Communal councils were institutionalized by the Venezuelan government to provide citizens with a horizontal channel of communication with the state and to devolve power over community-level decision-making to participatory and democratically-elected neighbourhood assemblies.
Problems and Purpose
Under the leadership of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela began a program of decentralization and popular participation in 2006. Annouced in January, Chavez's plan was put into place less than a month later with the passing of the Law of Communal Councils (consejos comunales) which effectively institutionalized the councils in the political system. The councils were seen as an effective way to provide citizens with a horizontal channel of communication with the state and to devolve power over community-level decision-making to participatory and democratically-elected neighbourhood assemblies.
Origins and Development
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)
Participant Recruitment and Selection
According to Article 2 of The Special Law on Communal Councils, "a Community is the social conglomerate of families and citizens who inhabit the same geographical area; those who share a common history and interests; those who know one another and who relate with themselves; those who use the same public utilities; and those who share necessities and similar potentials in economic, social, city-planning and other ways." Any community meeting those requirements can form its own communal council. In using a 'sociological' definition of community, the law recognizes that such social units differ in composition - from 200-400 families in urban areas to less than 20 families for rural areas and 15 for indigenous ones.
The top decision-making body of oversight, the Citizens' Assembly, is made up individuals selected through direct and secret ballot voting. To be eligible for election, one must 1) be a member of the community represented by the council, 2) be older than 15, 3) have "moral solvency", 4) have available time to dedicate to council work, 5) possess a "spirit of unity", 6) be capable and willing to work in a team, and 7) agree to abide by the commands of the community (Law on Communal Councils 2006). The Assembly has the power to appoint a Spokesperson from each neighbourhood and Working Committee - the number and issue-area of which are determined through Assembly meetings. Together, the Assembly, the neighbourhoods, and the Committees (the latter two of which are represented by their own Spokesperson), constitute the executive body of the communal council.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
Today participatory democracy in Venezuela serves as a new experiment in popular power. Officially recognized as decision-making bodies, the councils excellerated the decentralization of state governance by granting decision-making power to numerous self-managed entities at the local level. The Councils serve as the agency for a previously discontented mass to audit, consult with and engage their government. Officially the role of Councils is to send project proposals directly to the Presidential Commission of Popular Power. Constant and strong participation is encouraged and funded.
The councils have a highly sophisticated and multifarious structure which influences and is influenced by local power dynamics, vulnerabilities, utilisation of funding, sustainability, practicality, tendency for co-optation and their overall contribution to participatory democracy in Venezuela.
Communal Councils possess three separate branches of at least five people: the executive branch (which coordinates), the financial branch (which oversees the finances and the communal bank or cooperative) and the social controller branch (which audits the other branches). The elected spokespersons of the council belong to one of these branches, in which they can create projects. Ultimate power, however, lies in the citizens' assembly of all community members which must approve projects and fund allocations (Martinez., C. et al (2010)Venezuela Speaks: Voices From The Grassroots. PMPress)
As of 2010 over 30,000 Communal Councils have been established according to official government reports. Billions of dollars in state funds have seen their way down from the national government to council banks which have been organising infrastructure and socio-economic projects. The Communal Councils represent the articulation of citizen participation, public management and effective transfer of power and authority to the grassroots.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Communal councils is monumental have successfully transfered some of the decision-making power from bureaucrats, mayors, and council members directly to the people. On paper, the councils are a bold, eclectic and dynamic step towards participatory democracy by Venezuela. The government announced, in February of 2012, that over 43,000 communal councils had been created (August, 2013: 50).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
While, on paper, the Councils appear to be a magnificent tool for political mobilisation, there are some discrepancies between the promise and reality.
First, as David Smilde notes, participatory democracy “rarely becomes widespread without state sponsorship.” As a result, the autonomy of the Councils and other grassroots organisations immediately come into question as membership and funding may be conditioned in accordance to their political allegiance or ideological orientation. Further, the Councils become very susceptible to co-optation by the state in times of crisis, rendering it as merely an instrument of state power.
The second issue is concerned with participation itself. In examining six Councils in Caracas, Salazar (2013) documented the difficulty in effectively mobilising members. Many individuals simply do not have the time, the resources or the capacity to be engaged participants, therefore material incentives have to be deployed to encourage active involvement. Salazar then asks a pertinent question: “if the main motivation of the people to participate is material, then the formation of the [Councils] is also material?” Consequently, this produces other inquiries concerning self-sustainability: if the government, regardless of its political leanings, is unwilling or does not have the capacity to commit resources, does this reduce the impact and/or formation of the Councils? Will they still organise without state-sponsorship?
Lastly, the Councils have been overwhelmed with administrative problems. Their link to the state has become bureaucratic, making it vulnerable to both inefficient management and corruption, hampering the dynamism of popular power.
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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]