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…


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Citizen Power Councils in Nicaragua: Are the Accusations of Patronage Founded?

With a $230 loan from a local council, Maria Auxiliadora Rivera started a small business making tortillas over an open fire in her makeshift home in Managua.

Questioning the validity of mainstream media is vital to creating a better understanding of struggles for participatory democracy around the world. If one were to read only the first half of this article, he or she would find that Nicaragua is controlled by a communist dictator who manipulates the populace in an effort to maintain power. The language used strikes all negative chords in the psyche of the mainstream consumer of NY Times information and most people would not wade their way through to the very end where the article begins to explain how community councils could be beneficial to the poor and repressed population. Given that it does give some space for this other argument, it can be argued that that the article is not biased. However, the incendiary headline may be the only thing that the average joe reads, and it creates a conception of Nicaragua that is meant to diminish the validity and necessity of creating communal councils as effective agents of community development. When you read this article, obviously consider both sides, but make sure you get all the way through to the end and the important comments by other readers. Please submit any additional information about community councils in Nicaragua that you find to the editors so that we may share it here. -Editor

Nicaraguan Councils Stir Fear of Dictatorship

Source: The New York Times

Nicaragua — The government billboards and graffiti in this sultry city tell a visitor a lot about the ideological battle racking Nicaragua.

President Daniel Ortega Saavedra beams from the billboards, promising “Citizens Power” as a solution to Nicaragua’s endemic poverty. “The world’s poor arise!” the signs say. But beneath the billboards, on walls and benches all over town, others have scrawled “No to CPC. No to dictatorship.”

The graffiti alludes to Citizens Power Councils — or C.P.C.’s. In December, Mr. Ortega established the neighborhood committees, which are controlled by his left-wing Sandinista party and administer antipoverty programs, despite a vote against the plan by the National Assembly.

Mr. Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla leader, maintains that the councils are meant only to let community leaders have a say in where and how government money is spent.

But opposition leaders say the councils are another step in what they call the Ortega administration’s drift toward an authoritarian and secretive government that does not have to answer to the legislature — mostly because the president controls tens of millions of dollars a year in aid from Venezuela.

Some of the president’s opponents charge that the Citizens Power Councils are nothing more than patronage mills, channeling government largess to supporters of the party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

Mr. Ortega has made no attempt to hide his desire to make an end run around the National Assembly. He declared last fall that the legislature’s vote against the councils was intended “to deny the right of the people to exercise power” and “to keep ministers from governing directly with the people.”

“It is the people who have the final say on the system they want,” Mr. Ortega declared at a rally on Dec. 1.

Opposition leaders complain the councils smack of similar party-controlled organs in totalitarian governments like Cuba’s, where local committees of party loyalists not only influence who gets government benefits but also spy on political opponents.

“It’s part of a vision that President Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, have to destroy the model of representative democracy and replace it with a direct democracy,” said José Pallais, a Liberal Party leader. “The C.P.C. serve as a fundamental element, a strategy, to control the society, to spy on the people.”

Another Liberal opposition leader, Wilfredo Navarro, defended the Sandinista party’s right to organize political committees but said the president had crossed a line when he gave those committees power over government programs. “Ortega can form his Citizens Power Councils, but he cannot give them the role of the state,” he said. “To pave a street, you have to talk to the C.P.C.”

He added, “It is very clear the state’s money should not be used as an instrument of political blackmail.”

Elías Chévez, a prominent Sandinista party leader who oversees the citizen councils in Managua, denied that the councils showed favoritism in handing out subsidies, though he acknowledged that they were controlled by the party.

In defending the councils, he said past governments had failed to lift people out of poverty in part because neighborhoods and towns lacked local organizations to send aid where it was most needed. He portrayed the critics of the councils as members of a corrupt oligarchy interested only in protecting business interests.

“These people don’t want the population to have a role, to play a part,” he said....

One complaint of the opposition is that the financing of both the committees and the social programs they administer remains murky. Last year, Nicaragua and Venezuela signed a deal that opposition leaders and budget experts say has given Mr. Ortega’s administration essentially a slush fund outside the national budget, worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Under the deal, Venezuela supplies Nicaragua with about 10 million barrels of oil a year, enough to cover all the country’s energy needs. Nicaragua pays half the market price and has 23 years to pay off the rest at 2 percent interest. The deal hands Nicaragua what amounts to a large low-interest loan every month for infrastructure projects and social programs.

But the loans are not reflected in the national budget, since the transactions are handled through a quasi-public company called Albanisa and the state-owned oil company, Petronic. (The treasurer of the Sandinista party, Francisco López, also runs Petronic and is a vice president of Albanisa.) The Ortega administration has never given a full accounting to the legislature of how the money is spent.

“It’s off the books — no institutions, no controls,” said Roberto Courtney, the executive director of Ethics and Transparency, a Nicaragua-based lobby group advocating openness in government. “That’s how the C.P.C. gets its money.”

The network of citizen councils is overseen by Ms. Murillo, Mr. Ortega’s wife and communications director, who is widely seen here as a powerful political figure. She did not respond to a request for an interview.

Each council has 15 members, and each member has a portfolio, roughly paralleling the government ministries. Though members of other parties sit on the committees, a vast majority are Sandinistas.

Among other things, the committees decide which stores will handle the subsidized food program for the poor, which streets will be paved under an infrastructure project financed by Venezuela, which women will receive low-income loans to start small businesses and which farmers will get free cattle, pigs and seeds. They also oversee vaccinations and literacy classes.

Jeannette Suazo, a Sandinista, is the chairwoman of the committee in a Managua neighborhood known as September 14th. She insists that aid is handed out without regard to politics, and she said that her committee had four members who belonged to the opposition party. All are volunteers and get no pay, though some have government jobs, she said.

“We are the communicators between the people and the government,” she said. “It’s easier to solve these problems with an organized people than with a disorganized people.”

On the impoverished streets of Managua, people complain more about the scarcity of government aid coming from the councils than about favoritism in doling it out. Subsidized supplies of beans, rice and oil, for instance, run out long before the lines disappear outside stores, some said.

“They give us too little product for too many people,” said Lidia Urbina, whose family runs the tiny store in the September 14th neighborhood chosen to distribute food. She said the program was not partisan. “There are liberals, Sandinistas, people from all parties, all of them carry off their food.”

Among the poorest residents of Managua are those who live in shanties constructed within the ruins of buildings in the old city center, which was destroyed in an earthquake in December 1972.

Maria Auxiliadora Rivera, 37, lives in a filthy, one-room hut in the ruins with six children and her husband, surviving on a kitchen job that pays $60 a month. She makes tortillas over an open fire against a sooty wall of a destroyed building.

Though not a Sandinista, she said she received a $230 loan recently through the local citizen’s committee to start a business making and selling tortillas on the street. She said the loans were not going solely to Sandinistas.

Still, she said, it would only help her survive, not make a permanent difference in her standard of living. “We are really abandoned,” she said.

Others living in squalid and dangerous structures in the ruins said Sandinista party members and civil servants were getting preferential treatment for units in a public housing development going up nearby, a project financed with Venezuelan aid.

“They are building houses, but only for the people in the party,” said Carlos Reyes Herrera, 46, who ekes out a living collecting cans and bottles. A veteran of the Sandinista revolution in the 1970s, he lives with his wife and two children in a plywood shack among the ruins. “For me, the committees are all Sandinista. They look out for their own.”


The New York Times article generated the following comments from residents in Nicaragua on the Nicaragua Living Website - Editor:


Which comes first?
Submitted by fyl on 4 May, 2008 - 11:42.

Quite sincerely, I don't know whether to be concerned or not about CPC makeup. Four of 15 in Managua being non-FSLN makes it sound like it is not an exclusive club. Maybe it should be 6 or 8 or 10 but, on the other hand, as the CPCs are seen as an "FSLN thing", it is reasonable to expect that others don't want to join.

The income stream issues are, well, more troubling. But, that also has two sides. I know a lot of usanos that don't want the government in the business of social programs. So, CPCs not being the government will be a plus.

All in all, I see the reason for concern but on the ground, the CPCs probably make sense. The government itself is politicized—for example, being an FSLN supporter in Estelí will get you priority with regard to government services. While it shoudn't be that way, the reality is it is, it has been for a long time and it is unlikely to change any time soon.

CPCs are they really a political instrument?
Submitted by nicareal on 4 May, 2008 - 15:43.

I can not speak for other towns but here in SJDS we seem to have a number of them. Every barrio seems to have its own version. I was invited to join the one in our little community. While I was hesitant at first, after the first meeting I realized that the items discussed had nothing to do with politics whatsoever. The discussions centered on how to get everyone to cut their "rondos" and how we get the town to improve the roads. As in most places in Nicaragua, people are more interested in the every day problems than in politics.

Will the CPCs be a strong political instrument? I don't think so.

Thanks for your input, nicareal
Submitted by Daddy-YO on 5 May, 2008 - 12:42.

First-hand accounts are invaluable in putting 'news' in proper perspective.

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