The main country road that passes by Las Cuadras, a poor rural area in the zone of El Valle, in the Venezuelan state of Mérida, sports a new roofed waiting area and sidewalk. Julio Cerrada, a spokesman for the Las Cuadras community council, shows me these and other recent projects, including a decorative arch at the neighborhood’s entrance and a large metal garbage container. Then Cerrada takes me to the end of the mountain road, where the community council of La Culata has constructed a pathway consisting of two paved tracks extending about 300 yards uphill, which allows potato and carrot farmers to transport their produce by vehicle and also opens the area to tourism. A small cooperative, called Paseos a Caballo de La Culata, takes tourists on horseback up the pathway, whose entrance is now marked by a large plaque celebrating the figure of Simón Bolívar. Cerrada tells me the cooperative is requesting state financing to construct a tourist station at the pathway’s upper end.
Twenty-four community councils in El Valle have received government financing for a diversity of such undertakings. Nationwide, Venezuela’s some 20,000 local councils, legally established in 2006, are tackling development projects considered priorities by their respective communities. Most of the completed works in El Valle were carried out by the voluntary labor of community members, while materials and tools were purchased with state funds. About half of the able-bodied members of Las Cuadras participated in that community’s joint efforts, Cerrada tells me, and tools, including a wheelbarrow, shovels, pickaxes, and machetes, are now being lent to families. “There is a greater sense of trust and cooperation in communities of several hundred families than you get when larger numbers of people are involved,” he says.
The Law of Community Councils, enacted in April 2006, offers neighborhoods funding once they organize democratically and submit feasible projects to state agencies. Each council represents between 200 and 400 families who approve of priority projects in neighborhood assemblies. By planning, administering, and financing public works and housing construction in their barrios, the community councils represent not only the government’s most recent success in jump-starting popular participation, but also a radical break with the past, when these activities were undertaken by the city, state, or national government.
The structure of the community councils, as defined by the 2006 law, differs from that of the Venezuelan worker cooperatives, which had their heyday in 2004 and 2005. Whereas the cooperatives were headed by presidents, some of whom abused their position by pocketing state funds, the community councils are horizontally structured, with all of their leaders (called voceros, or “spokespeople”) working free of charge and considered of equal rank. Spokespeople can belong to no more than one of their council’s various commissions, which include a communal bank, which handles grant money; a “social controllership,” which monitors spending; and an “employment commission,” which enlists qualified community members for remunerative jobs and attempts to ensure that they receive preferential hiring. All decisions, including the selection of spokespeople, are ratified in an “assembly of citizens,” which represents the community council’s “maximum instance of decision making,” according to the 2006 law.
The large number of community councils established in 2006 eclipsed the Local Planning Councils created by the Hugo Chávez government in 2002 to permit community members to devise projects, but which ended up largely under the control of mayors who packed them with their own followers.1 The 2006 law was designed to achieve greater independence vis-à-vis local government by allowing the community councils not only to conceive their own projects but also to execute them.
The councils thereby put into practice the “participatory democracy” embodied in the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution drafted by Chávez’s followers. Some of their activities also reflect Chávez’s discourse, which minimizes the importance of “experts” or “technocrats” and stresses the will of the people and their capacity to solve all problems, even highly technical ones. Thus, for example, the community council members in charge of handling money act collectively in commissions, but many lack prior financial experience or training, following a “learn as you go” approach.
Advanced technical skills are required for some projects, like extending electric lines to new communities and constructing dozens of houses, as well as converting shacks into houses (known as ranchos por viviendas dignas). Typically, community councils in nonprivileged sectors contract a company or a cooperative for these more ambitious jobs, but insist that a large number of positions, including skilled ones, be filled by neighborhood residents.
The funding for the councils’ projects comes from a variety of sources, including gubernatorial and municipal governments, the Ministry of Participation and Social Protection, the state oil company PDVSA, FIDES (a fund derived from the value-added tax), and LAEE (derived from mining and oil revenue). Lengthy procedures are designed to ensure that the money assigned to community councils is well spent, unlike what happened with many of the cooperatives. However, due to the diversity in sources of financing, the application and requirements for funding vary, as do inspection procedures, thus complicating the councils’ everyday operation.
In most cases, the state allocates money to the councils in two or more tranches and inspects the results, taking numerous photographs midway through the job. “Promoters” who work for the state government or the FUNDACOMUNAL office of the Ministry of Participation and Social Protection provide guidance to individual councils and then inspect their work on the basis of “social criteria” in order to confirm that a given project benefits the anticipated number of families. The Ministry of Infrastructure and other ministries also carry out inspections on the basis of “technical” criteria. The community council is required to send a balance statement each year to the National Superintendency of Cooperatives, which the Communal Bank is registered with (even though it is not a “cooperative”).
The successful completion of these steps qualifies the council for additional financing, either to complete a given project or begin work on a new one. FUNDACOMUNAL keeps a registry of all community councils, which other government offices check against in order to avoid funding councils in bad standing. This year, FUNDACOMUNAL plans on making the registry public by posting it on its Web page (www.fundacomun.gob.ve).
These procedures have proved just partly effective in ensuring efficiency and discouraging corruption. The threat of state funding being suspended weighs heavily on those community members who have invested considerable time and effort in creating a community council. Nevertheless, just as in the case of the workers’ cooperatives, the state has failed to act decisively against unscrupulous council spokespeople.
“Community activists who accuse fellow council members of misspending money often complain that the case goes through the courts at a snail’s pace, during which time they are unable to get further funding,” says Leandro Rodríguez, adviser to the National Assembly’s Commission of Citizen Participation, Decentralization and Regional Development. He adds that the 2006 law fails to establish any formal link between the community council’s social controllership commission and the National Controller, who should be in charge of working closely with the communities to give them legal information.
In addition to these problems, the councils’ downsides include their use for political purposes and the government’s laxness in enforcing requirements, which in turn is conducive to snags and deficiencies in performance. On balance, the government has leaned over backward in implementing its various social programs, including the community councils, as it lifts controls, provides diverse monetary and non-monetary incentives, and in general assumes a flexible position in order to avoid dampening popular enthusiasm.
The creation of community councils was partly a reaction to the inefficiency of the state bureaucracy, particularly at the municipal level. In his congressional address unveiling a constitutional reform proposal in August 2007, Chávez affirmed that he had “misgivings regarding established local authorities” and had greater faith in the capacity of the people at the local level. He went on to point to the high abstention rates in city and state elections as placing in doubt the legitimacy of local officials.2 More recently, Chávez’s proposal to group community councils in a given zone in “communes” (which in turn would form part of a “commune city”), in order to solve common problems, threatens to substantially undermine the power of municipal government by creating a parallel structure. In private, local authorities, including mayors, have expressed fear that the scheme is designed to phase out city government, as National Assembly adviser Rodríguez and Sergio Lugo, an adviser to the Mérida municipality’s Department of Local Planning Councils, told me.
Nevertheless, the community councils are not in a position to supplant municipal government. At this point, they are undertaking work only on priority projects, a far cry from taking on the myriad functions of municipal government. Applied to the community councils, the Rousseau-inspired utopian ideal of direct democracy displacing representative institutions—a vision sometimes embraced by Chavistas—is thus highly misleading.3 A more realistic assessment comes from Marisol Pérez, who heads the state government of Anzoátegui’s community council office. “This is an experimental process,” she says. “The celebrated phrase of Simón Rodríguez [Simón Bolívar’s tutor] so frequently invoked by our president, ‘Either we invent or we err,’ is applicable in a big way to the community councils.”
Chavista political leaders, whose rhetoric typically emphasizes popular decision making, have increasingly highlighted the activities of the community councils. Aristóbulo Istúriz and Jorge Rodríguez, the Chavista candidates in Caracas’s two major mayoral races in November, divided their respective platforms into two parts: programs directly undertaken by the state and support for “popular power” consisting mainly of the community councils. In another mayoral race in Caracas, the Chavista candidate pledged to construct a “metrocable” up the slum-ridden hills of Petare, similar to another one that is near completion in the barrios of San Agustín. According to the plan, each station would contain a facility, such as a library or theater, that would be placed under the administration of a community council.
Meanwhile, government critics argue that the community councils are inefficient and warn that they weaken representative democracy by undermining all intermediate bodies between the national executive and the people—be it the municipal government, state planning agencies, or even the Chavista party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Américo Martín, a former leftist who ran for president in 1978, calls the community councils an “atom bomb” bound to produce chaos by making clientelistic demands of a magnitude impossible to satisfy.4 Another leftist turned anti-Chavista, Teodoro Petkoff, harps on the quixotic nature of community councils, which he likens to the worker cooperatives and worker-management schemes also promoted by the Chávez government. Petkoff argues that these experiments bring to mind Marx’s indictment of the utopian socialists: “Instead of recognizing the historical conditions of emancipation, they envisioned fantastic conditions and a reorganization of society invented by themselves.”5
These arguments against the viability of the community councils overstate the case against them. The fact is that thousands of projects throughout Venezuela have already been satisfactorily completed, and many more are under way—an accomplishment entirely new in the nation’s history. In addition, community council leaders are engaged in a wide variety of activities and programs that have no precedent in Venezuela’s community movement.
Politics and the state are very much at the center of the community council phenomenon. Council leaders often find themselves on both sides of the line separating civil society and political activism. Thus, for instance, council meetings sometimes devote time to discussing electoral strategy and logistics. After the PSUV was created in 2007, it canvassed for Chavista candidates in the communities, causing the community councils to recede somewhat from the electoral arena. Nevertheless, in early 2009, Minister of Participation and Social Protection Erika Farías called on the community councils to form brigades to campaign in favor of the Chávez-sponsored constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits on all elected positions, a proposition that was approved in a referendum held February 15. The electoral activity of those connected with the community councils and other government-funded social programs overshadowed the PSUV in the campaign.
Some writers stress the need for Venezuelan social organizations, including community councils, to strive for absolute autonomy vis-à-vis state and party.6 These include leading Venezuelan activists and writers Roland Denis, Javier Biardeau, and Rafael Uzcátegui (of the anarchist periodical El Libertario). John Holloway, a renowned theoretician who defends this viewpoint, stated at the time of the World Social Forum in Caracas in 2006: “The great danger that exists in Venezuela today . . . is that the movement ‘from above’ will swallow . . . the movement ‘from below.’ ”7
The fixation on autonomy, however, is somewhat misplaced. Social programs and the organizations they create—and not autonomous social movements—are the backbone of the Chavista movement. Prior to Chávez’s election in 1998, Venezuela lacked the type of vibrant, well-organized social movements that paved the way for the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. For many years in Venezuela, neighborhood and worker cooperative movements were independent of the state, but they failed to flourish or play a major role in the lives of nonprivileged Venezuelans.
In contrast, the Chávez government’s injection of large sums of money into community councils and other social programs has served to stimulate the marginalized sectors and show them ways to take control of their lives. Specifically, state resources in the form of allotments for community council projects, loans for worker cooperatives, and stipends for students enrolled in makeshift educational programs (known as “missions”) have been essential in activating people along organized lines. In spite of financial dependence on the state, rank-and-file Chavistas tend to be critical, and their support for the government is hardly unqualified, thus explaining, for instance, Chávez’s defeat in the constitutional referendum of 2007.8
For the Chavistas, the “revolutionary process” consists of people gaining control of their lives in the areas where they live, more so than in the workplace (as Communists, Trotskyists, and other hard-line Chavistas advocate). This emphasis is reflected in the the fact that the community councils have received far more attention and resources than the worker-management schemes ever did.
The councils are subject to a host of problems, including poor management of financing, “free riders,” and the deep-rooted skepticism among many community members toward neighborhood leaders’ intentions. Pro-Chávez writers who focus on the community councils and similar social programs, while providing useful information, generally skirt these thorny issues.9 The pro-government media also shy away from open discussion of knotty problems of this type, even though they frequently refer to the community councils. Furthermore, critical debate is lacking within the PSUV. By avoiding nitty-gritty problems, the Chavista leadership ends up glorifying the community councils and creating the myth that they are a panacea for countless problems, a notion that may be designed to pay electoral dividends. The shortcoming is particularly serious given the government’s stated commitment to more than double the program’s funding in 2009.
As the community councils gain experience, two processes fraught with tension are under way. First, marginalized and semi-marginalized sectors of the population gain confidence and experience in collective decision making. Second, steps toward institutionalization are designed to create viable mechanisms that monitor and guard against ill-conceived projects and misuse of public funds.
But the effort to achieve incorporation, on the one hand, and institutionalization, on the other, is a complicated balancing act. Mechanisms and procedures to ensure efficiency cannot be imposed all at once. The massive and ongoing participation of the nonprivileged depends on the flexibility and comprehension of those in charge of public financing.
“We don’t hound the council spokespeople, and we give them the benefit of the doubt,” says Marisol Pérez of the Anzoátegui state government. “After all, many of them are novices who could easily drop out if they perceive that the obstacles are too great.”
In addition to the social and institutional dimensions, a third objective is political: the mobilization of those who benefit from the community councils in order to defend the government in the face of an intransigent opposition with extensive resources. Indeed, achieving distinct and not always compatible objectives is a formidable challenge for Venezuela’s unchartered path to socialism.
Steve Ellner has been teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, since 1977. His Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008) will be released in paperback in October.
1. Luis Bonilla-Molina and Haiman El Troudi, Historia de la revolución bolivariana: pequeña crónica, 1948–2004 (Caracas: Impresos Publigráfica, 2005), 232.
2. Hugo Chávez, Ahora la batalla es por el sí: discurso de presentación del Proyecto de Reforma Constitucional (Caracas: Biblioteca Construcción del Socialismo, 2007), 63–65.
3. Steve Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008), 176–80.
4. Américo Martín, “Segunda Parte,” in Martín and Freddy Muñoz, Socialismo del siglo XXI: huida en el laberinto? (Caracas: Editorial Alfa, 2007), 160–70.
5. Teodoro Petkoff, “Comuna Comeflor,” Tal Cual, September 30, 2008.
6. See Roland Denis, “Venezuela: The Popular Movements and the Government,” International Socialist Review 110 (spring 2006): 29–35, and Hilary Wainwright, “Democracy Diary,” Red Pepper, December 2007. For a discussion of community council autonomy, see Sara C. Motta “Venezuela: Reinventing Social Democracy From Below?” in Geraldine Lievesley and Steve Ludlam, eds., Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy (Zed Books, 2008), 84–88; George Ciccariello-Maher, “Dual Power in the Venezuelan Revolution,” Monthly Review 59, no. 4 (September 2007): 42–56.
7. Quoted in María Pilar García-Guadilla and Carlos Lagorio, “La cuestión del poder y los movimientos sociales: reflexión pos-Foro Social Mundial Caracas 2006,” Revista Venezolana de Economía y Ciencias Sociales 12, no. 3 (December 2006).
8. Sujatha Fernandes, In the Spirit of Negro Primero: Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela (Duke University Press, forthcoming 2010).
9. Enrique Rodríguez, “Política social actual: una visión desde el gobierno,” in Thais Maingon, ed., Balance y perspectiva de la política social en Venezuela (Caracas: ILDIS and CENDES, 2006), 281–90; Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, “Workplace Democracy and Collective Consciousness: An Empirical Study of Venezuelan Cooperatives,” Monthly Review 59, no. 6 (November 2007): 27–40.