Participation vs. Compulsion

VA columnist Jessica Dos Santos contrasts grassroots-led and top-down participatory processes in the context of the Bolivarian Revolution.

This past August, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) held a large-scale and highly publicized call to elect thousands of new delegates for its local structures at several levels.

Each local cell includes a so-called “community leader” (jefe de comunidad) who is in charge, among other things, of centralizing the distribution of the subsidized CLAP food bags and then coordinating their distribution to local communities with “street leaders” (jefe de calle).

For the community leader election, any person from that area was eligible to vote, regardless of whether they were registered with the PSUV or not. However, many of these electoral processes had two negative features: a lack of candidates and a lack of voters.

In my area, which is not a Chavista stronghold for sure, the street leader began the election day with some candid Whatsapp voice messages: “Dear countrymen and women, you are all invited to today’s process which will take place…”. A few hours later she spent more than half an hour shouting “come on out and vote, for crying out loud! You people don’t care about anything and then spend all your time complaining and criticizing everything!”.

No one was around her. Neither opponents nor people willing to endorse her reelection. I was watching everything from my window. “Why is there so much indifference?”, I wondered. Though honestly my question was one part doubt and one part scolding.

“Shit, Jessica, not even you are going to support that woman? Deep down you know that street leaders are mostly women in their 50s and 60s who work tirelessly, regardless of how authoritarian or grumpy they can be,” I told myself. It’s no exaggeration to say that social programs such as the CLAP have been life-saving for a lot of people in these times of crisis.

Still, the truth is that when these processes are tightly controlled from above they don’t generate much enthusiasm. It’s a numbers game at the end of the day, a tool used by the government to say “here we are, active and true to our principles, out on the streets promoting participation.”

In contrast, when the community takes the initiative to organize it’s completely different. Six years ago, when I moved to this neighborhood, the organizational drive was still raging. Grassroots Chavista movements were actively telling everyone about the importance of setting up food committees, registering for the Homeland Card (used to receive gov’t bonuses), registering their cars, debating solutions for fuel prices, etc.

At the time, most people seemed confident that problems could only be solved if communities got organized and that in turn would lead to a strong bond between the people and the government. But then, with time, many felt abandoned by the state, the merciless crisis throwing them into an “every man/woman for him/herself” jungle that had been staved off for so long. Enthusiasm and trust for one another made way for apathy and isolation.

This grassroots unity resurfaced in devastating times and, needless to say, without the need for tutelage. For example, community soups cooked on improvised wood stoves during the mass blackouts or the strategies that were employed to get around collectively when gasoline was in very, very short supply.

Sometime later, Covid-19 arrived along with the media forecast that it would wipe out a country in as dire a condition as Venezuela. But the pandemic was managed with solidarity from those who could not physically hug but were closer than ever. We fought the pandemic because the government and the ruling party structures worked hand-in-hand with communities. Solidarity was activated because we never really lost it. I received soups and special teas that neighbors placed on my doorstep and did likewise for them when the time came.

I always remember when a neighbor, well into his 70s, got Covid and because he was all alone, we all took turns to take care of him. We set up a rotation, apartment X would be responsible for his food on Monday, apartment Y on Tuesday, and so on. There was also a day when we decided to disinfect the building and surrounding areas with the magical sodium hypochlorite and peracetic acid solution. Quite a lot of work under merciless heat and with no beer on the horizon to redeem us!

Maybe the mechanisms used to set up grassroots structures should also be left to the people themselves. After all, communities have a lot more ingenuity and capacity for mobilization than the ads shown endlessly through official channels.

In fact, soon enough there will be a renovation of party structures at the parish, municipal and regional levels in the run-up to the 2024 presidential elections. We should praise the intention to renew the party leadership, but it can only work if the people can get, and feel, directly involved.

Throughout these 20+ years, I think there has been plenty of evidence that progress only happens when people get organized to drive it forward. After all, we are the ones who know all about our problems, possibilities, needs and desires. Power to the people!

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.