|from In These Times
The Quiet Revolution
Venezuelans experiment with participatory democracy.
By Andrew Kennis
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 Crist- bal'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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.