Chavez government promotes grassroots people's power

Before representatives of the grassroots communal councils from across Venezuela assembled in Ezequiel Zamora Park in the capital Caracas, President Hugo Chavez enacted the Organic Law on the Federal Government Council on February 20, which he said will “further open the door to advancing in the distribution of power in the hands of the people, and to achieving a more efficient and effective state”.

In a February 21 article titled “Onwards towards a Communal State!”, Chavez explained the need for the new government council: “By socialism we mean unlimited democracy … our firm conviction [is] that the best and most radically democratic of the options for defeating bureaucracy and corruption is the construction of a communal state … people’s power will play a major role; I would say an essential role, in the radical transformation of our country.”

The new government council will oversee the extension of greater decision-making authority to institutions of participatory democracy — mainly the communal councils — as it is taken away from the alienating institutions of liberal representative democracy, thus gradually dismantling the civil service bureaucracy that the revolutionary government inherited from the capitalist state. According to reports by the Bolivarian News Agency on February 22, the new council will oversee “transferring the powers and duties of local authorities”, such as state governors and city mayors, “to the organised communities through communal councils, who [will] assume responsibilities in the planning and implementation of public policies”.

Representatives of the Chavez-led working people’s government, the communal councils, as well as governors and mayors, will form the federal council. Strategic development projects initiated by the Chavez government will also involve local communal councils deciding how to best carry them out at a local level.

Formation of communal councils

The communal councils were first formed following the introduction of the Law of Communal Councils in April 2006, which encourages neighbourhoods of poor working families to organise themselves into councils open to the direct participation of all residents above the age of 15. The law called for between 200-400 families living in the same urban area to form a communal council, at least 20 rural-based families to form a rural communal council and a minimum of 10 indigenous (Amerindian) families to create an indigenous-based communal council. Citizen assemblies that include at least 10% of the local population make all major decisions of the communal councils and elect an executive body and other working committees.

In July last year, Roberto Rojas, the president of the Foundation for the Development and Promotion of Communal Power (Fundacomunal), which grants some national funds to communal councils, reported that 30,179 had been created and a further 5000 were in formation. Once established, the communal councils decide on and implement projects to meet social needs within the local community. Funding for specific projects originally came from a plethora of national, state and local government sources; the new government council law removes the power of governors and mayors to grant funding, since some had refused to fund communal council initiatives.

According to Erika Farias, Minister of People’s Power for Communes, the Chavez government has transferred the equivalent of US$4.23 billion to communal councils since 2006 to buy materials and tools for anti-poverty projects; the councils have then organised for most of the work to be carried out by local volunteers. Over 30,000 projects have been funded by the Chavez government, leading to the construction of new houses, power lines, drinkable water and sewage systems, and schools and sports facilities.

Over the past four years, a combination of experience and training of community council activists and the forging of multiple councils into comunas (communes) has prepared them for the more complicated work and organisation that will be assigned to them under the new law — over 33,000 people received training in 2009. Angelica Romero, president of the Microfinance Development Fund (Fondemi), another source of national funding for communal councils, commented that the communal councils have gained experience in “the transformation of the concrete reality of their communities, and these levels of organization are necessary in order to move on to a superior level of organization, which is the formation of socialist communes”.

Communes, production, distribution

Chavez began encouraging communal councils to form communes in February 2009, establishing a ministry for communes headed by Farias. Communes aim to group at least 10 communal councils together to go beyond construction projects and unite the organs of direct democracy with local production and distribution of goods and services. On February 7, during his weekly TV and radio show Alo, Presidente, Chavez announced that $23 million had been invested in 706 projects led by 184 communes in formation — 93 are rural based, 65 urban. Another 26 linked rural and urban councils.

Expanding on the economic role of communes, Chavez said: “It is important that we get ready in the communes for a communal and socialist trade system, a new way of commerce beyond the micro-trade between families … This new communal trade will be a productive process that will calculate for real the cost of production.” To regulate alcohol consumption and environmental and noise pollution within the territory of communes, Chavez suggested a Communal Charter to “give communes the legal authority to legislate within their borders”.

Communal councils are also increasing their role in policing. On February 8, Tareck El Aissami, Minister of People’s Power for Interior and Justice, handed over policing equipment to communal councils in the state of Bolivar. Under the Organic Law on Policing, communal councils have the right to oversee police activity.

Creating direct participatory democracy is one of the more difficult tasks confronting any working people’s revolution, and the communal councils and communes in Venezuela take a lot of time, effort, education, training and experience to develop. From the communal councils a higher culture of solving problems through solidarity and cooperation is replacing selfish competition.

The progress made in developing the communal councils as a form of institutional grassroots democracy for working people represents a major achievement of the Chavez government, which has consistently encouraged and organised working people to shed the culture inherited from capitalism of political passivity. But Venezuela’s advancement toward a participatory socialist democracy has only been possible since the April 2002 revolution.

From Chavez’s election to the presidency in 1998 until 2001 the state oil company PDVSA, the largest company in Latin America, had refused to supply Chavez’s government with the revenue it required to implement a wide range of social programs to meet the needs of poor working people. Instead, PDVSA’s pro-capitalist managers continued to use PDVSA to enrich themselves and the local capitalist oligarchy. In 2001 Chavez moved to bring PDVSA under direct government control. This triggered a period of sharpening mass mobilisation and counter-mobilisation by Chavez’s supporters and opponents that culminated in the US-backed business-military coup of April 11, 2002 which overthrew and detained Chavez incommunicado. However, as a result of the prior political work carried out by Chavez loyalists among the poor, both in and out of uniform, the pro-capitalist military coup was defeated within 48 hours by a mass working-class insurrection. Chavez and his ministers were returned to office on April 13, 2002, but now his government was based on a military forces loyal to the interests of the poor.

After purging the armed forces of those who had led the coup, and promoting those who had led the working-class insurrection, the Chavez government and the armed forces, in alliance with the oil production workers, were able to defeat the lockdown and sabotage of the oil industry launched by the pro-capitalist managers in December 2002 and take control of PDVSA, its vast revenues and administrative resources. With control of PDVSA in its hands, the Chavez government had begun a socialist revolution, expropriating large capitalist-owned industries to meet the social needs of the working people. According to Ali Rodriguez, Minister for Finance and Economy, the Chavez government now controls 30% of national production.

Venezuela’s socialist revolution has resulted in significant social gains for poor working people. Despite high inflation, a 2.9% drop in GDP as a result of the global recession, and the worst drought in 50 years, measures taken by the Chavez government in 2009 have succeeded in continuing to reduce unemployment, general and extreme poverty in Venezuela. Throughout 2009, general poverty was reduced from 27.5% to 24.2% (it was 50.5% in 1998), extreme poverty declined from 7.6% to 6% (it was 17.1% in 1998).

Unemployment dropped from 7.4% last February to 6.6% in December (it was 12% in 1998). In February, National Institute of Statistics president Elias Eljuri reported that Venezuela now has the lowest level of social inequality in Latin America. Eljuri also noted that Venezuela’s Human Development Index, a measure of each country’s average lifespan, education and income complied annually by the United Nations Development Program, had moved from the “medium” to the “high” human development ranking between 2003 and 2007.

These social gains, made possible since the Chavez government gained control of logistical support from the armed forces and the revenues of PDVSA, have also been a catalyst for increased participation in the political life of the country by millions of poor Venezuelans. The “social missions” launched by the Chavez government to deliver healthcare, education and other public services have organised millions through study, training, and their help in delivering these services. The country’s oil-export revenues have also been directed toward funding not only communal councils, but thousands of agricultural cooperatives, urban cooperatives and nature-conservation committees.

In Chavez’s article “Onwards towards a Communal State!”, he illustrated the importance of working people’s local communities having the right and the ability to organise their own armed self-defence as a part of the new socialist state that is being created: “Since the Land and Agricultural Development Law came into force in 2001, the landowning oligarchy has launched a violent agenda against the rescue of common land and the full exercise of rights enshrined by the Land Law and the Constitution itself. Faced with the backlash against the peasants via an escalation of attacks, sabotage and paid assassinations by the most retrograde forces in our society, the non-delegable duty of the Bolivarian national state and the revolutionary government is to protect the peasantry: to defend it with all means at its disposal. The peasant militia has been created to fulfil that duty, placing emphasis on the protagonism and responsibility of the peasantry as a collective subject in function of their own defence.

“The first exercises of the peasant militia, that we did in El Pao, Cojedes state last Friday, are just an initial indication of developing a popular armed force to safeguard our integrity and our sovereignty in the fields of Venezuela. Who else but the community knows best the dynamics, activities, failures and essential aspects of safety in their locality? This is the same with geographical, spiritual and material issues.

“The peasant militia and the Bolivarian Militia as a whole are not paramilitary forces, as the brainy analysts always try to suggest, even less so if we conceive of such a word within the reactionary Colombian semantics. On the contrary, the Bolivarian Militia (a body absolutely governed by the Law), as well as community councils, are expressions of the new communal state, an integral part of the new structure of the communal power we are building.

“The Bolivarian Militias”, Chavez continued, “are a component of the Bolivarian Armed Forces and, therefore, do not undermine it, even less is there any intention to supplant it. What bothers and annoys those who spread such lies is that the Armed Forces have been reunited with their original identity: the people in arms.

“The Peasant Militia today embodies a transcendent principle: defending the homeland, our land. Defence against any outside aggressor, but also against the internal aggressor who has been protected, for too long, in a real state of impunity that has counted with the venality of certain courts of the Republic which safeguard and protect the landowners and criminalise peasants and farmers who want to enforce the Land Law.”

As the formation of the peasant militia shows, the Venezuelan revolution is based on a combination of initiative, aimed at serving the needs of poor working people, from the Chavez government working in concert with and encouraging a growing revolution from below of organised workers and peasants. Chavez has even transformed elections to the parliamentary institution inherited from the old capitalist state into opportunities to involve millions of people in political discussion, campaigning and organisation, breaking down the legacy of atomised individual participation in elections that is typical in capitalist countries. Even the selection of candidates for Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) was made through elections involving 2.5 million party members.

The profoundly democratic character of Venezuela’s socialist revolution is entirely ignored by the Western corporate media which seeks to portray Chavez as an “autocrat”. This is evident in the conclusion drawn by Eric Campbell, a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Foreign Correspondent program, in his August 11 report titled “Total Control”: “Just as unbridled greed has undermined capitalism, Chavez’s autocratic socialism is jeopardising the benefits of his revolution … the best chance for this divided country may be for its people to work together, but as with everything in Venezuela, that will depend on the whim of just one unpredictable man.” In reality, since he began his struggle against neoliberal capitalism and imperialist domination of Venezuela in the 1980s, Chavez has consistently sought to encourage his political supporters to “work together” to take political power into their hands.