Communal Councils in Venezuela




R


arely
has a basketball game competed so directly with a revolution. On
this Sunday afternoon in Las Delicias, however, a communal council
has taken over the sloping asphalt lot that doubles as a basketball
court and the town square. Next to a pickup basketball game, the
residents of this small Caracas shantytown are electing spokespeople
for their council. Their aim is to gain control over government
funds. One of the many voters explains proudly, “We had to
wait seven years for this, but finally they’re transferring
power to the people.” 


Since the start of 2006, thousands of tiny Venezuelan neighborhoods,
with an average of 200 families each, have been organizing communal
councils. The councils are part of a broad effort to build a new
political system of participatory democracy, in which citizens have
control over the decisions that affect their lives. After seven
years in power, Hugo Chávez’s government launched the
councils as “the great motors of the new era of the Revolution,”
“a basic cell of the future society,” and “fundamental…for
revolutionary democracy.” More broadly, the councils are also
serving as a giant laboratory for experiments in political participation. 


Participatory democracy is difficult to achieve anywhere, but especially
at the national scale. So far, the experience has been mixed. The
councils are helping communities address common interests, funneling
more money to basic community needs, and bringing people together
in thousands of neighborhoods. Critics claim, though, that the government
is exploiting volunteer labor, ignoring political disagreements,
promoting local democracy at the expense of broader interests, and
consolidating central control. In the turbulent political climate
of Venezuela, will the communal councils survive? 


The Communal Councils Law was passed in April 2006, but the story
begins much earlier. In the 1980s, Venezuela began an extensive
decentralization process, launching mayoral elections and handing
over new responsibilities to local governments. After Chávez
was elected president in 1998, he continued the decentralization,
but changed its emphasis. He called for transferring power not to
local government, but directly to popular movements. 


This “popular decentralization” has led to a series of
experiments in grassroots democracy. First came the Bolivarian Circles,
neighborhood councils that were officially autonomous, but often
linked to and supportive of the government. At Chávez’s
urging, the Bolivarian Circles were mostly succeeded by Electoral
Battle Units (UBEs), which mobilized the pro-Chávez vote for
elections. Next, the government launched Local Public Planning Councils,
in which citizens, politicians, and bureaucrats were to collaborate
at the city level to address local problems. 


By 2005 most of the Local Public Planning Councils had become mired
in bureaucracy and dominated by politicians, paving the way for
communal councils. These new councils are organized at a much more
local level, usually a few blocks. They are responsible for bringing
together grassroots groups, creating community development plans,
implementing projects to address local needs, and monitoring government
and community activities. Or, in Bolivarian legalese, they are “manifestations
of participation, expression, and integration between diverse community
organizations, social groups, and citizens, which allow organized
society to directly manage public policy and projects that respond
to the needs and aspirations of communities, and the construction
of an equal and just society.” 


The
Communal Councils Law calls for the councils to decide their own
geographic limits, but also follow a detailed set of guidelines.
The law recommends that each urban council contain 200-400 families,
each rural council at least 20 families, and each indigenous council
at least 10 families. All decisions are to be made in citizen assemblies
with a minimum of 10 percent of residents over age 15. These assemblies
are to elect executive, financial management, and monitoring committees,
as well as thematic committees based on local priorities (health,
education, recreation, land, safety, etc.).  






Perhaps most importantly, money can flow into and out of the councils.
By law, they can receive funds directly from the national, state,
or city governments, from their own fundraising, or from donations.
In turn, the councils can award grants for community projects. If
they set up a communal bank with neighboring councils, they can
also make loans to cooperatives or other activities. 


In practice, funding has depended more on the discretion of government
leaders than the law. Councils can apply for up to $14,000 per project
(enough for a modest street-paving), although this limit is not
specified in the law. The councils are encouraged to submit larger
proposals to their city’s participatory budgeting process or
district councils, the only problem being that these do not yet
exist in most cities. No matter, the funding limit was later increased
to $28,000 for second-time applicants and some councils have reportedly
received even more. 


Officially, communal councils are to send project proposals directly
to the Presidential Commission of Popular Power, which gives the
go-ahead as long as they are legally valid. The law does not explain
who sits on this commission or what its funding criteria are. It
was eventually filled by a motley crew of government leaders, but
many projects were funded before the commission ever met. Councils
often send projects to their municipality for review first, but
somehow the projects are approved in Caracas. The money is then
delivered in high-profile spectacles called Gabinetes Móviles. 


Despite this confusion, the communal councils have been wildly popular.
Eight months after the law was passed, over 16,000 councils had
already formed throughout the country—12,000 of them had received
funding for community projects. That’s $1 billion total, out
of a national budget of $53 billion. The councils had established
nearly 300 communal banks, which have received $70 million for micro-loans.
The government plans to transfer another $4 billion in 2007. Thanks
to these funds, the councils have implemented thousands of community
projects, such as street pavings, sports fields, medical centers,
and sewage and water systems. 


Government officials agree that the communal councils are the foundation
for a new system of participatory democracy, but they disagree on
what this means. The former vice-minister of Popular Participation,
José Antonio Mota, suggests that the councils form the base
of a political pyramid, like earlier visions of council communism.
“Proposals should filter up from the communal council to the
district council to the municipality to the state to the nation.”
Other leaders, such as Carlos Escarrá, have proposed that the
councils replace city and state governments entirely, or work parallel
to them. This debate is only one of many controversies. 



Popular participation in what? 



I

n the small farming community
of El Pajonal, the locals are working hard to make the most of their
communal council. Perched alongside a tourist valley in the Andes,
El Pajonal started a council before the national law was passed.
Many of the village’s 60 homes had no water connection, there
was no bus stop on the only nearby road, and the only trash dumpster
was regularly overflowing. Not surprisingly, the council decided
that water, transportation, and trash were its top priorities. 


The council soon applied for, and received, government funds to
install a new water system. The funds were only enough to pay for
the construction materials and an architect, however. Over several
weeks, the council members carried the concrete blocks for the new
water tank up the valley and began to build the system. In the meantime,
they cleared space for a new bus stop and raised enough extra funds
to buy a new dumpster. This hard work has led to real community
improvements, but is it popular participation or should the government
be responsible for installing the water system, bus stop, and dumpster
itself, rather than relying on free labor? Or should communal councils
address basic needs anyway, however they can? 


A national system of participatory democracy requires a huge amount
and variety of participation. As a result, the councils are facing
a challenge of compensation: how to decide what kind of participation
should be voluntary popular participation and what should be paid
labor. For Miguel González Marregot, a public critic of the
communal councils, popular participation should mean involvement
in developing broad government plans: “The communal councils
should say we need stairs, not develop a project to build stairs.”
 










Classic theories of participatory democracy suggest that participation
should focus on making political decisions, be they small or large.
When people implement government decisions, for example by building
public works, this work is typically paid. For complex issues, the
line between decision and implementation may be fuzzy. For basic
infrastructure projects, on the other hand, manual labor is clearly
implementation. 


Hands-on volunteer work may be a valuable part of popular participation,
if it motivates people to participate, generates a sense of pride
and autonomy, and results in concrete improvements. In Venezuela,
however, the government is rolling in money and most of the communal
council volunteers are living in poverty. If the state would ordinarily
pay contractors to build public works, should communal councils
not be compensated equally for the same labor? 


In the western city of Mérida, a government official introduces
the Communal Councils Law at a public assembly with all the enthusiasm
of a game show host. The audience, a sea of pro-Chávez red,
erupts in cheers. A few onlookers slouch silently on the side. Back
in Caracas, in the poor pro-Chávez neighborhood 23 de Enero,
a new communal council is holding its inaugural elections. The giant
concrete edifice that houses the council’s population is plastered
with signs urging people to vote. Before the elections, a candidate
admits that the council’s priority is already set: to fix the
building’s broken elevators. Soon afterwards, the council applies
for funds for the elevators. 


In both of these cases, there is little room for disagreement. In
Mérida the communal councils are assumed to be pro-Chávez.
In 23 de Enero the council decision is pre-determined, prior to
public assemblies. Not surprisingly, critics complain that the councils
impose a pro-Chávez vision and suppress dissent. This is not
always the case, of course. Some councils have formed in anti-Chávez
neighborhoods and decisions are often altered in public assemblies.
Nevertheless, the councils face a serious challenge of


disagreement:
how to deal with genuinely different interests and opinions. 


The government has already presented one partial solution to this
challenge: form participatory bodies so small and exclusive that
they experience few major disagreements. Since the councils usually
contain only a couple hundred families within a few blocks, their
members tend to be socio-economically, demographically, and politically
similar. Since residents decide the boundaries of their own councils,
they can self-select like-minded groups. 


The councils thus create what political scientists have called “unitary
democracies”: relatively homogenous groups that make decisions
based on common interests. Disagreements are not necessarily resolved
better in unitary democracies, they are just less likely to occur.
If the members of the 23 de Enero council obviously need a new elevator,
because of their common situation and interests, it may be in their
best interest to pursue the elevator without spending much time
and energy debating it. 


When councils agree internally, however, they largely avoid Venezuela’s
heated political and class conflicts. The councils are beginning
to deal with these disagreements by negotiating in small groupings,
district councils, and municipal participatory budgeting processes.
In practice, however, most cities do not yet have district councils
or participatory budgets and it remains unclear how this cross-council
cooperation is to work. Ultimately, these forums will need to deal
with antagonistic disagreements more directly, to acknowledge, diffuse,
and transform them into respectful discussions. 



Local control and common good 



O

nly a few minutes into their
meeting, the three well-heeled women from Santa Rosa de Lima are
pounding their fists and on the verge of screaming. The lucky recipient
of their attention is a city councilor in their suburban Caracas
municipality. They want him to block the construction of a proposed
25-story apartment tower in their low-key residential neighborhood,
arguing that it would corrupt the community’s character. The
councilor explains that the city needs the new building to meet
its growing housing demand, but the women remain adamantly opposed.
When the councilor refuses to budge, one of the women charges that,
“This is what people in the neighborhood want, and as the law
says, you have to respect that.” 


Thanks to the Communal Councils Law, these women have a more legitimate
argument. They represent the communal council in Santa Rosa de Lima,
which decided to oppose the new apartment building. As a result,
they can claim to speak for the democratic will of the community,
by law. 


If a city has a housing shortage and a communal council decides
to oppose new housing plans, how democratic is the council’s
decision? Is NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard) compatible with democracy?
What happens when neighborhood decisions are not in the best interest
of the city, and the larger society? What happens when they conflict
with previous decisions of higher levels of government? 


The quarrel in Santa Rosa de Lima illustrates the challenge of federalism:
how to integrate and balance local, city, state, and national interests.


As is, the communal councils are linked mostly with the nation.
They apply for funding directly from Caracas and national agencies
determine funding guidelines. Critics have warned that bypassing
states and municipalities leads to an all-powerful central state.
As the mayor of Chacao, a wealthy Caracas municipality, sees it,
“What’s happening is all the power is concentrating in
the president, not in the communal councils.”










Communal councils cannot avoid middle levels of government, however.
If a council builds a road or water pipes, they need to connect
to the citywide system. City and state governments provide publicity
and technical assistance for the councils and council projects often
influence city issues. One council, for example, proposed a municipal
referendum to impeach the mayor. Meanwhile, funding for communal
councils comes at the direct expense of funding for cities. 


A research group at Monteávila University has proposed integrating
different levels of government through “popular federalism.”
Their plan calls for “a state where regional autonomy is strong
and the central state weak, but coordinating,” with a focus
on strengthening grassroots community groups. This approach would
redefine participatory democracy as a multi-level system of participation,
rather than just communal councils. 



How many rules should there be? 



B

ack in the Andes, the communal
council Los Camellones has been developing quite the reputation,
for better or worse. Located in the tourist valley near El Pajonal,
it formed before the Communal Councils Law and soon developed an
active membership. The council decided to create an information
and cultural center as its first project and it promptly applied
for funding and started securing materials. 


The problem, however, is that most residents had other priorities,
such as the sewage system, water system, and public lighting. As
Teddy Marcano from El Pajonal tells it, Los Camellones is mostly
poor farmers, but a smaller group of tourism professionals came
to dominate the council. Maria Gabriela, a spokesperson for Los
Camellones, laments, “Sure, the community had other priorities
than the info center, but with 30 million bolivares we couldn’t
address many of their needs and we could do the info center. When
conflicts like this emerge,” she casually adds, “we just
listen, debate, then vote.” 


Los Camellones and other councils have been shaped largely by rules
imposed from above. Whether there are too many or too few rules
is a subject of debate. For some, the intricate election procedures,
committee structures, and financial instruments required by law
are too constraining. As Miguel Gonzales Marregot argues, “The
laws are too rigid. To form a communal council you have to break
them. The designers didn’t know the reality of how things work
on the ground.” The 30 million bolivares ($14,000) funding
limit, for example, is too small to address most needs in Los Camellones
and elsewhere. 


Others say that the rules are insufficient and unclear, leading
to confusion and inequalities. For example, if there are two neighborhoods
of the same size, one can subdivide into four councils to receive
four times as much funding as the other. There are no official criteria
for project funding and few guidelines for how councils are to make
decisions. In Los Camellones, the lack of decision-making rules
may have helped the tourism professionals dominate debates and force
their own priorities. 


These problems reveal a challenge of rules: how to strike a balance
between too few and too many universal rules. The more complex the
system, the more necessary rules are. In a national political system,
rules are essential for maintaining a fair balance between different
interests. But how detailed should the rules be? Who writes them?
How can they be changed? How often and by whom? How much flexibility
should councils have in applying the rules? 


There may be no set answers to these questions. The councils are
an ongoing experiment amid broader political changes, so their reality
is regularly changing faster than the laws. This does not mean that
the laws or the councils are fundamentally flawed, but perhaps just
that large systems of participatory democracy by nature require
frequent adjustment. 


That said, the clearer and more refined the rules, the fairer and
more stable the councils. A few steps are being taken in this direction.
The government is debating ways to make the existing rules clearer
and formalize informal rules. If the rules are to keep pace with
the changing reality, however, there will need to be a more regular
way to revise them. Critics have suggested that the councils themselves
play a greater role in writing and changing the rules, since they
know the problems on the ground better than anyone. 



Getting people to participate 



T

he communal councils have
created quite a following in Venezuela, but not everywhere. One
evening, as most people are heading home, a handful of people gather
instead in a community center in the Catia district of Caracas.
Outside, a flyer announces the first planning meeting for a new
communal council. People slowly trickle in, but the crowd only grows
to 11 people. 


Eventually, one of the organizers starts her introduction, but confusion
suddenly breaks out. “Communal council? What’s that? I
thought this was the dance therapy class.” As it turns out,
most of the people have mistakenly shown up for a dance therapy
class scheduled for the same time. They show little interest in
the communal council, despite the prodding of the organizers. As
one woman explains, the problem is simple—the council would
require too much work. 


A national system of participatory democracy requires more participation
from more people than any social movement or other form of civic
engagement. Venezuelans are indeed participating in massive numbers.
Thousands of communities, however, have yet to show much interest
in organizing a communal council.










The low rate of participation in many neighborhoods poses a challenge
of turnout: how to get enough people to participate. What kinds
of people are not participating? Why are they not participating?
What motivated participants to get involved? When is popular participation
not “too many evenings?”  


These questions raise a deeper question: how much participation
is enough? The answer depends on the situation, but at the least
turnout should be high enough that participants represent the diverse
characteristics and interests of the population. If certain types
of people are not equally or adequately represented, turnout is
insufficient. 


The Venezuelan government and communal councils have demonstrated
several ways to encourage (and in some cases discourage) participation.
First, Caracas has delegated significant power directly to the communal
councils. The allure of self-government attracts many people. The
government has also provided direct positive incentives for participation.
The most obvious is money. Many people get involved because they
can get funds for neighborhood improvements, but only if they form
a council. Since the councils are so small, any one person can have
a substantial effect on which projects are developed. Obviously
the government can only give out money if it has it and in this
respect Venezuela is more privileged than other countries. 


Another incentive is what one anti-Chávez bureaucrat mockingly
calls “piñata parties”—spectacular public events
in which the government hands out money. In Venezuela, these are
the Gabinetes Móviles where Chávez and other officials
award funds for council projects. These high profile events attract
media attention and generate public interest. They also fuel some
disillusionment, since skeptics associate them with clientelism
and narrow self-interest.  


Often, the councils attract people by making their events fun. Some
of the more prolific councils mix music, food, and entertainment
into their assemblies. These virtual block parties transform one
of the costs of participation (tedious meetings) into a benefit
(a good time). Other councils have more formal events dominated
by long speeches. 


Finally, the government is trying to reduce the obstacles to participation.
Because the councils are so local, the transportation and time costs
of participation are less. Another approach is even more ambitious—freeing
people’s time by making participation part of their jobs. As
Vice Minister Mota explained, “We need to arrange that employers
will let employees off from work for a couple hours a week if they
participate in a communal council. This could be coordinated by
the state, like a form of community service.” Such a program
could especially boost the participation of working professionals
such as Mota who admits that he has not even had time to get involved
in his own communal council. 



V

enezuela’s communal councils are still
a work in progress, but so far, the results are promising. Thousands
of communities are mobilizing as never before, taking advantage
of their new power to decide government spending and policies. In
the process, the communal councils have raised major challenges
for democratic participation: how to decide what people should participate
in, how to deal with serious disagreements, how to integrate different
levels of government, how many rules to have, and how to get enough
people to participate. 


What will become of the communal councils? As some critics warn,
perhaps they will mainly become a tool for consolidating Chávez’s
control. Or they might take on power of their own, but without transforming
the rest of the Venezuelan government. Or maybe they will indeed
create a national political system of participatory democracy. 


The fate of the communal councils is highly contested. If Chávez’s
old guard holds onto power, the councils may remain highly participatory
appendages of the central state. Some of the newer government ministers,
however, are eager to expand the communal councils’ power at
the expense of old political structures, such as city and state
governments. Although Chávez was recently re-elected by a strong
majority, the opposition won over a third of the vote and is becoming
involved in the communal councils. If opposition groups continue
their resurgence, they might use the councils as a wedge into the
government’s political power. 


As a sign of success, the communal councils are also taking on a
life of their own. Council activists and grassroots movements are
demanding more say in the councils’ funding, rules, and powers.
If they can transform these demands into new political structures
and processes, the communal councils may indeed reinvent government
by the people. 





Josh
Lerner has been doing work on participatory budgeting for many years.
He has also spent time and done work in Brazil and Argentina.