miguel, resident and communal council member.[17]

The communal council of Pueblo Nuevo has focused much of their energy to organizing around these issues because they affect the community very deeply. Underneath the radio station they had created a small library and study space for students. Here, students from the university in Merida come to do service-learning, helping kids with homework, tutoring, mentoring and playing sports. They started a soccer team, with over 50 children who play in the community space, sometimes whose parents don't even know their kids are interested in sports. The communal council also started movie nights, for students to have exposure to documentaries and information, and to give space outside of the home or streets for recreation. School students have started making their own documentaries, about their lives in the barrio and issues that are related to them. These short films are shown before the main movies, for people who connect to them the most. Another project in process is the idea for a "casa de ciencias", or little science building, where kids can come to learn computer-literacy and have access to science-related material.

The radio program helps to spread awareness about the communal council and their projects. They make announcements to the community, discuss local issues, and even make public statements to the local government.

I went to the station with a friend to observe one of the council's shows. It was called "la voz del consejo comunal", or voice of the communal council. The program started by addressing the city's mayor. "Please give us water", they said, "all that comes from the faucet are tiny droplets. There are 800 families who live here and we haven't had water for 15 days. Please send public transportation down our streets. You said it was because they weren't paved, so we've paved them. We live in the city too and need to get around like everyone else. Look in the newspaper, people from the community are dying because they receive bad treatment from the city's clinic. Give our school more money, we have 80 children in one classroom and our students in 5th grant can't even read".[18]

Their next message was a call to the community. The elections were coming up for an amendment to the constitution. They began analyzing democracy, taking it apart, reflecting on the differences between an active, participatory democracy and a representative one. They were urging people to vote, still new for people in the barrios, but then saying voting wasn't enough. It was a call to the community to take action, not just to wear red shirts and spit socialist propaganda, but to take an active role in building the community, building a new society based on the collective, based on justice. This is essentially what communal councils do, what democracy should be.

La Guajira (Caitlin McNulty)

One communal council I visited was located in the state of Táchira, Venezuela on Wayuu indigenous lands. I interviewed a woman named Angela, who had participated in the communal council since its formation in 2007 and was currently serving as a vocera. Angela explained to me that in the beginning, her communal council focused on meeting the basic needs of those in the community by building upon the misiones that had already existed. Their first project was the construction of thirteen new homes for families who lived in housing that was determined to be inadequate. This was followed by the formation of a community kitchen which provides free lunch and a community day care. A Barrio Adentro clinic which provided free comprehensive healthcare had already been established, along with adult basic education programs. The communal council made the decision that the next pressing need was the preservation of Wayuu culture, language, and traditions. Many felt that the local primary school was causing youth to become disconnected from their roots, partially because it failed to teach Wayunike, their indigenous language.

Through much organization, advocacy, and hard work, the community formed one of the first indigenous primary schools in Venezuela which instructs students in both Spanish and Wayunike, requires traditional Wayuu dress for uniforms, and actively involves community elders in the teaching process to foster intergenerational connections. The school also shares a building and works in collaboration with Paraguaipoa, the first indigenous community radio station in Venezuela. The school has two weekly radio programs in which students create their own shows. When Angela spoke of the impact the school, completed in early 2008, on the community, a tear rolled down her cheek. "My granddaughter now speaks with her friends in Wayunike," she said; "children now see traditional dress as normal and are surrounded by people reaffirming the importance of their own culture. It has strengthened our community and our families."[19]

Rather than depending upon the municipal governments, in which indigenous and low income communities are largely underrepresented, to dictate the priorities of any given community, communal councils ensure egalitarian ideals. Angela explains "For so long, we suffered because the government did not care about us, our security, our roads, our schools. Now, we decide what is important."[20] Although all people deserve the right to local autonomy and self-governance over matters that directly affect their communities, the right to self-governance and autonomy is especially important for indigenous communities whose culture and traditions are often in conflict with conventional structures of governance. In an attempt to respect the culture and autonomy of indigenous groups, the communal council law exempts them from the normal structural regulations. This ability to self-govern in communal councils, along with the right of autodemarcation of indigenous lands (the ability of indigenous peoples to use traditional knowledge to determine boundaries on tribal lands) guaranteed in the 1999 constitution, is beginning to provide the autonomy the indigenous nations of Venezuela deserve. Jose Miranda, vocero for the Wayuu community La Guajira states that; "Because we are indigenous, we have a right to our culture, our principles, our values and our origins and the ability to protect those ourselves is urgent. We are beginning the process of regaining control and resisting manipulation though the councils".[21]

The right to self-governance and autonomy on a local level is guaranteed to all communities in Venezuela. In addition to fostering community dialogue, cohesion, and organization, the councils are beginning to provide space and structure for cooperation among communities.

Palo Verde (Katie Bowen)

They were so proud. "Did you see the houses? Everyone would ask. They had just finished the basic construction of sixteen new homes for the community. They had done it themselves. It was a small community, a little neighborhood, on the edge of a town of about 3,000. It was the poorer side of town. They really needed the houses. Young people would start families of their own, but continue to live in the homes of their parents due to lack of resources. Sometimes it was grandparents' homes, if their parents had done the same thing a generation before. Almost everyone was related, somehow, most worked seasonal jobs, planting and harvesting potatoes. Many hadn't finished grade school.

Their community council assemblies met outside, next to someone's house on the top of the hill. I counted almost 70 people there once, sitting on milk crates with half-naked children running everywhere, chasing the stray dogs. They were almost a year deep into their first project, building the homes. As a community, they were much more organized than other sectors of town, perhaps because of a greater necessity to meet their basic needs.

They had organized to receive funding for the homes. Sixteen homes had been built with the resources for only fourteen. The community had purchased tools, materials, and the services of a local engineer to help with the design and building. The rest they took care of themselves, to stretch the resources further and ensure the job was being done well. Houses went up in no time. Every time I walked through that part of town I'd see people working, laying roves, installing windows, painting the houses in bright colors. They met quite often to discuss the project as a group, almost once a week. Everybody worked, women, children, men, people of the community who weren't even receiving new homes.

Having a communal council had changed the community. Not only by providing homes, but impacting the community in much more subtle, non-physical ways. First of all, neighbors were beginning to get to know each other, to work with each other and make decisions and agreements that would be good for everyone. There was a feeling of connectedness in the community, one that hadn't been there before. A lot of validation was also involved. Finally, people could do something bigger, something for themselves. They could, together, identify common needs and actually change them, meet them, together. Dreams, plans were already being made for new projects they could work on, after the houses were finished. They knew they could pave the road entering the neighborhood, build a community space for meetings, tools and projects. They wanted a school, close by, for their children to attend, to learn things relevant to their community, to their lives.

They could have clean drinking water in their homes. All of these things were needed, but the best part was, they were possible. Everyone knew it. Anyone could participate, people who were illiterate, people who had never organized anything, women who had barely left their own homes. The government had always overlooked them. Now, they had the opportunity to participate directly in politics, to have access to the vest wealth of a country which had neglected them. Who could be better to make these decisions? Who else could have the knowledge and experience to identify the needs of a community and how these needs should be met? Development was happening, not just for their neighborhood, but within in the people themselves. The national government was giving resources, but with these resources also come power and validation of people, of their struggles, their needs and their ability to organize to create change that would affect them the most.

La Paroquia San Juan (Caitlin McNulty)

In la paroquia San Juan in the outskirts of Caracas, five communal councils came together in a comuna to create a social enterprise. They created a market to bring healthy fruits and vegetables to their community at low prices through direct cooperation with farmers outside of the city. Eliminating intermediaries and utilizing local production, this market fit into a nation-wide movement towards endogenous development, the concept of increasing production for domestic use though local control of production. In Venezuela endogenous development is promoted to address the country's dependence on the exportation of oil and importation of consumables, like food. Endogenous development also allows communities to take control over their own production and consumption systems.

The social enterprise, the market, was jointly owned not by those who worked there, but by the broader community made up of those five communal councils. The profits went towards creating a space for community, one in which children could play and people could organize. The sector's communal councils have worked towards this project for two years, occupying the abandoned space below a large overpass until the title was expropriated by the government, not uncommon given the rights of the country's new constitution. Although these legal rights to land takeovers and self-governance through communal councils, was accessible to all citizens, it was the responsibility of the communities themselves to organize and carry out these projects.

The communal market was just the beginning; the comuna has since developed a communal bakery and pharmacy, again with the goal of providing affordable services to the community on a sliding income scale with all the profits directly benefiting the communities. Other projects initiated by the comuna are a community radio station as well as a collective space to watch media created by the community because, as comuna member Elin Roja states; "the war is an ideological one, fought with cameras not guns".[22] They have formed a "house for grandparents" in which old people without family to care for them have the support system they need. There is a comedor popular, a place in which community members can eat incredibly cheaply, or free if they have few resources. There is a school of community education where community members share what they know most about in a popular education fashion, again, building community knowledge and cohesion.

The idea of a comuna is the next step in participatory democracy and co-governance; creating a place where the people go beyond depending directly on the government for all their funding. Where there is cooperation among co-governing communities; where social enterprises are owned by, and meet the needs of, the community. It is seen as the next step in sustaining the political process begun in Venezuela. Because la comunidad San Juan sustains all their projects through social enterprises, they are not dependent upon the government. It is a new form of organization and support, one that can last through different political systems, through international financial crisis, etc. Roja sums up the importance of their organizing:

"We have created all this ourselves. Chávez created the framework, but we used our own hands, our own sweat, and minds, and organizing to make this happen. This is our community, created and governed by ourselves. We have changed the consciousness of those who lived here, showing them through our actions how much the values of solidarity and compassion can do for the community. I have faith that all communities can create this network of cooperation and we can make the next level of government participatory, that eventually we can make all the levels of government reflect the needs of the people. We are all members of our own communities but this has brought us together. It has broadened our struggle, but also our system of support and solidarity."[23]

Conclusion

Venezuela, through participatory democracy and communal councils, is revolutionizing the meaning of the state, taking what used to be reserved for the elites of society and allowing all to participate and share in the wealth and power they are entitled to.[24] For the first time, the vast wealth of the country is reaching the majority of the people, people who need it the most. This doesn't come in the form of handouts. In Venezuela, basic human rights are constitutional rights. The national government is giving resources, but with these resources comes power, the power to make collective decisions, identify and address problems affecting people the most.

Communal councils empower people and communities, positively changing the way in which people view their identities and roles in society. Because community members are carrying out the projects for their own communities, projects that will benefit their families, friends and themselves, each has a triple benefit. Not only does each project itself benefit the community, it reduces unemployment as local labor is utilized, and ensures excellent quality because the workers are creating meaningful projects they care about and are deeply invested in. The councils foster cohesion and empowerment as communities decide what needs to be addressed and work together to bring the projects to fruition.

The councils function especially to empower women, often the majority of active council members. Due to the feminization of poverty, women are often most affected by issues surrounding the lack of resources, as they are culturally responsible for caring for not just themselves but also their families. The councils give an opportunity for women to directly become active in their own communities' economic and governing systems, allowing them to create systems which ensure everyone's needs are met. Prior, there were few opportunities for women to engage in community organizing outside the home.

Another benefit of communal councils is their ability to function as a centralized, truly representative body for the community. This is useful in a number of ways. Community schools under the new Bolivarian curriculum, for example, work with the communal councils to develop service-learning projects that benefit communities and give students the opportunity to learn about and address local issues. Venezuela's misiones, utilize the cohesion of the councils to further the local democratization of these social projects originally addressed by singular community comittees. For example, Barrio Adentro doctors can simply go to the communal council for collaboration in address public health issues specific to the community or sector. Local law enforcement can also work with the councils in whatever way the communities choose. This could be anything from collaboration for workshops on self-esteem or drugs in schools, to allowing and supporting a community to form its own way of governing and protecting itself.[25]

Similarly, the councils play an important role in addressing local governmental corruption. Communities no longer need to depend upon municipal governments that have worked to systematically exclude them because of their lack of resources. A community has the ability to dictate their priorities as a collective whole, rather than through a few privileged voices, resulting in projects that genuinely reflect the needs of the community rather than the interests of the representatives. Communities have the power to fix problems themselves, a power which is changing community consciousness.

There are over 40,000 communal councils across the nation.[26] This number is growing rapidly as societal consciousness and values in Venezuela change through the process and strong local, grassroots movements are, for the first time being incorporated into the country's leadership. This process is not easy. Like all transitions to horizontal group decision-making structures, communal councils have their fair share of struggles and opportunities to learn from doing collective work.

The movement that this collective work is forming, however, is stunning. Every single person is included, and communities have the power to form change effecting them the most. It is the constitutional right of citizens to directly participate not only in their country's governing system but also in a peaceful, people-centered, truly democratic revolution that affects the entire world.

The stark contrast between Venezuela's participatory democracy and our own esteemed form of "democracy" in the United States acts as both a wake-up call to citizens in our country to define for ourselves what true democracy is, but also serves as a source for inspiration and examination, as a lived example of what a more substantive democracy looks like.

Katie and Caitlin are students at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. They recently spent three months studying in Venezuela with Evergreen's academic program Building Economic and Social Justice.

Notes:

[1] Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.

[2] United States Constitution

[3] Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.

[4] United States. Office of the Federal Registrar. US National Archives and Records Administration. US Electoral College. 27 May 2009 <http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/>

[5] Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.

[6] United States Constitution

[7] Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.

[8] Chapter 4, section 1 ("on political rights"), paragraphs 3 and 4 of the Exposition of Motives of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (CMRV). **

[9] Venezuela. Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela. Caracas: Gaceta Oficial, 1999.

[10] Wilpert, Gregory. "Venezuela's New Constitution." Venezuela Analysis 27 Aug. 2003. 27 May 2009 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/70>.

[11] United States Constitution

[12] Wilpert, Gregory. Changing Venezuela The History and Policies of the Chavez Government. New York: Verso, 2006.

[13] Wilpert, Gregory. Changing Venezuela The History and Policies of the Chavez Government. New York: Verso, 2006.

[14] Venezuela. Ministerio de comunicacion e informacion. Ley de los consejos comunales. Caracas: Colleccion textos legislativos, 2006.

[15] Venezuela. Ministerio de comunicacion e informacion. Ley de los consejos comunales. Caracas: Colleccion textos legislativos, 2006.

[16] Venezuela. Ministerio de comunicacion e informacion. Ley de los consejos comunales. Caracas: Colleccion textos legislativos, 2006.

[17] Miguel. "Consejo Comunal en Pueblo Nuevo." Personal interview. 11 Feb. 2009.

[18] Radio Program, "La Voz del Consejo Comunal", ECOs Radio. 15 Feb.2009.**

[19] Hernandez, Angela. "Los Consejos Comunales." Personal interview. 3 Feb. 2009

[20] Hernandez, Angela. "Los Consejos Comunales." Personal interview. 3 Feb. 2009

[21] Miranda, Jose. "Consejos Comunales." Personal interview. 1 Feb. 2009.

[22] Roja, Elin. "La democracia participativa y comunas." Personal interview. 9 Feb. 2009.

[23] Roja, Elin. "La democracia participativa y comunas." Personal interview. 9 Feb. 2009.

[24] Venezuela. Ministerio de comunicacion e informacion. Ley de los consejos comunales. Caracas: Colleccion textos legislativos, 2006.

[25] Venezuela. Ministerio de comunicacion e informacion. Ley de los consejos comunales. Caracas: Colleccion textos legislativos, 2006.

[26] Wilpert, Gregory. Changing Venezuela The History and Policies of the Chavez Government. New York: Verso, 2006.