The Quiet Revolution

Darren Hill mail at
Wed Aug 11 07:09:10 BST 2010

>   The Quiet Revolution, Venezuelans experiment with participatory
>   democracy

>   By Andrew Kennis August 6, 2010
> Submitted by admin on Sat, 08/07/2010 - 07:22
> Readers, this article is in the category of building the commons, the 
> novel idea that the process of governance as a commons should be 
> controlled by communities of natural persons, if not also including 
> the sustainability of the local environment. While electoral politics 
> are to a degree an advancement over monarchies, electoral democracy is 
> a weak form of democracy, particularly when and where corporations are 
> allowed to have free speech in the form of corporate campaign 
> contributions. This variety of free speech is in effect metered 
> according to the amount of influence by way of relative wealth. What 
> Kennis misses is a piece of political history, that until the local 
> community councils were established there was a class of petty 
> bureaucrats which tended to block progressive reforms and who tended 
> to be loyal to reactionary political factions. There was only so much 
> that Chavez could do from the top. A parallel process happened in 
> Bolshevik Russia where the the Bolsheviks adopted the vast and 
> established czarist bureaucracy in order to operate the processes of 
> governance. In effect they created a somewhat progressive political 
> process and then turned over the process to a class of petty czarist 
> bureaucrats. Not a good concept, relative to reforming a political and 
> economic culture. Tadit Anderson
> Selling goods to passersby on the street, Jenny Caraballo describes 
> her local communal council. "Some of our members are homemakers who 
> want their community to be pretty," Caraballo says while trying to 
> make eye contact with potential clients in 23 de Enero, a barrio 
> popular that is one of many rough areas in Caracas,
> Venezuela.
> The balmy weather southwest of Caracas, in the state of Táchira, does 
> not stop Pedro Hernandez, 77, from playing chess with his retired 
> friends in San Cristbal's city square. "Before, the government didn't 
> help the people," he says. "Now they give us benefits. "Now there is 
> culture, dance and programs free to the public and organized by our 
> communal council." Hernandez does his part by organizing chess 
> tournaments.
> And in the picturesque mountain town of Merida, Alidio Sosa says: "The 
> councils are a symbol of how the old parties are dead and won't ever 
> come back-the parties
> of the past never concerned themselves with the community."
> Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's megalomaniac president who has spearheaded 
> the country's Bolivarian revolution and garnered so much attention, is 
> not the only one shaking
> up the country's political system. A community-based revolution is 
> underway in Venezuela. Ordinary people all over are changing how their 
> communities are governed.
> In the past four years, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have been 
> organizing tens of thousands of consejos comunales (communal 
> councils). Each council is composed of about 150 families in urban 
> areas, while in rural and indigenous areas, each council is composed 
> of 20 and 10 families, respectively. The councils are involved in 
> everything from road building and maintenance to cultural activities 
> and events, housing improvements, and providing basic services like 
> water and electricity-all while struggling for the official government 
> recognition that provides the opportunity to get funding for their 
> community projects.
> Communal councils were modeled after participatory democracy in 
> Kerala, India, and community budgeting practices pioneered in Porto 
> Alegre, Brazil. In Kerala, citizens play an important role in 
> conceiving and implementing development projects at the local level. 
> Since 1989, Porto Alegre has successfully run a system of 
> decentralized planning whereby citizens determine local spending 
> priorities through a series of public meetings. Communal councils in 
> Venezuela embody both of these municipal participatory reforms.
> The councils are both Chávista and anti-Chávista; working-class and 
> oligarchical. The former mayor of Carora, Julio Chávez, told Michael 
> Albert of Z-Net and Greg Wilpert of Venezuela Analysis in September 2008:
> The communal councils are an expression of the
> territory where people live, and within that area
> they are the natural leadership. In some communal
> councils, our candidates, ones supporting the
> revolution, were not elected, but instead anti-Chá
> vistas were elected. In our area there is a
> communal council that belongs to the oligarchy,
> essentially. They aren't with us, but they have
> invited us to meetings where we discuss their
> concerns.
> The paperwork required to start and maintain a council is one of the 
> greatest obstacles to communal council organizing. Completion of a 
> multi-step process,
> including conducting a census and numerous elections, is required. 
> Despite these complexities, councils have taken on government 
> bureaucracy by creating a
> participatory model of governance that bypasses large institutions and 
> municipal officials.
> Local officials and bureaucrats feel threatened by this growing form 
> of self-governance, which is fueled by billions of dollars from the 
> central government. Of the
> many national Bolivarian social projects, the communal councils have 
> arguably become the most popular and successful innovations of the 
> Chávez administration.
> Beyond bureaucracy
> Most of Venezuela's workforce is divided between an informal economy, 
> in which people hawk consumer goods in the street, and the government 
> agencies connected to
> the nationalized petroleum industry, which accounts for more than half 
> of government revenue and about 90 percent of the country's exports. 
> Given the large amount of funding state agencies receive based on 
> petro-dollars and the under-employment outside the public sector, 
> government bodies have strong incentives to prolong their own 
> existence. This breeds an Orwellian bureaucracy of sorts, which roils 
> the Venezuelan public.
> Communal councils are an effort to combat Venezuela's bureaucratic red 
> tape and the corruption related to it. But they are also the latest 
> manifestation of Venezuela's long tradition of community activism and 
> social struggle.
> The councils were not immediately successful, given the challenges 
> inherent to community organizing. The first attempt at participatory 
> democratic reform was the 2001 institution of Bolivarian Circles. 
> These neighborhood councils were largely viewed as electoral 
> organizing arms of the Chávez administration.
> Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs) were next, but elected council 
> leaders found it difficult to rub elbows with powerful public 
> officials while representing districts which contained, in some cases, 
> upwards of 1 million people. By 2005, most CLPPs were
> deadlocked and ineffective.
> The third try has been the charm. Communal councils sprung up across 
> the country in the wake of National Assembly legislation in November 
> 2006. Their success is attributed to their more decentralized and 
> democratic structure-each council is run by and serves a relatively 
> small number of people.
> Direct inspiration for the Law of Communal Councils was drawn from 
> Cumaná, a coastal state capital located some 250 miles northeast of 
> Caracas. In Cumaná, communal
> councils had been operating successfully because citizens were 
> comfortable deliberating in small, community-oriented bodies. The 
> Cumaná experience was translated into a national success story, as the 
> number of officially sanctioned communal councils rose from about 
> 21,000 in 2007 to 30,179 by 2009, with some 5,000
> more slated for formation.
> This organizing frenzy was accompanied by significant federal funding. 
> Starting at $1.5 billion in 2006, funding for communal councils 
> increased to $5 billion
> by 2007. That same year, laws governing the distribution of petroleum 
> revenues were modified so that 50 percent of funds-the portion 
> previously directed to state and municipal governments-went to 
> communal councils.
> Despite the abundance of financing, legislation limits each council to 
> project spending caps of between about $14,000 and $28,000. The caps 
> mean projects can do
> little more than pave a new road, so councils frequently depend on 
> volunteer labor, a problem for impoverished communities. Still, 
> councils are often able to rely on volunteers due to the councils' 
> popularity. A lack of competitive contracts for council work has also 
> been a source of criticism from opponents of the government.
> An `alternative economy'?
> New laws passed by the National Assembly since November 2009 have 
> helped councils expand their focus into the economic sphere. According 
> to the legislation, councils
> should now promote new forms of "social property, based on the 
> potentialities of their community," through a tax-exempt "social, 
> popular, and alternative economy."
> Since the councils were created in part to combat bureaucracy, some 
> reforms aim to streamline council finances and prevent corruption. 
> Financial management of the councils was transferred from communal 
> banks to finance commissions with elected council administrators, and 
> recall measures were instituted for council spokespersons (elected 
> citizens who manage the councils). Ostensibly, these measures grant more
> financial autonomy and independence from meddling local officials, who 
> often feel threatened by or are in conflict with the councils.
> In May 2010, about 15,000 elected spokespeople participated in 
> workshops-conducted by the government's Foundation for Development and 
> Promotion of Communal Power-on how to implement the new reforms.
> Socialist communes created through additional federal initiatives 
> since last November represent an effort to strengthen councils and 
> expand their scope into the economic realm. As of February 2010, more 
> than 184 communes-each of which coordinates between various councils 
> around the country-were being organized to help councils focus on 
> "social-productive" projects and provide Venezuelans with access to 
> cheaper goods. These projects include growing medicinal and 
> agricultural plants in the coastal state of Miranda, and operating 
> nonprofit arepa shops, which sell food in Caracas at
> half the market price. Other initiatives take advantage of cheap goods 
> produced or distributed by certain
> communes.
> An experiment evolves
> "Before, neighborhood associations took on the responsibilities of 
> many of the community's needs," says Caraballo, the community activist 
> in Caracas. "Now, the communal council does much of the same work, but 
> with the financial support of the government-giving us more resources 
> to do the things we need to do."
> As with any experiment in participatory democracy, the councils are 
> not perfect. Dedicated citizen activists are often overburdened with 
> what arguably should be
> governmental responsibilities. In addition, much of Venezuela's most 
> important communal council work is being done by un- or under-employed 
> volunteers often
> mired in poverty.
> Others are concerned that citizens still lack a way, other than 
> elected officials, to be part of higher- level government decisions 
> that impact their lives. Some Venezuelans ask: Why can't councils also 
> have a say over foreign, macroeconomic and national policies that 
> impact their communities?
> Lofty pronouncements about communal councils from federal officials 
> abound. Chávez himself has declared the councils to be "the great 
> motors of the new era of
> the Revolution," "a basic cell of the future society," and 
> "fundamental . for revolutionary democracy." Yet questions remain 
> about the future role of councils in
> larger political and economic spheres.
> If they continue to push for and realize the ambitious aim of assuming 
> the powers of bloated, sometimes corrupt, bureaucracies, they could 
> perhaps overtake local government's function altogether.
> Regardless of how they evolve, if local citizens control the future of 
> the councils, they will surely remain an important part of the 
> far-reaching political changes that have reshaped Venezuela during the 
> last decade.
> ---
> Andrew Kennis is an investigative journalist, an adjunct professor and 
> a researcher who is receiving his Ph.D. from the Institute of 
> Communications Research at
> the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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