In the midst of Venezuela’s prolonged economic crisis, in which state budgets and support for the governing socialists steadily contract, at least one municipal council is bucking the trend. The key, according to the local mayor, has been focusing on people’s power and self-management.
Paéz is a rural municipality located in Apure state, along the tense border with Colombia. Opposition-controlled Tachira state lies to its west.
Despite this conflictive surrounding, José María “Chema” Romero managed to increase the United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s (PSUV) vote in the 2017 mayoral elections by 70% from its 2013 result (when it lost to the right-wing opposition).
Moreover, in the first two months of this year, the municipal council has generated more revenue than its entire annual budget allocated by the national government.
How has this occurred?
Chema explained to Green Left Weekly in March that, as in most of the country, the PSUV in Paéz had lost support in successive elections since 2013.
“At the national level,” Chema explained, “the vote has been decreasing because of the economic blockade and because of the corruption that has encrusted itself in the state.”
The local situation was further complicated by the former government-aligned mayor — whose political loyalties had been heavily questioned by community activists during his controversial tenure — joining the opposition after being booted out of office in 2013.
Paéz has a strong level of community organisation. Some of Venezuela’s first communes, which unite communal councils encompassing between 20 and 400 families to discuss and resolve local issues, were formed there.
So too was the first communal city, bringing together neighbouring communes and envisaged as the next level in grassroots self-government.
The Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current (CRBZ), of which Chema is a member, also has a strong presence in the municipality. Tracing its origins back to a local campaign for peasant rights, the CRBZ today operates as a radical left tendency within the PSUV.
Due to his ties with the CRBZ and the local communes’ movement, regional party authorities twice blocked Chema from running as a PSUV candidate. But out of office and faced with a declining vote, the PSUV turned to him as its last option.
“It took us years to recuperate the mayor's office,” Chema said. “But, by working together with popular power, with the communal movement, we were able to regain this municipality.”
Since winning in 2017, Chema has lost no time in turning the municipality’s situation around.
“As a municipal government, our focus is on four areas: production; people's participation; transparency and efficiency, that is, the struggle against corruption; and people's wellbeing.
“In the one year and two months that we have been in government, we have, among other things, recuperated damaged machinery and equipment that belonged to the municipality; we have improved access to health and water; and we have set up Juntas de Gobierno para el Buen Vivir (Government Boards for Living Well) in each of the municipality’s parishes [wards].
“This has been possible because of our vision of self-management, which rests on two pillars: people’s power and participation; and a self-reliance on the resources and potentialities that exist in our territory.
“Given the country is in a very delicate economic situation, we believe self-management is what is needed to resolve the problems.”
The boards, Chema explained, sit between the commune and the municipal council. They are made up of six appointed representatives from the main departments of the mayor's office (finance, sports and culture, services, production, security and an overall coordinator) and spokespeople elected from the communes.
“Importantly, people’s power has a majority, as there is a maximum of six representatives of the constituted power, whereas each parish has 9, 11, or 17 communes, depending on the parish.
“On top of this, spokespeople are also elected to represent each sector of production in the municipality.
“The municipality has 13 productive sectors, and in each parish at least three, four, or five of these productive sectors are present, each with their own spokesperson.
“Finally, the local commander of the militia battalion is also on the board as a spokesperson for security and defence.
“What we have is constituent power working with the constituted power in an assembly to discuss and prioritise problems and projects.”
In terms of funding community projects in the middle of a crisis, Chema explained: “When there was abundance and oil was at more than $100 a barrel, the state provided everything; the national government could guarantee funds for all types of projects.
“That is not possible today with the economic blockade and decline in oil production.
“So now, if we need to deal with a problem, the municipality contributes 70% of the funds and the community contributes the other 30%”, through fundraising or individual contributions.”
In order to generate revenue, the municipality has sought to benefit from its increasingly prominent role as a gateway for people seeking to buy and sell products across the Venezuela-Colombia border. It applies a small tax on local hotels and transport companies profiting from the boom in the number of people passing through Paéz.
“On top of this, we have implemented a way in which people can contribute to the cost of basic services such as water and electricity that are currently provided essentially for free by the national government.
“The idea is to encourage people to contribute to compliment the budget.”
Though these taxes have been adopted in municipal law, they remain voluntary. The idea is to convince people, through assemblies and a communicational campaign, “that they need to pay something to be able to sustain the services.”
“The people have cooperated: the municipality has collected more money in the first two months of this year than our entire allocated budget for 2018.”
To avoid corruption, an electronic system has been established so that no one pays in cash and the council’s books are open for residents to see what money has come in and out. How funds are spent is decided by public debate in the communal councils, communes and boards.
“All of the resources are dedicated to tending to people's needs, whether it is access to water, or improved roads; all of this money is reinvested in the municipality.”
Some of the projects the municipality has embarked on include sowing 550 hectares with rice (a feat it hopes to repeat this year) and fixing up the municipal hospital and several local health centres. It has also set up popular pharmacies, where the municipality sells medicine it buys in Colombia at much cheaper prices than private pharmacies.
The municipality now has its own food company, slaughterhouse and recycling plant.
“We know that the country is facing an economic crisis, so we are not sitting back, waiting for the central government to send us resources,” Chema said.
“We have sought out our own responses, using our resources, together with our people. And we have the results to show for it.”