Creation? No, Re-activation
My neck aches as I
stand, stooped under the sagging roof of the packed bus to Fundo Comun,
the local branch of the Local Presidential Commission for Popular
Power. It is two days after the head of our building, J, told us of the
old Community Council in La Independencia and we need to find out what
currently exists in the community to discover what work remains to be
done. It is three o'clock, Tuesday.
As we arrive we receive
a call, J is not coming as he had promised, problems at work. I have no
doubt J is sincere in his wish to help; he inclines towards us
unmistakeably when he speaks of revolution, justice and peace, but this
is the fourth time he has let us down.
employees look up but carry on talking all the louder as we enter the
office with the deliberate manner of people both caught in the act, and
yet challenging one to say so. One woman takes us to the side, asking
us what we want. I explain that we're trying to create a La
Independencia Community Council and so need to know the situation of
the old one. She hasn't heard of our neighbourhood. After a laboured
search she appears holding a huge folder, proof that she has been busy.
Her job, with her three partners, is to help proliferate Community
Councils in Merida, a small city of about 300,000 people. 4 salaries
for one folder, and little knowledge of the situation in Merida – she
tells me there are about 7500 councils in Merida, patently false when
we consider that optimistic estimates place the number in the entire
country at 30,000. I am annoyed.
She opens the folder and
much to the surprise of us all there is a La Independencia Community
Council fully registered as an active and working council. We see a
development plan, specific project proposals, voting records,
appointments, positions and all the signs of an apparently healthy
council. This said, the La Independencia council has now gone 9 months
without a meeting.
This kind of gap between
form and reality is by no means new to Latin Americans, almost every
country in the continent had a full bill of rights by 1900 while every
kind of injustice and violation continued. It is however the first time
I have encountered it directly, and it is important in the Venezuelan
context. A common complaint against the rising numbers of cooperatives
for example is that a large proportion are "ghosts", taking advantage
of easy credit and preferential tax arrangements while failing to
really change labour relations.
folder then tells us the only step missing in our Council is the
creation of a communal bank. The "epic clash" as our old bank was
called didn't complete its registration in the legally required 90 days.
Despite my frustration
this is all good news. It means the bulk of the most labour intensive
work – the demographic census – has been done, we need only update it.
We ask the official what steps we need to take to reactivate the
council. First, she says, we should call a citizens' assembly and pass
a motion to revoke the mandates of every position in the council. I
just want to point out how incredibly democratic the possibility of
this is; it means representatives retain a constant level of
accountability before their constituents as there is, always, the
possibility of having their mandate revoked directly by their
But I am still annoyed.
The census is out of date, so we can't know how many people constitute
the legally required 20% for an assembly. I say this three times before
Luis takes over, I'm not sure whether this is because my temper is
rising or because my Spanish is letting me down. The official finally
agrees. We need to update the census first and so this becomes our
immediate priority, but now at least we have a definite target. We need
to find the old census, update it, and then the rest (at least in my
head) is easy.
My frustrations with the
visit to Fundo Comun have surprisingly increased my enthusiasm for
community councils, why? The creation of participatory structures in
Venezuela is actually a part of an attempt to recreate the state,
replacing the sometimes bloated and corrupt public bureaucracies with
citizen participation, handing over resources and power to
participatory institutions. We have learnt a lot and are considerably
closer to having a Community Council in La Independencia, we now know
it to be a question of reactivation rather than creation from scratch.