Under the leadership of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela began a program of decentralization and popular participation in 1998. Efforts to decentralize power have included a rewritten constitution as well as state recognition of popularly elected, citizen-led communal councils.
Problems and Purpose
Following years of dictatorship and dysfunctional democracy, Chavez's programme of decentralization promised to finally place political power in the hands of the people. This committment has been continued - or at least acknowledged - by Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro.
Background History and Context
Hugo Chavez came to power as Venezuela's President in 1998, replacing the unpopular two-party monopoly in power since 1958 when the country's system of democracy was forged with the signing of the Puntofijo Pact: a power-sharing agreement between three elite-dominated political parties. Resigning from the Pact four years later, the Unión Republicana Democrática left power in the hands of Acción Democrática (AD) and COPEI (Social Christian Party) who essentially shared power between their members, making elections and popular sentiment worthless. Dominated by technocrats and party patrons keen to exploit the nation’s mass oil wealth for personal gain, the state and its institutions quickly became innefficient and corrupt, drawing public outrage and condemnation. The ascendancy of Chavez, running on a Bolivarian agenda of popular sovereignty and participation, marked a rupture from the last fourty years of patronage and monopolistic elite-rule.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project of state decentralization, including the new constitution and the establishment of commmunal councils has been overseen and directed by Hugo Chavez and signed into law by the National Assembly.
Each communal council has a financial branch in the form of a cooperative. These differ from traditional cooperatives in that they are "social property," and, hypothetically, belong to the community.
Financing for the Councils usually comes from Banco Agricola (Agricultural Bank) or the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation. Resources are evaluated during deliberative communal council assemblies and the Agricultural Bank provides finances in accordance with the council's expense estimates. The distribution of all finances and resources is, however, firmly in the hands of the counil.
For first-time applicants, Councils may request up to $14,000 per community project although this is not specified in law. Second-time applicants have their monetary limit raised to $28,000 although some councils have reportedly been granted more possibly due to the ambiguity in the law (Lerner, 2007). Funding for specific projects is granted by either National or City governments. Eight months after the Communal Council Law was approved in 2006, over 12,000 councils had received funding for community projects. This has amounted to over $1 billion in micro loans (Ibid.). The councils and its members can raise additional resources through local fundraising initiatives and donations. Councils may also set up communal banks and use them to dispense loans to neighbouring councils.
Participation Recruitment and Selection
Under the new constitution, political participation is the exclusive right of every citizen of Venezuela. Participation through elections is open to all as is participation in one's local communal council. To serve in the main decision-making body of a communal council - a Citizens' Assembly - one must be elected through direct, blind ballot.
Gender parity is a significant aspect of establishing a participatory democracy in Venezuela. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is the only political party functioning that has sought to enforce gender parity. Initiatives such as Madres del Barrio Mision (Mothers of the Barrio Mission), for example, aim to combat poverty with a gender perspective.
The national government directs women toward the political process, encouraging them to participate in grassroots initiatives as equal and valuable citizens. There has been much success in getting women involved in the decision making -- not only at an institutional level -- but in many Councils, as women take charge and make up the majority of their membership.
Methods and Tools Used
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Deliberation, Decisions and Public Interaction
Compared to previous legal statutes, the new 1999 Constitution was more inclusive and just, deliberately creating the institutional mechanisms necessary to facilitate greater popular participation. Under Chavez, the nation was to replace the strict hierarchy of the earlier era with a horizontal power relationship between citizens and state. The Chavez government placed specific emphasis on the decentralization of power and the increased involvement of citizens in the decision-making process - especially at the local or neighbourhood level.
According to sociologist Jesús Pacheco, the Constitution contains some 70 articles dedicated to the promotion of citizen participation (Marco 2017). Article 62 in particular guaranteed participatory democracy in Venezuela by stipulating that not only do “all citizens have the right to freely participate in political affairs, directly or via their elected representatives,” but it is the duty of the state to ensure the "participation of the people in forming, carrying out and controlling the management of public affairs." (Constitution, 1999)
The Punto Fijo era gave citizens a minimal role in political matters - matters which directly affected their lives. According to Alfonso Olivo, state cooperative Council member under Chavez, “the people got used to this way of life [under Punto Fijo where] the state gave them crumbs and kept them busy until the people realised that they were worth more than that; that the profit produced by the petroleum had to go directly to the people". (Martinez et al, 2010: 17). However, as the masses became more disillusioned with the political system, years of social struggle had paid off in the form of Chavez and a government determined to recognize the agency and capacity of its citizens.
The power of citizens became stronger when, in January of 2006, Chavez asked the National Assembly to officially recognize the power of community organizations. Three months after his address, the Assembly passed The Special Law of the Communal Councils, Article 1 of which states:
"The Communal Councils represent the means through which the organized masses can take over the direct administration of the policies and projects which are created to respond to the needs and aspirations of the communities in the construction of a fair and just society. The organization, operation and action of the Communal Councils are governed by the principles of co-responsibility, cooperation, solidarity, transparency, accountability, social responsibility, fairness, justice, social controllership and economic self-management." (Special Law on Communal Councils 2006)
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The rewriting of the constitution and the creation of Communal Councils represent a departure from the perceived inefficiency of representative democracy, as exemplified by the mass discontent shown towards the Punto Fijo system. It is a rejection of U.S.-centric notions of democracy as it seeks to construct new spaces for political articulation.
Moreover, the Councils are a symbol of Venezuela’s commitment to the country’s marginalised and disenfranchised sectors. They are effectively transformed into a vibrant constituency that can no longer be ignored by the country’s political elites.
The birth and life of Communal Councils is monumental. They are the new geometry of power which have successfully taken some of the capital from bureaucracy, from the mayors and the council members and passed it directly to the people, all whilst supplementing the establishment of a bold, eclectic and dynamic participatory democracy within Venezuela.
The government announced, in February of 2012, that over 43,000 communal councils had been created (August, 2013: 50). However, at the time of writing this figure has yet to be independently verified.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
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August, Arnold. (2013). Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion. London: Zed Books.
Buxton, Julia. (2011). “Foreword: Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy.” In David Smilde and Daniel Hellinger (Ed.), Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Constitution of Venezuela. (1999). http://www.venezuelaemb.or.kr/english/ConstitutionoftheBolivarianingles.pdf
Marco, Daniel García. (2017). "Qué son los consejos comunales de Venezuela y por qué son tan importantes para la Asamblea Nacional Constituyente que convocó Nicolás Maduro." BBC Mundo. http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-39788097
Lerner, Josh. (2007). “Communal Councils in Venezuela: Can 200 Families Revolutionize Democracy?” Z Magazine: The Spirit of Resistance Lives.
Martinez, Carlos., Michael Fox and Jojo Farrell. (2010).Venezuela Speaks: Voices From The Grassroots. Oakland: PMPress
Salazar, Juan Carlos. (2013). “The Promise of Transformation through Participation: an Analysis of Communal Councils in Caracas, Venezuela.” A Working Paper for the International Institute of Social Studies.
Smilde, David. (2013, July 4). “Twitter Stream from #askWOLAVZ Q&A.” Retrieved from http://venezuelablog.tumblr.com/post/54596639572/twitter-stream-from-askwolavz-q-a
Special Law on Communal Councils, The. 2006. https://web.archive.org/web/20070927215622/http://www.globalexchange.org/countries/americas/venezuela/communalcouncils.html
Law of the Communal Councils [SPANISH]
This case was originally written by Mohadesa Najumi and Omar O. Ocampo