Venezuela shows the way to real democracy


Richard Moore

      "Now the community is the basic structural unit of
       government of the new state, legally defined as 200-400
       families in urban areas, around 20 in the countryside and
       from 10 up for the indigenous population. The Spanish
       political analyst Juan Carlos Monedero observed that the
       main reason 20th-century socialism failed was a lack of
       participation by the people. Communal councils may be
       instrumental in the construction of Venezuela's 21st-century

When Americans see the word 'socialism', they 
think of dictatorships, collectivized farms, etc. 
In Venezuela, and much of the rest of the world, 
'socialism' simply refers to an equitable 
economic system, of which there can be many 
varieties. They are really referring to a 
democratic process when they say 'socialism', and 
they see the community as the basic unit in a 
democratic society.


Original source URL:

Popular revolution, culture of impunity
Venezuela's promising future

Local councils - Units of Popular Power - are 
being set up in the hope that their members, and 
the small groups they represent, will take 
responsibility for changing their lives.

By Renaud Lambert

JUAN Guerra, a lorry driver from Zulia state, 
knew that he looked out of place in an office in 
his dirty jeans and three-day beard. But he had 
spent a week crossing Venezuela and he would not 
be intimidated by a civil servant from the 
national assembly. He slammed his fist on the 
table and said: "No, we are not asking, we are 
demanding that the comrade deputy transmit our 
complaint to the citizen president."

Juan and his colleague Jhonny Plogar represent 
700 lorry drivers. In 2000 they filed a complaint 
against their employers, the coal haulage 
companies Cootransmapa, Coozugavol and Coomaxdi. 
According to the plaintiffs, the companies 
"misused their cooperative status to benefit from 
tax exemptions and state contracts". Over the 
past five years the two men have been shunted 
from office to office and Jhonny has a bulging 
file of copies of letters written to ministries, 
town halls, the state government and the 

When Venezuela's National Superintendence of 
Cooperatives (Sunacoop) finally withdrew the 
companies' cooperative status, the national coal 
mining company continued to use their services. 
The Zulia state governor and presidential 
candidate, Manuel Rosales, who signed a decree 
dismantling all bodies set up during the 2002 
coup, is in no hurry to put Sunacoop's decision 
into effect. The bosses are using the time to get 
organised. Hired killers known as sicarios will 
soon be threatening people.

This is a common situation in Venezuela. When the 
two men reached the national assembly to present 
their case, they found a crowd of other 
plaintiffs with similar cases. All support Hugo 
Chávez, the citizen president, and all demand an 
end to bureaucracy and corruption. They are 
hostile towards a government that they consider 
inefficient at best, reactionary at worst. Chávez 
himself has said: "Our internal enemies, the most 
dangerous enemies of the revolution, are 
bureaucracy and corruption" (1).

This language has been used before to blame 
incompetent activists for not applying 
presidential policies correctly. But the 
"Bolivarian process" stresses popular 
participation as a means of transforming the 
state apparatus. In Venezuela it is called "the 
revolution in the revolution".

Before Chávez was elected in 1998, two parties 
shared power for 40 years: the Venezuelan 
Christian Democratic party (Copei), and the 
social democratic party, Democratic Action (AD). 
They were adept at using petrodollars to deal 
with problems. They handed out government posts 
to calm social unrest but had to comply with the 
neoliberal ideology of the North and the need to 
limit public policies. The only way to offset the 
bloated state apparatus was to organise its 
inefficiency. With Venezuela's social divisions, 
skilled civil servants often come from 
backgrounds resistant to social change, sometimes 
because of ignorance of the conditions in which 
most Venezuelans live. Gilberto Gimenez, director 
of the foreign minister's private office, has 
said his solution was: "Diplomats will be 
promoted only if they spend two weeks in the 
barrios (working class districts)." He was 
smiling when he said it.

Few political leaders are able to take an active 
role in transforming the state from within. 
Before the foreign minister, Ali Rodriguez (2), 
got the job, six others had tried their hand 
since 1998.

Not a political party

The Fifth Republic Movement that brought Chávez 
to power is not a political party. After 1994 (3) 
it grew out of a coalition of leftwing parties 
and former guerrilla movements disgruntled with 
their leaders, who some thought settled too 
comfortably into the society they had struggled 
against. Young activists trained by AD and Copei 
quickly realised that the Chávez candidature 
would open up new ways to reach power and many 
joined his ranks.

In November 2001, when Chávez tried to pass 49 
decrees to start social reform, Luis Miquilena, 
who had been responsible for bringing the 
Venezuelan left and Chávez together, decided the 
decrees were too radical. He resigned as interior 
minister (4) and his followers in the National 
Assembly followed. "We lost a legislature," 
explained sociologist Edgar Figuera, "They were 
passing those laws on the cheap. Venezuela is 
still stuck in the legal framework of the Fourth 
Republic" (5). Until the country could train its 
activists, a revolutionary project was being 
built with tools inherited from a state devoted 
to perpetuating the neoliberal model.

At the December 2005 parliamentary elections 
pro-government parties won all 167 seats in the 
national assembly and no longer had any excuse to 
delay legislative reforms. The 75% abstention 
rate in the elections may have been the result of 
a boycott by the opposition, realising that it 
would be beaten and preferring to abstain. Even 
so, it revealed dissatisfaction with a common 
failing in the revolutionary process, one with 
which Venezuela must deal: the replacement of a 
bourgeois elite by a political elite that has the 
same shortcomings and distances itself from the 
daily realities of the people.

Without a real party, a solid state, enough 
revolutionary activists or, for the moment, a 
coherent social movement, the Bolivarian 
revolution in Venezuela is no different from any 
other experiment in Latin America. Chávez said in 
2004: "The people must be organised and take part 
in a new participative, social state so that the 
old rigid, bureaucratic, inefficient state is 
overthrown." He was referring to "missions", 
programmes managed by the community, that 
bypassed the old state to deal with social 
emergencies. The creation of communal councils 
this April is an important step towards building 
the new state and the type of local government on 
which it will be based.

A small house shelters the Unit of Popular Power 
(UPP) at Vela de Coro from the sun that scorches 
the Paraguana peninsula. A small poster explains 
that communal councils "are a push for 
participative democracy, for assisting social 
movements in their quest for solutions to 
collective problems and paying back the nation's 
social debt". Here, the town hall took the 
initiative to help set up these organisations. 
Xiomara Pirela, UPP coordinator, said: "We just 
supply the tools or help in the event of 
conflict. Only a citizen's assembly can make 

The councils at work

The councils' task is to coordinate and integrate 
activities of local missions, urban land and 
cultural committees. Pedro Morales, director for 
the Caracas region of Fundacomun, the 
organisation that finances the councils, said 
they do not "represent, but speak for the 
citizens' assembly, which is the ultimate 
decision-making body".

Xiomara Pirela showed us a pile of maps, some 
drawn in felt-tipped pen. "People start by making 
a social sketch of their community: houses, 
inhabitants, their income, infrastructure, social 
problems." This work contributes to the 
"participative diagnosis" and highlights 
priorities: water supplies, drainage, a health 
centre. On that basis the communal council 
suggests projects to citizens' assemblies, passes 
them to relevant authorities and manages 
resources allocated through a communal, 
cooperative bank. Each project can get up to 
$15,300; applications for more expensive projects 
can be made to public planning councils or town 
halls for the following year.

In Barinas, Mérida, Táchira and Trujillo, the 
four most advanced states of the Occidente 
region, more than $44.6m has already been paid 
for some 3,000 projects. After 2007 half the 
money allocated to the Intergovernmental 
Decentralisation Fund and the Special Economic 
Assignments Law for mines and hydrocarbons, 
nearly $1.2bn, will be earmarked to finance the 
councils. Town halls and states that used to 
benefit from these funds will have to make do 
with what is left over.

Some mayors are tempted to push their 
sympathisers for election to the councils, 
although it is illegal. According to Pedro 
Morales: "The councils are not only a response to 
the problems of bureaucracy and corruption; they 
also increase the accountability of people who 
were used to letting the state decide for them 
and then complain about the result." The 
population is more than ready to take on the 

On 16 July Block 45, a huge apartment building in 
the 23 de Enero barrio of western Caracas, leapt 
a political hurdle. After half a dozen 
preparatory assemblies, they elected a council. A 
resident pointed to the garbage piled carelessly 
around the block. "This building is known as one 
of the filthiest in all of South America," she 
said, then added proudly, "but now people will 
get a grip on the situation."

'No vote, no meals!'

Something similar happened further up the hill in 
the El Observatorio district. A plastic sheet 
pinned in a corner served as a voting booth, a 
poster reminded voters "balloting must be direct 
and secret" and a queue formed in front of the 
cardboard urns, shown to be empty before voting 
began. As is so often true, the local women had 
taken matters in hand. The stakes were 
considerable and the law clear. Notices said: "If 
less than 20% of the community takes part (6) the 
election will be invalid and no complaints will 
be accepted afterwards. The women were confident: 
"The men will come," one said. "I've told my 
husband: no vote, then no meals, no laundry, 

In a few months thousands of councils have been 
or are being set up. Those that existed before 
the law was passed are gradually being legalised. 
There are already more than 500 in Caracas and 
50,000 are expected overall. Upper-class 
districts are also taking part - "that is, when 
people agree to provide information on salaries", 
said a resident of Prado del Este. Xiomara 
Paraguán, an El Observatorio council member, 
said: "At least they're taking part. Who would 
have thought that possible a few years ago?"

Why did the government wait seven years to set up 
the councils? Engels Riveira of the Camunare Rojo 
council said: "If the mayors and governors had 
done their jobs properly, we wouldn't have needed 
the councils. In a way it's thanks to them."

The rush to set up the councils shows that they 
cater to a need for democratic process. 
Participation had already been encouraged in the 
workplace, as co-management, self-management or 
cooperatives (the number of these shot up from 
under 1,000 in 1999 to more than 100,000). There 
were local cultural committees. But political 
arrangements were still needed.

Now the community is the basic structural unit of 
government of the new state, legally defined as 
200-400 families in urban areas, around 20 in the 
countryside and from 10 up for the indigenous 
population. The Spanish political analyst Juan 
Carlos Monedero observed that the main reason 
20th-century socialism failed was a lack of 
participation by the people. Communal councils 
may be instrumental in the construction of 
Venezuela's 21st-century socialism. "If we get 
the money," said Xiomara Paraguán. Another El 
Observatorio council member countered, "If the 
money doesn't come, we'll go and get it."

Since the elections things are moving in El 
Observatorio. Paraguán attended a workshop on 
social projects and showed off her diploma. All 
council members will have similar training.

Faced with the inertia of some bureaucrats and 
politicians, people have to rely on the vigour of 
Contraloría (social control), a citizens' watch 
that defends the process. Councils may be more 
finely tuned version of the principle and help 
Venezuelans get the means to exercise 
co-responsibility with the state.

Juan Guerra is a grassroots expression of 
Contraloría. After he finally got to meet a 
deputy, he said: "Revolution is like an iron 
fence protecting the bourgeoisie. If we, the 
people, allow the rust to accumulate, the fence 
will fall."

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