Venezuelan Communal Councils

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In April 2006 the Venezuelan government passed The Law of Communal Councils (consejos comunales) which empowers local citizens to form neighbourhood-based elected councils that initiate and oversee local policies and projects towards community development. Communal councils convene and coordinate existing community organizations as well as promote the creation of new work committees, cooperatives and projects as needed in defence of collective interests and the integral development of the community.

The jurisdiction of each council is limited to a self-defined geography housing under 400 families, but unlimited in scope of activities within the community. All key council decisions are made via discussion and majority vote within a citizens' assembly with at least 30% of the adult community present. Councils are highly autonomous although they are often required to coordinate with municipal administrations and receive funds from various levels of government.

Communal councils are new models in a chain of experiments and parallel efforts towards participatory democracy and a new form of socialism under the banner of the Bolivarian Revolution led by popularly elected Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Over 19,500[1] councils have already been registered throughout the country and billions of dollars have been distributed to support their efforts.

The law of Communal Councils was reaffirmed and updated in November 2009.[2]

Structure

Communal councils are a group of elected persons from a self-defined residential neighbourhood of about 150 to 400 families in urban areas, or closer to 20 families in rural areas, and potentially 10 in indigenous communities. The principal decision making body of a communal council is the citizens’ assembly. The formal functioning committee is composed of the following five units:

  • Executive Body
  • Financial Management Unit
  • Unit of Social Oversight (Anti-corruption)
  • Community Coordination Collective

All council persons are people within the community elected by the citizens' assembly for a period of 2 years. No person can occupy positions in more than one unit at time.

In the process of creating a communal council a Provisional Promotion Team from outside the community is often required to help organize the first citizens' assembly. The first assembly elects a provisional Promotional Commission and Electoral Commission. These Commissions define the geographic boundaries of the community, conduct a census and organize the first elections for the formal functioning committees.

In practice the high majority of assembly participants and elected spokespersons are women.

Citizens' Assembly

All members within the defined community above the age of 15 can participate in the citizens' assemblies, which have the power to elect and revoke community spokespeople to the communal council, as well as approve projects and development plans for the community. Quorum for the first election is 20% of the community. Other assemblies require 10% of the community to achieve the required quorum.

Assembly elections are done directly (i.e. proxy votes are not accepted) and in secret. Other decisions are generally made by majority of raised hands. Meetings are 2-6 hour public events often held outdoors in the streets, basketball courts, empty lots or other available public spaces. Attendance varies from a typical 50 to 150 citizens. Frequency of assemblies vary from weekly to less than once a month depending on the preferences and needs of the executive body.

Executive Body

The executive body consists of:

  • one elected spokesperson from each work committee or community organization
  • one elected spokesperson from each of any defined micro-neighbourhoods
  • one elected spokesperson from any formed commissions

There is no formal hierarchy among spokespeople. Specific responsibilities such as administration and meeting coordination are rotated or taken on by those most keen. In general the internal structure is flexible to the preferences and capacity of the community.

Examples of work committees and community organizations that may be represented within a communal council include:

And others kinds of groups, without any defined limit.

Financial Management Unit

The Financial Management Unit is a group of five community members elected by the Citizens' Assembly. This group is responsible for administrating financial and non-financial resources generated, allocated or awarded to the council. They promote the creation of cooperatives for local development projects, and drive efforts towards the participatory budget and prioritizing of community necessities. They support local economies, micro-financing, provide social assistance resources and present accounts when requested.

Unit of Social Oversight

The Unit of Social Oversight is a group of five community members elected by the Citizens' Assembly. They are an independent group who monitor and report on the application of council resources and activities towards the community development plan. They are also known as the Anti-corruption Unit.

Community Coordination Collective

The Community Coordination Collective is charged with galvanizing community organization, informing and training community members, and coordinating with the local community-based “militias,” or army reserves.

Resources and Funding Model

The communal council model aims to draw upon voluntary work by community members, along with promoting formal cooperatives, in order to carry out the projects, relying on the skills and resources of the community rather than private companies or state bureaucracies. Funding for councils can come from national, state, or city governments, from their own fund-raising, or from donations. Government money is often delivered in high-profile spectacles called “Gabinetes Móviles”.

The organization and management of the economic resources of a communal council are administrated by the elected Financial Management Unit.

Comparisons to Other Examples of Community Governance

Communal councils are probably most similar to the practice of a tribal or community meeting within very small rural communities. In such meetings the assembly may be the highest decision making body with a potentially large scope of decision-making activities as needed within their jurisdiction. But this model is exclusive to tiny communities that are too remote and unique to be effectively governed by distant municipal governments. Communal councils on the other hand exist along the full spectrum of population density from apartment complexes in the large city of Caracas to tiny remote indigenous communities.

The Town meeting model is similar in that it invites the members of the community to discuss and potentially vote on important budgets, polices or plans for the community. A key difference is that Town meetings are normally only held on a yearly basis and serve as rare and limited citizen input into what is otherwise a representative government system. Comparatively communal councils may hold citizens' assemblies as frequently as needed and are relatively independent of the municipal representative system.

Other examples of locally elected councils such as community councils, civil parish, civil township, town council, and city councils are models where the decision-making power is formally delegated to the elected officials and thus not comparable to the participatory nature of the communal councils which have citizens' assemblies as the highest formal decision-making authority.

History

In the 1980s, Venezuela began an extensive decentralization process, launching mayoral elections and handing over new responsibilities to local governments. After Chávez was elected president in 1998, he continued the decentralization but changed its emphasis. He called for transferring power not to local government, but instead directly to popular movements.

This “popular decentralization” has led to a series of experiments in grassroots democracy. First came the Bolivarian Circles, neighborhood councils that were officially autonomous, but often linked to and supportive of the government. At Chávez's urging, the Bolivarian Circles were mostly succeeded by Electoral Battle Units (UBEs), which mobilized the pro-Chávez vote for elections.

Next, the government launched Local Public Planning Councils (“CLPP”), in which citizens, politicians, and bureaucrats were to collaborate at the city level to address local problems. Under this model it was difficult to have genuine election and control by the community when spokespeople were expected to voice the concerns of up to 1 million people in some districts. By 2005, most of the Local Public Planning Councils had become mired in bureaucracy and dominated by politicians.

Taking the idea of the communal councils from the CLPP law, a pilot project was launched by a group of revolutionaries who previously belonged to the Socialist League in the city of Cumaná. From there the concept was taken up nationally and placed in the hands of the newly created Ministry for Popular Participation and Social Development (MINPADES), which explained in its information pamphlet that “just as a house can collapse easily if its base is not sufficiently strong, this can also happen to our new democracy that we are constructing: it will only be invincible if its base is strong and its base is the communal councils”. [link to CC intro page]

Present situation

The communal councils have been wildly popular. Eight months after the law was passed, over 16,000 councils had already formed throughout the country.[3] 12,000 of them had received funding for community projects – $1 billion total, out of a national budget of $53 billion.[4] The councils had established nearly 300 communal banks, which have received $70 million for micro-loans.[5] In January 2007 the government announced a transfer of the equivalent of $5 billion USD for the use by communal councils.[6] Thanks to such funds, the councils have implemented thousands of community projects, such as street pavings, sports fields, medical centers, and sewage and water systems.

As of March 2007 19,500 councils have been registered.[7]

Local newspapers frequently include multiple stories about communal councils and advertisements by mayors celebrating their transfer of funds to the councils as doing their part for the “5th Motor of the Revolution: explosion of popular power”. (See links below)

As of April 2007 a majority of the councils are still provisional going through a process of legitimization, registering their official documents, electing spokespersons and generally formalizing their structure according to the new law.

Videos

  • Video interview with Michael Albert about Communal Councils in Carora and elsewhere in Venezuela.

See also

References

  1. Últimas Noticias (March 5, 2007)"Minpades registra 19 mil 500 consejos comunales".
  2. Venezuelanalysis.com (November 25, 2009) "Venezuela’s Reformed Communal Council Law Aims at Increasing Participation" Suggett, James
  3. Wynter, Coral & Jim McIlroy (2006) “Marta Harnecker: Venezuela’s experiment in popular power,” Green Left Weekly, issue #693, December 6, 2006.
  4. El Universal (2006) “Fides entregó más de un billón para consejos comunales,” El Universal, December 9, 2006. Fox, Michael (2006) “Venezuela’s Secret Grassroots Democracy,” Venezuelanalysis.com, November 28.
  5. Ultimas Noticias (2006) “Bancos comunales satisfacen necesidades de crédito,” Ultimas Noticias, November 11.
  6. Mather, Steven (Jan 10, 2007) "Venezuelan Government Announces $5 Billion for Communal Councils in 2007" Venezuelanalysis.com
  7. Últimas Noticias March 5, 2007 [1]>

External links


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