Merely echoing the virtues of participatory democracy will do little to advance its cause


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The potential for decentralized governance to increase accountability, enhance participation, redistribute power, wealth and resources, improve administrative performances, decrease bureaucracy, and to respond to the social needs of the people is enormous. Participatory democracy has the potential to engender an active civil society, a socially just economy, and a democracy which serves to channel the interests of the people. Yet the particular model implemented in Venezuela is not without its flaws. Merely echoing the virtues of participatory democracy will do little to advance its cause. The Law of the CLPPs was passed over two years ago, in June of 2002. It is important to question why this law remains in an embryonic stage of development and what are its possible future limitations for creating a Bolivarian society.

There exist two principal schools of thought which recognize the value and necessity of participatory democracy and endorse the concept of the CLPPs yet are critical of the current form in which the law is implemented. The first, and more radical of the two, represented by long-time Venezuelan activist and former Vice-minister of Local Planning Roland Denis postulates that the model is so fundamentally flawed that the only adequate solution it to abolish the Law of the CLPPs, redraft it and thus implement an entirely different model of participatory democracy. Denis has worked with and supported the Bolivarian government since its inception in 1999. Although he endorses the concept of participatory democracy, from his point of view the Law of the CLPPs is intentionally flawed in an effort by reactionary elements within Chavez’ government who are trying to sabotage the goal of creating an active, participative political culture.

According to Roland Denis, favorable conditions [1] for the implementation of a participatory democratic model do not exist for three reasons. First, the geographic divisions of the municipalities and districts are inconsistent with the idea of participatory democracy and actually impede participation. Second, the distribution of resources is not based on population. Finally, the CLPPs are not valued at the same level as representative entities in government and thus do not have sufficient power to implement their decisions.

Geographical Division

The geographical division of Venezuela into municipalities and districts had a predominant political component. These divisions relate directly to the evaluation of the success with which the CLPPs are currently being implemented. Since a nation-wide survey of CLPPs is outside the scope of this article, only case studies within Caracas were surveyed. Caracas is divided into 5 municipalities: Libertador and Sucre are Chavista strongholds; together they have a population rapidly approaching 3 million, though in all probability it is far higher, while Baruta and El Hatillo have a combined population of less than half a-million and Chacao was carved out only 15 years ago and has only 75,000 habitants. These figures are directly reproduced from the 2002 INE census. [2]

It is rather difficult to fathom a ‘locality’ composed of one or two million people. In fact, this oxymoron basically defeats the purpose. Even for a fraction of a million people to take part in local, decentralized, participatory governance on the level of a municipality would be challenging. As Roland Denis notes, “There are a handful of people who represent their constituency but very few know who elected them and where they were elected.” As it stands, the ratio of municipalities to people as well as the uneven distribution of people within the municipalities impedes quality participation. Granted, these five municipalities are further broken into districts. Caracas has a total of 32 districts. Libertador is partitioned into 22, Sucre has 5, and Baruta is divided into 3, while El Hatillo and Chacao are each in and of themselves a single district. Yet the same problems pertaining to the municipalities are relevant on a district level. For example, a cultural council in San Agustín, a district in the municipality of Libertador, was elected by an assembly composed of 12 people. There is little legitimacy in that.

Distribution of Resources

The problematic ratio between population and municipalities and population and districts is also valid in terms of the distribution of resources. Taking into consideration that all of the municipalities receive the same budget (likewise with the districts), it is obvious that those with a lower population are able to tackle problems with a higher rate or success. Denis notes, “The Councils are able to function at the level of a small municipality such as Chacao, but in the large municipalities such as Libertador and Sucre they will never work”.

Andrés Eloy Angola who lives in the district of Sucre, in the municipality of Libertador, articulates this problem at a district level. Sucre, with a population of around 1.2 million inhabitants, is the largest district in all of Latin America. Another district in Libertador, Santa Teresa, has a population of 150,000. Yet Santa Teresa receives the same amount of money that Sucre receives [3]. “Up until now we have maintained ourselves as a district. This is an issue that we have to update. One of the hurdles that the CLPPs must take on is the organization of the districts. There has to be a discussion to update the amount of money that each district receives because the amount of money a district receives does not correspond to its population.”

What is particularly troubling with respect to this geographical division of Caracas is that the municipalities are so easily identifiable as ‘rich’ or ‘poor’. Not surprisingly, the wealthy are generally concentrated in sparsely populated municipalities of Chacao, Baruta, and El Hatillo, while the poor reside in the outskirts of the city, in Libertador and Sucre. “They made 3 districts for the rich and 2 for the poor...this had nothing to do with geography or was the socio-economic segregation of the classes” explains Denis.

Walking down Francisco de Miranda, the main street in Chacao, one encounters numerous Centro Commerciales selling Prada handbags and Estee Lauder skincare products, street vendors subjected to rigorous hygiene regulations, apartment buildings guarded by 24 hour security guards and light-skinned children in neatly pressed uniforms building accompanied to private schools where they will study English and learn computer skills. In contrast, the very mention of neighborhoods in Sucre or Libertador is typically met with the widening of eyes and a dismal warning - ‘don’t go there by yourself, even during the day’. As with every rule there is an exception, and the division of the municipalities and districts in Caracas is no different. One can see poor farmers in El Hatillo and clusters of four-story mansions with jacuzzis and six-car garages (albeit separated from the poor barrios by security systems worthy of a state prison) in Sucre. However these exceptions are by and large just that, exceptions. It is completely reasonable as well as appropriate to draw such conclusions, not to mention of dire necessity to inquire as to why this is.

The strict geographical division of the city along class lines has caused some analysts to refer to a “class-based apartheid,” which not only has consequences in terms of economic segregation but also with respect to participation. The laws of the CLPPs were made for an educated society. They were not designed for densely populated barrios where the overwhelming majority of people have an elementary reading level, lack knowledge of politics and economics, are unemployed, malnourished and fighting to survive on a day to day basis. They work better in neighborhoods of the middle or upper class, in other words: Chacao, Baruta, and El Hatillo.

Lack of Power

Essentially the idea behind the Local Public Planning Councils is to change this reality by establishing popular power, redistributing resources, and empowering the Venezuelan people to challenge what for so long has been considered an insurmountable obstacle in Latin American societies. Yet the implementation of the CLPPs does not guarantee the creation of a new political culture or an invigorated civil society. On the contrary, Roland Denis interprets the limitations of the law (in terms of the failure to re-direct resources directly into the hands of the people) as a reflection that this very empowerment is what the bureaucracy most fears. “The State does not want to open the channels of participatory democracy because it is afraid of the power that this law potentially gives to the people,” says Denis.

Sorting through the technicalities of the law and the emotion of the people is an ominous task, but the bottom line is that after the Councils draft a law or submit a budget proposal, they lack the power to approve it. Their proposals can be vetoed based on a lack of resources or they can be modified; in other words, the people do not have the ability to implement their plans in the form they wish, or in some cases, at all.

This is contrary to their intended nature. Article 2 of the Law of the CLPPs states that the Local Councils are part of the State and Article 10 further clarifies that they are a participative part, distinct from the representative part. Yet instead of being viewed as an entity of the State, these organizations are looked upon as neighborhood councils. Essentially, the form in which the law is implemented produces a hierarchy of sorts in which the participative part of government occupies a lower rung on the chain than the representative institutions. Despite democratically electing neighborhood officials, democratically voting on laws or budgets, in essence fulfilling the requirements of a participatory democracy, those with the last word in the matter are the elected officials of representative democracy. “The Councils create a lot of hope,” Denis argues, “but when they try to apply this law they are going to realize that it is flawed, I would even say that it is criminally flawed because now that the Councils are appearing it is becoming apparent that they don’t have power or legitimacy.” Although the people are organizing and discussing what needs to be done, their role is essentially limited to a consultative one.

The vast majority of the ‘community’ problems raised in the CLPP meeting in Sucre cannot be tackled, let alone implemented, on a local level because they are actually macro or national problems. Funding, training and equipping a police force capable of significantly reducing crime, or extending the metro line into the outskirts of Caracas are proposals which necessarily involve coordination between local and national power structures. They are by and large beyond the scope of local governments. Yet, in order to reduce corruption by assuring that the people truly prioritize these large-scale projects as one of these most urgent needs and this is not a private contract between already excessively wealthy corporations looking to further increase their profits in useless endeavors, the power of approving the ventures should be allocated to a local level. As it stands, the relationship is reversed: the Councils present the plans and then ask permission from elected representatives for the financial resources to realize these initiatives. This fundamentally contradicts the idea of local power as articulated by the Constitution.

Denis argues that the government is aware of the impotence of the law. “The law does not have the power to permit that [the impoverished] integrate themselves into society; it does not have the power. The government is aware of this. However, there have been so many controversies that this has not been the priority. The priority in this moment is the mobilization of the people, the creation and development of the popular movements, and the strengthening of the capacity to resist the former powers.”

For Denis the only solution is the abolishment of the existing law and the drafting of an entirely new law at a grassroots level that opens networks between the different levels: the municipalities, the districts, and the barrios and integrates them nationally. These participative entities would have as much power as the representative institutions; they would be able to draft and approve laws, as well as influence the politics of the national government, would be able to fire civil servants and public officials of the State. This basic structure would be autonomous, non-partisan, and it would be the direct instrument of people’s participation. This new law would have to be drafted by a citizens’ initiative and approved by a referendum; introducing it in the National Assembly would be futile due to the fact that the majority of Congressmen and women are not sufficiently involved in this process. “The majority of the popular movements are realizing that they must take the initiative and follow through on it or no one will,” says Denis.

Participatory democracy in Venezuela still remains at a theoretical stage. No country yet dared to initiate the necessary political changes required to transcend existing representative democracies at a national level. There are few that would deny the theoretical importance of the CLPPs. The Local Public Planning Councils empower the people, give new meaning to citizenship, and highlight the interrelationship between political mobilization, participation and citizenship as necessary components in the equation of a democratic society. Yet their limitations are becoming increasing more apparent. CLPP vocero Andres Eloy Angola commented that, “The Councils have to be reformed. The ordinance of the Councils has to be reformed. And we must hasten this discussion; we have to hurry to reform them. This is essential.”

Working with the base we have

The second school of thought, which also endorses the idea of the CLPPs but is critical of the form in which they are implemented, advocates working with the existing model and reforming it gradually. According to this model, the CLPPs have mobilized the poor to participate in what was previously a top-down two party political system. And there is undeniably tremendous momentum in the country among the people. “This was so interesting; there was a moment in which we were going so much faster than the law,” comments district committee President Lorenza Rodriguez excitedly. “We started this job before they had approved the law of the CLPPs, even before they had approved the ordinance of the law. Afterwards, we had to bear the wait. After the law was passed, we organized round tables and discussion halls to discuss it. We realized that the law had some defects that did not fit our community, but we proceeded to work with it as a base.”

Political culture can only be redefined through citizen participation. Transparency will not increase and corruption will not vanish unless there is a mechanism in place which holds elected officials to a high degree of accountability. For political culture to evolve sufficiently to facilitate participatory democracy, citizens must participate actively in the local councils, which must be allotted a corresponding degree of autonomous power.

María Fernanda Pirona, spokeswoman for the district of Sucre notes, “We are going to obligate ourselves to sit and discuss. The moment that we learn to have this discussion together, as Venezuelans, we are going to change part of the Venezuelan culture. We are realizing that community does not work when we think of ourselves as individuals...we are obligated to work in the best interest of everyone. What happens to my neighbor can also happen to me at some point in time. Pollution is affecting us all. When we live in a community what happens to each member of the community affects each of us. We are reviving this part of our culture; that one depends on another. We are reviving it with a law, the law of the CLPP; we are changing our way of being, our way of acting, and our way of looking at the problems our country faces.”

This is a complex, time-consuming process that will inevitably be met with more initial failures than successes. At this point perhaps it would be detrimental to the enthusiasm of the people to wait x number of years until the structure is perfect so that the concrete structures of participation begin to be implemented.

Working to implement change on three levels could change the nature of the CLPPs. First, it is necessary to further break down both the municipalities and the districts to a more equitable, manageable number of people. Secondly, the budget must be based on the population. For example a district with a million people must receive a larger budget than a district of 150,000. It is also necessary to increase the resources - and the control over those resources - allotted to the Councils. This could be accomplished in a number of ways. For example, the Councils must be given direct control over the resources of the Intergorvernmental Fund for Descentralization (FIDES), as well as control over a percentage of the sales tax, and a percentage of the national budget. Finally, popular participation in decision-making must be supported by all elected officials and institutions, governors, mayors, district councils, town halls, and of course, the national government. Without these reforms, the Councils will remain unmanageable, impotent entities.

The Future for Participatory Democracy in Venezuela

The CLPPs not only have to contend with these internal shortcomings, but also with an international environment hostile to their revolution. This historical moment in which Venezuela is living is threatening to the neoliberal economic integration and uni-polar world envisioned by the United States for two principal reasons. First, Venezuela has the capacity to spread this revolution to other Latin American nations [4].

The quite possible empowerment of millions of people who become educated, healthy, well-fed, capable of demanding decent wages and accountable politicians could quite possibly be Washington’s worst nightmare. Second, Chavez has decreased production and increased prices of petroleum. With post-war devastation in Iraq impeding production there, as well as increased demand from India and China, the US is trying to take steps to ensure that the 5th largest producer of petroleum continues to bow to US corporate interests.

Through nine electoral contests, which Chavez and his Bolivarian project have won decisively each time, the Venezuelan people have time and again proven that they demand change. If based upon the foundation of a new political culture in which the inalienable right of popular participation reigns at every level of government, the CLPPs will undoubtedly bring Venezuela, and by example the world, that much closer to a society based on social justice and equality. As Kees Koonings of Utrecht University (Netherlands) notes, “In a continent where voicelessness and exclusion have deep roots and are often seen as rendering formal democracy hollow and meaningless,” Venezuela has taken a difficult, but flawed step in the right direction.

[1] The new Venezuelan Constitution (1999) considers the law of the CLPP as a basic fundamental tool of participatory democracy. In fact, Article 62 of the Constitution establishes that “the participation of the people in the formation, execution and control of public matters is the means necessary to accomplish the protagonist 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.”

[2] However there is ample reason to believe that the populations of Libertador and Sucre were considerably underestimated. While surveyors go door to door in Chacao, Baruta, and El Hatillo individually counting heads, barrios in Libertador and Sucre are often estimated, due to the fact that the shacks that people live in are sometimes not considered houses and there are no paths, let alone roads to access these residencies.

[3] This criticism is based on non-governmental sources.

[4] Jorge Jonquera, Chilean solidarity activist.