Communal Councils

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Dario Azzellini:

"The communal councils are a non-representative structure of direct democracy and the most advanced mechanism of self-organization at the local level in Venezuela. In 2013, approximately 44,000 communal councils had been established throughout the country. Since the new constitution of 1999 defined Venezuela as a “participative and protagonistic democracy,” a variety of mechanisms for the participation of the population in local administration and decision-making have been experimented with. In the beginning they were connected to local representative authorities and integrated into the institutional framework of representative democracy. Competing on the same territory as local authorities and depending on the finances authorized by those bodies, the different initiatives showed little success.

Communal councils began forming in 2005 as an initiative “from below.” In different parts of Venezuela, rank-and-file organizations, on their own, promoted forms of local self-administration named “local governments” or “communitarian governments.” During 2005, one department of the city administration of Caracas focused on promoting this proposal in the poor neighborhoods of the city. In January 2006, Chávez adopted this initiative and began to spread it. On his weekly TV show, “Aló Presidente,” Chávez presented the communal councils—consejos comunales—as a kind of “good practice.” At this point some 5,000 communal councils already existed. In April 2006, the National Assembly approved the Law of Communal Councils, which was reformed in 2009 following a broad consulting process of councils’ spokespeople. The communal councils in urban areas encompass 150-400 families; in rural zones, a minimum of 20 families; and in indigenous zones, at least 10 families. The councils build a non-representative structure of direct participation that exists parallel to the elected representative bodies of constituted power.

The communal councils are financed directly by national state institutions, thus avoiding interference from municipal organs. The law does not give any entity the authority to accept or reject proposals presented by the councils. The relationship between the councils and established institutions, however, is not always harmonious; conflicts arise principally from the slowness of constituted power to respond to demands made by the councils and from attempts at interference. The communal councils tend to transcend the division between political and civil society (i.e., between those who govern and those who are governed). Hence, liberal analysts who support that division view the communal councils in a negative light, arguing that they are not independent civil-society organizations, but rather are linked to the state. In fact, however, they constitute a parallel structure through which power and control is gradually drawn away from the state in order to govern on their own.7

At a higher level of self-government there is the possibility of creating socialist communes, which can be formed by combining various communal councils in a specific territory. The councils decide themselves about the geography of these communes. These communes can develop medium and long-term projects of greater impact while decisions continue to be made in assemblies of the communal councils. As of 2013 there are more than 200 communes under construction.

In the context of the creation of communes and communal cities, it is important to analytically distinguish between (absolute) political-administrative space and socio-cultural-economic (relational) space.8 Communes reflect the latter; their boundaries do not necessarily correspond to existing political-administrative spaces. As these continue to exist, the institutionalization of the communal councils, communes, and communal cities develops and shapes the socio-cultural-economic space. Thus, the idea of council-based non-representative local self-organization creates a “new power-geometry.” The concept of power in human geography, as elaborated by Doreen Massey, has been put “to positive political use” following the “recognition of the existence and significance, within Venezuela, of highly unequal, and thus undemocratic, power-geometries.”9

Various communes can form communal cities, with administration and planning “from below” if the entire territory is organized in communal councils and communes. The mechanism of the construction of communes and communal cities is flexible; they themselves define their tasks. Thus the construction of self-government begins with what the population itself considers most important, necessary, or opportune. The communal cities that have begun to form so far, for example, are rural and are structured around agriculture, such as the Ciudad Comunal Campesina Socialista Simón Bolívar in the southern state of Apure or the Ciudad Comunal Laberinto in the northwestern state of Zulia. Organizing and the construction of communes and communal cities has been easier in suburban and rural areas than in metropolitan areas, since there is less distraction and less presence of opposition, while at the same time common interests are easier to define." (