Creating the Council: conspiratorial beginnings

I live in an apartment with 3 other people on the 7th
floor of edificio Barbula in Residencia la Independencia. All 4 of us
are relatively new to the community but Luis, one of my flatmates,
shares my enthusiasm for the creation of a Community Council. Together
the two of us are setting out to re-activate the Independencia
Community Council.

Our first step was to
visit the building head who had mentioned in passing, during a heated
building assembly that we would be able to address some of problems,
such as the construction of a reserve water supply in case heavy rains
once again damage the one aqueduct bringing water to Merida, only by
means of a Community Council. We arranged a meeting for 4 days time
with him in his apartment to which we arrived early. After a 40 minute
wait he lumbers from his bedroom. We sit down opposite him and wait for
him to begin.

He is weary, but
excitement kindles in his eyes as he starts to recount his last
struggle to create a Community Council. Completely unbeknownst to us
one year ago the residents of la Independencia created a council,
electing every major organ and began the implementation of their first
community developmental project – the expansion of a small building
collectively owned by the community to create a space in which the
council could meet, and artesanal production begin.

With a conspiratorial
tone he told us how rapidly a conflict of personalities had developed
between the head of the financial organ and some of the voices as this
head tried to terminate the lease for the building held by a group of
dance teachers. He recounts this personal conflict in minute detail,
highlighting who we can expect as allies and who will obstruct any
attempt in the direction of a community council. His twenty minute
uninterrupted speech culminates when he leans forward, and in a hushed
tone says "and well of course I am with the process (the Bolivarian
movement in general), this is something I want to do". It has been over
9 months since the council completely ceased to function.

He suggests that the
first task is to go to Fundo Comun, which acts as the local
presidential commission for popular power in Merida. There we can find
out about the possibility of reactivating the old council, or perhaps
starting a new one with only the four most radical towers. This makes
me sceptical, the law explicitly states that in urban areas 200
families are needed, with only 28 families in each tower there is no
way that his proposal can work. However we agree to meet at Fundo
Comun, located in the opposite side of Merida the following day at 2:30.

Luis and I return to our
apartment discussing what we've just learned. The possibility of
reactivating the old council potentially saves a lot of work. The
formula laid down in the law for creating a council is as follows:

  • From the Provisional Promotion Team (PPT)[1]
  • Have the PPT carry out the demographic census of the community[2]
  • Convoke a Citizens Assembly with the participation of at least 10% of the population over the age of 15[3]
  • Elect the Promotion Commission and the Electoral Commission to promote and supervise the election of the organs of the council[4]
  • Convoke
    a Citizens Assembly with over 20% participation from the population
    over 15 to elect the organs of the council and pass the council's
    constitutive act[5]

As such the possibility
of re-activation could save us the most labour some task – completing
the demographic census. Yet I'm sceptical, the law lays down strict
time limits for the creation of each stage of the council so, if the
council wasn't completed then the entire effort may be invalid.

The history of a failed
Community Council has both a positive and a negative dimension to it.
Negatively speaking people will hold a justified scepticism regarding
the councils, having seen one already collapse to petty infighting
before the completion of a single developmental project. This will make
it hard to motivate the 20% turnout of people over 15 needed for the
elections to be legal. It also probably means that some people will be
personally opposed to the creation of the council, the building chief
admitted to us that people had declared la Independencia to be a middle
class neighbourhood, and hence not in need of a community council.

Positively speaking it
means a sufficient number of people were once interested, and
potentially could be again. I tell Luis that I think the key will be to
move quickly, this will prove the sincerity of the attempt at
reactivation, and perhaps allow us to move without giving sufficient
time to those who would obstruct the attempt to organise. For this
reason we are keeping the initiative close to our chests, as
recommended by the head of the building. The irony of starting
"participatory governance" in this way is not lost on me, it seems
strikingly Leninist.

It is hard to explain
the general feelings I've encountered towards the Community Councils
and how they differ among those who "support the process" and those who
don't. Those with the process seem normally moved by the ideology of
participation and protagonism, this is an important part of the process
and means a lot to many Venezuelans given the recent history of
exclusionary politics. However this does not mean many do not doubt the
practical viability of councils, one can only imagine how
disillusioning the failure in la Independencia can have been.

Supporters of the
opposition seem deeply divided over the issue of the Community
Councils. One group seems firmly opposed to them. This is due to
perhaps two reasons. The first is misinformation, a friend of mine
recently telling me that "they only let in Chavistas". This is a lie.
Community Councils exist in all types of Venezuelan neighbourhood, and
all the members of those neighbourhoods can go. This is not to say that
in some councils leftists are not dominant, but this micro level
reflection of political preferences does not formally ban entry, just
as the majority enjoyed by the US democrats in Congress does not bar
members of the Republican party from the House of Representatives or
the Senate. This is just majoritarianism, whether it is a good thing or

The second reason can
perhaps be seen as an ideological opposition. Participatory structures
are seen by some as contrary to representative institutions, certainly
a conflict does exist between councils and mayors in some cases, and
more generally contrary to the form of a modern, western state.

Yet despite these two
reasons a larger group of the opposition seem in favour of the
councils. Marlene Moreno, a voter in the 2008 regional elections told
me how she was voting for the opposition because "we are tired of this
absolutism, the domination of all by one". Yet she also told me she was
helping form a community council in her neighbourhood because "we want
to have a better one (system of government), overcome the system that
is always the same, the same, the same, that is repetitive, we only
want to do something new and something for the community". This
individual's opinion is commonly encountered here. Even the opposition
parties are increasingly moving to this opposition of the PSUV and
Chávez, and yet support for the community councils. This can be seen in
the comments of Henrique Capriles-Radonski, the opposition
governor-elect in Miranda state when he said, "Here we have new
authorities that are willing to work with our people with the goal of
improving peoples' lives".[6] It is important to note that the opposition's leaders too see the councils as important in the fight against rising crime.

La Independencia is on
Avenida Las Americas, one of the most firmly opposition held areas of
Merida. As such I can only hope that the majority of people belong to
the second group of the opposition and are willing to at least
experiment further with participatory local government.

[1] Article 15 num.1 of the 10th of April 2006 Law of the Community Councils

[2] Article 15 num.2 of the 10th of April 2006 Law of the Community Councils

[3] Article 15 num.3 Article 15 num.2 of the 10th of April 2006 Law of the Community Councils

[4] Articles 16-18 of the 10th of April 2006 Law of the Community Councils

[5] Article 19 of the 10th of April 2006 Law of the Community Councils