Venezuela’s Communal Councils and the Role of Planners

By Clara Irazábal and John Foley

The December 2007 referendum proposing constitutional reforms in Venezuela, discussed in the Fall 2007 issue of Progressive Planning Magazine, was defeated by less than 2 percent of the vote. Some of these reforms would have strengthened grassroots power and the role of neighborhood-based communal councils. The effect of this defeat will be to heighten the role of these councils as strategic sites of struggle in the ongoing saga for a participatory socialist democracy.

The government led by Hugo Chávez initiated a political process that is attempting to transform the inherited bureaucratic governance structure into a participatory socialist democracy. In making this transition, grassroots power is being exercised by local communal councils with support from the national government. This is considered a necessary factor in consolidating a participatory socialist democracy in Venezuela. Planners can be allies in the grassroots processes of empowerment and self-determination of local communities and active agents in the “trickling-up” of participation to upper levels of government. The Chávez regime is attempting to install a revolutionary government in which central state policies aim to improve the conditions of the poor, while recognizing the importance of working upwards from and with local communities. This ongoing transition is enmeshed in many complexities and contradictions. Community organizing was institutionalized by means of key legal instruments, including the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela—written by a Constituent Assembly and voted on by Venezuelan citizens. After the failed referendum this year, however, the fate of local organizing remains unclear.

Resistance of Local Authorities

Although most municipal officials take part in the discourse of participatory democracy, they are often unwilling to relinquish their power over resources. Due to the frustration caused by the slow pace of democratization at the municipal level, and in some cases the delays between financing municipal public works and their execution, President Chávez declared that communal councils should be more independent of the municipal authorities and receive direct financing from the central government. This process was formalized in the Communal Councils Law approved by the National Assembly in June 2006. The law creates virtually a parallel system of local organizations directly linked to the central government and not, as had been the tradition, through the municipal authorities. The intention is to foment direct people power over public policy making and implementation and to generate local projects that satisfy community needs and aspirations.

Communal councils contain between 200 and 400 families in urban areas, and over twenty families in rural areas. All persons over 15 years of age may participate and be elected representatives. Once legally formed, these councils may obtain up to 30 million Bolívares (almost $14,000) to finance small production or service projects in the community. Less than a year after the law was passed, Josh Lerner reported in Z Magazine in March 2007 that there were over 16,000 councils throughout the country, and 12,000 of them had received funding for community projects—including almost 300 communal banks for micro-loans as well as for thousands of other projects, such as street paving, sports fields, medical centers and sewage and water systems.

The council initiatives are a reflection of the “participatory, democratic and strategic planning with open consultation” called for in Article 299 of the new Venezuelan Constitution. Thus, planning in the current Venezuelan context is conceived of as thoroughly enmeshed with the processes of grassroots political organizing and mobilization. Popular participation is not considered something “outside” of governance, but an integral part of it. This is not easy to implement, however, and at certain points may even be counterproductive, as many would argue that grassroots organizations ought to be outside the purview of the state so as to provide a mechanism of check and balances.

Challenges for Community Organizing

In the effort to solve problems, the government-led push to create communal councils could stymie emergent social movement organizations that advance novel approaches to organizing and creative forms of problem-solving at the local level. There is also the issue of compensation for participation, because there are stark inequities between the salaries of government officials and unpaid community participants. Significant time commitments are expected of participants in councils, and although this is an area that has begun to be explored with some employers, they have yet to give time off for community council work (the failed constitutional reforms included a reduction of the workday from eight to six hours). More critically, community participants engaged in hands-on construction of public works in their communities (particularly in poor communities) are not paid by the government, while contractors get paid for equivalent work.

The communal councils were formed to permit direct financing from the national government, bypassing the municipal government level, however, many local institutions have been involved in this process and each has a different approach to local grassroots power. At times, this creates confusion in the councils as they decide on the spatial boundaries of the district, set priorities and develop procedures for electing their representatives. While guidance from municipal and metropolitan governments can help reduce confusion, it can also lead to undue influence over the communal councils.

Some local activists have expressed disagreement with the way current political parties, supporters of the government, impose their representatives on local organizations, and activists are taken out of their communities and “neutralized” when employed by state institutions. Frictions occur between the structures created by representative democracy and its predominantly individualistic ethic (which has been dominant for the last forty years of the previous regimes in Venezuela) and the emerging, more direct democracy, with its attempt to promote solidarity and the consolidation of community power. Another problem is that there are frequent changes in the legislation and differing interpretations of these changes by multiple stakeholders. There is a tension between those who consider the law to be leading the participatory process and those who assume it ought to respond to the initiatives of organized groups, creating a legal framework that institutionalizes their practices. A similar controversy pits those government representatives who conceive of the communal councils as the base of a political pyramid, with the district, municipal, state and national levels of government on top, against others who would like to see the councils totally replace city and state governments.

Since project proposals by communal councils go directly to the Presidential Commission of Popular Power, critics of the government see the bypassing of the intermediate levels of government as a dangerous return to government centralization, particularly because it enhances the role of Chávez. Critics also complain that the councils suppress dissent and are pro-Chávez—and that the ones that are not will have a difficult time getting funding. Lastly, if legislation is complied with and the vote of the majority in councils is respected, some decisions and policies that are not in the public interest (e.g., traditional NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] decisions such as preventing the construction of working-class housing in affluent neighborhoods) may be enacted, reproducing the persistent dilemma between democracy and equity prevalent in urban planning processes.

Despite these limitations, the communal council project has generated a great deal of enthusiasm and participation in the nation at large. It is perceived as opening an alternative channel of communication and assistance that is less dependent on municipal authorities or political parties, which are often viewed in a negative light at the grassroots level. The fact that communal councils open a small direct conduit to President Chávez, who maintains contact with grassroots groups throughout the country, is also appreciated by many communities. Notwithstanding the risks associated with inflating the figure of the president-leader too highly in this process of political transition, many supporters of the government feel that their direct access to and support from Chávez can help them bypass bureaucratic delays and sabotage, and in turn empower communities.

The Role of Progressive Planners

Venezuela still has a planning system where decisions are mostly hierarchical and top-down. What is more, national and regional planning tends to be dominated by rational-technical approaches, whereas local participatory planning tends to be more influenced by pragmatic and problem-oriented approaches. In this context, there is a need to unravel what happens when the two systems meet, and devise ways to achieve greater participation at the national and regional levels while protecting local processes from control by upper levels of government. Local groups need to be wary of the usurpation of grassroots power by municipal authorities and national political parties, especially in a situation where it is still not clear how the new planning structure should function. These are problems encountered in managing a relatively peaceful transition from representative to participatory democracy and from a capitalist to a socialist regime that, to a large extent, uses the inherited bureaucratic structure from the previous system.

What is the role for planners in this transition? Many planning professionals in Venezuela do not support the political transition to an inclusive socialist democracy as conceived by President Chávez. Many planners from the socio-economic elite, and those who identify with its values, do not support the current regime and its calls for a new approach to planning policy that disrupts models of professional expertise and demands that planners learn from the people. Although some planners in Venezuela have indeed embraced the spirit of this new approach, often they fail to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Many practitioners still cling, consciously or unconsciously, to the notion of the exclusive value of expertise, and hence do not validate the knowledge of residents, their right to self-determination or even the larger socialist political project at play in the current Venezuelan process. Most professional planners in Venezuela were formed within the rationalist paradigm, even if they identify with communicative planning approaches. In these circumstances, there is a great need for progressive planners to form and expand alliances with locally organized peoples’ power, however, Venezuelan planners are often afraid of taking risks, experimenting and understanding and trusting in popular reasoning.

Given the stakes, progressive planners need to consider supporting community decisions even in the face of uncertainty. Opportunities can quickly disappear, and not acting can reverse progress in the transition to a more equitable and participatory democracy. In transitional and difficult processes, like those occurring in Venezuela, which face opposition at national and international levels, planners’ conservatism or dogmatism can work against the consolidation of peoples’ power and the advancement of a socialist participatory democracy.

Clara Irazábal (irazabal(at)usc(dot)edu), a Venezuelan, is assistant professor in the School of Policy, Planning and Development, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. John Foley (RIP, December 2006), a British citizen, lived in Venezuela for thirty years. He was a planning professor at the Instituto de Urbanismo, Facultad de Arquitectura y Urbanismo, Universidad Central de Venezuela.