With all international eyes on the December 3rd Venezuelan presidential elections, a totally new and revolutionary experience of Venezuelan grassroots democracy has completely slipped below international radar. An experience that has already formed 12,000 local community councils, and whose participants and promoters hope will change the way decisions are made in Venezuela and potentially alter the very essence of Venezuelaâ€™s political system.
13 de Abril Community Council
The region of 23 de Enero lies on the southern hillsides in Western Caracas. Since the fall of the decade-long Marcos Perez Jimenez dictatorship in 1958, it has been an area of high community organization, when, on that dayâ€”January 23â€”thousands of poor Caraquenos (as Caracas residents are known) came down from the hillsides and occupied the vacant and newly built apartment blocks. It remained a place of revolt and of police repression. A region, according to one community member, that was â€œblamed for anything that happened.â€
Earlier this year, residents again began to lead the way. Citizens living in the apartment building blocks 45, 46, and 47 heard about the new communal councils, which communities were beginning to form around the country.
These new communal councils were being called a new form of grassroots local government, in which the residents of the local community would have the ultimate decision-making power in their neighborhood. It was said that these councils would even receive funds from the government to carry out community and public works projects that previously could only be acquired through a long and protracted struggle with the local mayorâ€™s office.
Members of the local health committee took the first steps to create their own council. They held workshops on the idea and elected a Provisional Promoter team in March, to carry out a census of the communityâ€™s residents and needs.
An electoral commission was soon elected to supervise the upcoming election of community spokespersons. Various community committees (infrastructure, sport, communication and information, energy and gas, and legal) where formed to join those already in the community (health, urban land) and the promoter team did itâ€™s best to get the word out on the upcoming election.
On childrenâ€™s day, June 16, with the support of the electoral commission, hundreds of residents from the communityâ€™s 520 apartments showed up for the communal council spokesperson elections.
â€œIt was tremendous; the line didnâ€™t end,â€ said Hector Haraque, describing the scene at blocks 45, 46, & 47 on Election Day. â€œIt lasted all day, till 1 in the morning. It was very impressive.â€
The community elected 5 financial spokespersons to manage the councilâ€™s resources, 5 social controllers to audit the councilâ€™s dealings, and one spokesperson for each of the communityâ€™s 9 committees. By the end of the month, the19 members where sworn in, and the April 13th Community Council was officially formed- the first in 23 de Enero.
There are now 20 communal councils in 23 de Enero, more than 12,000 in the country, and more on the way. Which begs the questions: Where did this experience come from? Are these communal councils truly empowering residents and building a Venezuelan style of participatory democracy that is changing the fabric of Venezuelan society? Or are they, as the opposition says, just handouts for Chavez supporters during an election year?
The communal councils were modeled after experiences in participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and grassroots participatory democracy in Kerala, India. The concept of participatory democracy is not new in Venezuela, and since the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998, and the subsequent Venezuelan Constitutional Assembly in 1999, the Venezuelan government has been attempting to incorporate more participation in to the decisions of the state.
In 2001, the Local Public Planning Councils (CLPP) were formed across the country with the intent of electing community representatives to work hand in hand with government officials to agree on municipal budgets. Unfortunately, the CLPP were far from successful. In many cases political parties only gave representation to fellow members, and true community control was hard to find when spokespersons, expected to represent hundreds of thousands of people where elected with almost no input from the community.
â€œThey were captured by the mayors, that manipulated the elections,â€ said former Venezuelan Planning Minister, Felipe PÃ©rez Marti recently. According to PÃ©rez, the CLPPs, which technically still exist, have become further â€œdebilitatedâ€ with the creation of the communal councils because the people have decided to try out the newly formed councils, where they feel they actually may have a say. An addendum to the recent Law of Communal Councils additionally gave the newly formed councils power over the CLPPs.
Community Council Law
Although government institutions began to promote the communal councils late last year, the official communal council law was passed in the Venezuelan National Assembly on April 10, 2006. It legally recognized the communal councils and, according to Chapter Five of the Law, established the councilsâ€™ right to legally receive and administer resources from government institutions.
Article 2 of the Communal Council Law states:
The communal councils, in the constitutional framework of participatory and protagonistic democracy, are instances of participation, articulation and integration between the diverse community organizations, social groups and the citizens, that permit the organized people to directly exercise the administration (management) of public policies and projects oriented to respond to the necessities and aspirations of the communities in the construction of an equal and socially just society.
The Communal Council Law established that the councils generally be composed of between 200 and 400 families in urban areas, 20 in rural areas, and 10 in indigenous areas, and that final decisions be made by the â€œcitizenâ€™s assemblyâ€ or total voting-age residents of the community, which â€œis the primary instance for the exercising of power.â€ Anyone over the age of 15 is allowed to participate in the citizenâ€™s assembly, and at least 20% of the voting population must be present in order for a decision to be valid.
The law further called for the election of the local community spokespeople, one from each of the community committees, and five each for the financial and controller branches.
The Communal Council Law essentially put all of the neighborhood committees and community organizing experiences under one umbrella: the communal council. A revolutionary idea and a large task, but not everyone was happy.
With the passage of the law, many members of Venezuelaâ€™s Urban Land Committees (CTUs)â€”one of the most organized and important instances of community organizingâ€”were put off. They saw the communal councils as an attack against the work they had already been doing in the community. After all, they said, the CTUs are the ones writing community charters and pushing for land titles and housing rights for communities that were never before legally recognized.
CTUs viewed the creation of the communal councils as a government attempt to do something good, while inadvertently causing more harm. Infighting was predicted, as community committees: urban land, health, water, etc. would fight for resources amongst each other that they had previously struggled individually to acquire from the Mayorâ€™s office.
A shift occurred quickly, however, in the months following the passage of the communal council law. The CTUs realized that they would have to join, organize, and promote the communal councils in order to have a say in community decisions. The CTUs now appear to be one of the main pillars of the communal councils, believing that the new proposal is the next step in local democracy.
â€œThe CTU should be one of the fundamental bases of the communal councils. They should not substitute them nor be the councils themselves,â€ declared CTU activist Hernan Peralta, at the CTU National Meeting earlier this month just outside of Caracas. â€œThey are the crystallization of this project of new construction,â€ he added.
Although there continues to be discussion, the predictions that community committees would break out in in-fighting does not appear to have materialized on a large-scale.
â€œThe communal councils are nothing more than a series of tools that are being given to the people for participation,â€ said Richard Canaan, President of the Venezuelan Institution, FIDES, that has delivered millions of dollars to the communal councils. â€œOne of the most important changes for us is that the Constitution of 1961 was 100% representative. For everything in life, we named representatives. The assembly, representatives of the neighborhood council, and other instances. Now we are driving the active and protagonistic participation of the community. So from representative to protagonistic, where the people are leading the way.â€
For many, the communal councils are the latest in a Venezuelan policy under President Chavez to break from business-as-usual representative society, to a working pro-active participatory approach.
This ideology has not been lost on the members of the April 13th communal council. Meetings are held weekly among the spokespersons and in the various committees. At times discussions turn conflictive and they often drag on or wander in typical Venezuelan style, but fortunately council members appear to be willing to listen to one another.
During one evening meeting on September 26, the April 13th council spent the night meticulously debating how they would divvy up work and decision-making to ensure that all decisions made are responsive to the council and the community at-large.
The larger community is involving itself in the council, as proven by the â€œtremendousâ€ electoral turnout, but it has been slow going.
â€œThe community at the beginning has been apathetic, but changing the way people think is a process,â€ said Ennys Guerrero, who is a taxi driver and a social comptroller spokesperson of the April 13th Council. Guerrero been living in the community for 44 years and never thought to participate until now.
â€œDonâ€™t forget that Venezuela lived for 40 years with paternalism,â€ said FUNDACOMUN (The Foundation for Municipal and Community Development) Capital District of Caracas Director, Pedro Morales, who believes that the lack of community participation has deep-seated roots in Venezuelan tradition of populism and handouts.
â€œNow we are passing from representative democracy to participatory democracy. We donâ€™t know how long it will takeâ€¦, but we are trying to push towards this participatory democracy, because it is the community itself that has to participate,â€ he added.
Afro-Cuban-Venezuelan April 13th council member, Regina Michel Rollock, is very clear that without true community involvement the council isnâ€™t going to get very far.
â€œWe are not going to achieve anything unless we have the participation and protagonism of the community,â€ says Rollock, who has seen a somewhat disturbing lack of community involvement since the spokesperson elections. â€œWe can have the best ideas, but unless the community realizes what we are doing nothing happens.â€
While April 13th council spokespersons organized preparations for the neighborhoodâ€™s October 12th Indigenous Peopleâ€™s Day celebrations and arranged a number of neighborhood clean-up days, most members believe that the community will begin to participate more once they see that the council is solving peopleâ€™s problems. This is one reason why April 13th spokespersons are now working diligently to acquire funds for the repair of the apartment complex.
Presidential Commission & Organization
The National Presidential Commission of Popular Power was formed under article 30 of the Communal Council Law and set up to work on three levels: National, Regional and Municipal, in order to streamline these initiatives and duties of the various institutions. Minister of Participation and Social Development (MINPADES), Jorge LuÃs GarcÃa Carneiro presides over the commission, in which FIDES, FUNDACOMUN, BANDES, FONDEMI, the Ministry of Popular Economy (MINEP) and the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum all play distinct but important roles.
FUNDACOMUN works in training and technical assistance for the communal councils, and is also currently the government institution (until the local Presidential Commissions have been formed) where communal councils register their council and receive continued local training and assistance.
FIDES (The Intergovernmental Fund for Decentralization), LAEE (The Law of Special Economic Allotments) and FONDEMI (The Fund for Microfinanced Development) are the primary government institutions in charge of passing resources on to the councils. FIDES, with a billion dollar budget, primarily from sales taxes, now passes 30% of its resources on to the communal councils. FIDES President Richard Canaan declared in mid September that over $436 million dollars had been passed in to the hands of the communal councils for community infrastructure projects.
â€œTell me in what other part of the world are they going to put $436 million dollars in the hands of the community? And thatâ€™s just from FIDES alone,â€ said Canaan, who estimated at the time that there were 8,000 formed community councils in the country that had or were in the process of receiving funds, and another 4,000 being formed which had not yet received any support from the Venezuelan state. A total of 15,000 councils are hoped to be formed by the end of phase one.
LAEE, whose assets come from dividends of Venezuelan oil revenues, are worth just over $1 billion. Half of this was designated to the Community Councils by President Chavez this year.
Meanwhile, FONDEMI works on funding socio-productive projects through the Venezuelaâ€™s 250 officially constituted Community Banksâ€”financial entities managed and administered by the communal councils and legally born with the Communal Council Law. FONDEMI has passed nearly $70 million on to community banks across the country for the local financial entity to distribute to community cooperative and associative socio-productive projects in the form of loans of less than $14,000, with 6% interest rate and 36 months to pay them off.
There have been problems of infighting and competition among some of the institutions in an attempt to form the most Community Councils.
Morales criticized in September that while FUNDACOMUN only had 54 communal councils registered, the Metropolitan Caracas Mayorâ€™s Office was numbering total communal councils in the same region at around 400. The Mayorâ€™s office also had its own list of communal councils, which did not correspond to that of FUNDACOMUN, even though FUNDACOMUN was supposed to be the local registering entity for the country.
According to FUNDACOMUN representatives in mid-November, the situation has calmed somewhat between the organizations, and over the past two months, their Caracas Capital District communal council numbers have increased from 54 to 192. A line of advice-seeking Caracas residents was standing out the door during the morning visit to FUNDACOMUN offices in southwestern Caracas. Case workers confirmed that they receive approximately eight new community council petitions a day.
This is good news for Caracas, which earlier this year appeared to be festering with problems.
When Caracas FUNDACOMUN director, Pedro Morales, arrived in February from his position in Miranda state, he was shocked by the institutional â€œfist fightsâ€ taking place. Because of all the problems, according to Morales, Caracas had formed less than 10% the Communal Councils that had been formed in Miranda over the same period.
The April 13th communal council has also had its fair share of difficulties, as the roadmap of institutions, offices, prerequisites is not always as clear as many would like. In October they applied for a $230,000 credit from FIDES to fix the elevators in the apartment complex, ranked number one in their survey of community needs.
Unfortunately, according to Pedro Caldera, who is a facilitator with FUNDACOMUN and lives in the apartment complex, the request was denied because of a problem with their financial cooperative paperwork. Caldera acknowledged that the council neglected to get FUNDACOMUN help when they registered their cooperative. He is now working with them to fix the problem.
â€œThings should be set in the next day or two,â€ he said this week. â€œThe credit should be delivered soon.â€
The Las Delicias communal council, just up the street from blocks 45, 46 & 47, received the first part of their $150,000 credit this week for housing remodeling. They applied at the same time as April 13th, in October.
Problems with the Law & Citizen Participation
â€œItâ€™s a new experience in Venezuela,â€ says Felipe PÃ©rez, describing the communal councils. â€œIt is the leading project of the political transformation of the country because it attempts to put the state in to the hands of the people. It attempts to mold with action the discourse of participatory democracy.â€
Unfortunately, though, says PÃ©rez, â€œBecause the communal councilâ€™s law wasnâ€™t really consulted by the peopleâ€¦ the majority of the communal councils and grassroots movements are not satisfied in the way that the law was written.â€
According to PÃ©rez, the largest failure in the law it that it stops short of giving the councils power over municipal, regional and national decisions, and only gives the councils power in their local community, which, he explains, does not change the structure of the state.
Thatâ€™s the point, says FUNDACOMUNâ€™s Morales, â€œthe communal council is, in no way, a parallel power to the already constituted power. In no caseâ€¦ but rather we need to work hand in hand with the power that is already in place.â€
But the debate is strong and many are at odds. The Venezuelan National Assembly (AN) is now discussing the approval of the law of Citizen Participation and Popular Power, out of a necessity to reconcile some of the contradictions of the Communal Council Law. But neither does this new law call for a reformed state structure.
Ulises Castro, Coordinator of the Bolivarian Schools for Grassroots Power, for the Caracas Metropolitan Mayorâ€™s office, agrees that the law should be more radical. He and his office have been in charge of organizing public consultations in Caracas, so that residents can critique the law proposals. He is proud of the work they have done, and knows that their participation made a difference in the final version of the Community Council Law. But he says that there is much more to be done, and the public meetings on the Law of Citizen Participation began just last month.
â€œThe same political forces still exist,â€ said Castro in early October. â€œIf we believe that grassroots power is the base to construct a new institutionalism, a new state, then legally you need to reform the state.â€
Which is precisely the fear of many of those currently in power. According to Morales, FUNDACOMUN and others promoting the councils have felt resistance from traditional mayors, governors and institutions that have been reluctant to hand over power so easily to the community councils.
Handout or Grassroots Democracy?
But these issues appear to be much too subtle for many in the Venezuelan opposition, who are focused on December 3rd, and have characterized the communal councils as just another handout to Chavez supporters in an election year.
Looking at the huge amounts of resources now being passed directly into community hands, this is an understandable fear. Especially considering that the overwhelming majority of communal councils are in support of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
In the Metropolitan District of Caracas, for instance, according to FUNDACOMUNâ€™s Morales, about 5 of the 54 officially registered communal councils are in middle-class communities, and are therefore more likely to be with the opposition.
But that doesnâ€™t mean that opposition supporters canâ€™t join their local communal council. â€œThe communal councils are inclusive,â€ said Artigas community bank representative and spokesperson for the Bloquecitos communal council, Jose Lopez. â€œThe idea is to break the old system of exclusion.â€
The April 13th communal council categorically denied that Chavez or his political party has any political say or involvement in their council. â€œWe are autonomous and independent,â€ said one community member. â€œThe political parties do not have strength in the population,â€ said another. Nevertheless, there is only one self-identified spokesperson who does not support the President.
One middle-class Eastern-Caracas resident, who asked not to be identified, said that the communal councils could turn out to be a great thing for opposition communities. Her community has been organizing a council since March in order to be able to protect their neighborhood against Chavezâ€™s programs and proposals. â€œIf they do not become politicized, they can succeed,â€ she said, â€œotherwise, forget about it.â€
There have also been a few extreme cases of two communal councils forming in the same neighborhood, with representatives fighting to be considered valid. But such cases are the exception.
â€œThere is a lot of variety,â€ says Felipe PÃ©rez Marti, former Planning Minister under Chavez until 2003. â€œMany places of the opposition try to grab [the communal councils] as a vindication of their position against the governmentâ€¦ In others it has been a difficult process of unity. In others, it has been the Chavistas, that have tried to exclude the rest.â€
PÃ©rez himself, is one of the lone â€œrevolutionariesâ€ or Chavez supporters in his neighborhoodâ€™s communal council, made up of a middle-class â€œrabid opposition.â€ Nevertheless, he was elected â€œsubstitute spokespersonâ€ and plays an active role since the permanent spokesperson never shows up for the meetings.
â€œItâ€™s been very interesting because as we have participated,â€ says PÃ©rez, â€œthey have realized that we are normal people. Because the people are realizing that we all want the same thing. We want a better life. We want that there are better economic, social conditions. Better health, better education, a more beautiful environment, better streets, roads. Better living conditions. Employment. So we want the same, we are the same, why are we divided?â€
According to PÃ©rez, the divisions come from above, where those in power are using them as a source for increasing their power, which is why he believes the communal councils are so important, regardless, of which side you are on.
â€œFrom below there is a natural unity that is, of course, being constructed in the debate, in the exchange of ideas, in the action, in the individual and collective growth, and that is where they are forming a new political and collective consciousness, and a new ethic,â€ says PÃ©rez, who remarks on the near complete absence of the communal councils in the mainstream media.
According to PÃ©rez, the people know much better than anyone in government what they need and what they want. They know much better how to manage those resources, because they know the community, and when a community feels a sense of ownership, they will take care of the project.
â€œIf they waste resources, if they ask for large salaries, itâ€™s as if they are killing the hen with the golden eggs,â€ says PÃ©rez. â€œThey have consciousness and they say no, the hen is mine, I have to take care of it and breed other hens of golden eggs.â€
And that appears to be the direction of the April 13th council. Following the footsteps of the grassroots mobilization after which they named their communal council, commemorating the day, as Ulises Castro says, the people of Venezuela â€œwent out in the streets with consciousness of the problem of power and went to demonstrate and take the spaces of power and demand the return of their presidentâ€¦ without political direction of any traditional partyâ€¦ mobilized, but with a different political consciousness.â€
 Interview, Pedro Caldera, FUNDACOMUN Representative, September 25, 2006, 23 de Enero, Caracas, Venezuela. The name 13th of April (13 de Abril) was chosen for the council, in commemoration of the day President Chavez was returned to office after a short-lived coup in 2002, and with the help of thousands of Chavez supporters than came down from the hills to call for the return of their President.
 One Caracas CTU representative likened the governmentâ€™s communal council proposal to a benevolent good-intentioned giant, that only wants to help, but while bending down to plant a flower, he crushes fifteen instead.
 FUNDACOMUN is a 44 year-old Venezuelan state institute, which until last year specialized in community housing issues and according to Caracas FUNDACOMUN director, Pedro Morales, has always worked in â€œorganization and community participation.â€
 Interview, Richard Canaan, FIDES President, September 24, 2006, FIDES, Caracas, Venezuela.
 Interview, Pedro Morales, FUNDACOMUN Caracas Capital District Capital Director, September 25, 2006, Artigas, Caracas, Venezuela.
 Interview, Pedro Caldera, FUNDACOMUN Representative, November 17, 2006, 23 de Enero, Caracas, Venezuela