Building popular power in Venezuela's Carora

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 from any other municipality I've visited in Latin America, and in particular, any other in Venezuela. The city is on a path to democratise and transform its entire governance system, 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 people, located in the agricultural state of Lara in Venezuela's north-west. It is the capital of the Municipality of Pedro Leon Torres, which makes up 40% of Lara's geography. It is hot — temperatures in April average at around 35°C 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.

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 support the national revolutionary government. He 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, Julio Chavez is the devil incarnate, and is the target of death threats and intense hatred. 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.

Julio Chavez came to office with only one goal — to democratise 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 he took office, the mayor inherited a typical representative system that had been run by a small local oligarchy for centuries. These same families also ran the local agro-businesses and their ancillary industries (and still do to a large extent). The former mayor made all of the decisions for municipal expenditures, and awarded lucrative municipal contracts to his friends and family. Like most other governments of the Fourth Republic (the regime that ruled prior to Hugo Chavez's 1998 election to the presidency), 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 Julio Chavez arrived on the scene.

Community control

In just two 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 decentralisation funds (FIDES) and through the LAEE — a piece of legislation that provides equalisation funding to non-petroleum producing states. What is remarkable is that the mayor has turned these funds over to the communities to decide how they are to be 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 Venezuela'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 Fourth Republic didn't make sense to the mayor, the city councillors or local citizens, so they organised 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".

Julio Chavez views his government as a transitional one with two goals: To dissolve the municipal oligarchic structure; and 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, he 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 prioritise spending. But the participation 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. Julio 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.

Engine of the revolution

The real engine of popular revolutionary power, however, is the communal councils. There are currently 317 communal councils operating in Torres's 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%, and the majority of the councils are in poorer communities. Also remarkable is the level of transparency in the administration of public money — all accounts are kept in a set of books that are available to anyone who wants to see them, and these accounts are rendered publicly to the community assembly as well as the government.

Lilian Ballesteros, a spokesperson for the El Onzo Communal Council, says her community was completely ignored by previous governments, but now with the communal council system they have been able to access funds to improve their water supply and build new houses for the families that live in the most dire conditions in what are referred to as ranchos. 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 anymore 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 specialised 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 socioeconomic 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 that 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 redesign 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 deep-seated 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, <jayh@uvic.ca>, is a graduate student at the University of Victoria, Canada, studying the communal councils in Venezuela. Abridged from <http://venezuelanalysis.com>.]

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