In the Venezuelan municipality of Libertador (state of Carabobo), of which Argenis is mayor, "we have 90% poverty. Ending that is our first task. I am convinced that the existing state cannot do this." It’s essential that "the majority of the people become part of the decision-making process."
But when Argenis was elected in 2000, the second year of the Bolivarian government headed by president Hugo Chávez, he found that "the people did not possess the tools needed for their participation."
That insight led Chávez and the Bolivarian government to initiate the formation of neighborhood councils across the country — councils that they view as the embryo of a new people’s state.
Suzanne Weiss and I spent two days in Libertador, one of the first municipalities where such councils were formed, talking to Argenis and dozens of others. This report is based on what we saw; it also draws on Marta Harnecker’s outstanding study of the Libertador experience.*
A Devastated Community
With 200,000 residents, Libertador sprawls across a mainly rural territory the size of Metro Toronto (20 km. x 30 km.). Most of its employed population works in nearby Valencia, the country’s heartland of privately owned industry. Jouncing over its ruined roads in the back of a pickup, we saw a district that had been devastated not by natural catastrophe but by a social calamity — decades of systematic neglect.
"Before we had many problems," recalls Félix Hernández, member of a community government. "The roads were super-awful. The electricity worked one or two days and then shut off. Health service was chaotic. Water service was complete chaos."
Appealing to city hall was a waste of time. "It was horrendous," says another council member, Virginia Diaz. "We’d go with petitions and explain. They’d visit and approve the project." But nothing would happen. "When we went back to the office, they’d never heard of us, didn’t know anything. . . . As useful as tits on a bull."
The result was public apathy, says municipal social activist Fidel Hernández — like Argenis, a published poet. "The people had let itself be convinced that it could not govern. There was a deliberate policy for this . . . that’s why we had 1 1⁄2 million who were illiterate."
Tools for People’s Power
Of peasant origins, Argenis Loreto finished only six years of schooling before starting his working life in factories, industrial management, farming, and again in factories. He joined a revolutionary group at age 17, took part in the Bolivarian movement’s unsuccessful coup in 1992, and became mayor after two decades of underground activity.
Convinced that only the poor and disenfranchised could reconstruct his municipality — and his nation — he sought to bridge the gulf between them and the instruments of government. Argenis and his colleagues set out to do this by extending governmental structures to the community level and by delegating power to community governments. Such a shift was authorized by a decentralization clause (Article 184) in the Bolivarian constitution adopted in 1999.
Progress was slow at first. The right-wing coup and bosses’ strike of 2002-2003 delayed restructuring. The Libertador plan ran into strong opposition from some Bolivarian national legislators, who accused Argenis of "creating illegal associations."
Finally, in 2006, the community structure was in place: 35 "social territories," which united residents who shared similar problems, a common project, and a sense of belonging to a common environment. They ranged in size from 1,000 to 15,000 residents. Each territory elected a government through assemblies of its residents, usually choosing between competing slates of candidates. All community government work is voluntary — no salaries are paid — but relevant expenses are reimbursed.
In one of the social territories, skeptical residents declined to name a council. In another, a center of Libertador’s small middle class, the opposition slate was elected. "Many right-wing oppositionists join in community council activity," says Argenis. "They feel they cannot stand aside from the social programs and local projects that the councils carry out. . . . The opposition’s role in local government has helped ease political tensions here."
The people’s power structure has two tiers. Each social territory or commune includes smaller and more homogenous communities, each of which has its own communal council. The size of component communities is determined by social geography: urban councils typically unite 200-400 families; rural councils, 20-50 families. The smallest social territory by population (Mont Vernont) is composed of dispersed mountain hamlets: it therefore includes the largest number of communities. In Libertador, there are 204 such communal councils.
Each communal council and social territory holds assemblies to choose and prioritize its ten most needed projects for the coming year. The municipal planning council then evaluates the top three proposals from each territory — more than three, if finances permit. A value of 1 to 9 is assigned to each of a number of criteria: number of residents, number who will benefit, cost, how long the request has been pending, the number of previous projects in this community, etc.
This ranking creates a proposed project list that is presented to an assembly in each territory, which can change its priorities and request reconsideration — if for example a favored project turned out to be impossibly expensive.
Once the project list is decided, the required funds are allocated to the community bodies, which handle administration, buy materials, and engage workers or contractors, giving preference to cooperatives. Community networking and know-how helps keep costs down, and any savings stay in the community for other purposes. Argenis estimates that $1 million a year is saved simply by eliminating private profits.
"For example, a flood control project was approved with a budget of 184 million bolivars [about $90,000]," says Fidel Hernández. "But in fact the community councils did it for 47 million and had lots left over for fixing roads.
"In another case, the local council got a price of 80 million to bring electricity to a district. But in fact they managed to do three districts for that price.
"Last year the community councils spent 84% of the municipal budget [for projects]," Fidel notes.
Popular control has steered funding toward small, plain, and inexpensive projects densely spread through local neighborhoods. Urgent human needs have taken priority over infrastructure requirements like road upgrades.
Argenis highlights the 74 primary-care health centers built by neighborhood councils, which at first sometimes even manufactured the bricks. "We had only nine centers before," he says. In addition, Libertador boasts four Integral Diagnostic Centers — small hospitals — "the pride of our community," according to Felix Hernández. Another community government member, Aixa Silvera, calls the Cuban doctors working in these centers "the most spectacular thing we have in the communities.
Indeed, Libertador led the way in Venezuela by arranging for Cuban doctors to work in the communities, before this became a national program.
Argenis says that community governments are building 48 primary schools this year — mostly one-room structures serving a neighborhood. There are also now three university campuses in Libertador — part of a national program to "municipalize higher education."
"As for sports, there are now only two or three communities that do not have a minimal installation" which means a playing field.
The citizens of Libertador are also trying to establish cultural centers in each social territory, usually an "open-air amphitheatre." Eight cultural centers are now under construction. In some cases, resident assemblies gave building a cultural centre priority over fixing the road or installing street lighting. "You can’t have a revolution without beauty," Fidel Hernández says.
The obvious progress is confirmed by two surveys that were taken at the beginning of the community government program and again in May 2007. The first survey showed that the most urgently felt needs were for health care and educational facilities. In the second, no one cited health care as a concern, and almost no one mentioned education. Moreover, "we now have hardly any kids on the streets," says Argenis, "and the problem of homelessness is almost solved."
The Housing Bottleneck
According to official estimates, Venezuela has a shortage of 2.7 million homes, while another 1.3 million dwellings are inadequate home-made shacks. In 2006, 200,000 homes were built — a positive achievement, but far less than what is needed.
Argenis believes that community councils, who feel this urgent need acutely, are best suited to build houses. Sometimes they "build 10, 12, even 15 houses with the money provided for seven," he says.
"But we desperately need raw materials. Our economy was destroyed, and now we don’t have the capacity to make the cement blocks, the paint, the ceramic toilets. We’re working with Iran, China, and Brazil to meet these needs."
And Venezuela is building six factories to produce plastic building materials — "we have oil, after all," says Argenis. This project, called Petrocasa, will supply materials for 15,000 new houses a year. One of these factories, is close by, in the state of Carabobo.
In 2006 Hugo Chávez endorsed the establishment of communal councils as a priority across Venezuela. In January 2007, he declared them institutions of "people’s power," an embryo of a new people’s state. An enabling law was passed in April, and there are now more than 10,000 councils across the country.
While vindicating the innovative program in Libertador, this expansion also caused the municipality many headaches. The national government intended the councils to be free of the deadening hand of the traditional state bureaucracy. Among other things, word went out that mayors should not get involved with these people’s organizations. This directive might be appropriate in the nearby industrial city of Valencia, ruled by the opposition, but in Libertador it was totally at odds with reality.
Unfortunately, the Carabobo state government, led by critics of Argenis’s initiatives, seized on this opening to create problems for Libertador’s government. Utilizing its own statewide network of paid social activists, it promoted the notion that communal councils don’t need to work with Libertador’s larger social territories or with the city government.
"That caused a terrible process of fragmentation and division between the two levels of popular power," says Argenis.
Much effort has gone into knitting the two levels of people’s government back together, Argenis says. "When they work together they’re unbeatable."
People’s power was an element of the constitution reform narrowly defeated in the December 2, 2007, referendum. The communal councils are still authorized under Article 184 of the constitution and the April 2006 legislation, and there is no legal barrier to expanding the structures beyond this framework. However, the referendum setback may encourage the councils’ critics.
The community government bodies in Libertador aren’t perfect. Among the occasional abuses noted by Argenis:
Only one community is represented in a social territory council.
One slate takes all the leadership positions.
Elected officers take decisions on their own without convening the residents’ assembly.
The assembly functions poorly because of lack of interest.
These can be viewed as growing pains. As community government officer Omaira Carvallo comments, "When people see what is accomplished, it will break through their apathy."
More troubling is the conduct of other branches of government, such as the problems with Carabobo State. Among the many stories of this sort that Argenis tells, the pig manure episode is enough to illustrate what people’s power is up against.
The city government makes special efforts to help Libertador’s many farmers, a number of whom raise pigs. Some time ago the Ministry of the Environment banned hog-raising in the municipality because of concerns for water quality, but did not enforce the regulation. Libertador tried to help farmers solve the water problem on their own, by providing septic tanks for environmentally safe treatment of pig manure. The manure’s polluting gas discharge was captured and burned for cooking. "This is a miracle," says Argenis. "It cuts out the smell and uses the gas!"
But the ministry intervened and nixed the project, which they said broke their rule against raising pigs. The bureaucratic method could not be better demonstrated: only the formal regulation counted; the real-life problem of manure pollution was of no interest.
What explanations do the ministry provide? "None whatsoever," says Argenis. "Just as we always say: this bureaucracy is eating us alive. . . . We can’t change things with this type of state."
Even among inherited municipal officials, "the apathy is barbaric. We have to establish a new conception of a staffer," Argenis says. "I’d like to dissolve the municipal administration . . . and create a confederation of community governments."
At first glance, Venezuela’s people’s power can seem to be just a formal structure — municipal government on a street level. This is misleading. The councils have appeared and made gains only as part of an immense popular movement on a national level: the Bolivarian revolution.
This revolution was born in the mass mobilizations against the U.S.-backed oligarchy’s attempts to overthrow the country’s elected government — by a military coup in 2002, by an economic shutdown in 2003, and by an anti-Chavez referendum in 2004. All were defeated by the initiatives of masses of working people.
In Libertador, Argenis recalls, the embryonic community governments acted as defense committees, struggling to ensure that food, cooking gas, and gasoline reached the people. "That was just so wonderful," he says. "Quickly we had a network of more than 200 Bolivarian shops," distributing necessities and helping defend the revolution. Such national struggles were the true birth of people’s power.
Venezuela’s success at forging constructive ties with other non-imperialist states has also played a role, not just through Cuba’s contribution to health services, but above all in building alliances to help fend off, for now, a U.S.-led assault.
The sometimes destructive role of national and state authorities is also a reminder that the power of working people will not flourish at the street level unless it is consolidated nationally.
Yet the community councils in Libertador call to us, Sí se puede! — Yes we can do it! Enlisting the majority, the working people, in government is indeed possible. Venezuela’s people’s power — while still embryonic — is a living, viable reality.
* Marta Harnecker, Gobiernos Comunitarios: Transformando el Estado desde abajo [Community Governments: Transforming the State from Below] (Monte Ávila Editores Latinoamericana, 2007). This book is not readily available outside Venezuela. However, its text is available online. Harnecker is director of the "Popular Participation in Public Management" program of the Centro Internacional Miranda, a Bolivarian research institute in Caracas.