Venezuela shows the way to real democracy


Richard Moore

     ³Now the community is the basic structural unit of
      government of the new state, legally defined as 200-400
      families in urban areas, around 20 in the countryside and
      from 10 up for the indigenous population. The Spanish
      political analyst Juan Carlos Monedero observed that the
      main reason 20th-century socialism failed was a lack of
      participation by the people. Communal councils may be
      instrumental in the construction of Venezuela¹s 21st-century

Original source URL:

Popular revolution, culture of impunity
Venezuela¹s promising future

Local councils ­ Units of Popular Power ­ are being set up in the hope that 
their members, and the small groups they represent, will take responsibility for
changing their lives.

By Renaud Lambert

JUAN Guerra, a lorry driver from Zulia state, knew that he looked out of place 
in an office in his dirty jeans and three-day beard. But he had spent a week 
crossing Venezuela and he would not be intimidated by a civil servant from the 
national assembly. He slammed his fist on the table and said: ³No, we are not 
asking, we are demanding that the comrade deputy transmit our complaint to the 
citizen president.²

Juan and his colleague Jhonny Plogar represent 700 lorry drivers. In 2000 they 
filed a complaint against their employers, the coal haulage companies 
Cootransmapa, Coozugavol and Coomaxdi. According to the plaintiffs, the 
companies ³misused their cooperative status to benefit from tax exemptions and 
state contracts². Over the past five years the two men have been shunted from 
office to office and Jhonny has a bulging file of copies of letters written to 
ministries, town halls, the state government and the president.

When Venezuela¹s National Superintendence of Cooperatives (Sunacoop) finally 
withdrew the companies¹ cooperative status, the national coal mining company 
continued to use their services. The Zulia state governor and presidential 
candidate, Manuel Rosales, who signed a decree dismantling all bodies set up 
during the 2002 coup, is in no hurry to put Sunacoop¹s decision into effect. The
bosses are using the time to get organised. Hired killers known as sicarios will
soon be threatening people.

This is a common situation in Venezuela. When the two men reached the national 
assembly to present their case, they found a crowd of other plaintiffs with 
similar cases. All support Hugo Chávez, the citizen president, and all demand an
end to bureaucracy and corruption. They are hostile towards a government that 
they consider inefficient at best, reactionary at worst. Chávez himself has 
said: ³Our internal enemies, the most dangerous enemies of the revolution, are 
bureaucracy and corruption² (1).

This language has been used before to blame incompetent activists for not 
applying presidential policies correctly. But the ³Bolivarian process² stresses 
popular participation as a means of transforming the state apparatus. In 
Venezuela it is called ³the revolution in the revolution².

Before Chávez was elected in 1998, two parties shared power for 40 years: the 
Venezuelan Christian Democratic party (Copei), and the social democratic party, 
Democratic Action (AD). They were adept at using petrodollars to deal with 
problems. They handed out government posts to calm social unrest but had to 
comply with the neoliberal ideology of the North and the need to limit public 
policies. The only way to offset the bloated state apparatus was to organise its
inefficiency. With Venezuela¹s social divisions, skilled civil servants often 
come from backgrounds resistant to social change, sometimes because of ignorance
of the conditions in which most Venezuelans live. Gilberto Gimenez, director of 
the foreign minister¹s private office, has said his solution was: ³Diplomats 
will be promoted only if they spend two weeks in the barrios (working class 
districts).² He was smiling when he said it.

Few political leaders are able to take an active role in transforming the state 
from within. Before the foreign minister, Ali Rodriguez (2), got the job, six 
others had tried their hand since 1998.

Not a political party

The Fifth Republic Movement that brought Chávez to power is not a political 
party. After 1994 (3) it grew out of a coalition of leftwing parties and former 
guerrilla movements disgruntled with their leaders, who some thought settled too
comfortably into the society they had struggled against. Young activists trained
by AD and Copei quickly realised that the Chávez candidature would open up new 
ways to reach power and many joined his ranks.

In November 2001, when Chávez tried to pass 49 decrees to start social reform, 
Luis Miquilena, who had been responsible for bringing the Venezuelan left and 
Chávez together, decided the decrees were too radical. He resigned as interior 
minister (4) and his followers in the National Assembly followed. ³We lost a 
legislature,² explained sociologist Edgar Figuera, ³They were passing those laws
on the cheap. Venezuela is still stuck in the legal framework of the Fourth 
Republic² (5). Until the country could train its activists, a revolutionary 
project was being built with tools inherited from a state devoted to 
perpetuating the neoliberal model.

At the December 2005 parliamentary elections pro-government parties won all 167 
seats in the national assembly and no longer had any excuse to delay legislative
reforms. The 75% abstention rate in the elections may have been the result of a 
boycott by the opposition, realising that it would be beaten and preferring to 
abstain. Even so, it revealed dissatisfaction with a common failing in the 
revolutionary process, one with which Venezuela must deal: the replacement of a 
bourgeois elite by a political elite that has the same shortcomings and 
distances itself from the daily realities of the people.

Without a real party, a solid state, enough revolutionary activists or, for the 
moment, a coherent social movement, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela is no
different from any other experiment in Latin America. Chávez said in 2004: ³The 
people must be organised and take part in a new participative, social state so 
that the old rigid, bureaucratic, inefficient state is overthrown.² He was 
referring to ³missions², programmes managed by the community, that bypassed the 
old state to deal with social emergencies. The creation of communal councils 
this April is an important step towards building the new state and the type of 
local government on which it will be based.

A small house shelters the Unit of Popular Power (UPP) at Vela de Coro from the 
sun that scorches the Paraguana peninsula. A small poster explains that communal
councils ³are a push for participative democracy, for assisting social movements
in their quest for solutions to collective problems and paying back the nation¹s
social debt². Here, the town hall took the initiative to help set up these 
organisations. Xiomara Pirela, UPP coordinator, said: ³We just supply the tools 
or help in the event of conflict. Only a citizen¹s assembly can make decisions.²

The councils at work

The councils¹ task is to coordinate and integrate activities of local missions, 
urban land and cultural committees. Pedro Morales, director for the Caracas 
region of Fundacomun, the organisation that finances the councils, said they do 
not ³represent, but speak for the citizens¹ assembly, which is the ultimate 
decision-making body².

Xiomara Pirela showed us a pile of maps, some drawn in felt-tipped pen. ³People 
start by making a social sketch of their community: houses, inhabitants, their 
income, infrastructure, social problems.² This work contributes to the 
³participative diagnosis² and highlights priorities: water supplies, drainage, a
health centre. On that basis the communal council suggests projects to citizens¹
assemblies, passes them to relevant authorities and manages resources allocated 
through a communal, cooperative bank. Each project can get up to $15,300; 
applications for more expensive projects can be made to public planning councils
or town halls for the following year.

In Barinas, Mérida, Táchira and Trujillo, the four most advanced states of the 
Occidente region, more than $44.6m has already been paid for some 3,000 
projects. After 2007 half the money allocated to the Intergovernmental 
Decentralisation Fund and the Special Economic Assignments Law for mines and 
hydrocarbons, nearly $1.2bn, will be earmarked to finance the councils. Town 
halls and states that used to benefit from these funds will have to make do with
what is left over.

Some mayors are tempted to push their sympathisers for election to the councils,
although it is illegal. According to Pedro Morales: ³The councils are not only a
response to the problems of bureaucracy and corruption; they also increase the 
accountability of people who were used to letting the state decide for them and 
then complain about the result.² The population is more than ready to take on 
the responsibilities.

On 16 July Block 45, a huge apartment building in the 23 de Enero barrio of 
western Caracas, leapt a political hurdle. After half a dozen preparatory 
assemblies, they elected a council. A resident pointed to the garbage piled 
carelessly around the block. ³This building is known as one of the filthiest in 
all of South America,² she said, then added proudly, ³but now people will get a 
grip on the situation.²

ŒNo vote, no meals!¹

Something similar happened further up the hill in the El Observatorio district. 
A plastic sheet pinned in a corner served as a voting booth, a poster reminded 
voters ³balloting must be direct and secret² and a queue formed in front of the 
cardboard urns, shown to be empty before voting began. As is so often true, the 
local women had taken matters in hand. The stakes were considerable and the law 
clear. Notices said: ³If less than 20% of the community takes part (6) the 
election will be invalid and no complaints will be accepted afterwards. The 
women were confident: ³The men will come,² one said. ³I¹ve told my husband: no 
vote, then no meals, no laundry, nothing!²

In a few months thousands of councils have been or are being set up. Those that 
existed before the law was passed are gradually being legalised. There are 
already more than 500 in Caracas and 50,000 are expected overall. Upper-class 
districts are also taking part ‹ ³that is, when people agree to provide 
information on salaries², said a resident of Prado del Este. Xiomara Paraguán, 
an El Observatorio council member, said: ³At least they¹re taking part. Who 
would have thought that possible a few years ago?²

Why did the government wait seven years to set up the councils? Engels Riveira 
of the Camunare Rojo council said: ³If the mayors and governors had done their 
jobs properly, we wouldn¹t have needed the councils. In a way it¹s thanks to 

The rush to set up the councils shows that they cater to a need for democratic 
process. Participation had already been encouraged in the workplace, as 
co-management, self-management or cooperatives (the number of these shot up from
under 1,000 in 1999 to more than 100,000). There were local cultural committees.
But political arrangements were still needed.

Now the community is the basic structural unit of government of the new state, 
legally defined as 200-400 families in urban areas, around 20 in the countryside
and from 10 up for the indigenous population. The Spanish political analyst Juan
Carlos Monedero observed that the main reason 20th-century socialism failed was 
a lack of participation by the people. Communal councils may be instrumental in 
the construction of Venezuela¹s 21st-century socialism. ³If we get the money,² 
said Xiomara Paraguán. Another El Observatorio council member countered, ³If the
money doesn¹t come, we¹ll go and get it.²

Since the elections things are moving in El Observatorio. Paraguán attended a 
workshop on social projects and showed off her diploma. All council members will
have similar training.

Faced with the inertia of some bureaucrats and politicians, people have to rely 
on the vigour of Contraloría (social control), a citizens¹ watch that defends 
the process. Councils may be more finely tuned version of the principle and help
Venezuelans get the means to exercise co-responsibility with the state.

Juan Guerra is a grassroots expression of Contraloría. After he finally got to 
meet a deputy, he said: ³Revolution is like an iron fence protecting the 
bourgeoisie. If we, the people, allow the rust to accumulate, the fence will 

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