Under President Hugo Chávez, Venezuela has been no stranger to controversy. However, one of Chávez’s proposals has evoked particularly strong emotions – the establishment of socialist communes (comunas socialistas) throughout the country. The proposed commune law (ley orgánica de las comunas) would further expand and institutionalize Venezuela’s system of communal councils – local municipal governing bodies that are ruled by neighborhood leaders using state funds to finance social projects in their communities. The new law would merge the smaller bodies into larger councils called communes that would exercise jurisdiction throughout the area formerly covered by the councils (somewhat confusingly, both these councils and the areas over which they wield jurisdiction are referred to as communes). These new bodies would be given limited autonomy to establish new rules for their respective areas of authority. The law would also establish a series of municipal institutions, such as a communal parliament and a communal bank, which would pertain only to the communes and enhance public participation in the decision making process.
This proposal has been widely criticized by the Venezuelan opposition as a bid by Chávez to circumvent Venezuela’s existing democratic institutions and transform Venezuela into a de facto communist state. This fear has arisen because “according to the legislation, councils should now promote new forms of ‘social property, based on the potentialities of their community,’ through a tax-exempt ‘social, popular, and alternative economy,’”1which the opposition has chosen to interpret as a call for the establishment of de factocommunism within the communes.
Opponents also have argued that the mandatory funding by municipal governments of the communes could be used by the state to punish opposition municipal governments by “starving” them of resources, or that the jurisdiction of the new communal institutions would overlap with that of state institutions and override them. For example, in their June 2010 article “Venezuela’s Politics: Commune-ism,” The Economist makes the first argument, writing that Chávez “is now targeting state and municipal governments…. By forcing them to compete for resources with pliable ‘communes’, he may starve them to death.”2 On the other hand, in a July 2010 interview Gerardo Blyde, the Mayor of the Venezuelan municipality of Baruta, made the second argument, proposing that “The organized and elected citizens first in communal councils, and then in communal cities…would have to go to a Ministry of Central Power, that dictates the rules so that it can adjust the national development plan, approve or not approve projects with their own resources, and recognize or not recognize communes. It’s a formula for the centralization of power. The citizens will not be able to go to the mayors to solve their problems and, according to the law, will have to do it by means of the commune, central power.”3
These complaints may be, in fact, nothing more than conspiratorial fantasy. Much of the criticism has arisen from the overtly socialist language the Venezuelan government uses to rhetorically describe its project. Other claims simply lack supporting evidence, and criticism has rarely been grounded in the implications of the bill itself. Despite the fact that the law has yet to be written, opponents of Chávez have already declared it a devious attempt to transform Venezuela into a communist state. Thus, it seems likely that the real point of contention derives from the idea of communes, not necessarily the implications of the commune law itself. Moreover, communal municipal governance and participatory budgeting (which is the central task of the communes) have been practiced throughout Latin America for decades with, in some cases, high levels of success.
The History of Popular Devolution in Venezuela
After his election in 1998, one of Hugo Chávez’s first goals was to speed up devolution of state power, which had begun slowly during the 1980s. Specifically, Chávez sought to find ways to increase the power of popular organizations in Venezuela. His first three projects – Bolivarian Circles, Local Public Planning Councils, and Electoral Battle Units, were relatively modest in scope. The first two were neighborhood-level organizational committees, and the latter was a series of grass-roots political campaign bodies.
The first major step toward popular devolution came with the establishment of the communal councils. Approved by the National Assembly in April 2006, the ‘Organic Law of Communal Councils’ created local bodies that would eventually cover approximately 200-400 families each in urban areas and at least 20 in rural areas, with size depending on the distance between families.4 These councils receive government funds to sponsor social projects, such as constructing housing, parks, or sports facilities.5 Estimates as to the number of councils that exist today are controversial and vary widely. Figures for 2009 put the number between 12,000 and 30,000.6 The budget for the councils, as of 2007, was an astounding 5 billion USD as well as 50 percent of all Venezuelan petroleum revenue, with each council allotted between 14,000 – 28,000 USD per project.7
The next major development in the history of the communes were reforms of the communal councils that were included in a 2007 constitutional referendum. While the constitutional reforms were largely rejected, a package of communal council reforms was passed by the National Assembly in November 2009. The reforms were discussed in 2,500 local meetings held throughout Venezuela in which more than 60,000 representatives of the country’s communal councils participated. The principal goal of the 2009 reforms was to reduce corruption and expand democratization within the communal councils. The reforms further institutionalized and streamlined the process by which neighborhoods apply to establish councils, and by which councils make decisions and apply for grants. The latest reforms to the communal councils are yet to be finalized. A new Commune Law (ley de las comunas) is currently being written by the Citizen Participation Commission in the National Assembly.8
Criticism of the Communes
Criticism of the new commune proposal has generally focused on two assertions. First, that the law would impose “Soviet-style Communism”9 upon Venezuelans and, second, that Chávez is launching a coup d’état against Venezuela’s democratic institutions. Critics claim he is doing this through creating a parallel set of partisan institutions that would allow him to circumvent the country’s democratic process.10 Notably, The Economistmade the former claim by pontificating, “Mr. Chávez, an avowed socialist, is openly seeking to introduce what looks like a novel form of communism….Faced with declining popularity, Mr. Chávez is wasting little time in setting up new means to wield his authority.”11 However, existing evidence strongly contradicts all three assertions made in these statements. One can argue that the commune project is not intrinsically linked to ideologies of communism or socialism given that similar projects have been implemented by governments that do not endorse either. Similar initiatives have been experimented with, in various forms, in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador, Chile, and Mexico.12
One of the central reasons communes are facing such staunch opposition in Venezuela is that the legislation has been phrased in socialist language. However, while the word “commune” conjures images of the Soviet Union or Cuba, the councils are more similar to the participatory budget programs that are already in place throughout Latin America and other regions which are neither associated with communism nor autocracy. In a similar vein, Chavez’s language on “social property” has been a continuous part of his rhetoric throughout his incumbency. Identical concerns on the part of the opposition, as well as Washington, about the imposition of communism were raised in response to both the 2006 and 2009 communal council reforms.13 However, the Venezuelan government has explicitly guaranteed that private property will be protected by the communes, and one of the laws already passed as part of the commune project states that those living in the commune are free to “possess, use and enjoy individual and family property and patrimony.”14
Other concerns amount to little more than unproven conspiracy theories. There is, for example, insufficient evidence to support the conclusion that Chávez’s likely intention is to use communes to subvert democratic institutions. The Venezuelan government has explicitly denied that this is its intention.15 The government has also promised that the new law will mandate that communal budgets be approved by the National Assembly.16As yet, the opposition has offered no evidence to the contrary, only hollow rhetoric.
Porto Alegre, Brazil: Participatory Budgeting
The participatory institutions used in the large Southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre are one of the central models for Venezuela’s commune project. Established in 1989 with the election of the Worker’s Party (PT), over three-million Brazilians live within the area affected by the orçamento participativo (participatory budget) program. Much of the population is involved in the process, and the program remains very popular in Porto Alegre, allowing the PT to enjoy uninterrupted municipal rule.17
Brazil’s participatory budget system is almost completely autonomous from the municipal government. Citizens hold an independent election to choose local delegates who work with citizens, social organizations, and neighborhood groups to decide how the municipal funds should be allocated. These same groups are also involved in the implementation of the projects in which they choose to invest, ensuring popular participation throughout every stage of every project. As with the Venezuelan commune project, its Brazilian counterpart has expanded in scope over time. As both the government and the Porto Alegre population have become more confident with the viability of participatory institutions, they have granted them greater degrees of autonomy. They now have control over the rules by which the institutions are governed, the nature of their social policies, and city-wide projects (as opposed to the neighborhood-specific projects in which they were formerly engaged). Furthermore, the proportion of the budget accessible to the popular institutions has steadily risen over time.18
The Porto Alegre project has yielded numerous benefits. For example, the participatory institutions have created a number of benefits for the city’s municipal government. First, because citizens control how their tax money is being spent, they are far more willing to cooperate with the tax system. This has resulted in reduced levels of tax evasion and the willingness of large segments of the population to pay higher taxes. Moreover, the tangible accomplishments of the project have been astounding. Gianpaolo Baiocchi, who has written extensively about the Porto Alegre project, said:
Of the hundreds of projects approved, investment in the poorer residential districts of the city has exceeded investment in wealthier areas as a result of these public policies. Each year, the majority of the twenty to twenty-five kilometers of new pavement has gone to the city’s poorer peripheries. Today, 98 percent of all residences in the city have running water, up from 75 percent in 1988; sewage coverage has risen to 98 percent from 46 percent. In the years between 1992 and 1995, the housing department (DEMHAB) offered housing assistance to 28,862 families, against 1,714 for the comparable period of 1986–88; and the number of functioning public municipal schools today is 86 against 29 in 1988. Similarly, these investments have been redistributive; districts with higher levels of poverty have received significantly greater shares of investment.19
The potential gains from such participatory budgeting programs have also been documented by numerous other studies.20
There are a number of lessons that should be taken from the Porto Alegre project. First, a participatory budgeting process can be successful and popular even under conditions of extreme poverty and inequality. Second, these new institutions can govern massive populations. Third, and most importantly, communal governance is by no means necessarily a Trojan horse, used to secretly impose autocracy or communism on a country. It would be absurd to claim that Porto Alegre’s communes were a plot to bring about communism or autocracy, and there is no reason to insist that the Venezuela project, which closely mirrors the Porto Alegre project, is either.
Communes in Latin America: More Common Than You Might Think
For those who might not be convinced by the Porto Alegre example alone, it should be noted that while it is the most prominent case, it is by no means the sole example of communal governance in Latin America. As of 2000, there were 140 cities in Brazil alone experimenting with participatory budgets.21 As previously noted, there are 11 countries in Latin America that have experimented with some form of participatory budgeting. In fact, it has become so popular throughout Latin America (and the developing world in general) that an enormous body of literature now exists on the subject.22
Of course, none of this guarantees that Venezuela’s commune project will be successful. While many studies have shown that such a project can produce incredible gains, participatory budget programs are by no means always effective.23 If the opposition was centered on its utility, concerns over its democratic content would at least be debatable. Claims, however, that the project is a devious plot to undermine Venezuelan democracy seem intentionally designed to sway public opinion.
The use of such institutions is common throughout Latin America, and they are employed by countries with both leftist and rightist political systems. Though many communist regimes have made use of communes, those envisaged by Venezuela have nothing to do with the communes that were employed in communist countries. Rather, they look almost identical to the projects used throughout Latin America.
Ultimately, the debate over Venezuela’s communes demonstrates perfectly the opposition’s central flaw. They are not debating the issues relevant to the life of ordinary Venezuelans, or analyzing the merits of Chávez’s proposal. Instead, they paint all his proposals and ideas as a plot to turn Venezuela into the next Cuba. Regardless of how one feels about Chávez, this is a regrettable practice that undermines Venezuelan democratic institutions and deprives the Venezuelan people of a meaningful debate about the issues facing them today.