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Venezuela: Building popular power through Communal Councils

By Jim McIlroy

October 3, 2007 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Living in Caracas, Venezuela, for a year during 2006, the most striking impression one gained is of a tumultuous mass movement, in which the social energies of the people have been released in an outpouring of revolutionary enthusiasm and creativity. One was constantly reminded of Vladimir Lenin’s description of revolution as a “festival of the oppressed”.

My partner Coral Wynter and myself spent last year in Venezuela as the Caracas Bureau of the Australian socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly. It was a life-changing experience. As long-time members of the revolutionary socialist movement in Australia, the practice of being a radical activist in the West has been, generally speaking, a hard slog over the past couple of decades.

In Australia, the greatest moments of mass radical action one has experienced were the essentially episodic national days of action against war, such as the Vietnam Moratoriums of the early 1970s, the anti-nuclear mobilisations of the 1980s, the one-million strong February 2003 anti-war demonstrations prior to the US invasion of Iraq, and most recently the several trade union national days of action against Prime Minister John Howard’s anti-worker industrial legislation. In general, however, progressive political life in Australia is the arena of an activist minority.

By contrast, in Venezuela at present, the Bolivarian revolution has created a truly popular transformation of political and social life of the country. In one of the most deeply democratic movements in history, the Venezuelan revolution has drawn the most oppressed and impoverished majority of the population into regular political action in their own interests, generally for the first time.

From the time of the two-million strong mass march and rally we experienced on February 4, 2006, to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the attempted military uprising led by President [then Major] Hugo Chavez against the neoliberal regime of the Fourth Republic, we saw many mobilisations of the revolutionary masses in their red T-shirts and caps. A notable feature of these rallies was the countless slogans and names of organisations emblazoned on shirts, and on the banners and placards carried by the participants.

This multitude of organisations -- social missions, political groups, unions, community bodies -- reflects the huge diversity and pluralism of the Bolivarian revolutionary movement. However, the experience of some 10 years of increasing struggle against US imperialism and the old ruling oligarchy has united the great majority of the Venezuelan people – in the first place around the slogan “No volveran” (No return to the past) and, more recently, around President Chavez’ call for building “socialism of the 21st century”.

The dialectic between revolutionary leadership, centred mainly until now on the role of President Hugo Chavez Frias, and the mobilisation of the people, has provided the dynamic of this revolution. Chavez himself learned from the failure of the 1992 attempted military coup by a group of progressive officers, and turned to the electoral tactic in 1998 as a vehicle for mobilising the masses for a radical transformation of society.

At the same time, he turned away from a militarist, conspiratorial view of how to end the rule of the corrupt oligarchy which had dominated Venezuelan society for decades, and embraced the necessity for mass mobilisation and popular participation as the essential means to bring about social change. From the outset of his novel election campaign for president in 1998, Chavez realised the need to reach out to the people and bring them with him on the journey to democratise and transform society.

Communal Councils

The latest and highest stage of the development of popular power in Venezuela has been the formation of the Communal Councils:

“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 [Accion Democratica and COPEI] – 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 [ratified by overwhelming popular vote in 1999]. The aim was not only that the poor were to be given access to health, education and basic services, but that they would play an active role in deciding how these areas would function.

“There was a rise in health committees, local neighbourhood groups, Urban Land Committees and many more forms of community organisation that sprang up. 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. Also, the explosion in community organisations meant that in one community, multiple organisations are found, each working away on their own projects, sometimes competing for resources and weakening their ability to tackle problems….” (Fred Fuentes, Green Left Weekly, November 2, 2005.)

To help overcome these problems, a number of revolutionary activists began an experiment in popular government, known as Communal Councils. These councils have since spread nationally, under the initial auspices of the Ministry of Popular Participation and Social Development (MINPADES).

“The idea was that, on a scale small enough for people to exercise power, to bring all the people and different organisations present in the community together to work out a single plan, tackling issues from public works to health and education.

“What is important, [revolutionary activist Freddy] Gil said, is that the project of building the new society is starting from the grassroots upwards. To set up a communal council, an assembly is called by convoking 200 to 400 families [fewer in rural areas] in a local community.

“‘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 political ideas. At the assembly, they would be asked to choose 20 people to form the promotion team for the community government, made up of those who put themselves forward at the assemblies’…

“The promotion team 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, and to notify them of coming elections for the council. 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…

“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 very important for the revolution. She explained to Green Left Weekly that ‘participation will help consolidate this process at the grassroots, and broaden it, creating more forces in favor of the process.’

“By broadening participation, many people who may not yet support the revolution due to the ‘politicking and defects of the process … could be won to the construction of a new humanist society.’ ‘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 argues 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 Workers’ Party after they participated in a process that wasn´t politicised. I believe that is the road to win people over to this project.’…

“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, rather than 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, learning what we would need for a bigger system…. If we all learn in this collective exercise about the socialisation of things, of course we are going to advance further in socialising [on a larger scale].’…

“‘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.’” (Fred Fuentes, Green Left Weekly, November 2, 2005.)

‘Basic cell of future society’

Marta Harnecker was again interviewed for Green Left Weekly in late October 2006 about the experience of developing the communal council project. She explained: “As Freddy Bernal [mayor of Libertador municipality in central Caracas] said, [the communal council] is a basic cell of the future society.

“If we are successful in constructing communities that orient toward solidarity, the people will be concerned with the poor people who live in their area. Within [a framework of] solidarity, they will look for a solution for this sector….

“Chavez was looking at different formulas for popular organisations. The Bolivarian Circles are more within a broad political framework. They are organisations aimed at political power. The communal councils include those who are with Chavez and those who are not. They are the community: the communal councils must reflect all the colours of a rainbow; must cover everyone who wants to work for the community, without political affiliations, without government associations….

“If you organise in the barrio, the organisation is on a much smaller scale. You need a person who is flexible, not sectarian, with the capacity to work with everyone – carrying out projects, trying to solve the problems of the people...”

Asked about the role the workers’ movement plays in relation to community organising, Harnecker replied: “Logically, we accept that in general the experience of popular power means that, as it is based on territorial spaces, the workers do not appear [directly] as active members. I remember a very interesting discussion in Cuba, when they were planning popular power through electoral registrations. Inevitably, the neighbour who proposed a candidate in their area would choose the person who could solve the most practical problems within the community. This meant it was difficult, up to now, for the workers to be directly involved.

“Because of this, in Cuba, it was suggested that there be two forms of choosing candidates, one territorial and the other at the workplace – two ways of deciding…. In Venezuela, up to now, we don’t have the unity of the workers within the [revolution]. The union movement is not strong enough at this stage.

“I have said to the trade unions, ‘Why don’t you strengthen the communal councils, by integrating with them? You, as workers, should be involved in the community’. Up to now, they have not done this.

“We should think of the communal councils as a central community of workers, [as well as of neighbours]. To me, it is very important to consider the micro-economy and the necessity to bring in economic organisations so that they can be democratised, in the direction of solidarity and not of corporatism. There should be a close link between the organisation of work and the community.”

Asked how the Communal Councils work, Harnecker said: “There are now 16,000 CCs, established in six months [since the start of the national program in 2006]. It is a very serious initiative, in my opinion. The CC process requires many months to allow people to mature, and to elect true leaders. We began with a process involving motivators. The committee of motivators have to go house to house to make a census. This is one of the most basic jobs – a socioeconomic census. It requires the committee to visit all the households in the area.

“It seems that it needs serious and diligent leaders who are capable of going house to house. Because of this, we think it would not be possible to elect spokespeople for the CC without going through this process. There should be an assembly first, and then an election.

“There has to be a team, a promotions commission, who should do this social and geographic history – the story of the community. [To achieve this], it would take at least eight months. When they have the meeting of the assembly, they will elect the future spokespeople. Then the process is approved [legally]. Some of the CCs are working okay, others are not.

“Another very important thing is that the CC has the opportunity to elect a new leadership…. The leadership must be elected by a general assembly where anyone can be proposed. The spokespeople are not the assembly – they are not the organisation. The assembly must ratify the proposals – whether from a committee for housing, or a committee for health. If someone who becomes the spokesperson does not have the confidence of the assembly, the CC will not work.

“It is a democratic way to renovate the leadership, and permits the assembly to choose a new leadership. I think the law respects this will of the assembly. I was part of the group that oversaw the formation of the CCs. In the law it is very clear: Where is the power? The power is not with the spokespeople – it is with the general assembly. Why are they called ‘voceros’? Because they are the voice of the community. If they lose the position of spokesperson, they stop having any power…

“I think this is an experimental way of organising popular power. But, for me, it is the future direction we should be taking. This is the basic idea: not from above.

“It also depends on the type of problem. There are problems thatrequire the involvement of various CCs, because they are problems of the whole barrio – for example, the water pipes that pass through the whole barrio. This must be resolved at the level of the Barrio Council. The stairs, the lighting, the rubbish – you can resolve these within the CC. These CCs are the base – very democratic; a scheme for participation….

“They are looking for ways to prioritise the things the community can resolve: but not to create a kind of ‘begging’ neighbourhood that sees a problem, and just calls on the state to resolve it….

“These are methods that allow the community to resolve issues…. We make an assessment and prioritise problems: what the community can resolve, and what it can’t. The ‘voices’ of the different communities must discuss these problems at a higher level.

“This is how solidarity begins, because you start to see that your problem is wider than your small reality, and you must help others. Thus, the communal councils are more of a school for political formation. I think popular power, when it is really democratic, is the best school, because it produces this process. This is because you have been fighting for your house, your land. And you begin to realise that your house is in a barrio, and the barrio is in a city….”

Growth and development

Following his landslide re-election as president in the poll held on December 3, 2006, with 63 per cent of the popular vote, President Hugo Chavez lost no time in announcing a dramatic deepening of the Venezuelan revolution. “We’re on our way to socialism, and nothing and no one can prevent it”, Chavez declared. “All that was privatised, let it be nationalised”, he added, according to a January 9 Associated Press report.

According to a January 8, 2007, Venezuelanalysis.com report, Chavez described the first eight years of his government from 1998-2006 as a now-completed “phase of transition” and insisted, “we are entering a new era, the National Simon Bolivar Project of 2007-2021”, which aims to construct “Bolivarian socialism”. He announced “five motors” to advance the revolution, including moves to “dismantle the bourgeois state”, to be replaced by an “explosion of communal councils”.

Chavez called for an expansion, in number and power, of the Communal Councils to form the base of a new revolutionary state. Venezuelanalysis.com reported on January 10, 2007, that the government would provide US$5 billion in funding directly to these councils this year, up from $1.5 billion last year. At the start of 2007, some 13,000 Communal Councils exist and this number is expected to grow to 21,000 by the end of the year.

“It is clear that the Chavez government is extending, rather than restricting, democracy. In combining this with deepening moves to reverse free-market policies, the revolution in Venezuela is providing a powerful alternative to the ‘savage capitalism’ being forced down the throats of working people the world over.” (Stuart Munckton, Green Left Weekly, January 7, 2007.)

The growth and development of the communal councils has opened up new vistas for the potential of popular power in Venezuela, at the same time as problems and dilemmas have emerged.

“Though no one – not even Chavez – has said with certainty just how far community councils will go, many inside and outside government say the idea is to steer Venezuela away from municipal councils and mayors and hand funding and decisionmaking directly to the people. ‘If this works, community councils would bury city hall, but something better would be born,’ said [Roberto] Nacuanagua, a teacher who… belongs to the council of La Hacienda Maria, in Caracas, Venezuela´s capital.

“`Even with the mistakes, the people are emerging, the poorest people, occupying spaces that were occupied before by those blind, hardened classes’, Jose Vicente Rangel, who was replaced as vice president in January, said in an interview. ‘That is the central point of what is happening in the country.’”

“In the neighborhoods, it’s hard to find anything but bubbling enthusiasm for the councils.

“Council members are elected, and each oversees a committee thqt concerns itself with an issue such as education or health care or youth services. When the big decisions are made, they must be put before a neighborhood assembly of residents, representing an average of about 400 families. The state provides funding for a wide range of projects.

“Organisers are often fervent, using the language of populist revolution when explaining the inner workings of the councils.

“`Our job is to end poverty in all its forms, to contribute to the strengthening of the Bolivarian Revolution based in the thinking of El Commandante Chavez’, said Rodrigo Tovar, one such council organiser. ‘Our job is to take the message to the most humble and needy people, and that message is to take happiness to the people.’

“For Venezuelans in poor barrios – who felt excluded under the corrupt power-sharing system that ended with Chavez´s election in 1998 – the community councils are a means of empowerment. A December survey released by Latinobarometro, a Chilean polling firm, found that in all of Latin America, only Uruguayans had a more favorable view of their democratic institutions than Venezuelans…

“`Things are working’, said Lusitana Borges, a council member. ‘The government gave power to the people so they can channel their concerns and resolve problems. These problems that were never fixed by mayors, [municipal] council members and governors. What happened before was nothing but pure bureaucracy.’“ (Juan Ferrero, Washington Post, reprinted on Venezuelanalysis.com, May 17, 2007.)

In “Communal Councils in Venezuela: Can 200 Families Revolutionise Democracy?”, Josh Lerner (Z Magazine, reprinted in Venezuelanalysis.com, March 6, 2007) described the election process for spokespeople in Las Delicias, a small Caracas barrio: “One of the many voters explains proudly, ‘We had to wait seven years for this, but finally they´re transferring power to the people.’

“Since the start of 2006, thousands of tiny Venezuelan neighborhoods, with an average of 200 families each, have been organising communal councils. The councils are part of a broad effort to build a new political system of participatory democracy, in which citizens have control over the decisions that affect their lives. After seven years in power, Hugo Chavez’s government launched the councils as ‘the great motors of the new era of the Revolution,’ ‘a basic cell of the future society’, and ‘fundamental… for revolutionary democracy.’ More broadly, the councils also serve as a giant laboratory for experiments in political participation.”

Article 2 of the Communal Council Law states: “The communal councils, in the constitutional framework of participatory and protagonistic democracy, are instances of participation, articulation and integration between the diverse community organisations, social groups and the citizens, that permit the organised people to directly exercise the administration (management) of public policies and projects oriented to respond to the necessities and aspirations of the communities in the construction of an equal and socially just society.”

Background

“The Communal Councils Law was passed in April 2006, but the story begins much earlier. Venezuela began an extensive decentralisation process, launching mayoral elections and handing over new responsibilities for local governments. After Chavez was elected president in 1998, he continued the decentralisation, but changed its emphasis. He called for transferring power not to local government, but directly to popular movements.

“This `popular decentralisation’ has led to a series of experiments in grassroots democracy. First came the Bolivarian Circles, neighborhood councils that were officially autonomous, but often linked to and supportive of the government. At Chavez’s urging, the Bolivarian Circles were mostly succeeded by Electoral Battle Units (UBEs), which mobilised the pro-Chavez vote for elections. Next, the government launched Local Public Planning Councils, in which citizens, politicians and bureaucrats were to collaborate at the city level to address local problems.

“By 2005, most of the Local Public Planning Councils had become mired in bureaucracy and dominated by politicians, paving the way for the communal councils…. The Communal Councils Law calls for the councils to decide their own geographic limits, but also follow a detailed set of guidelines. The law recommends that each urban council contain 200-400 families, each rural council at least 20 families, and each indigenous council at least 10 families. All decisions are to be made in citizen assemblies with a minimum of 10 per cent of residents over age 15. These assemblies are to elect executive, financial management, and monitoring committees, as well as thematic committees based on local priorities (health, education, recreation, land, safety, etc.)

“Perhaps most importantly, money can flow into and out of the councils. By law, they can receive funds directly from the national, state or city governments, from their own fundraising, or from donations. In turn, the councils can award grants for community projects. If they set up a communal bank with neighboring councils, they can also make loans to co-operatives or other activities.

“In practice, funding has depended more on the discretion of government leaders than the law. Councils can apply for up to $14,000 per project (enough for a modest street-paving), although this limit is not specified in the law. The councils are encouraged to submit larger proposals to their city’s participatory budgeting process or district councils, the only problem being that these do not yet exist in most cities. No matter, the funding limit was later increased to $28,000 for second-time applicants and some councils have reportedly received even more.

“Officially, communal councils are to send project proposals directly to the Presidential Commission of Popular Power, which gives the go-ahead as long as they are legally valid. The law does not explain who sits on this commission or what its funding criteria are. It was eventually filled by a motley crew of government leaders, but many projects were funded before the commission ever met. Councils often send projects to their municipality for review first, but somehow the projects are approved in Caracas. The money is then delivered in high-profile spectacles called Gabinetes Moviles.

“Despite this confusion, the communal councils have been wildly popular. Eight months after the law was passed, over 16,000 councils had already been formed throughout the country – 12,000 of them had received funding for community projects. That’s $1 billion total, out of a national budget of $53 billion. The councils had established nearly 300 communal banks, which have received $70 million for micro-loans. The government plans to transfer another $4 billion in 2007. Thanks to these funds, the councils have implemented thousands of community projects, such as street pavings, sports fields, medical centers, and sewage and water systems.”

Problems and dilemmas

“Government officials agree that the communal councils are the foundation for a new system of participatory democracy, but they differ on what this means. The former Minister of Popular Participation, Jose Antonio Mota, suggests that the councils form the base of a political pyramid, like earlier versions of council communism. ‘Proposals should filter up from the communal council to the district council to the municipality to the state to the nation.’ Other leaders, such as Carlos Escarra, have proposed that the councils replace city and state governments entirely, or work parallel to them. This debate is only one of many controversies….”

“A national system of participatory democracy requires a huge amount and variety of participation. As a result, the councils are facing a challenge of compensation: how to decide what kind of participation should be voluntary popular participation and what should be paid labor. For Miguel Gonzalez Marregot, a public critic of communal councils, popular participation should mean involvement in developing broad government plans: ‘The communal councils should say we need stairs, not develop a project to build stairs.’…

“Communal councils cannot avoid middle levels of government, however. If a council builds a road or water pipes, they need to connect to the citywide system. City and state governments provide publicity and technical assistance for the councils and council projects often influence city issues. One council, for example, proposed a municipal referendum to impeach the mayor. Meanwhile, funding for communal councils comes at the direct expense of funding for cities.

“A research group at Monteavila University has proposed integrating different levels of government through ‘popular federalism’. Their plan calls for ‘a state where regional autonomy is strong and the central state weak, but coordinating,’ with a focus on strengthening grassroots community groups. This approach would redefine participatory democracy as a multi-level system of participation, rather than just communal councils…

“The Venezuelan government and communal councils have demonstrated several ways to encourage (and in some cases discourage) participation. First, Caracas has delegated significant power directly to the communal councils. The allure of self-government attracts many people. The government has also provided direct positive incentives for participation. The most obvious is money. Many people get involved because they can get funds for neighborhood improvements, but only if they form a council. Since the councils are so small, any one person can have a substantial effect on which projects are developed. Obviously the government can only give out money if it has it and in this respect Venezuela is more privileged than other countries…

“Often the councils attract people by making their events fun. Some of the more prolific councils mix music, food, and entertainment into their assemblies. These virtual block parties transform one of the costs of participation (tedious meetings) into a benefit (a good time). Other councils have more formal events dominated by long speeches.

“Finally, the government is trying to reduce the obstacles to participation. Because the councils are so local, the transportation and time costs of participation are less. Another approach is even more ambitious – freeing people’s time by making participation part of their jobs. As Vice Minister Mota explained, ‘We need to arrange that employers will let employees off from work for a couple of hours a week if they participate in a communal council. This could be coordinated by the state, like a form of community service.’ Such a program could especially boost the participation of working professionals such as Mota who admits that he has not even had time to get involved in his own communal council.”

Bolivarian Circles

An important form of popular organisation established in the early 2000s, prior to the creation of the communal councils, were the Bolivarian Circles. They were part of an expansion of people’s movements established in the period after the National Referendum which ratified the new, highly democratic Venezuelan Constitution in 1999, by an overwhelming vote of almost 80 per cent of the voting population.

“Taking part in this grassroots movement [were] the groups known as the Bolivarian Circles, named after Venezuela´s independence hero: Simon Bolivar. Endorsed by the Venezuelan President and supported by a majority of the population, Bolivarian Circles grouped community leaders and neighbors alike. They worked hand in hand in order to make ends meet at various shantytowns, neighborhoods, and villages across Venezuela...

“Bolivarian Circles across Venezuela began an extensive social and political activism intended to aid the usual disenfranchised population of Venezuela. Other Bolivarian Circles, for example, concentrated their work and efforts on feeding the hungry, providing after school care for poor children, securing resources for small businesses, etc.

“President Chavez did … a lot to provide the means and resources necessary for grassroots movements such as the Bolivarian Circles to be able to help themselves. Thus, the Venezuelan National Assembly, with the support of the President, passed legislation and appropriated funds for the creation of a line of credit available for small businesses, particularly those owned by low-income Venezuelans, women, Native Americans (Indigenous), and other minorities.

“With the participation of the Bolivarian Circles, President Chavez implemented Plan Bolivar 2000. The plan allowed President Chavez to mobilise the Venezuelan Armed Forces in poor areas of the country with the goal of providing health care, subsidised food, construction equipment, school tutoring, and logistical organisation to those who needed it most: the poor in the shantytowns of Caracas and other large cities of Venezuela.” (“Bolivarian Circles: A Grassroots Movement”, by Alvaro Sanchez, Venezuelanalysis.com, September 30, 2003.)

The Bolivarian Circles also played an important role in mobilising the population against the April 11, 2002, US-supported right-wing coup, which briefly ousted President Chavez, before he was reinstated three days later, by the combined forces of the people and a key section of the military which remained loyal to the revolution.

In recent years, the Bolivarian Circles have tended to be superseded by the Communal Councils and other popular organisations as vehicles of mass involvement, and have become more left political groups with a particular viewpoint. However, they still have some strength in certain areas.

Other participatory organisations

“In 2001, the Local Public Planning Councils (CLPP) were formed across the country with the intent of electing community representatives to work hand and hand with government officials to agree on municipal budgets. Unfortunately, the CLPP were far from successful. In many cases political parties only gave representation to fellow members, and true community control was hard to find when spokespersons, expected to represent hundreds of thousands of people were elected with almost no input from the community.

“`They were captured by the mayors, that manipulated the elections,’ said former Venezuelan Planning Minister, Felipe Perez Marti recently. According to Perez, the CLPPs, which technically still exist, have become further ‘debilitated’ with the creation of the communal councils because the people have decided to try out the newly formed councils, where they feel they actually may have a say. An addendum to the recent Law of Communal Councils additionally gave the newly formed councils power over the CLPPs.” (Michael Fox, Venezuelanalysis.com, November 28, 2006).

Another experiment in popular organising, established in the period leading up to the Venezuelan opposition’s push for a recall referendum against Chavez in 2004, were the Units of Electoral Battle (UBEs). “In the lead-up to the referendum, local networks and activists were key in organising popular sectors in support of the ‘No’ campaign to keep Chavez in office. Chavez replaced the Comando Ayacucho with the Comando Maisanta, and a vertically organised structure of local units known as Unidades de Batalles Electorales (UBEs). Community groups co-operated with the UBEs and at times even incorporated into them, but for the most part these were tactical and temporary groupings to win the referendum.

“The driving force behind the ‘No’ campaign came from organised community activists, who launched an aggressive campaign to register and mobilise voters to vote in the referendum. Community organisers set up Voter Registration Centres in all the parishes, and these were staffed around the clock by teams of local activists. Barrio-based radio and television stations and newspapers devoted space to explaining the importance of the referendum and encouraging people to vote for Chavez. As the day of the referendum grew closer, several radio stations located centrally, such as Radio Negro Primero, became News Centres, which gathered information and passed it on to other radio stations. Rather than Chavez’s charisma, his subsidised programs, or the ineptitude of the opposition, the decisive factor in Chavez’s ultimate victory was the mobilising role played by local barrio organisations.” (Sujatha Fernandes, LASA Forum, reprinted in Venezuelanalysis.com, April 12, 2007.)

The UBEs have also faded out as the immediate focus on the recall referendum past, after it was decisively defeated. In the 2006 presidential elections, the main Chavista campaign organisation was the Comando Miranda, which coordinated the mobilisation of the people during the mass rallies leading up to Chavez’ overwhelming victory in the December 3 national ballot.

Another influential form of popular organisation prior to the establishment of the Communal Councils were the Urban Land Committees. “With the passage of the [Communal Council] law, many members of Venezuela’s Urban Land Committees (CTUs) – one of the most organised and important instances of community organising – were put off. They saw the Communal Councils as an attack against the work they had already been doing in the community. After all, they said, the CTUs are the ones writing community charters and pushing for land titles and housing rights for communities that were never before legally recognised.

“CTUs viewed the creation of the communal councils as a government attempt to do something good, while inadvertently causing more harm. Infighting was predicted as community committees: urban land, health, water, etc. would fight for resources amongst each other that they had previously struggled individually to acquire from the Mayor’s office.

“A shift occurred quickly, however, in the months following the passage of the communal council law. The CTUs realised that they would have to join, organise and promote the communal councils in order to have a say in community decisions. The CTUs now appear to be one of the main pillars of the communal councils, believing that the new proposal is the next step in local democracy.

“`The CTU should be one of the fundamental bases of the communal councils. They should not substitute them nor be the councils themselves,’ declared CTU activist Hernan Peralta, at the CTU National Meeting earlier this month just outside of Caracas. ‘They are the crystallisation of this project of new construction,’ he said. (Michael Fox, Veneuelanalysis.com, November 28, 2006.)

In short, the Bolivarian Circles, the Local Public Planning Committees, the UBEs and the CTUs were all vehicles for popular mobilisation and participation which flourished to varying degrees in the early to mid 2000s, as the Bolivarian revolution developed. But they seem to have been superseded or subsumed by the rise of the communal councils, which have become the predominant structures for people power in Venezuela at present.

Building a workers’ state

In the process of transformation from a capitalist state toward socialism, the social missions have played a key role in bypassing the normal functions of the old state machine. Chavez established Mission Barrio Adentro in health, Missions Robinson, Ribas and Sucre in education, and more than 20 others in various areas of public service in which the existing bureaucratic departments, inherited from the Fourth Republic, were unwilling or incapable of carrying through the social policies of the revolution.

The establishment and consolidation of a workers’ and farmers’ government, at the head of an embryonic workers’ and farmers’ state, which occurred as a result of the popular victory over the April 2002 coup and the December 2002-January 2003 bosses’ oil boycott, led to the development of an alternative state machine, centred on the social missions, the other popular organisations and the revolutionary army.

This contradiction between the bureaucracy inherited from the old regime and the institutions of a new, revolutionary state cannot continue forever, although the Chavez government’s decisive control of the oil industry, through the state petroleum company PDVSA, and its leadership of the armed forces, means that the government has been able to buy some time for the construction of a comprehensive new state machine.

The radical extension of nationalisation of key industries during 2007 has strengthened the hand of the Chavez government in this process. And the preparations for the formation of a new, mass-based revolutionary party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), represent a crucial advance toward the consolidation of a united, revolutionary leadership to guide the next stage in the struggle for the creation of a socialist state in Venezuela, as a vanguard part of the project for Socialism of the 21st Century.

In this context, the Communal Councils are set to play an essential role in helping to organise and prepare the Venezuelan working people to take power in their own hands, as the basis of a new, democratic workers’ state. This process has historical antecedents, from which valuable lessons can be learnt – going back to the Paris Commune of 1871, to the soviets of the Russian Revolution of 1917, to the People’s Power experience of the Cuban revolution.

“The first qualitative step in establishing the democratic power of the working class is the revolutionary replacement of the capitalist government by a working people’s government based on organisations of mass struggle.

“The Russian soviets – the committees of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ delegates that cohered the demands and actions of the different sections of the population in revolutionary struggle in Russia early last century – remain the most advanced form of such organisations in history. It was the soviets´ high level of development – including their centralised, nationwide congresses and thorough democracy, within which all political currents in the revolutionary upsurge vied for leadership – that enable the revolution to so rapidly (and relatively bloodlessly) replace the old state apparatus and the bourgeois Provisional Government with a workers state in the October 1917 insurrection….

“From that revolution, and the Paris Commune before it, we know that the political form of a workers’ state needs to be along the lines of a democratically centralised system of popular power in which a national assembly, made up of representatives from committees of working people’s delegates elected from workplaces, neighbourhoods and mass organisations, would be a working body. That is, it would function as both a legislature (law making) and executive (implementation). Such a structure is the antithesis of the situation in capitalism where the business of the state is performed behind closed doors by an unelected bureaucracy unaccountable to the people, while ‘Parliament is given up to talk for the special purpose of fooling the “common people”’, as Lenin put it.

“Today, the Cuban revolution has the most developed forms of participatory democracy in the world. They are not without real problems, not least because there is no blueprint for constructing institutions that will advance proletarian democracy, and Cuba is having to feel its way forward. But also because 45 years of economic blockade and political and ideological attack by the most powerful imperialist power in history has forced this tiny country to make many concessions and temporary retreats….

“In constructing the Organs of People’s Power, the foundations of Cuba’s national assembly, the Cubans drew on the example first provided by the Paris Commune and legislated that all delegates at every level – municipal (local), provincial and national – are elected, recallable by a vote of the majority of their electors at any time, and are expected to carry out their functions in their free time, or where they have to do them full-time, are paid no more than their usual wage in their regular job.” (Lisa Macdonald, feature talk presented to the Democratic Socialist Perspective Socialist Summer School, Sydney, January 2007.)

The development of a system of communal councils in Venezuela, their exact functions and methods of operation, and their relationship to the revolutionary national government, including the existing National Assembly – which is entirely composed of pro-Chavez delegates, but which has been inherited from the previous representative system – is still being worked out in practice. No doubt, historical experience, most notably that of Venezuela’s socialist neighbour Cuba, will provide some guidance for the future.

Where to now?

Venezuela’s Communal Councils are still a work in progress, but so far, the results are promising. Thousands of communities are mobilising as never before, taking advantage of their new power to decide government spending and policies. In the process, the communal councils are raising major challenges for democratic participation: how to decide what people should participate in, how to deal with serious disagreements, how to integrate different levels of government, how many rules to have, and how to get enough people to participate….

“The fate of the Communal Councils is highly contested. If Chavez’ old guard holds on to power, the councils may remain highly participatory appendages of the central state. Some of the newer government ministers, however, are eager to expand the communal councils´ power at the expense of old political structures, such as the city and state governments. Although Chavez was recently re-elected by a strong majority, the opposition won over a third of the vote and is becoming involved in the communal councils. If the opposition groups continue their resurgence, they might use the councils as a wedge into the government’s political power.

“As a sign of success, the communal councils are taking on a life of their own. Council activists and grassroots movements are demanding more say in the councils´ funding, rules and powers. If they can transform these demands into new political structures and processes, the communal councils may indeed reinvent government by the people….” (Josh Lerner, Z Magazine, from Venezuelanalysis.com, March 6, 2007.)

The Communal Councils, together with the new united socialist party, form the main potential base for the development of a new socialist political system in Venezuela. As President Chavez has repeatedly stressed, these mass organizations must function to create a new, cooperative and humanist socialist consciousness among the people as a necessity for the transformation of society.

Federico Fuentes, who recently returned from Venezuela as an organiser of the 2007 May Day Solidarity Brigade from Australia (sponsored by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network), outlined the future of the communal councils in an interview with Green Left Weekly. He attended a meeting in the eastern Caracas suburb of Petare, the largest barrio in Venezuela, aiming to create a federation of communal councils in the area:

“I was able to get a real sense of both the exciting potential of the Communal Councils, as well as some of the problems they face. What was very clear was the push by those leading the process of constructing popular power to explain to people that the councils were not the end point, but were the means to achieve something much more fundamental. The formation of the councils is seen as a process through which a sense of community spirit can be formed, and humans can develop themselves….”

“This is why you see the combination of the push around the community councils, which seeks to organise the entire Venezuelan society, along with the formation of the new revolutionary party, which attempts to group together the real leadership emerging out of real struggles across the country. That is, those whose authority stems not from past struggles, but the real organic leadership developing today, which needs to be given space to develop. We are seeing a whole new layer of revolutionaries that are yet to impose themselves on this process, but are beginning to do so through the combined dynamic of the communal councils on the one hand, and the new party on the other,” Fuentes explained. (From Communal power versus capitalism in Venezuela, by Stuart Munckton, Green Left Weekly, May 30, 2007.)

The success of this combined process involving the Communal Councils and the new socialist party will determine the future of the Venezuelan revolution. And the development of the revolution in Venezuela will provide a new highpoint in the historical struggle to forge a deeply democratic system of government, based on the power of working people, essential to replace capitalist tyranny with Socialism of the 21st Century.

[Jim McIlroy is a leading member of the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network and a leader of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]

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