We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

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…


Thursday, January 31, 2008

Senator On-Line: Australia's Internet Based Direct Democratic Party

An initiative is underway in Australia which has led to the creation of a new political party called Senator On-Line. The party is unique in that it is the first internet based party in Australia, and it seeks to elect representatives to office who have pledged to vote according to the will of the people, and not their own personal views. this will be achieved by an internet based popular poll being held for each bill brought before the parliament. The result of the poll will determine the way the Senator On-line senator votes on the bill, effectively creating a mixed direct/representative democracy in which the senator is merely a proxy representative executing the expressed will of the people. The Senator On-line party was officially registered and participated in the 2007 Australian election receiving over 8000 votes even though they entered only 2 months before the election. This bold experiment, if it succeeds, should certainly lead us to consider the possiblity of a similar initiative being implemented in the U.S.A. as a transitional step towards a more direct democratic system. - Editor

Senator On-Line is Australia's Only Internet Based Democratic Political Party


Senator On-Line is not aligned to any other political party… it is neither Liberal nor Labor.

Senator On-Line (‘SOL’) is a truly democratic party which will allow everyone on the Australian Electoral roll who has access to the internet to vote on every Bill put to Parliament and have its Senators vote in accordance with a clear majority view.

How did SOL go in the 2007 election?

Senator On-Line was approved shortly before the 2007 federal election was called. Senate counting continues and given we had only around two months to develop public awareness, spent no money on newspaper or TV advertising, we've received over 8000 votes nationally so far - a reasonable result and better than the national votes for four other parties.

We had over 1000 people who registered with us in the two months and emails offering support are continuing to roll in. We look forward to contesting the next election.


When a SOL senator is elected a web site will be developed which will provide:

  1. Accurate information and balanced argument on each Bill and important issues

  2. The vast majority of those registered on the Australian Electoral roll the chance to have their say by voting on bills and issues facing our country

  3. A tally of all votes which will then count in Parliament

  4. Each person on the Australian Electoral roll will be entitled to one vote and only be allowed to vote once on each bill or issue.

  5. SOL senators will have committed in writing to voting in line with the clear majority view of the SOL on-line voters.

  6. Senator On-Line will enable broader community involvement in the political process and the shaping of our country.

If you like the concept, please register your details and tell others about SOL.

This is the pre-election website. To find out what will be available when SOL wins a Senate seat click here.

P.S.U.V. Seen as a Unifying Force Behind the Institution of Participatory Democracy in Venezuela

The formation of a unified socialist party in Venezuela has a new urgency after the defeat on Dec. 2nd 2007 of the proposed constitutional reforms , which sought to fast track the transition to socialism and expand participatory democracy in the country. The P.S.U.V., as the unified party is called, is seen as a key element in bringing together the grassroots base of the revolution, which has become disenchanted with the corruption and bureaucracy within the ranks of the government, and the leadership, which is seeking to institutionalize participatory democracy in order to make it lasting and permanent.The P.S.U.V. can potentially provide the common thread between these two extremes that will unify them in the effort to stamp out the corruption that threatens the revolution from within, and to push forward the effort to transform the popular movement from one of informal grass roots activism to a new frimly established political order, one that places power permanently in the hands of the people, within a structure that will resist future attempts to return that power to its traditional limits within the oligarchy. The following insightful article explores in great detail the pitfalls in this process of unification. - Editor

Venezuela: The Struggle for a Mass Revolutionary Party

By Federico Fuentes, Caracas25 January 2008

On January 12, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez opened the founding congress of the provisionally-named United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Chavez argued it was necessary to go on the offensive with the PSUV “as the spearhead and vanguard” of the revolution his government is leading. “We have arrived here to make a real revolution or die trying.”

In drawing up a balance sheet of why Chavez’s constitutional reform proposal — that aimed to create a framework for the transition towards socialism — was narrowly defeated in a national referendum on December 2, one factor stands out. The Bolivarian revolution’s Achilles heel is the lack of a political instrument capable of confronting the challenges faced in the struggle to construct a new, socially just, Venezuela....

Monday, January 28, 2008

Direct Democracy in the Streets: The People Find Their Voice in China

People in China are increasingly coming to the realization that their voice matters in the 'new China.' They are engaging more and more in the democratic process in their own communities through direct action in the streets, and achieving real results as the government comes to it's own realization that avoiding popular unrest and economic disasters helps keep the Chinese economic powerhouse better oiled than exclusion and repression. When the government in the southern port city of Xiamen developed plans to construct another chemical plant within a mile of residential areas, a coalition of residents transcending class boundaries united and launched an impressive campaign of marches, demonstrations and cell phone text messaging which led the municipal government to suspend the plans in June '07 pending an environmental assessment (See first article below). As the second article below, which provides an update from Dec. '07, illustrates, the struggle for more direct democractic involvement is not an easy one and will require perseverence and continued public pressure. - Editor

China Calls on Xiamen to Rethink Chemical Plant

Jun 2007 04:41:13 GMT
Source: Reuters
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BEIJING, June 7 (Reuters) - A top Chinese environmental official called on the southern city of Xiamen on Thursday to rethink its plans to build a chemical plant after the prospect caused thousands to march in protest.

Pan Yue, deputy head of China's State Environmental Protection Administration, also admonished local officials for not taking seriously the importance of environmental assessments, which he said could head off such conflicts.

"We hope the Xiamen city government can consult on the plan and make appropriate adjustments and do its utmost to change the current juxtaposition of the industrial park and the neighbourhood," Pan said in a notice on the ministry's Web site (

Thousands of protesters marched through the city last week, demanding the government scrap its plans to build the plant to make paraxylene (PX), a compound used in polyester and fabrics, denouncing it as a threat to Xiamen's seaside environment.

The city had already said it would suspend construction and do another environmental assessment, but protesters demanded the government scrap the project altogether, something the Xiamen mayor said he would consider depending on the outcome of the impact study.

Pan said Xiamen had been dragging its feet on the new assessment and urged it to step up the process.

"Presently, several major incidents of environmental conflicts are because in city plans, environmental impact has not been appraised," he said. "Environmental assessment plans are a profound means to limit the environmental risk from the process of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation."

Pan also cautioned that building chemical plants near residential neighbourhoods could spur popular unrest, which China's Communist leaders are at pains to avoid.
"Many localities and departments do not give sufficient importance to environmental impact assessment plans in city planning, which can cause chaos (and) inappropriate industrial structures ...," he said.

Environmental pollution, a consequence of decades of unchecked economic growth in China, has led to demonstrations and riots around the country, from uproar over a battery plant in the eastern province of Zhejiang to a run on bottled water in the northeast after an explosion at a chemical plant poisoned tap water supplies.

Pan said local governments should consult with citizens, but appealed to residents to act calmly. "We also hope public participation is according to law, rational and can form a healthy interaction with the government."

Locals Oppose Xiamen Chemical Plant at Public Hearings 2007-12-14 20:31:34 Print

By Xinhua writers Li Jianmin, Li Huiying

XIAMEN, Dec. 14 (Xinhua) -- Almost all the speakers at two public hearings in Xiamen this week objected to plans to restart the construction of a controversial chemical plant that was suspended earlier this year following persistent public protests.

A senior government official of Xiamen also promised at the conclusion of the hearing on Friday that Xiamen government will properly deal with the environment assessment."

"The phase of public participation (in environment assessment of the project and Xiamen's future development) has ended," Zhu Zilu, secretary-general of the Xiamen municipal government, told the participants at the hearing. "And I assure you that the municipal government will undoubtedly follow the requirements of 'Scientific Outlook on Development' and properly deal with the environment assessment."

The Scientific Outlook on Development has been a new doctrine of the Chinese Communist Party that stresses sustainable economic growth and harmony between man and the nature.

Of the 107 members of public selected by lottery to represent the citizens of Xiamen at the hearings on Thursday and Friday, 91 opposed the project, 15 voiced their support, and one left without speaking. About 80 local lawmakers and political advisors were also in attendance and out of the 15 that addressed the forum, 14 spoke against the municipal government's plan to build the paraxylene (PX) plant.

Numerous members of the public hearing - who were only given a number each to identify themselves while speaking - lashed out at the project, arguing the plant would be detrimental to the environment and people's health. They said Xiamen would lose its longstanding reputation as one of the most livable cities in China.

"If you were going to pick two apples to eat, knowing that one of them was poisonous and the other was not, then, who would dare make the choice?" said a male doctor, who could only be identified as "Representative No. 31".

One woman - "No. 35" - said the existence of the plant would prompt her to reassess her living situation.

"I came to Xiamen from Guangzhou with my husband a few years ago just for its clean air and beautiful scenery. I think I'll have to leave if the plant is built," she said.

Zeng Huaqun, a local lawmaker and also a law professor at Xiamen University, said, "It's not whether the city should build it or not, it's that the project must be stopped immediately. It's time to make a decision now."

"Risks always exist in the development of chemical projects and sometimes we cannot effectively guard against them," said "No. 49".

Other citizens played down health concerns.

"I think the project will benefit Xiamen for generations. I come into contact with the chemical paraxylene in a laboratory everyday, and I haven't fallen ill - neither have my colleagues who have done so for years. I believe residents will live harmoniously with the chemical plant," said "No. 22".

"Xiamen cannot just rely on tourism for development or on scenery for attracting talented people," said Lu Shaofeng, a female local political advisor.

The representatives of the Xiamen residents were chosen on Tuesday by lottery from a total of 624 people who had registered. About 100 residents were picked as representatives and another 100were selected as alternate representatives.
The two hearings were organized by the Xiamen municipal government and lasted a total of eight hours.

The Xiamen municipal government began inviting citizens to submit their opinions on the future of the chemical project on December 5 via email, post or telephone to the municipal government or the Beijing-based Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, the organization in charge of an assessment of the environmental impact of the project.

"So far, we have received more than 3,000 e-mails, 2,000 telephone calls and about 10letters," said Shu Jianmin, deputy head of the Beijing academy. "We will classify the opinions and suggestions and provide replies conscientiously," Shu said, refusing to disclose the percentage of the correspondence that criticized the project.

No indication of when a final decision might be made was given.
Li Yanwu, director of the academy's center for environmental assessment, previously said the environmental experts would include some of the opinions and suggestions raised at the hearing in their newly completed report on the environmental assessment of the chemical project.

The Xiamen authorities put chemical project, earmarked for the city's Haicang District 16 kilometers from the city center, on hold on May 30 after coming under huge pressure from citizens virulently opposed to the project who said it is polluting and potentially dangerous.

On June 7, the Xiamen municipal government announced that the construction of the chemical project would rest on an environmental assessment. A month later, the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences was entrusted by the Xiamen municipal government to carryout the assessment. Li and his colleagues completed the report late last month.

According to an abbreviated version of the report posted on the official website of the municipal government, experts concluded that the southern area of Haicang District, the original location of the planned PX plant, was too small and inadequate for the diffusion of atmospheric pollution.

The local government had set two targets for the southern part of Haicang: to develop the area into a sub-center of the city and to create an industrial zone focused on the chemical industry. However, according to the environmental assessment report, urban planners were advised to choose one or the other, but not both.
If the city government's priority is the first target, then the area is unsuitable for the development of the chemical industry, the report said. If the latter, a number of residential buildings should be demolished, citizens should be relocated and strict controls over the chemical plants should be imposed, it continued.

If the 10.8-billion-yuan (about 1.4 billion dollars) project by Tenglong Aromatic PX (Xiamen) Co. Ltd. goes ahead, it is expected to produce 800,000 tons of paraxylene and generate revenues of 80 billion yuan (10.77 billion dollars) a year.

Editor: Bi Mingxin

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Participatory Water Management: Case of Ecuador

Global struggles for water have demonstrated that it will soon become, if it is not already, the most sought after commodity. Unlike petroleum or any other fuel, it is a resource that has no substitute, and is completely necessary for human survival. With enhanced contamination and corporate controls threatening water security all over the world, the people must have the power to decide how to solve this problem and manage themselves this resource that belongs to them.

Governments in South America have in many cases acquiesced to the demands of corporate lenders by relinquishing control of city water systems to foreign investors. As Bechtel and its subsidiaries jack up the prices, more people find themselves unable to pay water bills. The article below points out the problems faced by the people of Ecuador and suggests that the people take direct democratic control of the essential resource. The article should also compel a reader to ask who owns the water that we use and consume on a daily basis, and who will have control in the future when supplies are more scarce? - Editor

Who Controls Ecuador's Water?

by Sara Grusky, Food & Water Watch October 30, 2007 - Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)

It is a well kept secret that Bechtel won a contract to privatize the water in Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil, just months after the massive citizen protests that threw Bechtel out of Bolivia. In October 2000, a local Bechtel subsidiary, Interagua, signed a 30-year concession contract to run the water and sanitation services in Guayaquil. The privatization process was promoted by loans from the Inter-American Development Bank and a guarantee from the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), a World Bank agency. Now, more than six years later, the residents of Guayaquil are demanding damages from the company for water contamination, an end to water cut-offs, and a return to local, public control.

On Sept. 28 residents in Guayaquil gathered in front of the offices of the undersecretary of the economy to protest the contract. On Oct.18 thousands gathered to proclaim that water is a human right, demanding that their "water debts" are forgiven and that their water services are reconnected. A local advocacy organization, the Observatorio Cuidadano de Servicios Publicos (Citizen's Observatory of Public Services), is seeking to stop the water cut-offs through legal action.

One in six people in the world lack access to clean and affordable water and thousands of children die of water-borne diseases every day. Corporations like Bechtel seek to profit from providing water, often elevating the narrow interests of their companies and its shareholders above social and environmental goals. Around the world, privatization has led to large rate hikes and poor service, while failing to solve the problem of lack of access, leaving the poorest communities with no water services at all. This is now the situation in Guayaquil, where there are hundreds of documented complaints due to the appalling service of Bechtel's subsidiary, Interagua. The citizens of Guayaquil are demanding accountability from the company. The Ecuadorian regulatory agency ECAPAG recently fined Interagua $1.5 million for contractual violations. Some of the problems that face the residents of Guayaquil include:

  1. Repeated residential water cut-offs for up to 12, 24, 36, or more hours at a time;
  2. Residential water cut-offs of senior citizens and other low-income residents due to inability to pay;
  3. Failure to extend services to specific neighborhoods, especially low-income residents;
  4. Failure to meet contractual obligations for rehabilitation and expansion of services;
  5. Public health problems such as respiratory problems, skin rashes, asthma, and diarrhea due to lack of wastewater treatment;
  6. Environmental contamination due to lack of wastewater treatment;
  7. Hepatitis A outbreak in June 2005, investigated by local authorities (Commission for Civic Control and the Public Defender's office) who concluded that the water was "not apt for human consumption."
The Failure

In 2006, Bechtel's total revenue amounted to $20.5 billion and Interagua's operations in Guayaquil earned $300 million in revenue. Despite these profits, Interagua did not initiate the rehabilitation programs it had promised. Concerns and complaints mounted over broken pipelines, floods due to malfunctioning sewage systems, exorbitant water rates, poor water quality, and environmental damage due to the lack of wastewater treatment during this first five-year period. Lack of investment in storm drainage forced many residents to suffer the health effects of constant flooding. In 2002 the company was treating only 5% of the sewage and releasing the rest, including fecal material, and domestic and industrial waste directly into the local river, Guayas. 1 The health department began to issue reports documenting health problems that children were experiencing in communities located north of the city, such as Acuarelas del Río and Guayacanes, where the sewage was being released. The health problems included skin rashes, asthma, and gastric problems such as diarrhea.

Along with overflowing sewage and illegal dumping, unsafe tap water has also contributed to the serious health crisis. Residents complain about the "nauseating" and "unbearable" odor coming from the tap water.2 Interagua has refused to make public information regarding water quality. In June 2005 over 150 children were infected with Hepatitis A from drinking dirty tap water. The outbreak was concentrated around the western suburbs of Guayaquil where 76% of residents described their water as cloudy and foul-smelling. Interagua denied responsibility for the outbreak but studies have shown that it was a combination of the nonfunctional sewage system and poor water quality that contributed ultimately to the outbreak of Hepatitis A.3 The Commission for Civic Control and the Public Defender's office declared that Interagua held some responsibility for the Hepatitis A outbreak and concluded that the water was "not fit for human consumption." But problems persist including repeated cut-offs of water service that last for more than 24 hours, which is illegal unless the company provides alternative sources of water for the residents. In some areas Interagua cut the water for 23 hours a day in order to evade the responsibility of providing an alternative water source. In addition, the company continues to cut off water services when consumers accumulate too much debt.

Taking Back Control

Guarantees and loans provided by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have ensured a profitable investment for one of the world's most influential corporations, Bechtel. But, similar to the experience of many other cities across the world, water privatization has not solved water problems in Guayaquil. Instead, Bechtel has delivered water not suitable for drinking, refused to expand access to services, cut off water to those unable to pay, and neglected responsibilities to provide wastewater treatment compromising the local environment and public health.

The Observatorio Cuidadano de Servicios Públicos is working tirelessly to document Bechtel's contract violations. The group—which brings together numerous civil society organizations in Guayaquil to monitor and help improve public services—has exposed the constitutional, legal, and contractual violations of Interagua and is working to ensure that action is taken. They will continue to organize and demand that water and other public services be locally and publicly owned, controlled, and managed with active citizen oversight and participation.

The recognition of water as a human right and the push for citizen oversight and participation in public services is also being acknowledged and supported on an international scale. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights adopted the human right to water on Nov. 26, 2002 and the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report of 2006 calls on all governments to enshrine the right to water in enabling legislation. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life of human dignity. Everyone should have secure access to sufficient safe water and sanitation to meet their basic human needs. To ensure that safe and affordable water is available to the 1.2 billion people across the globe that currently do not have proper access, international financial institutions and aid agencies need to abandon failed policies and stop pushing countries to privatize water services. Governments need to involve residents in solutions and recognize the human right to clean and affordable water.

Sara Grusky is a senior organizer with the Water for All Campaign at Food & Water Watch ( She works with communities and organizations across the Americas that are working to replace corporate control of their water resources with local democratic control. She can be reached at

To sign-on to a letter to Bechtel regarding their operation in Ecuador contact Sara Grusky at:

Also see these related articles (in spanish):

And this news in today from Guayaquil:

Friday, January 25, 2008

Guatemala's New President Has a Plan

Though president Alvaro Colom is the first left-leaning Guatemalan president to be elected in some 50 years, he has not as of yet signed on to the movement towards the institutionalization of participatory democracy in Latin America like his leftist counterparts in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. The recently elected Colum has a huge job ahead of him. It will take more than the 100 days of his initial plan to eradicate poverty and insecurity, but this is a good start. While the article below mentions the distribution of funds to cooperatives, he will have to do more than symbolically listen to the people by travelling to the poorest regions in promise of sending money. Allowing the people to participate directly in the process rather that through their municipal officials, and to manage the funds collectively will reduce the risk of corruption within the bureaucratic ranks of the government and thereby instill more confidence in the government, and lend it more credibility. As far as "security" is concerned, he will have to learn from the plights of Salvadorans who currently suffer under the excesses of a brutal police force. Responding to the people without violence will lead to more stability and better governance in the long run. - Editor

New Guatemalan President begins 100-Day Plan

(Source: Global Research, January 19, 2008, Prensa Latina - 2008-01-18)

With the launching of a rural development project and special operations, the new Guatemalan government started a 100-day plan against poverty and insecurity gripping the country.

The program will cost 1.2 billion quetzals (about $158 million) and is a response to the people's most urgent needs and to improve quality of life, President Alvaro Colom stated.

Three days after assuming power, Colom traveled to Ixcan, one of the poorest and most affected zones by the 36-year internal armed conflict, where he announced the delivery of funds to cooperatives for several projects.

The government also predicts the creation of a rural development council, the extension of services like education and health to distant zones, and the concession of resources so poor mothers can send their sons to school.

As for security, over 500 police agents started operations in high crime areas of this capital to eliminate drug and weapon shipments and people trade.

National Police Civil spokesman Faustino Sanchez said that vigilance and detentions are consequences of accusations against citizens dedicated to extortions and assaults to urban buses.

In his inauguration speech Monday, President Colom announced a raging war against the Mafias and organized crime, and promised starting a process of change to a social-democratic government that fights poverty, oriented to those with less opportunities.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Direct Democracy in Switzerland - Since 1291?

Direct democracy is by no means alien to the western world as we have already pointed out in relation to the institutions of direct democracy that are practiced at the state and local level in the U.S.A. , and Switzerland is arguably the western nation where it has been practiced for the longest time and on the broadest scale. The Swiss are very proud of their direct democracy, and there is a lot we can learn from it's history and development in order to visualize how such a system could and should be implemented here in the U.S.A. - Editor

To learn more about Switzerland's fascinating direct democratic system visit this site:

And also view this very interesting government video presentation on the subject:


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Case of Carora Exemplifies Success of Community Councils and Participatory Democracy in Venezuela

Participatory democracy is at the heart of the 'Bolivarian Revolution' taking place in Venezuela. A complete restructuring of governance and power structures is under way, shifting the balance of power to the community level and engaging the populace in the political process as never before. The 'consejos communales' or 'communal councils' represent a grass roots form of government that is legitimized and funded at the federal level. This is a unique situation, and it has made Venezuela one of the most dynamic models of participatory democracy in the world today. The government refers to the councils as the 'fuel for the engines of people power,' and the following article illustrates how this deepening of direct and participatory democratic institutions is having a real effect in communities all across Venezuela. - Editor

Building Popular Power in Carora

Community assemblies of all citizens make collective decisions on community priorities and spending. Remarkably, the percentage of participation by women is between 80-90 per cent, and the majority of the councils are in poorer communities.

By Jay Hartling April 24, 2007

Carora's streets are much like other Latin American cities — bustling commerce on every corner, traffic, noise, people going about their daily routine. But there is something that distinguishes Carora and the Municipality of Pedro Leon Torres in the state of Lara, Venezuela from any other municipality I've visited in Latin America, and in particular, any other in Venezuela.

That is, the city is on a path to democratize and transform the entire governance system of the municipality, from the bottom up — led by the current Mayor, Julio Chavez (no relation to President Hugo Chavez).

Carora is a city of approximately 100,000 located in the agricultural state of Lara in Venezuela's northwest. It is the capital of the Municipality of Pedro Leon Torres which makes up 40 per cent of Lara's geography, making it the largest municipality in the state in land mass. It is hot — temperatures in April average around 35 degrees Celsius or more — but what's really hot is the blazing rate at which the mayor has transformed this beautiful city into a microcosm of popular power in such a short period of time.

Julio Chavez, in his early 40s, is an unassuming individual — very friendly and open — known as ¨Julio¨ to everyone. He won the election for mayor in 2004 running on a coalition slate for the PPT (Patria Para Todos), one of the many parties that supports the national revolutionary government. Chavez has immense credibility with the majority of citizens in Torres — he is considered one of them and has a long history of social struggle.

However, to those opposed to the revolutionary process, he is the devil incarnate, and is the target of death threats and intense hatred. This has posed a huge problem for Chavez, as the oligarchy also controls all local media, and therefore, makes it difficult for citizens to find out the truth about the remarkable achievements of the municipal government.

Chavez came to office with only one goal — to democratize the municipality and turn it over to the citizens. This conforms with the articles and principles of participatory and protagonistic democracy in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Although other municipalities have implemented some of the institutions of participatory democracy, Julio Chavez is miles ahead of his colleagues.

When Chavez took office, he inherited a typical representative system that had been run by a small local oligarchy for centuries. These same families ran the municipality and the local agro-businesses and their ancillary industries (and still do to a large extent). The former mayor made all the decisions for municipal expenditures, and awarded lucrative municipal contracts to his friends and family.

As most other governments of the 4th Republic did, they had virtually ignored the social problems facing the majority of citizens in the municipality. Most of these businesses and individuals had never paid taxes — that is, until Chavez arrived on the scene. In just two short years, the municipal government has quadrupled its operational tax base by collecting taxes from errant companies, including some big name national and multinational firms, some of which had been fudging their books for years. Faced with heavy fines if they continued to refuse to pay, these companies and individuals have now started paying taxes.

In addition, the city receives funding from the federal government's decentralization funds (FIDES) and through the LAEE — a piece of legislation that provides equalization funding to non-petroleum producing states — similar to provincial equalization payments in Canada. What is remarkable is that Chavez has turned these funds over to the communities to decide how they are spent. But the buck doesn't stop there; the citizens are also active in the administration of public funds, including comptrollership and evaluation.

Julio Chavez began his term by quickly implementing all of the participatory programs outlined in the country's constitution, including the participatory budget, the local public planning councils, and most recently, the communal councils.

Implementing participatory systems on top of the local statutes of the former 4th Republic didn't make sense to Chavez, the city councillors or local citizens, so they organized a massive municipal citizens' assembly to discuss, evaluate and reform the municipal by-laws to bring them in line with the country's progressive constitution. For three months, discussions and debates took place in all 17 parishes with the mayor and all councillors in attendance.

The product is a new, revolutionary municipal constitution that is based on the fundamental principles of “life, liberty justice, equality, solidarity, democracy, social responsibility and the pre-eminence of human rights, ethics and political pluralism.” Chavez views his government as a transitional government with these goals: 1) to dissolve the municipal oligarchic structure; and 2) to introduce a transitional government that will dismantle the corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy and transfer democratic decision-making to the people.

When asked why other supposed revolutionary mayors have not done the same, Chavez politely shrugs and says, “I have asked them the same question.” This has not gone unnoticed by President Hugo Chavez who has placed Julio Chavez on two presidential commissions — one for popular participation and the communal councils, and one to assist other municipalities with the realignment of their by-laws.

The first participatory budget in Torres took place in 2005 through the parish-based Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs). The following year, the discussions moved closer to the residents and all citizens were provided the opportunity to prioritize spending.

But the participation doesn't stop here. It goes much further by placing the administration of public works (both the actual work and the financial management) in the hands of communities. In his first year, the mayor says that unfortunately the communities overlooked a couple of global problems like repairing roads. Chavez says that he had to go to each of the communities and convince them to give money back to the city in order for them to pave some roads.

The real engine of popular revolutionary power, however, is the communal councils. There are currently 317 communal councils operating in Torres' 17 parishes. Most of them are just over a year old, and new ones are forming on a weekly basis. The councils consist of up to 200 families in rural settings, and 400-500 in larger towns and cities. The councils form the basis of popular power of the new socialist system that is slowly emerging in Venezuela.

Community assemblies of all citizens make collective decisions on community priorities and spending. Spokespeople are elected, but they do not take decisions on behalf of the community. All decisions, ideas and spending are approved by the community assembly as a whole. Remarkably, the percentage of participation by women is between 80-90 per cent, and the majority of the councils are in poorer communities. Also remarkable is the level of transparency with the administration of public money — all accounts are kept in a set of books that are available to anyone who wants to see them (including me), and these accounts are rendered publicly to the community assembly as well as the government.

Lilian Ballesteros, a spokesperson for El Onzo Communal Council says her community was completely ignored by former governments, but now with the communal council system, they have been able to access funds to improve their water supply, build new houses for the families that live in the most dire conditions in what are referred to as “ranchos,” and now they are moving into social production projects that will provide sustainable employment and generate income for further community improvements.

She says it is no problem for her to walk into Julio's office at any time, without an appointment, and discuss community issues. The El Onzo Communal Council is also part of a multi-community structure called a mancomunidad where five communities are collaborating with each other to run a communal bank. Funds for community projects go directly to the community from central government funds and are managed out of the communal bank.

This means that community members don't have to find transportation to the municipal or state capital any more in order to wade through the paperwork and processes previously required to undertake community projects. For Lilian, the communal councils prove that people can administer public funds and projects without specialized training. Julio Chavez put his faith in these communities and it is paying off.

Most importantly, the communal councils are building a communal bond of mutual social responsibility that is slowly replacing the individualism that is such a key part of the outgoing capitalist system. Rosa Rodriguez of Las Palmitas Communal Council says that she barely knew some of the people in her community prior to becoming involved with her communal council, let alone the kinds of problems they faced.

However, during the socio-economic census that each communal council undertakes at the beginning of their formation process to understand what kind of resources exist in the community, and what they are lacking, she began to have a deeper appreciation for the problems of others — something which has united the community in a common front. The census allows the community to understand which families are in the direst need and those are the ones that are first in line for housing and other programs.

So what lies ahead for the communal councils, participatory and protagonistic democracy and socialism of the 21st century in Venezuela? According to Julio Chavez, the next step is to re-design the local governance system built on the communal councils. This will have a dramatic impact on the previous geographic boundaries of municipalities, on the power of elected officials and public employees, and on the state and national governance structures.

The councils themselves still have to overcome the behaviours and practices associated with representative democracy. For now, the councils are very new, and have a lot of wrinkles to work out before the fifth engine of the revolution, that of popular power, can run smoothly. If they can do it, Venezuela will become one of the few places on the planet where true “democracy” (rule by the people) will flourish.

Jay Hartling of Vancouver and Halifax, is a graduate student at the University of Victoria, studying the communal councils in Venezuela

Monday, January 21, 2008

Anthills of the Savannah Demonstrates Need for Participatory Democracy in Africa

We must learn from the various errors of representative democracy in order to build an ideal form of participatory democracy. The developing world continues to struggle against colonial and imperialist forces in response to ethnic, class, and national identities that have outlived invaders. Participatory democracy offers to reconcile distinct identities by allowing diverse people to bring their grievances directly to the table.

In Chinua Achebe’s novel, Anthills of the Savannah, it becomes obvious that divided people cannot be united by a charismatic figure, but instead by working together. Set in a fictional country called Kangan, the people are faced with post-colonial governance challenges. Achebe does not directly represent Nigeria, his home country, but instead draws upon various historical events to weave the plot and paint a pan-African picture that provides insight into democratic challenges of today.

Rival Identities in Africa Challenge Democracy

The nation can only be seen as a whole in the imagination. Tribes (this term and its variants refer here to social organizations that are pre-capitalist and without a centralized state or a division of economic classes) must suffer from amnesia in order to bring together the conquerors with the conquered. This is true of class struggles as well. In the novel, this is exemplified by the fact that life in the capital city of Bassa is very different from reality in the desert province of Abazon, where problems are more easily ignored by the centralized government.

The village is far more easily conceived as a whole. The circle of communication between leaders and the led is closed, as it should be in participatory democracy. This can be seen in the fact that Abazonian elders are able to speak for all of their people with accuracy and consent. Nil ten Kortenaar points out that for nationalists, “the creation of the state depends on the prior existence of an ethnic community that is distinguished from foreigners by virtue of language and culture.” National boundaries drawn by foreigners make “nationalism” in Africa a creation of foreigners. Likewise, "national identity is the product of literacy and of standardized modern education." The dictator in the novel, Sam, represents this assumed national identity that is not in fact part of Kangan reality for diverse social groups who prefer to identify on class or ethnic lines. Ernest Gellner wrote that nationalism “claims to defend folk culture while in fact it is forging a high culture; it claims to protect an old folk society while in fact helping to build up anonymous mass society”. The government asks for the consent of the populace when the dictator requires a vote regarding his “presidency for life”, claiming that he can defend folk culture and Africa, when in fact he is forging the elite culture that separates itself from tribal reality. This is a major downfall of representative democracy.

Revolutionary democrats, as defined by Eric Hobsbawm, argue that the nation must express the common will of its citizens. This is only possible when a uniting perspective has been identified and the government maintains legitimacy. This is not the case in Kangan where the government expressed the will of itself, without facing the problems expressed by citizens. Ikem, seeks a way in which he can "partake in the source of stability and social meaning" that he has lost due to his foreign education and elite position as editor of the national newspaper. This is where direct participation in democratic processes would be beneficial to both government legitimacy and the power of the people.

During his speech at the University, Ikem asserts that story tellers, or those who pass on the memories of the people, are a threat to people in control because they advocate freedom of the human spirit and maintain separation between conquered and conquerors. Kortenaar insists that “the memory that would create a communal identity must be selective. Not memory but invented memory is necessary for the nation.” This is the important role of story-tellers in nation building that can uphold the tradition of communication and participation, necessary tools for democratic participation. Ikem notes that the nation must be built from below and cannot be imposed by external, or foreign, powers. The novel is targeted toward leaders who must come to realize this. Hope is represented by the fact that his blood (mixed with that of a market woman) will continue and the naming of his child is witnessed by multiple generations, classes, and ethnicities. Both Chris and Ikem's legacies and aspirations will live on in the future generations.

As a controller, Sam is concerned with the powers of the institutions of the state and not with the nation itself, making the idea of state one of foreign imposition. He maintains a European idea of nationalism that stems from the educated elite living in the capital. His view argues for a centralized power that extends toward the periphery. As Sam senses impending doom, it becomes obvious that he should have listened and responded to the people he was governing over. Sam is doomed to fall. He can neither achieve the consent of the people (represented by Abazonian discontent) nor unify them under a national identity. When he failed to be seduced by Beatrice and instead went with the American journalist, he demonstrated that he was not loyal to the people or to the “motherland”. Sam's concern for institutions instead of people, his foreign idea of national identity, centralized power and failure to respond to the needs of the people demonstrate the downfalls of representative government.

Achebe is advocating for two distinct values to reinforce each other. He wants descent (the value of ancestors and the conception of identity as natural and ineluctable) to support consent (daily plebiscite). These two values help to address tribal culture with its story tellers and focus in the village as a force within government legitimation. It seems that Sam’s empire building might result in the creation of a nation. However, it is made obvious that the nation does not lie within the capital, and by isolating power there, Sam’s government failed. The participation of diverse people is the only way to achieve the reinforcement of descent and consent. -Editor

Sources: Kortenaar, Neil ten (1993)."Only Connect": Anthills of the Savannah and Achebe's Trouble with Nigeria. Research in African Literatures. 24, No. 3, 59-72.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Los Consejos Comunales: El Combustible de los Motores del Poder Popular y la Democracia Participativa en Venezuela

¿Que es un Consejo Comunal?



El consejo comunal es la forma de organización más avanzada que pueden darse los vecinos de una determinada comunidad para asumir el ejercicio real del poder popular, es decir, para poner en práctica las decisiones adoptadas por la comunidad.

Es además, la instancia básica de planificación, donde el pueblo formula, ejecuta, controla y evalúa las políticas públicas. Así, incorpora a las diferentes expresiones organizadas de los movimientos populares.

El consejo comunal también es la base sobre la cual se construye la democracia participativa y protagónica que plantea la Constitución Bolivariana. Así como una casa puede derrumbarse fácilmente si su base no es suficientemente fuerte, así también puede ocurrir con la nueva democracia que estamos construyendo: ella sólo será invencible si su base es fuerte y esa base son los consejos comunales.

Integración y Organización:

A los fines de su funcionamiento, el Consejo Comunal está integrado por:

1. El órgano ejecutivo, integrado por los voceros y voceras de cada comité de trabajo.
2. La Unidad de Gestión Financiera como órgano económico- financiero.
3. La Unidad de Contraloría Social como órgano de control.

8 Millones de Venezolanos Forman Parte de los Consejos Comunales


El pasado viernes 14 de Septiembre, tuvo lugar en las instalaciones del Domo Bolivariano de la ciudad de Barquisimeto, el encuentro entre el Presidente de la República, Hugo Chávez, Gobernadores y Alcaldes Bolivarianos, y algunos representantes de los mas de 32 mil consejos comunales conformados hasta ahora en todo el país.

La actividad fue organizada con la finalidad de suscribir mediante un acta el compromiso de los gobiernos regionales y locales de ejecutar la propuesta presidencial de transferir a los consejos comunales un porcentaje de los recursos provenientes del excedente del situado constitucional.

El Presidente Chávez aseguró que por cada bolívar que las gobernaciones transfieran a los consejos comunales, el Gobierno Nacional transferirá otro, esto con el objetivo de consolidar el poder comunal en todo el territorio nacional, del cual ya se han beneficiado alrededor de 8 millones de venezolanos y venezolanas que pertenecen a algún consejo comunal, lo que equivale a un tercio de la población.

El mandatario nacional al hacer referencia a la Reforma Constitucional manifestó que de ser aprobada, la transferencia de recursos se hará de forma más directa y obligatoria a todas las comunidades y resaltó “estos son uno de los cambios mas profundos que ocurrirán una vez aprobada la Reforma Constitucional: transferir el poder al pueblo”.

El compromiso asumido por los gobernadores en cuanto al porcentaje a transferir equivale al 10% de los 3 billones de bolívares que fueron otorgados.

Durante su alocución Chávez, recordó que a principios de este año, el Gobierno Nacional hizo un aporte al Fondo Nacional de los Consejos Comunales de 4 billones de bolívares, de los cuales 2,3 billones de bolívares están en manos de instancias de participación popular.

Mexico: Micro-loan Exploitation Requires Civic Action for Developing Alternatives

Mexican banks are loaning money to poor Mexican families who wish to start a small business. Thought to be a development tool in the neo-colonial world, micro-loans are intended to give otherwise unlikely borrowers credit. However, outrageous APRs create profit for the bank while the borrower struggles, and often fails, to pay back loans with 80-120% interest. Loans aren't the only culprits exploiting the poor. Grupo Elektra has teamed up with Banco Azteca to sell electronics and home appliances on credit with equally astounding interest rates. While the corporations reap great profits, families sink further into debt by paying far more than a product is worth. While credit seems like a viable way to help the poor acquire start-up goods for an income-generating endeavor, it has become clear that in many cases the only beneficiaries are the banks and corporations.

What can communities do to help create jobs that do not require individuals to put up capital or credit?

Maybe people don't see an option beyond this line of credit, or they haven't had the opportunity to learn from each other's mistakes. In either scenario, communicating with each other and uniting and organizing to face these issues would be a great step toward escaping exploitation, especially if it resulted in a more grass roots and popular approach such as that of the horizontalidad movement in Argentina. (see previous post on horizontalidad)

For specific details about micro-loans in Mexico, see this article:

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Base Communities Give an "Option for the Poor" but True Liberation Comes with Decision-Making Power

Planting a tree at base community of Totoapita

Small lay-led communities, motivated by Catholic faith and defined by participatory values, can be found throughout Latin America. Communities in the United States have much to learn from the participatory practices of these communities, especially their inclusion of the poor in education and problem solving.

With the goals of working together, improving the community, and establishing a more just society, community members respond to Liberation Theology's "option for the poor". In the 1950s, European movements within the Church stressed action around people's real problems, such as unjust treatment in the workplace or school, union struggles, or a coworker's needs. The defining values became "observe-judge-act". Observing includes discussing relevant facts, judging means deciding the situation's relation to the gospel, and acting means doing something, no matter how small, to change it. Regular meetings allowed evalutation of problems and actions a frequent practice. These movements spread to Latin American villages and barrios and by the end of the 1960s, the base community model gained widespread acceptance as the initial cell for builiding communities and became an important contribution to development efforts. While some priests travelled around the region helping people start organizing, lay people began to favor the defining values of commitment, personal growth, dialogue, and critical thinking. These values allowed them a sense of individuality that differs from being part of the masses gathered at a single community church and gave people the power to organize themselves.

The poor have been most responsive to the base-community format. The word "base" is often understood as the "bottom" of society, that is, the poor majority. Poverty motivates communities to struggle for their rights while the actions they take often go hand-in-hand with the religious aspects of liberation theology. A group may meet for Bible study and finish by discussing how to form a cooperative or fix a road for easier transportation. Also, as church members spread the gospel - or "good news" - people find that god is with them in their struggles and that change is possible.

While Catholic faith was a major force in founding base communities and giving an option for the poor, the most important piece is the empowerment of the oppressed. Through dialogue and consciousness raising (concientizacion), peasants and the impoverished learned to read and write without the hierarchical and paternalistic patterns of leadership. The Brazilian educator Paulo Friere and other developed a system in the 1950s and 60s that treated adults as intellegent despite their lack of linguistic skills. Through group discussions and individual curiosity, the community learns in a way independent of established structures. Learning words that denote the realities of a peasant's life (e.g. mother, father, land, corn, hoe) made the process applicable to daily life. As people came together to learn literacy skills, they experience the 'concientizacion' to help them articulate their needs and become organized as what Antonio Gramsci calles "organic intellectuals". This process empowered the poor community by giving them necessary skills to found a base community themselves.

Base communities have goals, values, and tools to make real changes in the lives of community members. These are imperative foundations for participatory democracy. Base communites may be seen as models for participatory democracy in cases where the people have the power to make actual changes. Depending on the case, this could mean control of funding for community projects, deciding what infrastructural endeavors the government should undertake, or gaining consensus on how the community can deter crime, collect trash, distribute water, etc. In their efforts, base communities are a positive step toward participatory democracy, but real decision-making power could fully distinguish them as a defender of communal rights. It is important to see how community organizing has the potential to form a power structure that stands as an alternative to both the church and the government.

For more information on base communities and liberation theology, see Liberation Theology: Essential Facts About the Revolutionary Movement in Latin America and Beyond by Phillip Berryman.