Slow Progress

By George Gabriel
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A week and a half has
now passed since my visit to Fundo Comun and things have moved
frustratingly slowly. To revoke the mandates of all those currently
holding elected positions in the council and start again cleanly we
need to call a Citizen's Assembly, yet for this assembly to be legally
binding more than 20% of the population over 15 to attend. This means
that our immediate priority upon returning to the community was to find
and update the demographic census of our community, only with this done
can we know what number constitutes 20%.

While working as an
election monitor I did a number of interviews with voters and members
of the National Electoral Council. Quite by chance a man overheard me
talking about the council project in La Independencia and told me that
he had been a voice in the old one, and that he had the demographic
census. Great news! So upon returning to the community Luis and I went
straight to visit him, our enthusiasm still fresh. He was not in. Two
more visits, two more knocks on the door, two more disappointed

On the fourth visit, the
neighbours' curiosity could wait no longer. They've watched us come and
go, come and go with an intense interest that they've worked hard but
fruitlessly not to betray. My gut does not like the neighbours but Luis
seems oblivious to its preference and starts talking with them anyway.

"What are you doing here?"

"We're trying to re-activate the Community Council."

"Are you Chavistas?"

"...I am....with the process."

With that they abruptly
say goodnight. Three nights later we are back knocking on the door, and
back to the now familiar disappointed silence. The neighbour's door
opens, we are invited in. The father is incredibly drunk, the daughter
isn't. They talk loudly, though we are already listening.
Conversational dynamics are tacitly laid down. The father says that the
man we are trying to see is beyond Chavista, a class of leftist fanatic
all unto himself. In this simple statement, and the feigned knowing
acceptance on Luis's face we have been defined, we are "good
Chavistas", mistaken rather than evil. This suits me fine for the
moment, we just want a council.

The daughter introduces
herself to us as the head of the financial organ of the council. This
is interesting. Every leftist with whom we have spoken has talked
bitterly of this young woman as a fierce member of the opposition and
to blame for the failures of the council. Apparently the conflict
started from two points. The first was when the PSUV members tried to
use the council to stop the distribution of opposition political
materials in the community. The second was when the creation of a
MERCAL in the community was proposed.

MERCAL is a government
mission which sells food with discounts of about 35%, it is chiefly
aimed at ensuring nutrition for poor though it remains open to all. It
currently provides food to about a quarter of the population,
independent of its sister mission PDVAL[1]. This mission has been heavily, and often fairly criticised for corruption[2].
It has also been attacked for inducing food shortages, artificially
lowered prices causing demand to outstrip supply. Yet most common in
international journalistic and academic circles is the charge that it
serves as an instance of transparent vote buying[3].
In my mind this last criticism simply misses the point because it
overlooks questions of intent. Bolivarianism declares (and I believe
rightly so) that food provision is a social concern and hence implies
the provision of food to the poor at prices they can afford, whether
this "buys" their support or not. When understood thus, to call MERCAL
vote buying is to level the same charge at the NHS in the UK. The NHS
provides free medical care from state revenues because of a moral
concern for the health of all, is it not misleading to say this "buys"
the support of the poor? We can perhaps say that this is its de facto
effect, but I believe this demeans and degrades the relationship
between all citizenries and their representatives to one of patrons and
clients rather than exposing it to be such a relation. Regardless, the
opposition needs to decide whether it is against the ethical
proposition of MERCAL, if not then MERCAL wouldn't even "de facto act
as a mode of vote buying" because its continuation (or replacement with
alternative institutions such as conditional cash transfer schemes[4]) wouldn't be contingent on PSUV rule.

Anyway, in La
Independencia the opposition members of the council declared it to be
middle class neighbourhood and hence not in need of a MERCAL. At this
point the conflict apparently turned personal, as individuals were
singled out and attacked for their political affiliations. One woman
told me how members of the opposition had gathered outside her
apartment banging pots in a common form of Venezuelan protest known as
cacerolazo and shouting anti socialist slogans. It is important to
realise just how intimidating this is outside one's home.

Yet the story we get
from these two people from the opposition is completely different. They
claim that the real conflict in the council revolved around the issue
of tenancy. Those who owned their apartments disputed the rights of
those who rent to participate in the council, claiming they have a
smaller stake in the community. I am sure there is some truth to this.
It must be hard for owners to accept the vote of someone renting for a
year as of equal worth to their own when their financial position is
incredibly intertwined with the value of their property, something
affected by community development projects.

We leave the apartment
better informed, and, now, with contacts in both camps. The next night,
much to my surprise my knocks are answered. The man, A, starts off by
giving me his full account of the old council in an educational tone, I
let him continue though I already know the details he gives me. He
takes me on a tour of leftists in the community introducing me as a
revolutionary, this gains me almost instant acceptance despite bad
Spanish and far from Venezuelan looks. This is the first time I have
been called a revolutionary by another person in earnest. Though this
is interesting to my great irritation he doesn't have the census. I
have spent a week and a half trying to contact this man because he told
me he had the census.

The night is however far
from wasted. One woman to whom he introduces me has a summary of each
building's census data. This is fantastic! I don't think we need the
full census, we can just adapt the summaries and register new families,
waiting for the council in order to carry out the census properly. We
should be able to work out the numbers we need for a legal assembly.

Luis sends me a text asking how the meeting went, I reply, "little by little progress comes".