Tuesday, February 19, 2008

‘Consejos Comunales’ – Community Councils – Participatory Democracy (or direct democracy) as practiced by campesinos in Venezuela

Counting me and the two young fellows, there were 38 people at the meeting of the Consejo Comunal, or Community Council, in Monte Carmelo on February 12, 2008.

Probably the most important development in Venezuela in the past year, in terms of pushing the Bolivarian Revolution forward, is the creation of “Consejos Comunales” or community councils, in thousands of city neighborhoods and rural villages throughout the country. The idea is to create institutions of participatory democracy (or direct democracy), starting from the ground up, so that people will have a direct voice in many decisions that effect their everyday life. Representative democracy (what the Bolivarians would refer to as limited or indirect democracy) still exists. That is, governors, mayors, and local representatives are still elected at the state and municipio (county) levels, but now a significant amount of power is being transferred directly to small groups, usually 200 to 400 families in the cities, and 100 to 200 families in the rural areas.

In these small groups, the “consejos comunales,” every citizen who shows up gets to speak and vote. They also get to control significant amounts of money for various kinds of local development through their committees, including one, the “banco communal,” that oversees grants and loans for various projects. Since the “consejos” are a new concept, their development is still uneven in the first year: the most advanced are flying forward with lots of activity; others are slowly building up the participation level of local families; and in some locations, they are yet to be formed, that is, local citizens have not taken the initiative to start them.

Participation here and in the U.S.
In our village of Monte Carmelo, at the various Community Council meetings that I have attended since last May, attendance has ranged from 51 to 35 people out of a local population of about 800 in 130 families. An informal rule, usually heeded, suggests that just one member per family should attend. The Council meets often, once a week on Tuesdays at 5 pm.

Some residents are concerned that attendance is dwindling, but by my standards it is extraordinarily high. In our part of Pennsylvania, in a half rural, half suburban township of 15,000 people about 20 miles from the state capital, there is one meeting of the township board per month (and another might be scheduled if there is pressing business). Ten to twenty residents show up at the typical meeting along with the five board members, some of whom are motivated by their own real estate interests. Once I recall going to meeting with a big turnout, when about 50 residents showed up to protest some extra charges that had been imposed in a sneaky way by the local water and sewage authority. This is typical representative democracy: the board members are elected every few years; they dominate the public meetings and allow very limited speaking time for residents; they have most of their interactions with developers, businesses, and lawyers who are seeking board approval for their projects; and they occasionally respond to public pressure when enough people turn out at a meeting.

The Pennsylvania example is certainly limited democracy, but this does not necessarily distress my neighbors. They are generally satisfied with the maintenance of the roads and a couple of public parks, and although they grumble about the excessive cost of sewage treatment, the system works. On the other hand, they have little control or say in the haphazard and wasteful development of the township and county, so that some of the most beautiful farmland in the eastern United States is being rapidly destroyed.

Here in Venezuela, where at most 20% of the population enjoys anything approaching a comfortable First World existence, the majority is participating directly in their democracy in order to solve a variety of Third World problems.

The group above includes two professors who teach at different universities in Barquisimeto and four residents from the “paroquia” of Juares: two of the latter are grade school teachers, and the other two are “voceros,” the spokespeople for local community councils in a rural area with villages named “Crocodilo” (Crocodile) and “Piedra del Tigre” (Stone of the Tiger).

Even as community councils are being formed, people are working on the next challenge: how to organize the collective power of various councils to demand services that are needed by all the other people who inhabit their larger geographical area. I attended the meeting above, held at the Museum of Art and Culture in Barquisimeto, which brought university people together with representatives from 22 of the 36 “caserios” (hamlets and villages) from a rural, coffee-growing area of the state of Lara. (The other 14 “caserios” have not yet formed community councils.) The meeting was convened with a concrete project in mind: how to provide public transportation, especially for school children and university students, in a rugged “paroquia” (township) that has no buses and only one paved road. The current condition of the roads and transport means that most local adolescents (up to 80%) never get a chance to attend high school or university.

Some notes on Participatory Democracy in the “Consejo Comunal,” or the Community Council, in Monte Carmelo
January 30
When I attended local community council meetings recently there were about 35 residents in attendance. Nearly 30% of households were represented and everyone was able to speak and vote on all items of business. (Some comparative math concerning my township in Pennsylvania: 15,000 residents and 15 who go to meetings; that is, about 1/10th of one percent of the population, or 1/3 of one percent of all families, attend. And, of course, they don’t get to vote.)

People here, however, are concerned about the decline in attendance since last May, because they are participating in direct democracy, not watching representative democracy. Consequently, at the January 30th meeting, people spent most of the time reflecting on their experience to date. They discussed the quality of their meetings and the things they should do to encourage more attendance. Over the previous two months they had taken the time to go door to door and conduct a survey of their neighbors (who wrote their comments privately in order protect their anonymity), so they had some feedback on how well the “consejo” process was working. On the chalk board at the front of the meeting room, members taped up large sheets of paper with lists of the most common comments.

“Positivos,” good things:
1) The “consejo” was advancing of socialism through direct democracy by letting everyone give their opinions and participate in development
2) There were tangible benefits in terms of granting credits for practical projects and giving help to those who needed it.
3) We are learning to do more things for ourselves.

“Negativos,” bad things:
1) Not enough people participating
2) There was feeling of chaos and too many people talking.
3) Rules were made, then not followed, re: the distribution of light bulbs.
4) While it's good for those who are getting loans, it does little for others.
5) People with old unpaid debts (from pre-Council days) are getting credits.
6) Some members are making derogatory comments about others.

Why not attending
1) Too busy with work or classes
2) overwhelmed by personal problems
3) family and childcare obligations
4) annoyed by people who dominate or sabotage discussions
5) don’t have anything to say

Possible Solutions
1. Streamline discussions, keep people on topic.
2. Spend more time chatting about Council topics with other neighbors (those who are not attending) in order to make them feel like they are being consulted. Maybe some will then be more comfortable attending.
3. Don’t let your arguments sound like personal attacks.
4. Have biweekly, instead of weekly meetings.

February 12 meeting
The community council began with a brief review of the minutes from the previous week’s meeting. Then some announcements: there will be more discussions next week in Sanare, the nearby larger town, about village transportation and the fares for the “taxi” vans and pickup trucks that transport residents to and from Monte Carmelo and the other small villages; the Casa de Cultura in Sanare is offering grants to individual families for such things as the purchase of a musical instrument needed by a school child.

Next there was a report on the environment by Cesar Garcia and two classmates in the Mission Sucre adult education program. Their research for their course in ecology showed five major problems in Monte Carmelo. The council discussed the items and decided that all five are valid concerns, then voted to determine which ones deserve the highest priority. One member emphasized the importance of the forest on the mountain, not only for preventing local erosion on the steep slopes in this area, but also because, on a global level, forests are the primary oxygen producers for the earth’s atmosphere. The meeting prioritized to the environmental problems in this order:

1) deforestation on the mountain above the village
2) deterioration of the sewage oxidation lagoon below the village
3) the use of pesticides by some residents is still too high
4) the contamination of the major stream with the waste from coffee production
5) improper sorting of garbage

One of the three Mission Sucre students proposed a project he hopes the council will consider in the future – giving local high school kids the job of completing a 5 year reforestation project in order to restore trees on the mountain, with the community supplying funds for seedlings and other necessary materials.

Next, Narcisa, who had arrived late, wanted to make another announcement. She informed residents that there would be a new educational program at the university level in Agroecologia, or Agricultural Ecology, and that it would be offered as a pilot program in Monte Carmelo by the Bolivarian University of Caracas. She said it might even start next month, in March, but for sure there would be regular classes getting under way in October. The Bolivarian University is hoping that at least 10 people from Monte Carmelo and 10 from Bojo will sign up, 20 to 30 in all. Someone mentioned that getting enough students should not be a problem, since several people from nearby Sanare are also interested in enrolling.

Elsy, who was acting as secretary and taking notes at the meeting, announced that she needed to collect some payments for water. Most residents were keeping current, she said, but some present at the meeting were not – so they came forward and handed over cash payments.

Speaking of water: a few minutes were devoted to the “aqueducto.”

About thirty residents of Monte Carmelo helped repair the ‘aqueducto’ and water collection system in the cloud forest on top of the mountain. First of all they had to carry all the materials – sand, cement, pipes, and fittings – along a narrow, three kilometer path that winds up and down through ravines and thick forest.

At the top of the mountain, it was necessary to build a new catch basin to receive the water coming from a pure water stream and two springs.

The “aqueducto” is the village water system, a series of pipes, pumps, holding tanks, and valves that carries water for several kilometers across the side of the mountain and then down the steep road into Monte Carmelo. Divulin, the master mechanic in town, presented a series of more than 40 photos of the “aqueducto,” some of which I had taken when I accompanied him on a seven-hour hike up the mountain. Other photos, showing about 30 residents of Monte Carmelo working on this repair project, were taken when the work was underway several months ago. This was one of the first major projects funded by the community council making use of discretionary funds it receives directly from the central government (thus bypassing the wasteful and slow bureaucracies at the state and municipal levels.) The council has to submit photographic evidence of the work and the receipts for materials.

Another major project completed last summer was the installation of lights around the “cancha,” the paved outdoor sports area where young people play soccer, volleyball, and basketball almost every night.

The “Viviendas” or housing committee, reported that government money from the Ministry of Housing in Caracas will be available to build new houses for 11 families who are currently living in crowded conditions with their relatives, but the grants are being held up in the pipeline due to reorganization in the Housing Ministry (new cabinet members).

Next, there was general discussion of the other grants and loans that the Council has given to individual, families, and businesses. It was announced that there would be a meeting of the Banco Comunal, the banking committee, on Thursday the 21st to review projects and get documentation of their progress or completion.

One community member who works in a cooperative wanted to know what level of responsibility and “compromiso” (commitment, dedication) the community should expect from those who are given grants and loans. He thought that the community should have a high level of expectation, just like he has with his fellow cooperative members, so that there would be very little shirking of responsibility on the part of those who get money through the council. He wanted there to be adequate monitoring so that the community can make sure that funds are not used for something other than their intended purpose, so that machinery that is purchased is not broken and left unrepaired, and so that projects do not get so far behind schedule that they never get completed at all.

Now the meeting got very animated as almost everyone participated, sometimes all at once. Occasionally there were interruptions and loud side discussions, but in general people were respectful of each other. The basic fabric of the new “Consejo” was being tested as people asked: what kinds of expectations do community members have of others and themselves? What level of socialist consciousness needs to be created and nurtured so that citizens can trust in their collective ability to get things done?

In general, the group agreed with the very first speaker: we need to find ways to hold people accountable. On the other hand, various residents pointed out that this cannot be done in a personal, accusatory way, or the interactions at Council meetings will disintegrate due to grudges and animosity.

Luz Marina, who is only twenty, demonstrated one way to promote good will and share information with the community. She spoke on behalf of three other young people, including her cousin Sandino, who were unable to attend the meeting. The three have started a carpentry business using a loan from the Council to buy wood and other materials. Luz said that Sandino has been keeping a folder concerning the progress of their work at the carpentry workshop at the Las Lajitas cooperative, and that he would bring it to the next meeting of the Communal Bank.

The Bolivarian Revolution is called “El Proceso” because it is continually in the process of creating itself.
For some of foreign friends of Venezuela, it is enough to know that the nation has resisted the disapproval and meddling of the United States for nine years and has inspired the rest of Latin America to stand up for itself. But it’s worth pointing out that the Bolivarian Revolution has made significant progress, not without some false steps and mistakes, as it has passed through three overlapping processes:.

Consolidation of power, 1999 to 2004: This initial process included passing the new Constitution of 1999, reasserting government control over the nationally-owned oil industry, and instituting the Law of the Land that allowed the government to purchase and redistribute unused agricultural land. The opposition and the oligarchy, angered at such affronts to their power, failed in their attempts to stop the revolutionary process, first in their coup of 2002 and then in the managers’ shutdown of the oil industry in 2002-3. The Chavez supporters, after winning the presidential recall election of 2004 handily, were able to elect their representatives to the National Assembly, Governors’, and Mayors’ offices in 2004.

The social democratic stage, 2003 to 2007: In a many ways, the way the Chavez government has used it resources to bring economic and social benefits directly to the poor and working classes is reminiscent of the New Deal programs enacted under Franklin Roosevelt in the U.S. in the 1930s. One difference is that Venezuela has mobilized a much greater share of its economic resources than the U.S. did when it helped some of the poor during the Great Depression in the U.S.; the benefits are being dispersed to a majority of Venezuelans in the form of health care, higher wages, cheap food, and extensive education programs.

The creation of participatory socialist democracy, 2007 to 2012: President Hugo Chavez declared that he wanted to lead the country in a new socialist direction at the beginning of 2005 (21st Century Socialism), and campaigned on this program when he was reelected by an overwhelming margin at the end of 2006. Since a central premise of 21st century socialism is that it should avoid the undemocratic tendencies of 20th century socialism, the Bolivarian Process needs new models of popular participation at the grassroots levels. This time, unlike some earlier, wasteful experiments with oil profits, the government looked for practical models that were already working. It found a very important prototype for socialist organization at the grassroots level in the city of Carora, here in the state of Lara. A few years ago the mayor there began distributing the vast majority of municipal funds to neighborhoods that established small, self-governing bodies – they were called “Consejos Comunales.” Because this model of popular sovereignty worked, these community councils are now being replicated all over the country.

[There will be more on Carora in a later post]


john said...

once again thank you for the inspirational reporting from venezuela. are you available to discuss living and working in venezuela? thank you.

Rebecca said...

I am currently doing research on the community councils in Venezuela. If anyone who is working with these councils would not mind answering a few questions and discussing their opinions, please e-mail me at beccara606@gmail.com

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