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Sitting in school chairs, ten members of the communal counsels of the 23 de Enero neighborhood, in Caracas, discuss the creation of an elevator maintenance company that will provide services for the neighborhood. The owners will be the same communal counsels that are creating it and they will be able to count on the technical and financial support of the national government and its institutions Throughout the night, the participants discuss the details of the company they want to create.
“The only thing we know for sure is that the company will be administrated exclusively by the community”, says Darwin Jaimes, member of the counsel Las Palmas 1320. “No government or businessmen can own this company”. Other neighborhoods have the same goal. Since the approval of what are known as the “popular power” laws, in December 2010, a lot of similar initiatives have been registered.
The opposing parties criticize the new model, because it allows the State to give its resources and attributions straight to these neighborhood organizations. In their point of view, those mechanisms empty state and municipal administrations, as well as centralizing more power in the hands of the federal administration.
The people who defend these politics don`t even try to deny that they’re trying to empty the old administrative corps. “We want to fill the country with communes”, says Aristóbulo Istúriz, 66 years old, vice-president of the National Assembly and of PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the main Chavist association. “The bourgeois capitalist state is hierarchical. What’s federal is more important than what belongs to the states, which is more important than what’s municipal, which is more important than what’s local. In that bureaucratic structure people are far from power. Our strategy is to crush this pyramid, to level it.”
According to official figures, there are over 46,000 communes in the country. Each one represents a certain area of a determined neighborhood, which is inhabited by 150 to 400 families, who elect a counsel by popular vote. In the rural area, and among the Indians, the democratic basis is smaller. Apart from discussing local social matters, and the organization of public services, the organism is part of a new economic system. It can create communal companies, as is the case of 23 de Enero, which establish companies in association with businessmen, or form cooperatives. Different communes can articulate themselves to share projects.
The commune, according to the law approved by the parliament, is the new basic unitof the federal State. Recently, with strong resistance from government’s opponents, several instruments of communal collections were regulated — including part of municipal and state taxes, national incomes and service fares. Public equipments of almost all kinds – schools, health centers, playgrounds – can be transferred to the commune’s guardianship.
“We understand decentralization as a way of transferring resources straight to where the problems are, through organized communities”, says Istúriz. “The old concept of representative democracy created bureaucratic stratums of power. Now, we’re creating participation spaces where people live. They don’t feel fragmented; they feel they’re part of the national State.”
The government’s opponents do not appreciate this approach and try to mark any sort of movement that questions representative democracy as an attack to the democratic regime itself. Even though there is a multi-party system in Venezuela, even though there were 13 elections verified by international organizations, and that most of the media is controlled by the right, Chávez’s opponents insist, inside and outside of the country, on portray him as a soft tyrant.
The reactions from these sectors, which are facing an accelerated loss of power, is supported by several entities that orbit around western powerful countries, as well as the governments of some of those countries, starting with the White House. There are noticeable signs of discomfort, especially coming from the United States, with the consolidation of a process that defies the country’s hegemony in Latin America as well as its role onthe delicate matter of the oil-exporting countries.
After all, conservative associations were not only driven away from the national administration. The president, supported by the majority of the parliament and by consecutive victories in the elections, stole from them dominant positions in courtyards, in the armed forces, and in other State spheres. Chávez never hid his intention of leading a political revolution, yet with the compromise of making it in “democratic and pacific way, even though not disarmed” — an allusion to the intention of protecting his country against internal overthrow attempts or foreign threats.
The Venezuelan president referred several times to the downfall of Salvador Allende, the Chilean socialist president from1970 and 1973, as a lesson that should be learned by the left: in order to implement social transformations inside constitutional order, they have to prevent its enemies from appealing to military uprisings or international operations. Allende fell when the armed forces gathered up with right wing parties that were losing voters, and staged a coup d’état led by general Augusto Pinochet. When the same thing happened to Chávez, in April 2002 – he was overthrown by a military coup, incited by the right and by most of the media — he managed to be back in power in 48 hours, thanks to a great popular mobilization and to the reaction of legalist militaries.
The government’s opponents, nevertheless, consider that such changes in State power affect the democratic order and even threaten human rights. No important international institution agrees with these accusations. Venezuela continues to be considered a country that completely respects the rules of democracy. Nor even the OAS (Organization of American States), based in Washington, questions this statement. But that doesn’t seem to keep the anti-Chavist and their allies from fomenting a world campaign to wear out the Bolivarian experience.
Economic and social rights
A history professor and mayor of Caracas during the Fourth Republic (the regime that took place before Chávez came to power, in 1999), Istúriz pedagogically refutes the insinuations that the process led by Chávez was not so democratic. “There are two concepts of democracy, and it’s common that those two visions collide”, he says. “One of them, that hasa liberal origin, is restricted to freedom guarantees and political rights. Is has no social contempt and basically considers the citizen a voter that delegates power to his representatives. We leaped to a wider concept, the participative democracy, which includes the political safeguards, but incorporates economic and social rights, apart from creating institutions that allow citizens’ permanent political action”.
The director of PSUV believes that the idea of participative democracy has been predominant since the Constitution of 1999, which founded the Fifth Republic. He marks a few articles that register this tendency. “In the Constitution of 1961, it was written that sovereignty belonged to the people, who would put it into practice by voting fororganisms of public power”, he says. “The new law went further, saying that sovereignty is not transferable and can be put into practice in an indirect way, through vote, or in a direct way, through the cited mechanisms created to provide popular power”.
Chávez’s enemies accuse him of undermining democratic fundaments, but there’s hardly an institution that was not respected in the last 14 years. The Bolivarians left untouched the mechanisms of representative democracy, but created new decision spaces and spheres not appreciated by the most conservatives.
The truth is that Venezuela does have pretty rare constitutional attributes. Its Constitution predicts referendums and plebiscites that can be called whether by the parliament or by the government, or even by the citizens’ autonomous will, if they can gather 20% of the national voters in a petition. These consultations, besides being imposing and irrevocable, can also interrupt the mandate of parliament members and governors. The president himself faced this possibility, in 2004, but kept his mandate with 60% of the votes.
No country that believes in western democracy has these kinds of rules in its constitutional repertoire. Some analysts interpret these mechanisms, as means of crashing institutions through the use of a plebiscitary fury manipulated by a populist government. To the Chavists, nevertheless, they are weapons the help those who believe in the rupture with the old politics of parliament agreements and accommodation of interests, filtered by state bureaucracy. Even though for all practical purposes it’s all much more confused and out of order, the shock between ideas is real.
This debate, though, is not comfortable for the Venezuelan right. Proposing the reduction of political participation could be a risky decision, especially to parties that want to be seen as democratic champions fighting a supposedly despotic leader. Given the circumstances, the opposition prefers to attack eventual manipulations or restrictions in the implementation of constitutional guarantees.
“There’s no equality of political conditions”, objects Leopoldo Lopez, from Popular Will party, one of the leaders of the Democratic Union Roundtable, a party alliance that supports candidate Henrique Capriles in the presidency dispute. “The use of public resources in the field of communications is tendentious. The game, even though democratic, is unbalanced”.
PSUV, nonetheless, considers these critics a sign that the opposition might be getting ready to put October’s election under suspicion and not recognize its results. In the last few months, in fact, several delegations of the right wing parties travelled to Europe and to the United Stated to share their worries about the appropriateness of the presidential elections, even though the electronic voting system in Venezuela is considered one of the safest in the world. Chávez says repeatedly that he will respect the election’s result, whatever that is. The socialists expect their adversaries to show the same commitment.
Translation: Kelly Cristina Spinelli