The ambiguous revolution: a communal council assembly that was both inspiring and problematic.

Some people try to classify this process here. It’s a useful exercise in terms of analysing what is going on, where it is going and which forces, classes and social groups really have the power and for whom this revolution is serving. Yet statements like ‘it’s a working class revolution’ or the Chavez government is totally ‘bourgeois’ or  ‘the PSUV is good’  or ‘bad’ do not work, because what is going on here is far more complex. It’s an un-won battle between a range of forces, many of which are confused and obscured by red t-shirts or sloganeering for one side or the other.

The assembly we held yesterday in our community, in order to try to legally adapt our communal council to the reformed law, the sort of assembly that in various shapes and forms would have happened or be happening soon in around 30,000 different communities in Venezuela, illustrated for me this complex dynamic of a spectrum of revolutionaries, left wing “soft” revolutionaries, bureaucrats, and other forces all involved in the change process here.

Yesterday was a full on day that began with a hangover, continued at 12 with setting up the sound system, chairs, tent etc for our community cultural event marking Bolivar’s birthday, continued with our assembly, and finished with me having a terrible migraine, but feeling extremely hopeful, inspired, but frankly, mighty pissed off with the Fundacomunal promoter who is meant to help us adapt the communal council to the reformed law and who came to the assembly to assess it.

Two weeks before, this promoter had come to a meeting of the communal council to explain the process of adaptation. This was after a month or so of trying to get a promoter to come to our meeting, but the man who corresponded to our area never answered his phone, or was busy, and then finally came out to visit us, but gave us one days notice, got to the meeting half an hour early, and when no one was there yet, decided that was excuse enough to leave. Then he went on holidays.

We decided to go through the process ourselves, to read the law ourselves, do the research, and just begin the adaptation, as the deadline was very soon. Also, the process of adapting to the law, according to the government’s own propaganda, was “13 steps” and involved organising around 4 community assemblies, a completely new census of the whole community, re-submitting and re-writing lots of documents, and so on.

We got started, we elected our initial promoter team. With the help of nursing students, we completed the census. Then we contacted Fundacomunal with some questions and it turned out a new promoter had been assigned to our area, and we invited her to a meeting.

I should explain that Fundacomunal (Foundation for the Development of Popular Power) is the government institution that approves communal council projects and funding, organises workshops, and registers adapted and new communal councils.

Anyway, she came to our meeting and basically suggested that we do a bunch of steps in one assembly, in order to save time and effort. I was impressed; here was a bureaucrat who was actually helping us avoid time consuming bureaucracy, who seemed down to earth and helpful. She also told us we only needed 10% of the community’s population at the second call for assembly, to approve everything. I pointed out to her that according to the law, we need 20% but she said not to worry, she understood how hard it is to get everyone together at a certain time and that Fundacomunal would be happy with 10%.

Hurray! I thought. Given that everyone is so busy- working, studying, looking after sick family members, and very commonly all three, not to mention that the community where I live voted majority opposition last time and has much less tradition of organising compared to the rural communities and some of the others around here, trying to get 20% of all adult members to a meeting at a certain time is not easy.

I live in Belen, a generally lower middle class, working community near the centre of Merida in the Andes. The specific area that forms our communal council is four small blocks by four blocks, with a total of around 500 adults. One street, closer to the centre, is frankly quite upper class- with large houses with courtyards in the middle and people who have often lived there for like, 90 years or less (I visited them when we were doing the census). On the other side, is the “slope” with much poorer houses- almost ranchos, in precarious conditions and often with many families living in one small house. There are also quite a few posadas (hostels) and shops in our community, and as I said, the majority voted opposition. So we include quite a variety of conditions, though most of the people active in the council are teachers, some mission sucre students, and a few informal or small business owners.

We went all out to build the assembly. About 14 of us- many newer members, united (following an period of internal differences within the communal council) and met and organised to leaflet every single house or flat in the community, put up posters, perifoneamos (go around in a car and using a loud speaker, promote the assembly), spoke on community radio, made a HUGE poster (about 1.5m x 1.5m) that we stuck on the community noticeboard, and we also organised the cultural event just before the assembly, where we would also promote it. All of this we did in our own time, with our own money.

So when we got 55 people at the meeting, I was ecstatic. People filed in and signed the attendance, then sat and waited. L, a young vibrant women who beyond the communal council is involved in a range of other cultural, community, and movement projects, kicked off the meeting- motivating the communal councils, community participation and solving of its own problems, and suggested an agenda: Election of the permanent electoral commission, of the substitute spokespeople (both new things under the reformed law and therefore necessary to elect in order to be adapted to the law), Security project, and an “other” item where anyone could raise any points they wanted.

Then the promoter got up to explain the process. And suddenly she said that we needed 20% and that we didn’t have enough people at the assembly and wouldn’t be able to elect anyone. It was a really strange change of face. I went around to the council members and pointed out that while you need 20% to elect the substitutes and approve projects, you only need 10% to elect the permanent electoral commission. Therefore, at the very least, we could do that. One council member got up and pointed this out. The promoter then did the strangest thing, and said that despite the law saying that, Fundacomunal required 20%.

This caused outrage at the meeting! A number of people got up and pointed out that the law is the ultimate decider, that Fundacomunal has no right… etc. What really impressed me at this point was the political articulation of everyone who spoke, and secondly the fact that no one had any problems with arguing with this government representative. Those who didn’t speak, applauded those who did. People passionately defended their constitution, their laws, their rights, and the need to get this adaption process over with so that we can continue working for the community.

The promoter resorted to comments about “oh but it’s my job” and “but the director of Fundacomunal said…” and people argued, “Well if the director is going against the law, you should speak out about it, why should we just accept…” etc. Then she did something very sneaky, and changed the topic. She said it was important that all members elected, be “with the process”, that is, members of the PSUV.

It is well known that Fundacomunal prioritises resource approval to those councils whose members are registered in the PSUV. As it happens, all our active council members are supporters of the process, though a few, because of the countless problems and clientalism of the PSUV, are not registered. The promoter’s ploy worked, as attendees at the meeting indignantly defended their right to political choice, to not be obligated to join a party, pointing out that being active in your community and promoting organisation is more meaningful than putting on a red shirt or registering in the PSUV- which any opposition member can easily do.

While it makes sense to me that resources go to those communities who most need them, and not so much to the organised opposition communities (opposition meaning rich capitalists as opposed to poorer people who fall for the constant opposition propaganda, or, who due to decades of bullshit party politics are just generally against parties but who support community organisation), I do not think that telling people they must be in the PSUV in order for their council to receive resources, is the way to politically convince people of socialism.

We ended up noting down names for the various positions and selecting a new date for an assembly, hoping to get the 20% this time and be able to vote on the nominations.

Towards the end of the meeting, I had to leave. My migraine was terrible. I went back to the plaza where the cultural event was, to give people a key so they could pack up the chairs and store them. As I waited, the promoter came out and passed G,  who was there packing up the sound system and had not been at the assembly.

“They’re all esqualidos in this community,” she muttered to him. That is, we are all opposition because we dared to argue with her. Outrageous. And not true- most of the people in that meeting, were PSUV members, there were many activists and long time revolutionaries there, and those who may not identify as PSUV, were at least left wing.

Despite the manipulation of the promoter, I was still extremely happy about how it all went. The whole process of adaptation has involved a whole new layer of people in the communal council, and it is clear the council is stronger than it was two years ago when it first formed. It is also clear how much its members have grown as organisers in that time. 

Secondly, the cultural event that we organised before the assembly, was also really well done. The “reading squadron” or cultural committee with members from our council and a neighbouring one, has organised three such events so far. The first one was a bit of a disaster, with bad organisation and small attendance. The one yesterday was brilliant- about a hundred people attended, despite the fact that the start was delayed by 1.5 hours due to heavy rain. The Cubans brought chess and people from the community who didn’t know each other played it in the plaza. We stuck up a long huge piece of paper, where the kids could go up and draw- and two artists from the community helped out with that.

L, who later chaired the council assembly meeting, danced brilliantly, and another local dance group also performed. What’s more- it was all very well organised, with more people helping out this time than last. It moved me because it showed that in just 6 months we had really improved. If we can do that in 6 months, as well as the growth of the communal council in 2 years- we can imagine where we’ll be in two more years…

…Turning a very apathetic, unpolitical, alienated community, into an organised, conscious, dedicated community. One of 30,000 others doing something similar, and doing it despite the bureaucratic obstacles, the lack of resources, the internal fighting, the incessent RAIN, the power outs, the riots, the opposition attacks.

[For photos of the day, see]