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 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.
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
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-Chávistas 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.
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
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 public.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.