The Legal and Practical Basis of Citizen Power in Venezuela

The legal and practical basis for Venezuela's participatory democracy project has its roots in the effort to overcome the country's past experiences with social exclusion. It provides ordinary citizens an opportunity to shape the life of their country and their community.

For part 1 of Participatory Democracy in Venezuela, go to: Citizen Power and Venezuela’s Local Public Planning Councils

The tragedy of modern democracies is that they have not been able themselves to become truly democratic.” Jacques Maritain

Since the 1980s, Third World countries with large foreign debts have been obligated to implement IMF[1] dictated ‘structural adjustment policies’ or risk loosing foreign investment or loans.  Yet this seemingly benign term, so often presented as the only solution to chipping away at their massive financial burdens, carries many profound consequences beneath the surface.  Essentially, it requires countries to divert resources from education, healthcare, and social program to paying off the interest on their loans. 

When these structural adjustment policies came to Venezuela in 1989, during the second Presidential term of Carlos Andrés Pérez,[2] the country was sustaining an external debt of close to $24 million in spite of an estimated $300 billion in oil profits generated during Venezuela’s 41 year democracy. This figure illuminates the degree of corruption and well as the amount of severely misguided development projects during Venezuela’s “pacted” democracy.[3]

Complying with the economic austerity regulations, Pérez abruptly reduced subsidies on gasoline prices which indirectly doubled the price of transportation prices as well as increased prices on basic commodities.  Saddled with these additional financial burdens, hundreds of thousand of people took to the streets the same day, February 27, 1989, protesting and looting in what came to be known as the Caracazo.  The government responded by sending troops into the streets to fire on demonstrators and looters.  In the following days, they even began shooting people in the barrios at random, largely in an effort to intimidate people from engaging in any more protests. In Dismembering and Remembering the Nation. The Semantics of Political Violence in Venezuela, Fernando Coronil and Julie Skurski note that “No comparative social upheaval, in terms of the extent of the looting or the ferocity of repression, had taken place in contemporary Latin America, in response to an economic austerity plan.” Unofficial estimates of the death toll in the repression of Venezuela’s most violent protest to date calculated the loss of life to be well over a thousand. Through the Caracazo, Venezuelans spoke out against their fixed democracy, their deeply rooted structural forms of inequality and injustice, and their unaccountable elected officials’ high levels of corruption and bureaucracy, thereby opening the door to the election of Hugo Chávez.

In response to their demands, Hugo Chávez—who has been variously branded the rebel,[4] the problem,[5] and the dictator[6] by his domestic opponents and their supporters in the US—has undeniably unleashed the catalyst which has thrust Venezuela into the midst of the greatest social, cultural and political revolution ever experienced within its society.  As the British political analyst John Pilger notes, “Following the principles of a movement called Bolivarism…Chávez has implemented reforms that have begun to shift the great wealth of Venezuela, principally from its oil, towards the 80 per cent of his people who live in poverty.” While many consider poverty in Latin America as an entrenched, untouchable reality, Chávez speaks of impoverishment as a deliberate consequence of unjust power relations and works to redistribute this power in the hands of the people. 

Within the first year of his presidency, a new Constitution was drawn up by a Constituent Assembly and approved by over 70% of the population. Through the implementation of new laws and programs, such as the recall referendum and the missions, Chávez has reinvigorated the previously discredited electoral process. His administration also launched a series of social reforms aimed at generating grassroots participation.

Perhaps the most progressive and certainly one of the most ambitious of these goals is the creation of a new political culture based on the implementation of participatory democracy.  Indeed the political culture of Venezuela, of Latin America as a whole in fact, is arguably dysfunctional. In Howard J. Wiarda’s The Soul of Latin America: the Culture and Political Tradition, he describes democracy in Latin America as top-down, organic, elitist, centralized, racist, hierarchical, statist, nonparticipatory, patrimonial, exploitative, and executive-centered.

Lorenza Rodríguez, President of the Caracas district (parroquia[7]) of Sucre describes her country’s experience with ‘democracy’ on a more personal level, “the democracy we had for 40 years before Chávez came to power was not a democracy, it was a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. It was called a democracy due to the fact that people could vote for one of two parties…this does not mean that people were not persecuted and killed and that their rights were not trampled upon.  The people who had ideas that differed to those of the ruling parties: AD and COPEI, if they aligned with a party such as MAS, La Causa R, or Pro-Catia; these people were considered Communists and were persecuted.” 

“¡Tomen el poder y accionen!” (Take power and act!) – Hugo Chávez.

The Fifth Republic of Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolutionary process have set out to transform this “dictatorship disguised as a democracy” by addressing social exclusions, decentralizing government, and strengthening democracy by redistributing power and directly involving the people in the political arena.

The new Venezuelan Constitution (1999) considers the Law of Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs) as the fundamental tool to achieve this new participatory democracy.  This law not only provides ample opportunities for the incorporation of the people in the political process, it also deepens the transformation and consolidation of the new Venezuelan State.[8]

Since Chavez was first elected as president, support for him has been affirmed and reaffirmed by eight electoral victories, including the pivotal Recall Referendum,[9] in which people stood in line for up to 14 hours in some cases, to endorse their President and their Revolution. “As a Venezuelan who supports this process, this is the true democracy,” says Arelis González in the office of CLPPs in the District of Sucre, “We know that we are not going to achieve it in one or two days.  We spent 40 years in an undemocratic system.  This has to be a process, a long term process”.

Law of the Local Public Planning Councils

The Law of the Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs) is based not only in the Article 182 of the Constitution that established their existence,[10] but also on the Law of Public Power (2001), the Plan of Economic and Social Development of the Nation 2001-2007 (2001), and the Law of the Local Public Planning Councils (2002).  The Mission of the Local Public Planning Councils states “It is an intergovernmental organization which aims to support administratively, technically and financially the process of decentralization through an adequate allocation of resources derived from sales tax and other sources, under criteria of efficiency and equality, addressing the requirements of investment concerning social benefits in the states, in municipalities with the end goal of contributing to the wellbeing of the community.” 

By collectively defining a community budget, the CLPPs have the potential to hold elected officials to a higher lever of accountability, to increase transparency, and to provide the basis for social transformation at a local level.  This process also helps to discourage corruption, a major problem in Venezuelan society by allotting the people the power to supervise the realization of public works. 

Article 4 of the Law of the CLPPs states that they are deliberative bodies composed of 73 members.  There are 36 institutional members, or members who are directly elected: the mayor, 13 legislators of the city council, and 22 presidents of the district councils.  When these representatives are elected to their respective public offices, they are also being elected as members of the Council.  Although the mayor is given responsibility to preside over the Council, he does not make the decisions in the Council; he is only one member.

In addition to these 36 institutional members, there are 37 non-institutional members who are directly elected in each community.  For example, in the case of the Caracas district of Libertador, there are 22 representatives in the Council who are elected, one for each district. Additionally, there are 15 members who are elected as representatives of the different concerns in civil society: healthcare, education, sports, culture, ecology, security, formal and informal businesses, women, transportation, land committees, the elderly, and people with disabilities, etc. These sectors can vary with different districts.   Although institutional members are elected by secret ballots, non-institutional members are elected in community assemblies.[11]

It is crucial to point out that although the idea behind the CLPPs is to balance the opinions of local constituents, channel their frustrations and discontent into action, and implement these suggestions into solutions, the citizens have obligations as well.[12] In order to ensure that each district fulfills these requirements, that they continue discussing information, organizing, and prioritizing their necessities, the Councils must hold a monthly meeting, provide reports to the mayor, and submit their suggestions for the budget, among other things.

“Individualism has ended here…here all of us are a community.” María Fernanda Pirona

On Sunday, November 22, 2004 an encounter of the CLPPs of the district of Sucre[13] took place in a small school called Mariano Picón Salas in Propatria. The meeting, led by the President of the Junta Parroquial, (District Committee), Lorenza Rodríguez, integrated the different barrios of Sucre.

In an interview prior to the meeting, Lorenza Rodriguez explained that, “Article 1 of the CLPPs guarantees the execution of the constitution in the community, thereby establishing participatory democracy as a social project. The CLPP is going to be the primary decision making organization in each community.  When an assembly is called, it is called in order to make decisions. After forming the committees, the people dedicate themselves to establishing their laws.  We are working towards establishing an assembly in each neighborhood, in each sector, so that they can make decisions about the things that affect them.” 

The agenda for the day-long reunion included determining the problems facing the district, ranking their priorities for the upcoming year, integrating the ideas of the different barrios, and taking the next step towards better organizing the community.

“We finally have the right to participate.”   Evelyn Cruz Moutero Molinet

The members of the community were divided into eight discussion groups according to barrios. Discussion group eight consisted of two barrios: Boqueron and Niño Jesús.  It was led by spokeswoman Mirna Landeta, who organizes and coordinates the CLPPs on a local level throughout the municipality of Libertador.  She commented, “Here we continue fighting as we are achieving our goals.  Our job is to educate the people, to make them aware of this process, to speak to the people, to take them information, to get the people together.  We are organizing the Assembly of citizens so that the people continue to organize, so that they participate, so that they discuss their budgets so that they feel that this is their process.  When they build a road, construct a stairway or a school, they will feel that these things are theirs and that they have to take care of them. This is what we are doing.”

“We have a lot of work to do; we have to recuperate 500 or so year of oppression.” Andrés Eloy León. 

Desks were arranged in a circle and community members individually reflected and filled out a work sheet entitled “identification of problems”.  This worksheet was arranged in three sections: problems, causes and solutions.  Each participant had to give three examples in each category.  Natural leaders rapidly emerged. Evelyn Cruz Moutero Molinet identified crime, mudslides,[14] and trash disposal as problems. She then proceeded to participate actively in the discussion by explaining, in the case of crime, that the causes were a lack of lighting in the streets, insufficient police patrols and a lack of recreational facilities in the community, leaving young people little in the form of activities other than drugs. 

Other problems expressed included: lack of potable water, street deterioration, the necessity for an adequate trash pickup, abandoned children, lack of sewage systems, inadequate police forces, lack of medical facilities, and the need for the creation of adequate culture and recreational facilities. After everyone’s concerns were addressed, their problems were prioritized through a vote and documented in a form entitled “Document for the constitution of the community team,”[15] which would later be turned over to the mayor.

“Here we continue to struggle to the extent that we succeed” Dórida Carrillo

Although very few voices criticized the process of the CLPPs, it was recognized by one attendee, Wildredo Valenzuela, that “[t]he budget the parroquia gives us is not enough at all…this is one of the struggles that we must face.” At this point, the discussion focused on what citizens can do without money from the authorities. Yolando Regnel brought up the point that litter in the streets has been significantly reduced in Maracaibo because citizens have approved a law that dictates that people are arrested for this violation. 

“The participation of the people is the only thing that would make the Councils work better. Without the participation of the people, there are no Councils.” María Fernanda Pirona

After breaking for lunch, the eight groups met in the patio of the school where one person from each group presented their conclusions.  The forum later turned to formulate the next step of action.  It was acknowledged that in addition to rights, the community also had responsibilities.  For Felipe Vazquez, the fact that the CLPPs have the right to hold their elected officials accountable throughout their tenure in office is also an obligation to get involved in the governing process.  “We know what our problems are, what their causes are; the problem is to organize ourselves, to educate ourselves, to involve ourselves…to form a plan of action….the excuses – I have to go to the doctor, I have to clean my house, I don’t feel well – these self-exemptions from participating are what do us in.”

The general conclusion reached was the need to bolster participation. Participants took responsibility to get involved in the discussion of public works, in the supervision of the projects and in the distribution of information to different sectors within the district.  It was agreed upon to meet Sundays and to come with written ideas. 

The reallocation of wealth and the redistribution of power effectively implies the reorganization of society.  Despite the abundance of enthusiasm on the part of the participatants, it must be noted that Venezuela´s version of participatory democracy remains fragile.  Richard Smith, author of The Great Leap Forward, questions whether participatory democracy is feasible: ¨The Fifth Republic is trying to walk a fine line between empowering the people and addressing democratic deficits while continuing to cater to a parallel society which endorses in its totality, the capitalist model.” Whether or not participatory democracy can overcome this challenge and reshape the political culture of Venzuela remains to be seen.  

Participatory Democracy in Venezuela, part 3:
Problems and Opportunities for Citizen Power in Venezuela

[1] Considering that a vote of 15% is necessary to veto legislation within the IMF and the US controls 17% of the IMF, this institution is basically controlled by the US. 

[2] The first presidential term of Carlos Andrés Pérez was 1974-1979  The second term 1988-1993.  He was impeached in his second term by Congress on charges of corruption.

[3] A term coined by Terry Lynn Karl in The Paradox of Plenty (1997), which describes a limited democracy based on a pact between a country’s elites to exclude certain sectors of society, such as leftist parties and the poor.

[4] Washington Post. November, 2004.

[5] Condoleezza Rica. 

[6] The Economist.

[7] Parroquia literally translates as ‘parish,’ but is essentially a city’s subdivision.

[8] See Participatory Democracy in Venezuela, part 1: Citizen Power and Venezuela’s Local Public Planning Councils. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1314

[9] Chávez received 59% of the vote on August 15, 2004.

[10]Article 182 of the Constitution established the Law of Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs) and required that the 335 municipalities implemented them before the 12th of October, 2002. 

[11] This is stipulated in Article 62 of the Constitution and is in accordance with Article 4 of the Law of the CLPPs.  These elections are carried out in a democratic format as defined by Article 18 of the Law of the CLPPs: “Decisions are to be made by an absolute majority.”

[12] These responsibilities are outlined in Articles 178 and 184 of the Constitution as well as Article 6 of the Law of the CLPPs. 

[13] In the Municipality of Libertador.

[14] Caracas is located in a valley. However, in the last 30 years rapid migration from the interior regions caused barrios or squatter settlements to be formed on the hills surrounding the ‘down-town’ area. These shacks are poorly constructed and are often located on slippery and dangerous terrain. .  In 1999 unseasonal torrential rains caused severe mudslides in these communities resulting in thousands of deaths.

[15] Acta de Constitución del Equipo Comunitario.