Marta Harnecker: Venezuela's experiment in popular power

Thursday, November 30, 2006 - 11:00

Marta Harnecker is the Chilean-born author of Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2005) and other books dealing with revolution and Latin America. She has been an active participant in Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution and an adviser to that country's socialist president, Hugo Chavez.

Harnecker has been involved in the formation and development of Venezuela's Communal Councils — bodies intended to be vehicles for popular power and public participation in the process of creating "socialism of the 21st century". Harnecker was interviewed by Green Left Weekly in late October.

How were the Communal Councils created and how is the process going?

What I have done in the past year is to look for interesting experiences, to find people who can exchange experiences. In Cumana, [in north-eastern Venezuela], I discovered that an organisation had existed for many years before the Communal Councils came into being. It was organised within a very small space, smaller than a barrio (neighbourhood), 200-400 families. And in some rural zones, you need even less, say 100 families, in an area where everybody knows each other, and you don't even need transport to get to meetings. It's easy to meet. It is a space that allows everyone to participate.

Evidently, the people who thought about this, discovered that such a small space allows the people who do not normally have a great ability to express themselves … to express their opinions and to make decisions. As Freddy Bernal [mayor of Libertador municipality in central Caracas] said, [the Communal Council] is a basic cell of the future society.

If we are successful in constructing communities that orientate toward solidarity, the people will be concerned with the poor people who live in their area. Within [a framework of] solidarity, they look for a solution for this sector …

Chavez was looking at different formulas for popular organisations. The Bolivarian Circles are more within a broad political framework. They are organisations aimed at political power. The Communal Councils include both those who are with Chavez and those who are not. They are the community: the Communal Councils must reflect all the colours of a rainbow; must cover everyone who wants to work for the community, without political affiliations, without government associations …

Through this project, when one begins to work for the community, one begins to put solidarity in the forefront, one begins to be transformed. I think this will replace "Chavismo". At times, people think that to be involved politically one has to go out with placards, banners, red [caps and T-shirts]. The people in this period in which the world is living think that politics is [limited to a formal political] practice.

If you organise in the barrio, the organisation is on a much smaller scale. You need a person who is flexible, not sectarian, with the capacity to work with everyone — carrying out projects, trying to solve the problems of the people …

In an article I wrote about the 4 million votes that were cast in the 2004 referendum to remove Chavez, I said that 3 million of those did not really vote against the Chavez project. They only voted against the Chavez project as it was presented by the opposition. Only about 1 million who voted against Chavez were completely convinced and knew what they were doing. The other 3 million were influenced by the opposition media, which say the Chavez project is a project of "communism", authoritarianism, dictatorship …

When people become involved in practical work, they can begin to see that Chavez is an open, direct person, and that the president's project isn't what they thought it was. In regard to the election, the problem is that many people are not fully informed. There are many people who are anti-Chavista who have been misinformed by the opposition media in this country. The media do not respect the basic right of people to be properly informed.

Middle-class people are more susceptible to the media's work. The media manipulates the situation by beginning with small truths, and small failures, which they then exaggerate …

What role does the workers' movement play in relation to community organising?

Logically, we accept that in general the experience of popular power means that, as it is based on territorial spaces, the workers do not appear [directly] as active members. I remember a very interesting discussion in Cuba, when they were planning popular power through electoral registrations. Inevitably, the neighbour who proposed a candidate in their area would choose the person who could solve the most practical problems within the community. This meant it was difficult, up to now, for the workers to be directly involved.

Because of this, in Cuba, it was suggested that there be two forms of choosing candidates, one territorial and the other at the workplace — two ways of deciding … In Venezuela, up to now, we don't have unity of the workers within the [revolution]. The union movement is not strong enough at this stage.

I have said to the trade unions, "Why don't you strengthen the communal councils, by integrating with them? You, as workers, should be involved in the community." Up to now, they have not done this.

We should think of the communal councils as a central community of workers, [as well as of neighbours]. To me, it is very important to consider the micro-economy and the necessity to bring in economic organisations so that they can be democratised, in the direction of solidarity and not of corporatism. There should be a close link between the organisation of work and the community.

Could you describe how the Communal Councils work?

There are now 16,000 CCs, established in six months [since the start of the program this year]. It is a very serious initiative, in my opinion. The CC process requires many months to allow people to mature, and to elect true leaders. We began with a process involving motivators. The committee of motivators have to go house-to-house to make a census. This is one of the most basic jobs — a socioeconomic census. It requires the committee to visit all the households in the area.

It seems that it needs serious and diligent leaders who are capable of going house-to-house. Because of this, we think it would not be possible to elect spokespeople for the CC without going through this process. There should be an assembly first, and then an election.

There has to be a team, a promotions commission, who should do this social and geographic history — the story of the community. [To achieve this], it would take at least eight months. When they have the meeting of the assembly, they will elect the future spokespeople. Then the process is approved [legally]. Some of the CCs are working okay, others are not.

Another very important thing is that the CC has the opportunity to elect a new leadership … The leadership must be elected by a general assembly where anyone can be proposed. The spokespeople are not the assembly — they are not the organisation. The assembly must ratify the proposals — whether from a committee for housing, or a committee for health. If someone who becomes the spokesperson does not have the confidence of the assembly, the CC will not work.

It is a democratic way to renovate the leadership, and permits the assembly to choose a new leadership. I think the law respects this will of the assembly. I was part of the group that oversaw the formation of the CCs. In the law it is very clear: Where is the power? The power is not with the spokespeople — it is with the general assembly. Why are they called "voceros"? Because they are the voice of the community. If they lose the position of spokesperson, they stop having any power …

I think this is an experimental way of organising popular power. But, for me, it is the future direction we should be taking. This is the basic idea: not from above.

It also depends on the type of problem. There are problems that require the involvement of various CCs, because they are problems of the whole barrio — for example, the water pipes that pass through the whole barrio. This must be resolved at the level of the Barrio Council. The stairs, the lighting, the rubbish — you can resolve these within the CC. These CCs are the base — very democratic; a scheme for participation …

They are looking for ways to prioritise the things the community can resolve: but not to create a kind of "begging" neighbourhood that sees a problem, and just calls on the state to resolve it …

These are methods that allow the community to resolve issues … We make an assessment and prioritise problems: what the community can resolve, and what it can't. The "voices" of the different communities must discuss these problems at a higher level.

This is how solidarity begins, because you start to see that your problem is wider than your small reality, and you must help others. Thus, the Communal Councils are more of a school for political formation. I think popular power, when it is really democratic, is the best school, because it produces this process. This is because you have been fighting for your house, your land. And you begin to realise that your house is in a barrio, and the barrio is in a city …

What are some of the differences between the Cuban experience, and Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, with its missions and so on?

I think this revolution has been carried out through the peaceful route, but the president has not been disarmed. In the Chilean case [Salvador Allende's left-wing government in the early 1970s], it was the peaceful way, but not armed. It did not have military support. Venezuela is very powerful, because it is armed, with the backing of the National Armed Forces. Nevertheless, it has been a process in which the correlation of forces means that the president could not impose a project on the country. The Venezuelan process obliges the government to achieve harmony.

The project has gained consensus with most of the sectors of society. Consequently, this obliges the transformation to be much slower. The state apparatus means that you have 80% or more of people employed in the government through clientalism, who are not interested in working. It is a public service, but it does not function. The majority of public servants are not public servants; they work against the public …

[Venezuela] is a "rentier" country that does not have a high level of industrial development. The great majority of workers are in the informal sector. In Cuba, the revolution undertook [socialist] projects almost immediately. Instead, here, the series of battles are primarily ideological.

Thus, the direction of popular power is important, because they need time for the project to mature. With the peaceful route, it is much slower than a sharp transformation of the state.

Could you comment on Chavez's project for "socialism of the 21st century"?

The truth is we have many critics. Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, said that when socialism failed in the Soviet Union, the West said that socialism died and so did Marxism. Galeano said that the socialism that is dead is not our socialism, because the socialist project that we are defending is fundamentally humanist, democratic and based on solidarity. The socialism that died was a bureaucratic socialism that the people did not defend, because there was no real participation.

I think Chavez knows this. Chavez knows that you can only create a socialist society of the future if the people, the most humble, the poorest, the most exploited, participate in this process. The great merit of Chavez is that he is a leader who promotes popular organisation — who is convinced that the force of this process is in the organisation. Chavez is always calling for more organisations and inventing new organisations. At times, too many. It is a creativity that gives the possibility that everybody can be organised.

From GLW issue 693