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Despite the overwhelming number of democratic transitions in Latin America during the 1980s, as well as the apparent consolidation of electoral democracy, a cursory examination of the region shows that their societies continue to be plagued by poverty, social exclusion and corruption. In order to address these deficits, one must acknowledge that democracy is more than free and fair elections; it is also about creating a healthy civil society, an active political culture, and providing ample opportunities for the incorporation of the people into the political process.

The leftist governments of Lula da Silva of Brazil and of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, when confronted with the failed promises of their historically elite-controlled governments, entrenched social structures, and neoliberal economic policies, have highlighted the interrelationship between the political and the social arena by ackowledging that participation and citizenship are necessary components for the creation of a healthy democracy.

In the Brazilian case, these efforts have concentrated on a project appropriately termed “participatory budgeting,” which seeks to increase citizen involvement in the allocation of local government resources.

In Venezuela, the goal is loftier: to complement representative democracy with participatory democracy. This effort contributes to the strengthening of democracy by providing the tools necessary for citizens to influence decisions concerning their economic and social wellbeing. In other words, the citizens develop policy and the politicians implement it, thus decentralizing power. Over the course of the past two years, citizen power has expanded in Venezuela through the implementation of Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs).

The broader significance of participatory democracy is that it addresses social exclusions and incomplete citizenship through the increased accountability of elected officials to the citizens by directly involving the latter in the political arena, redistributing power by expanding popular deliberation and participation in policy areas and redirecting revenue to address the concerns of the people.

Porto Alegre’s Experience with Participatory Budgeting

Through the implementation of participatory budgeting the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the people of the province of Rio Grande do Sur have deepened their level of consciousness and have taken the first step in creating a community of informed citizens who actively participate in their local government.

The new Brazilian Constitution, drafted in 1988, placed significant emphasis on increasing the autonomy of the municipalities through decentralization, as well as on the promotion of popular participation. The following year (1989) Popular Alliance, a leftist coalition led by the Workers Party (PT), gained control of the municipal government in Porto Alegre, based on a platform of grassroots participation. Throughout their four terms in office, participatory budgeting was the foundation for the PT municipal governance.

Participatory budgeting mobilized the citizens from the barrios by creating space for debate between the elected leadership of the municipal administration and the people. A number of sessions are held annually in order to educate the populace in order that they are capable of making informed decisions about budgeting priorities. The citizens then elect representatives who, side by side with the city adminstration, allocate resources in several thematic areas: transportation, infastructure, urban zoning, taxation, economic development and education. Forums were also established for issues such as health and public safety, leisure activities, environmental issues, draining systems, road paving, housing, land titling, healthcare, cultural facilites and long-term priorities.

As a result of this new progressive agenda, the accountability of the elected officials to the citizens has dramatically increased. Rebecca Aber, in her book Inventing Local Democracy: Grassroots Politics in Brazil, observes that “the constant threat that participants would demand evidence pressured the administration to carry out only those actions that it could, at least, justify. The consequence of this kind of transparency was the total elimination within the municipal budget of the corruption and clientelism that are entrenched in most of Brazilian government...It was impossible for money to disappear, for contracts to be overpriced, for promises to be ignored, and for unnecessary investments to be made...”

Since the implementation of participatory budgeting, considerable headway has been made in empowering citizens by directly involving them in the political process and in delegating them the authority to make the final decision as to where the revenue of the annual budget is allocated. It must be noted that the participation of citizens in participatory democracy was met with several early failures and only later, successes. Despite these initial setbacks, it is estimated that 100,000 people, or 1/3 of the city’s poor (Porto Alegre has an estimated population of 1.3 million) have taken part in this process on some level.

Although participatory budgeting is unable to completely solve the massive poverty which plagues Brazil, an active and informed civil society is widely regarded as playing an unqualifiable positive role in the deepening of democracy.

El Pacto de Punto Fijo: Venezuela’s experience with democracy during the final part of the 4th Republic.

After the fall of the military dictatorship of Pérez Jimenez in 1958, the dominant political parties of the nation signed the Pact of “Punto Fijo,” establishing a fairly restrictive and exclusionary democracy in the interest of stability. [1] Despite the limitations this agreement placed on democracy, Venezuela was often refered to as Latin America’s model democracy.

Throughout the duration of their 41 year “pacted democracy,” Venezuela’s political elites successfully monopolized both the political and economic arena by marginalizing their opponents and reaping over $300 billion in oil profits. By the time this revenue had dried up, the country was sustaining an external debt of $24 billion dollars, while around 75% of the population was living in poverty.

These exclusionary practices, along with the country’s vastly unequal distribution of wealth, played a key role in the institutional decay and the increasing illegitimacy of the governments. César Solórzano notes that if democracy, instead of being a path to social transformation, remains in a stagnant equilibrium, serving only to maintain and consolidate the power of the priviledged, the distance between the representatives and the represented will invariably grow. [2] This observation holds true for the Venezuelan case: the post-1958 period was one of increasing distance between parties and the people they supposedly represented.

A New Form of Governance

The election of Hugo Chavez Frias in 1998 initiated a process of reform, in which he effectively redrew the political map of the country. “The overwhelming defeat of the traditional parties in the elections at the end of 1998, and their notable lack of support or affection in the hearts and minds of the great mass of the people, has meant the complete collapse of any organized political opposition to Chávez.” [3]

Within the first year of his presidency, a new Constitution was drawn up by a Constitutional Assembly and approved by over 70% of the population. Through the implementation of new laws and programs, such as the recall referendum and the missions, Chávez has reinvigorated the previously discredited electoral process. His administration also launched a series of social reforms aimed at generating grassroots participation. Article 62 of the Constitution establishes that “the participation of the people in the formation, execution and control of public matters is themeans necessary to accomplish the protagonism that will guarantee their complete development, both as individuals and collectively. It is the obligation of the State and the duty of society to facilitate the most favorable conditions for the practice of this.”

Law of Local Public Planification Councils

Article 182 of the Constitution established the Law of Local Public Planification Councils (CLPPs) and required that the 335 municipalities implemented them before the 12th of October, 2002. The CLPPs are deliberative bodies created to respond to the needs and priorties of local citizens. Sectors of civil society such as education, health care, transportation and cultural groups, among others are currently being represented in the CLPPs. The idea behind the CLPPs is to balance the opinions of local constituents, channel their frustrations and discontent into action, and implement these suggestions into solutions. Taking into consideration that this is relatively uncharted territory, it becomes apparent that these are lofty goals, although not unattainable.

Therefore, instead of feeling like hopeless pawns, capable of influencing the government only by voting for those who would represent them, citizens are empowered. Previously, power was concentrated in the hands of a few; the mayor and councilors exclusively approved the municipal budget, without bothering to consult civil society. Now, citizens not only help to develop an annual budget, they also actively supervise its implementation.

The CLPPs have legal and constitutional rules they must follow. Article 185 clarifies that an executive vice president presides over the council which is composed of a mayor, governor, members of the city council, as well as representatives of neighborhood organizations and civil society. CLPPs have made elected representatives more accountable to the citizens and provided the base for social transformation on a local level. Yet, it is crucial to point out that although the CLPPs benefit the communities in that they decentralize the local government and transfer services to the communities, the citizens have obligations as well. These responsibilities are outlined in Articles 178 and 184 of the Constitution. In this sense, the CLPPs are a reciprocal agreement.

By providing the people with the opportunity to directly participate and influence local planning councils, Venezuela avoids what Joseph Stiglitz [4] considers the catalyst in the failure of development projects in the Third World: the people had not been consulted or brought into the process. The view of Stiglitz is quite clear: since the people have arguably the most comprehensive understanding of their own reality, they are thus in the best position to decide how to allocate resources.

Regardless of the advances with respect to the empowerment of citizens, it is important to acknowledge that there are fundamental problems with the quality and degree of participation. Some citizens are unable to attend meetings, the degree of participation varies, and the quality of participation oftentimes depends on a person’s capacity to understand political and economic terminology.

While it is difficult to forsee exactly how the CLPPs might overcome these obstacles, two things are clear. First, the realization of economic democracy is far more difficult to achieve than political democracy. Venezuela and Latin American nations have not been able to consolidate their democracies and will not be able to do so until the issues of participation and social justice are addressed and their economic disparities are valued at the same level as electoral competition. Secondly, Venezuela has taken an unqualified positive step towards participatory democracy. The essence of the new Venezuelan democracy is the ability of the people to participate in what had previously been a “pacted” democracy, serving only to perpetutate structural forms of inequality.

Part II of “Participatory Democracy in Venezuela” will take a closer look at some actual CLPP experiences.

[1] The Pact of Punto Fijo was signed by three political parties: Unión Republicana Democrática, Acción Democrática, COPEI.

[2] César Solórzano, La Democracia Participativa

[3] Richard Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator, p.216

[4] Question, No. 26, August 2004, p.17