VOICEOVER: This is La Vega, one of the many barrios, or poor neighborhoods, positioned precariously on the sloping hills of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.
DAVID DOUGHERTY, CARACAS, VENEZUELA: Like in many urban settlements in Latin America, barrios like La Vega were built from the ground up, mostly by the residents themselves, in the absence of the state. People are proud of the communities they have built, but often encounter problems with basic infrastructure that can make life difficult, and at times dangerous.
ALEXIS ROJAS, COMMUNAL COUNCIL PARTICIPANT, LA VEGA: Here we have seen how not only does the area looks nicer but now there is also a system of water collection that runs the length of the road in the area of our communal council, this has improved our quality of life, water doesn’t leak into the houses now and it avoids the possibilities of landslides…today with this new popular organization we now rely on ourselves the citizens to make decisions in the public policies that do or don’t affect us… here we see behind me that the people from the community are the ones who do the work, and here we are exercising this form of community labor.
VOICEOVER: President Hugo Chavez’s leadership style has been described by critics as authoritarian and top-down oriented, raising questions about who really makes decisions in the communal council model. But many participants like lifelong resident and community organizer of La Vega Freddy Mendoza say that the communal councils constitute a distinct development model that has helped to encourage Venezuela’s poor to lead development initiatives in their communities through processes of self-organization and participatory democracy, addressing decades of neglect from previous governments.
FREDDY MENDOZA, COMMUNAL COUNCIL PARTICIPANT, LA VEGA: Any citizen from any social class can access and form a communal council or commune, they have the right and the duty to participate, this is what we are seeing in Venezuela, the boom of the communal councils in the barrios has come about because we, the poor, were previously not allowed to participate during the governments of the Fourth Republic…it would rain blows on us, from all directions, for us to get a stairwell built we had to endure the blows, for us to get a road built we had to endure the blows, for us to get a good work contract, we had to endure the blows, at the point of police batons, machetes, and teargas. Today we have the organizational instruments, we have empowering laws, like the laws of the communes and communal councils and others,
VOICEOVER: Another example of a communal council project carried out in La Vega is the establishment of a public computer and technological information center in an extra room in the Mendoza family’s home as part of a state’s “infocentro” program, where people can access the Internet, attend computer education workshops, and produce documentaries and community news reports using video editing software. Women constitute the majority of participants in communal council assemblies and elected committee posts, standing at around 60 percent. Thais Rojas of Carretera Negra says the communal councils are empowering women to play a previously unheard of role in public decision-making processes.
THAIS ROJAS, COMMUNAL COUNCIL PARTICIPANT, LA VEGA: Before the only ones who made decisions were the men, why the men? because of the same machista culture in the country that still exists today that said that men were the only ones capable of making decisions…the women see in the communal councils the opportunity to get to know everything they are capable of achieving, because of this the woman has come out of the house, out of the role of only taking care of the children, in order to integrate herself into the council and struggle against all the problems facing her community.
VOICEOVER: The communal councils have been described as the popular motors of the Bolivarian Revolution and Venezuela’s 21st Century Socialism, but they have not grown without their tensions. Some commentators like Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander are critical of a relationship that has developed between the communal councils and the state that he describes as clientelistic.
EDGARDO LANDER, SOCIOLOGIST, CENTRAL UNIVERSITY OF VENEZUELA: We are talking about tensions and contradictions; I think the dominant tendency is a clientelistic relationship, where the state and party structures impose a certain type of uniform logic on the popular sectors, and that this undermines the possibility of autonomy. This is not to say that the struggle for autonomy and self-organization does not exist, and that it does not also exist in part as a consequence of the public policy of this government, because the public policy has gestated, driven, and promoted organizational forms and the people are taking these organizational forms and appropriating them and doing things with them, so it’s not a question of either/or, but it could be said that there does exist a strong tension.
VOICEOVER: Carretera Negra resident and communal council member Freddy Mendoza says there have arisen cases of corruption in some of the councils, and that it is primarily up to community residents themselves, and not just the state, to resolve conflicts and contradictions as they continue developing their new model of participatory democracy.
VOICEOVER: Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski has stated that the communal councils have become overly politicized, and has proposed legislation seeking decentralization. A leaked document allegedly outlining Capriles’ economic policy in the event of a victory in the October 7th elections includes a plan to gradually reduce the transfer of state resources to communal councils for development projects.