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, July 23, 2008

Venezuela: Community Councils vs. Bureaucracy

The following piece gives an interesting assessment of the basics behind the communal councils in Venezuela and how they are creating a grassroots based system of government while at the same time providing channels by which the bureaucracy that has traditionally stifled that participatory democracy can be bypassed and rendered harmless to the process of strengthening the people's power. - Editor

Reconfiguring Democracy: Venezuela's New Communal Councils Confront Bureaucracy

Issue 381 - December 2007-January 2008

Kendra Fehrer Ponniah is is a Ph.D. student in Development and Anthropology at Brown University, in Providence, RI. This article is based on research she conducted in January and December of 2006 and June of 2007, interviewing communal council members from seven communities near Barquisemeto, Venezuela.

Pro- Chávez demonstrators, September 5, 2006. Photo: Cesar Aponte

In mid-2006, several months before the presidential elections, the Venezuelan government headed by left-leaning President Hugo Chávez passed a new law. The law was called the Law on Communal Councils, and it was a cornerstone of the new political strategy to deepen democratic participation in Venezuela. As of June 2007, there were 20,000 registered communal councils across the country, plus tens of thousands more in formation. Televised speeches from the floor of the national assembly referenced the communal councils as the pivotal means of social change in Venezuela. On the tall walls of the subway stations in Caracas, gigantic red murals proclaimed the communal councils as an engine of Venezuela's transition to 21st century socialism.

From Representative to Participatory Democracy

The communal councils are essentially neighborhood assemblies with political and fiscal powers. As described in the law, they function as neighborhood planning councils, responsible for decisions regarding infrastructure and planning-for example, where to set up the new multi-purpose sports court or what sorts of services to request for disabled youth within the community. In addition, the councils can initiate their own projects with funds obtained from the federal, state, and municipal governments and they are expected to bring together under one umbrella representatives from various community groups.

A typical communal council is made up of about 20 people, elected by a community of no more than 400 families. The geographic basis of the communal council allows members to know each other, precipitating an accountability that most representative politics fail to achieve, and furthermore ensuring that political and economic decisions made by the council are embedded in the social framework of the community.

The communal councils diverge from the typical representative democracy in one other significant way. All decisions made by the communal council can be reversed by popular vote. The vote, taken in assembly (at which 20% of all persons over 15 in the community must be present), is binding.

Community members seem to sense that this emergent form of local government is profoundly different from the previous form, in which political participation occurred once a year at the voting booth. A sentence heard over and over among community organizers is that the communal councils are transforming Venezuela into a "participatory" democracy, rather than a "representative" democracy. The communal councils provide a structure for direct democratic participation.

The potential impact of communal councils to transform the Venezuelan social and political fabric is no doubt exciting. However, like all processes of change, this one is not without challenges.

Confronting Bureaucracy

The situation faced by La Tamaca*, a neighborhood outside the city of Barquisimeto is emblematic of the challenges many community organizations face. The residents had pooled their recourses to construct a wall that would separate their community from the uninhabited land behind their homes. Together they had raised over $30,000 Bs. (10,000 USD) to complete half the wall. Once the community established a communal council, they applied for funds from the municipal government to complete the construction. The municipal government granted those funds, nearly twice what the community itself had raised, to complete the second half of the project.

The catch was, despite strong objections from the community, that the municipal government declared that it would now manage the project.

Instead of hiring workers and contractors from within the community, the municipal government hired its own contractors and suppliers. Five months later, the funds had run out, and the remaining half of the wall was only partway done.

Even with the many pro-poor initiatives over the last decade of Chávez's administration, communities are still fighting for a voice. The efforts of many, like La Tamaca, are being frustrated by the "politics as usual" attitude of many municipal and state governments. In the words of one community member: "We have a lot of public officials who are reactionaries dressed up as revolutionaries. They are more interested in their jobs than in this [revolutionary] process."

One of the purposes of the communal councils, according to a high ranking government official, is precisely to address this problem. By creating a direct link to the president and federal ministries, the communal council structure allows organized communities to bypass, or at least challenge, the clientelistic bureaucracy of municipal and state governments. Under the new law, communal councils can apply for funds directly from the Ministry of Participation and Social Development. However, some critics argue that this structure creates the danger of too much national control over grass-roots community structures.

City Council or Social Movement?

At their best, the communal councils can be used as political leverage to represent community interests at odds with the local government institutions. "Hidrolara [the public water company] is defunct," proclaimed Ismila, a community organizer in a working class neighborhood to the east of Barquisimeto. For the previous two days raw sewage had been backlogging into the streets along ten blocks of the neighborhood, including the block in front of the community health clinic. Despite numerous calls to the engineer appointed to their area, the engineer had been delaying his arrival. After he missed the appointed time for the second day in a row, five members of the communal council decided they needed to take more immediate action. They called four more colleagues from the council and caught a ride into the city center, where the Hidrolara offices were located.

At the office, they demanded to speak to the person in charge of emergency maintenance. Two hours later they left with an engineer to remedy the problem. Ismila said: "We learned today that Hidrolara is useless as an institution, it does not work for the communities. These officials think they know everything and don't listen to the community until there's a problem."

Some state and municipal institutions in Venezuela serve particular political interests, rather than the public good. When the public institutions do not fulfill their ascribed duties, the communal councils like that in Ismila's neighborhood can apply pressure. Although the council itself did not have jurisdiction over the water system, through their recognition as a communal council they have the political resources to apply political pressure to ensure the democratic distribution of water.

Not all communal councils are as politically astute as Ismila's, but a surprising number are. The community members who participate in the communal council possess a wide range of political experience, from complete novices to seasoned community organizers. Commonly, a communal council will contain five or six long-term organizers who see the communal council as simply the newest framework for emancipatory politics. It is often these more experienced organizers who are instrumental in forming the communal council.

In the case of Ismila's community, the communal council formed out of the Health Committee. The Health Committee was established several years ago, when the community was told that they were eligible to receive a Cuban doctor in the community. "There are lots of rumors that the doctors are there to hurt people, they don't have proper training, etc. We had to educate the community that this wasn't true. Thankfully, the doctor we got was very good and little by little, people stopped being afraid and came. When we heard about the communal councils law, we knew we had to get involved. Now the Health Committee is a working group of the communal council." The communal councils serve the powerful political function of coalescing a variety of community efforts.

Does Pluralism Include the Anti-Democratic?

Contrary to the perception by many of Chávez's critics, the communal councils are not composed exclusively of flag-waving Chávez supporters. In the town of El Cují, communal council member Mirabel identifies as the opposition. During the last elections, she transformed her home into a "hot corner," a common opposition protest tactic, which involves blasting anti-Chávez music onto the street and blaring sirens every 15 minutes to signify that Venezuelan democracy "is under attack." Why does she participate in the communal councils? "To keep an eye on the Chavistas," she responds, "to make sure they're not mishandling funds."

Opposition to President Chávez is located mainly, but not exclusively, in the small, active, and largely unencumbered middle and upper classes. Although some communal councils have been formed in elite neighborhoods, these do not represent the majority. The majority of communal councils are in poor and working class neighborhoods.

Still, even within poor communities, a minority do tend to identify as opposition, often because of enduring affiliation with the previously dominant parties. So, not infrequently, a communal council will have several staunch opposition members.

Despite the highly charged political rhetoric around the communal councils as a key element of the Bolivarian Process, within the actual meetings of the councils party-politics are seldom discussed. More often, topics of discussion deal with urgent community needs. Instead of playing a divisive role in the community, the communal councils appear, in some cases, to be fulfilling a reconciliatory role. Through regular interaction in meetings, often accompanied by socializing outside formal gatherings, the communal councils are becoming a space for breaking down political barriers.

Although pluralism is a central tenet of a democratic society, when some of those diverse constituents are actively anti-democratic the situation becomes a bit more complex.

While the minority opposition represents its position as one of advocating for democratic rights, the democracy for which the opposition advocates is essentially a liberal democracy, bent on the protection of private property and individual rights. It is precisely this form of democracy that has prevailed in Venezuela historically, and which the current government is trying to transform. The model proposed by the opposition conflicts with Venezuela's emergent radicalized democracy, which seeks to expand collective rights and responsibilities. For example, the constitutional reforms rejected in a referendum on December 2, 2007 included language to create three new types of collective property.

Why do political frameworks matter to the communal council? Although opposition and pro- Chávez residents can agree on addressing urgent community needs, the types of solutions offered to neighborhood problems could be vastly different. A liberal democratic model is not incompatible with the neoliberal framework that dominated the country for the last decades. Under this model, a communal council could offer micro-credit for individual businesses, without precipitating any shift in consciousness towards new notions of collective responsibility and social development.

One project I observed did just that. An organizer from another council explained, "The communal council gave out loans for everything, to start a phone stand, to buy motorcycles to use for ëmoto-taxis', to start hair salons… there was a lot of individual profit, but not a lot of community benefit." In contrast, a reconfigured democratic model would value not only the material benefits to the individual, but how the collective would benefit, both materially and in terms of participation.

The communal councils do not have an easy task. They face the challenge of maintaining political pluralism, challenging entrenched political and economic interests, and responding to the demands of a population whose basic needs have been ignored for decades. As one long-time activist said with both optimism and concern, "The communal councils are our primary hope for the long-term success of the revolution. They have the potential to change the very fabric of this country."

From Issue 381 - December 2007-January 2008

No comments: