Are Venezuela’s Communal Councils an extension of central power or an
explosion of popular power?
VOICEOVER: This is La Vega, one of the many barrios, or poor neighborhoods, positioned precariously on the sloping hills of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.
DAVID DOUGHERTY, CARACAS, VENEZUELA: Like in many urban settlements in Latin America, barrios like La Vega were built from the ground up, mostly by the residents themselves, in the absence of the state. People are proud of the communities they have built, but often encounter problems with basic infrastructure that can make life difficult, and at times dangerous.
VOICEOVER: Areas like this section of La Vega called Carretera Negra, or Black Highway, are susceptible to frequent flooding and landslides during heavy rains. Residents had petitioned previous governments for decades to build a proper drainage system to address the problem, which often left homes flooded or inaccessible. Now community residents are almost done with the construction of a drainage system along the side of the road, one of the latest examples of a series of projects proposed and executed by their consejo comunal, or communal council. The communal councils are an initiative of president Hugo Chavezâ€™s government that have grown in Venezuela, described as a new model of participatory democracy. They involve the formation of self-organized neighborhood organizations comprised of residents from the community who propose and vote on development projects and public policies, which they then execute themselves utilizing resources distributed by the state. Alexis Rojas is active in the Carretera Negra communal council and has helped in the construction of the new water drainage system.
ALEXIS ROJAS, COMMUNAL COUNCIL PARTICIPANT, LA VEGA: Here we have seen how not only does the area looks nicer but now there is also a system of water collection that runs the length of the road in the area of our communal council, this has improved our quality of life, water doesnâ€™t leak into the houses now and it avoids the possibilities of landslidesâ€¦today with this new popular organization we now rely on ourselves the citizens to make decisions in the public policies that do or donâ€™t affect usâ€¦ here we see behind me that the people from the community are the ones who do the work, and here we are exercising this form of community labor.
VOICEOVER: President Hugo Chavezâ€™s leadership style has been described by critics as authoritarian and top-down oriented, raising questions about who really makes decisions in the communal council model. But many participants like lifelong resident and community organizer of La Vega Freddy Mendoza say that the communal councils constitute a distinct development model that has helped to encourage Venezuelaâ€™s poor to lead development initiatives in their communities through processes of self-organization and participatory democracy, addressing decades of neglect from previous governments.
FREDDY MENDOZA, COMMUNAL COUNCIL PARTICIPANT, LA VEGA: Any citizen from any social class can access and form a communal council or commune, they have the right and the duty to participate, this is what we are seeing in Venezuela, the boom of the communal councils in the barrios has come about because we, the poor, were previously not allowed to participate during the governments of the Fourth Republicâ€¦it would rain blows on us, from all directions, for us to get a stairwell built we had to endure the blows, for us to get a road built we had to endure the blows, for us to get a good work contract, we had to endure the blows, at the point of police batons, machetes, and teargas. Today we have the organizational instruments, we have empowering laws, like the laws of the communes and communal councils and others,
VOICEOVER: Another example of a communal council project carried out in La Vega is the establishment of a public computer and technological information center in an extra room in the Mendoza familyâ€™s home as part of a stateâ€™s â€œinfocentroâ€ program, where people can access the Internet, attend computer education workshops, and produce documentaries and community news reports using video editing software. Women constitute the majority of participants in communal council assemblies and elected committee posts, standing at around 60 percent. Thais Rojas of Carretera Negra says the communal councils are empowering women to play a previously unheard of role in public decision-making processes.
THAIS ROJAS, COMMUNAL COUNCIL PARTICIPANT, LA VEGA: Before the only ones who made decisions were the men, why the men? because of the same machista culture in the country that still exists today that said that men were the only ones capable of making decisionsâ€¦the women see in the communal councils the opportunity to get to know everything they are capable of achieving, because of this the woman has come out of the house, out of the role of only taking care of the children, in order to integrate herself into the council and struggle against all the problems facing her community.
VOICEOVER: The communal councils have been described as the popular motors of the Bolivarian Revolution and Venezuelaâ€™s 21st Century Socialism, but they have not grown without their tensions. Some commentators like Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander are critical of a relationship that has developed between the communal councils and the state that he describes as clientelistic.
EDGARDO LANDER, SOCIOLOGIST, CENTRAL UNIVERSITY OF VENEZUELA: We are talking about tensions and contradictions; I think the dominant tendency is a clientelistic relationship, where the state and party structures impose a certain type of uniform logic on the popular sectors, and that this undermines the possibility of autonomy. This is not to say that the struggle for autonomy and self-organization does not exist, and that it does not also exist in part as a consequence of the public policy of this government, because the public policy has gestated, driven, and promoted organizational forms and the people are taking these organizational forms and appropriating them and doing things with them, so itâ€™s not a question of either/or, but it could be said that there does exist a strong tension.
VOICEOVER: Carretera Negra resident and communal council member Freddy Mendoza says there have arisen cases of corruption in some of the councils, and that it is primarily up to community residents themselves, and not just the state, to resolve conflicts and contradictions as they continue developing their new model of participatory democracy.
FREDDY MENDOZA, COMMUNAL COUNCIL PARTICIPANT, LA VEGA: There are cases where the communal councils are taken over by one or two people, this is a continuation of a system based on representation, not participation, there have been communal councils where they are handed the resources and they simply disappear with the money and take the resources, or cases where they havenâ€™t built the project that the resources were destined forâ€¦ but these are cultural facts, ethical and moral facts, that have still not ceased to impose themselves on our political consciousness as the poor, this is a part of our political struggle, the process is not over after we vote for Chavez, the process is not over when we obtain the solution to a problem in the barrio, there must be a constant discussion and learning process, and reflection, on the role that each of us are playing within this process that must flow into a revolution, establishing a distinct system of production, organization and participation that is participatory democracy, and so on.
VOICEOVER: Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski has stated that the communal councils have become overly politicized, and has proposed legislation seeking decentralization. A leaked document allegedly outlining Caprilesâ€™ economic policy in the event of a victory in the October 7th elections includes a plan to gradually reduce the transfer of state resources to communal councils for development projects.
DAVID DOUGHERTY, CARACAS, VENEZUELA: With elections now less than 2 weeks away, campaigning efforts have heated up in Chavez stronghold barrios like La Vega, where community residents have pledged to defend the model of participatory democracy that is radically reshaping power relations and community development for the Venezuelan poor.