[Marxism] organising from below in Venezuela

michael a. lebowitz mlebowit at sfu.ca
Sun Oct 30 04:56:50 MST 2005

One of the latest in a series of fine articles by 
Fred Fuentes for Green Left Weekly.

VENEZUELA: Communities organising through communal councils

Federico Fuentes, Caracas

While much of the nation’s attention is focussed 
on the December 4 National Assembly elections, 
another set of important elections are scheduled 
to take place during November in the municipality 
of Sucre. Here it is hoped that up to 300 
community governments will be elected for the 
first time as part of a pilot project that is set 
to spread across the country to make concrete the 
idea of giving power to the people.

The election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of 
Venezuela in 1998 signalled the end of the old 
corrupt representative democracy of the “Fourth 
Republic”, in which the two major parties ­ each 
representing the interests of the rich elites ­ 
shared power between themselves, while the poor 
80% were excluded. From its ashes rose the Fifth 
Republic based on the idea of active and 
participatory democracy, which was enshrined in 
the new constitution one year later, following a 
popular consultation and referendum. The aim was 
not only that the poor were to be given access to 
health, education and basic services, but they 
would play an active role in deciding how these areas would function.

There was a rise in health committees, which 
worked side by side with Cuban doctors in Mission 
Barrio Adentro, taking health care into the 
poorest barrios of Venezuela. Local neighbourhood 
groups, Urban Land Committees, gas and 
electricity work-tables, water work-tables and 
many more forms of community organisation sprang 
up, each attempting, with help from the 
government, to change the lives of the excluded.

While these organisations continue to exist, many 
of the participants have encountered problems, 
including difficulties working with some of the 
bureaucratic structures inherited from the Fourth 
Republic. Many people from the old structures 
have continued to work in the administrations, 
hindering the work of the community. Some state 
institutions worked in a counterproductive way in 
the establishment of these community 
organisations, with party politics influencing 
who received funds or was given official 
recognition. This seems to have been particularly 
the case with a number of the Local Councils for 
Public Planning (CLPPs), which although meant to 
allow the organised communities to participate 
side by side with the municipal councils, were 
manipulated by parties to only give 
representation to fellow party members, turning 
them into rubber stamps for the municipal council.

The explosion in community organisation meant 
that in any one community, multiple organisations 
are found, each working away on their own 
projects, sometimes competing for resources and 
weakening their combined ability to tackle some 
of the problems inherited by taking over the old bureaucratic structures.

Problems have also arisen from the old practices 
and culture that are still dominate within the 
communities. For example, it is not uncommon for 
community members who for decades have been told 
that all of Venezuela’s problems can be solved by 
simply distributing petrodollars, to hand over a 
project to an institution and just wait for the 
job to be done, in many cases being disappointed 
and disillusioned with the outcome.

In order to tackle some of these issues, a group 
of long-time revolutionaries from the 1970s, some 
of whom are now active within Chavez’s party the 
MVR (Movement for a Fifth Republic) and others in 
the Bolivarian Circles, began to work on the idea 
of community governments in the municipality of 
Sucre. One of these revolutionaries, Freddy Gil, 
who now works in the office of the mayor of 
Sucre, spoke to Green Left Weekly about this 
project, which the Ministry of Popular 
Participation and Social Development (MINPADES) hopes to extend the country.

The idea was that in a smaller space it is easier 
for people to exercise their power, and by 
bringing all the people and different 
organisations present in the community together, 
they could work out a single plan for their 
community, tackling issues from public works to 
health and education. The concept already had a 
legal basis established in the law regarding CLPPs.

Gil explained that there was some resistance to 
the name community government, as some were 
scared of the implications calling them that. At 
the national level they are being referred to as 
communal councils. Yet what is important, Gil 
said, is that the project of building the new 
society is starting from the grassroots upwards 
to avoid some of the problems that up to now have occurred with the CLPPs.

A pamphlet on the communal councils produced by 
MINPADES explains this idea by noting that “just 
as a house can collapse easily if its base is not 
sufficiently strong, this can also happen to our 
new democracy that we are constructing: it will 
only be invincible if its base is strong and its 
base is the communal councils”.

The way the communal councils are being set up is 
that an assembly is called by convoking 200 to 
400 families in a local community. “We count the 
houses, the number of families that were in a 
determined community, a set geographical space, a 
commune that we said had to have certain 
characteristics like use of common services, 
traditions, common culture that identified them.

“Once it is determined that in this area it is 
possible to form a community government then we 
would go with an invitation calling on all of the 
community, taken to each house independent of 
their ideology or political ideas. It would be 
taken to them with the name of the community 
saying that this was from the directors and 
assistants of the mayor’s office. There we would 
guarantee that everyone was invited to attend.

“There would be an assembly where a talk was 
given about what we understood the community 
governments to be. They would be asked to choose 
20 people to form the promotion team for the 
comunity government. This team was made up of 
those people who put themselves forward at the 
assemblies, which the majority of the times had 
200 people, 80, 70, 50 up to 300 people in attendance.”

I went to a meeting with 50 people in attendance, 
representing the same amount of families. Twenty 
people stepped forward as social promoters, the 
majority of them women, as was the case with the 
overall attendance. Because of the geographical 
nature of the communal councils and its proximity 
to family homes, the participation of women is 
made easier and women tend to play the biggest role.

The promotion teams are entrusted with the job of 
carrying out a census of the population to find 
out exactly who lives in the area and what their 
specific problems are. Within three to six 
months, this work is expected to be carried out 
by door knocking every house in the community. 
This time frame is important to make everyone 
aware of the communal council and to notify them 
of elections. Thirteen members of the communal 
council will be elected, each with a designated 
role such as education, culture, science and 
technology; or citizen and community security.

Gil explained that such a measure helped to 
ensure the full participation of the community 
and to ensure no party or organisation could self 
declare themselves a communal council without the 
knowledge of the community. Unfortunately in the 
rush by some mayors and councillors to prove 
their credentials in establishing the most 
communal councils in their respective areas, some 
have neglected this aspect of its formation.

For radical Latin American journalist Marta 
Harnecker, who is working with MINPADES on the 
promotion of the communal councils, broad 
participation in this project is a very important 
of the revolutionary process in Venezuela. She 
explained to Green Left Weekly that 
“participation will help consolidate this process 
at the grassroots, take it forward and broaden 
it, creating more forces in favour of the process”.

“Participation needs to be a lot broader”. Many 
people who may not yet be in support of the 
process due to the “politicking and the defects 
of the process ... could be won to the 
construction of a new humanist society” based on 
solidarity. “There are many people who are not 
Chavistas but would help construct this new 
society. It needs to be opened up to all those people.”

Harnecker said it would be a “grave mistake to 
politicise participation. Participation itself 
can politicise people, for instance in the case 
of the participatory budget in Porto Alegre [in 
Brazil] where people from other parties were 
involved, but who began to sympathise with the 
Worker’s Party after they participated in a 
process that wasn’t politicised. I believe that 
is the road to win people over to this project.”

The next stage will involve the community in 
discussing the problems they face and how to 
tackle them. Harnecker explained: “With the idea 
of a participatory diagnosis, it is important to 
first look at prioritising problems that the 
community can resolve itself, firstly because 
there is a habit in general of people who 
organise themselves to propose a project in order 
to get money. They are able to formulate a 
project, but then they are left waiting for the 
money ... they are left with there arms crossed 
waiting for a response, and because the response 
is slow, if it comes at all, that is where apathy will appear.

“Instead, if you organise yourself to see what 
the community can resolve, it can be much more 
successful, because they can resolve many things 
with the resources they have in the community.”

That is why citizen’s assemblies are given the 
clear role of decision making, while the communal 
councils are meant to work on executing the 
projects of the community at each stage, 
involving the community in carrying out and supervising the jobs.

Gil explained, “The country has economically 
advanced, it has some resources, but the social 
debt here is so big that many of the problems 
won’t be fixed in a budget ... we need to work in 
the communities to help create cooperatives and 
the nucleus of endogenous [national] development 
that can allow employment and enable many things 
to occur. This will come about as we get more 
organised in this and we know more about the 
community through the creation of the communal 
councils and learn more about the latent potential in each community.”

Discussing, debating, executing and supervising 
projects that tackle the entirety of the problems 
faced at the local level would give the 
communities real power. Not all problems would be 
able to be fixed in the first round, and some 
projects of a bigger nature would need to be 
taken to higher authorities, but with a solid 
organisational base the communities could make 
sure that more and more power would reside there 
and not in the old structures.

Gil commented that for him the communal councils 
“are a school where people learn and take up the 
idea that they can socialise their potential, 
that they can generate the well-being of all and 
of course community advances, learning what we 
would need for a bigger system, because this is a 
micro system ... If we all learn in this 
collective exercise about the socialisation of 
things, of course we are going to advance further 
in the socialisation of what is much bigger.

“Of course, when some of us ‘revolutionaries’ 
reach [positions in government], we begin to work 
a lot like the Fourth Republic. So when the 
people learn about their rights and put forward 
projects to tackle their necessities, taking them 
through the regular channels and demanding 
respect, the people in power, the governors, 
mayors ... will begin disappearing ... But we 
know that, accustomed to old vices, they will try 
to escape, but they will find themselves confronted with the people.

“Here, anyone who wants to be governor or mayor 
to serve the public will need to really serve the 
public ... they will not be able to give out 
resources to where they want to benefit their 
votes. It will be nice for this to happen because 
the people have become organised, active and with 
the article in the constitution that refers to 
referendums, if the governor doesn’t get to work, 
well, how easy is it for the organised community 
to collect signatures ... This will be a very 
important mechanism of control, it will be an 
education for the leaders and managers, if they 
want to really serve the people, and it will be 
good for the people because it will be them who 
decide what fundamental projects need to be 
carried out first and which afterwards.”

“We used to talk about socialism”, said Gil, “of 
taking power from the enemy through arms, but 
where the people did not exercise anything. Today 
we have political power, we have a president that 
calls for a debate on “socialism of the 21st 
century” and we have a whole community debating, 
discussing and experimenting with what is the 
socialisation of things, of their potentials and resources.”

 From Green Left Weekly, November 2, 2005.
Visit the <http://www.greenleft.org.au/>Green Left Weekly home page.

Michael A. Lebowitz
Professor Emeritus
Economics Department
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6

Currently based in Venezuela. Can be reached at
Residencias Anauco Suites
Departamento 601
Parque Central, Zona Postal 1010, Oficina 1
Caracas, Venezuela
(58-212) 573-4111
fax: (58-212) 573-7724

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