Venezuelan Direct Democracy – The case of the Consejos Comunales
November 21st 2008, by Michael Albert and Adam Gill - ZNet
In 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez created a movement named the consejos comunales (communal councils) aimed at creating more responsive local governance by handing local budgetary and legislative power to the councils. This movement was seen by Chavez as one of the most important of the five motors of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution' in that they should influence policy from the grassroots upwards. Great interest in the councils was evident between 2004 and 2007 in that thousands formed quickly and $5 Billion was given to them during this period. Communal banks are a pre-requisite to receiving funds from the government so as to avoid clientalistic relationships of dependency.
Local councils have the power to vote on issues directly affecting their community and have used this to make significant changes. Major improvements have included building social housing and repairing roads. The local councils are formed with 200-400 families with members aged 15 and above and have an executive council and representatives of groups within the community.
I asked Michael Albert if he might be able to offer his opinion on this movement in Venezuela.
What do you feel the role of the Communal Councils is strategically and politically?
Well, I believe they are partly intended, in the present, to push forward the whole revolutionary process by increasing current participation, raising consciousness, etc.
But I also believe that for a great many folks in Venezuela, both inside and outside the government, the councils are the evolving infrastructure of a new polity. The idea is that people should govern their own lives, and in that context local councils are the proposed vehicle for doing it. As such, they are intended to become an alternative to rather than just being an adjunct to local governments of mayors and governors and the like.
Would you say the councils have created social change or more that their energies are being pulled in other directions?
I don't feel very equipped to answer this question, and I am not entirely sure, in any case, what you mean by "other directions." I can judge only from a very great difference and based on talks with only a limited number of people what the councils are up to.
My impression, and it is tentative, is that the councils are a vast and evolving experiment and project, by no means final in form and by no means fully up to speed, but coming along, though many problems still exist. First, for example, there is a population which - like our population in the U.S - has almost zero experience prior to this experiment with serious democracy much less participatory self management. So the councils and their members are learning in practice, and for many people that has ups and downs. But second, and less benign, there are obstacles as well having to do not only with past habits or current doubts, but also with real opposition, as in local governing and corporate elites not wanting this experiment to work.
Venezuela seems to me to be uniquely seeking a gigantic revolution in structures and relations - not just economically but also politically, socially, culturally - all non violently and even without much confrontation, none provoked by the agents of change. That is historically ambitious, to say the least.
So in one corner you have corporate media continuing, and corporate ownership in many realms, and governors and mayors and whatnot from the prior history of the country, all also still in place, nearly all still hoping to resurrect that prior history. In the other corner you have the Bolivarian activists, and Chavez, and a large proportion of the non elite population, instead trying to escape that past into something fundamentally new.
Venezuala is, in other words, a daily economic, political, social, and cultural cauldron of experiment and opposition - and thus a site of intense struggle. Or that is how I see Venezuela, at any rate, and in that context the local communal councils are partly a tool of the struggle but are also partly seeds of a new future being built in the present.
Should Communal Councils be free of political party influence?
This depends, I think, on what you mean by party influence. So, for example, it wouldn't make sense to say there should be no party influence. Imagine a council with people in it, of course. Some people are in one party, some people are in another party. The parties they are in influence those people's desires (and vice versa). The people then bring their desires to the councils, so through their members the parties influence the councils as well. That much is fine, in my view. It would make no sense to say that shouldn't occur.
So, for example, there are councils in communities that are very Bolivarian, and they have views and aims quite like those of the Bolivarian revolution. There are other councils in communities that are opposed to Bolivarian projects, and those councils reflect those opposition views. The parties are in part carriers of the views and the people form parties, in turn, influence the councils.
On the other hand, I think you might mean should parties as entities be able to themselves direct or otherwise impact councils, other than by the fact of their members indirectly doing so. Here I think the answer is no, they should not be able to do that.
Your question is a bit like asking, in the U.S., should local government (just imagine, for the sake of the discussion, that it was actually grassroots and participatory) be in any way at all subject to instruction or control by political parties (other than being impacted by the local members of the community who happen to be in parties)? Well, of course it shouldn't, and ditto for Venezuela. A party should impact councils simply by impacting the population that composes the councils, but not by some sort of collective or structural authority.
Do you think that party influence and political movements still operate as clients of central governments?
I am not sure I understand this question. In Venezuela, at present, the Bolivarian revolution is very much a manifestation of the ideas and will of President Chavez. We might prefer that the movement had bubbled up, instead, from the population, and that Chavez was merely one among many carriers of their intentions - but that isn't the case. In fact, Chavez is constantly trying to impact what the population thinks and wants, not just to hear from it. The government is not only administering Venezuela, as it is seeking to use state power as a tool to build social involvement and activism. It is very unusual, of course.
So in that context, the recently created revolutionary party Chavez is in is certainly affected greatly by him, as are the social movements whose members typically consider him a repository of valuable ideas and plans, as is the government. Again, this is arguably not an optimal picture, and it is certainly an unusual one - a president seeking to build movements that will replace authorities, including the old government structures, including himself - at least that's the current agenda - throughout the country - but that is what is happening, or so it seems to me, from my admittedly limited contact.
Can the Communal Councils in your opinion, become the only form of local government in Venezuela? What obstacles do you perceive to be happening now and possibly in the future?
I certainly think that is possible, and that that is the goal, not just conceivable, at least in many people's minds, including in the relevant political ministries. I sat in offices and heard them explain their hopes for these councils becoming the seat of governing power throughout the country, describing the 50,000 councils that were needed - with about 30,000 currently formed - and describing the gains in confidence and methods also needed within the councils, and explaining that yes, these would be above majors and governors and even the President. So, yes, having them be the primary locus of government power is the aim. Might that aim be swept aside as a goal? Sure, it might. But it also might come true as a reality.
PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY vs REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.
This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.
Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.
In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.
In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Venezuelan Direct Democracy – The case of the Consejos Comunales