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sábado, marzo 12, 2005

Community Organizing in the Land of Bolívar

Last weekend I traveled to a nearby state, Falcón, to get a firsthand view of some of the local aspects of the “process of change” that are taking place in Venezuela. Together with an English couple, I was invited by Pablo, a Venezuelan guy who is involved in promoting community organizations and cooperatives and also takes interested foreigners around to show them bits of what’s happening on the ground – he’s the sort of person who knows everyone and is involved in a little bit of everything. We left on Friday night, with none of us (save Pablo) having a very clear idea of what we were going to do, but sure it would be interesting.

(All names have been changed to protect the…err, so as not to violate people’s privacy.)

On the Road

We took an overnight bus to Coro, the capital of Falcón. Unfortunately the bus broke down just 3 kilometers outside of Caracas. But a family had set up a table by the highway selling coffee and arepas all night long to truckers and other late-night travelers, so most of us got out and had a bite and chatted for a while.

Pablo (the instigator of our trip) got into a conversation with a young woman who was working at the stand with her family. In the daytime she works as a secretary making a very low wage. Pablo kept talking about the new affordable housing law that’s just come into effect, which provides low-interest loans and government subsidies for low-income homebuyers, saying that now this young secretary can buy a house, something that has previously been far out of reach. In California, of course, it’s also out of reach (certainly for a single woman making near-minimum wage), and when Pablo questioned Karen and Mike, our companions from England, they concurred that it isn’t possible there either.

Pablo was trying to demonstrate how much progress has been made under Chavez – I don’t think the woman he was talking with was a Chavista. But I’m not sure she was persuaded, even if she benefits, that Chavez is doing good. (I had trouble understanding her, and Pablo tends to dominate the conversation.)

Anyway, eventually a repair crew came and fixed the bus, and after much driving and another stop we arrived in Coro. Pablo had arranged for us to stay in a house that the national park service, INPARQUES, keeps for use of its employees (in the city, not in a park). It was about 5 am, and none of us had gotten much sleep in the bus, so we conked out on the beds. But not for long – Pablo got us up at 6:30.

Water Tables

After various stops we drove up to the peninsula of Paraguaná, which has a semi-arid climate and some very interesting terrain – scrub, cactuses and even a small desert of sand dunes, for all that it’s surrounded by the ocean. Our destination was a town called Pueblo Nuevo where a community meeting was being held.

This meeting was a “Community Council” of Hidrofalcón, the state water company. Besides the water company and government representatives, the people there were all participants in their local “Mesas Técnicas de Agua,” which are local groups organized to discuss and address basic problems of access to water in their community. The Community Councils are periodic larger meetings where people from various communities in a region. This one was held in a large hall, with maybe 50 people attending from different towns and municipalities. This whole structure is part of a drive towards community management of the water companies, begun in 1999 shortly after Chavez’s election.

Before the event began, we were introduced to various representatives including the mayor of the municipality. The various communities had previously held their “Mesa Técnica de Agua,” discussing the most urgent problems of water in their area, and now they were coming together to report and offer proposals. The bulk of the meeting involved people from the audience coming up and talking about the problems in their region, which most frequently were houses that simply don’t have running water. Apparently a lot of new houses have been built fairly recently and the construction companies failed to put in water lines. In addition to the MC there was a Hidrofalcón official who would frequently talk after each speaker, discussing what was being done or could be done to address the problems they had raised. I had a lot of trouble understanding the Spanish, especially through the sound system, so I can’t give much more detail. A representative took notes on each speaker’s points on butcher paper; we were hoping to go read it afterwards to get a better idea of what had been said, but they took the butcher paper down right away. Pablo said they were going to write up the notes and we could get a copy, but somehow I doubt it.

Still not clear what is going to happen as a result of this meeting; many people stood and made their denunciations, but how and by whom are these problems being dealt with? Pablo said that in cases where developers built houses without running water, the state will force the construction companies to go back and put water lines in. Not sure how that works. But here is a story about the success of the Mesas in another neighborhood, part of the activist Barrio 23 de Enero in Caracas.

Though the focus of the event was very local and specific, the government tried to connect it to larger water issues. Upon entering everyone received a folder that included an article on “Water and the FTAA” (we also got a miniature copy of Venezuela’s constitution.) And near the end a representative talked about the FTAA, about water struggles in Bolivia, and about water privatization worldwide, calling on everyone to mobilize to prevent our water from being privatized.

ANROS Encuentro

The next day we went to another event in the Sierra de San Luis, the mountains just south of Coro. This was a gathering put together by Anros, the organization Pablo works for, in order to strengthen community organizations and their participation in local government.

The event was held in what I think was the high school auditorium, with 40 or 50 people present. To kick it off everyone stood and sang the national anthem – I’ve gotta learn that. Actually it’s the first time I’ve heard it sung; I saw played it on TV once, very late at night, with an accompanying video montage of the country.

Anyway, after that was a brief discussion of the purpose of today’s meeting. Integral to the 1999 Constitution is the right and responsibility of citizens to participate in collective government. As municipalities, as communities, as a people, (they said) we’re going to retake this law. We’re here today to learn, with the help of Anros, how to organize grassroots organizations, and to design strategies for construction of a community government.

They did a shout-out of what municipalities folks were from, and there were 10 represented out of (I believe) 26 in the region. Next we went into a history of Anros.

Anros is a national organization, formed after the approval of the 1999 constitution, working to build grassroots organizations to address political and social issues, to help build participatory governments at the local level, to bring organizations around the country together into a unifying force, and to defend and advance the Bolivarian revolution (that is to say, it’s Chavista).

From their literature, Anros is working to revitalize the grassroots and to weave all the small organizations, from Bolivarian circles on up, into a united force, part of a new social fabric, a powerful political/social network. This work, they say, is essential to the process of change in the country, the revolution cannot succeed without it. Their vision is of thousands of networks and organizations throughout Latin America all tied together in a unified confederation/network/central.

The principles that Anros deems essential to community organizations/networks are: independence from political parties, businesses, or other organizations; representation; participation; horizontal structure and governance; interactivity, meaning being proactive not just reactive; stability, and a structure to ensure it; organic linkage to the community; and flexibility. In this discussion they particularly emphasized participation and horizontality. There is an important concept in the new Constitution and political thought called “co-responsibility”; I’m still learning about it, but among other things it means that all citizens, not just select government employees, are responsible for implementing the constitution and the laws (in a social sense, not a legal one; it doesn’t imply vigilantism.)

There were a few sayings which particularly stuck out for me:
  • “We are passing from representative democracy to participatory democracy.”
  • “We look to the dreams of Simón Rodriguez, Zamorra, and Bolívar – one unified América. ‘For us the homeland is América’” (that last is a quote from Bolívar)
  • “[The aim of] a revolution is to elevate the quality of life.”

Building Community Councils

We then moved to discussing the rationale and mechanics of building community councils. There is, many people agree, a contradiction within the current “revolution”; its leaders have won the electoral power, but the structure of government, its ministries and the civil service, are still the old bureaucracy, inertial, nonparticipatory and corrupt. The missions are part of the effort to change this, but more is needed to achieve true participatory democracy, “We’ve won the government, but the power must be with the people,” said a speaker.

Another emphasized what public participation in local government really means, and why an organized community council is essential. “Participation is influencing the decision, not just signing a letter to the mayor.” When I think of how many letter, petitions, emails I’ve signed…and they’re right, it’s not participation when they’re under no obligation to take notice of what I write. At best that’s lobbying; at worst, simply a waste of paper.

And why should a citizen in a democracy have to lobby their own representative? Shouldn’t there be more direct channels for participation? And I mean for everyone, not just the handful of people who serve on advisory boards and so forth. (Of course, part of the problem for us as for them is convincing people to participate…but I think folks are a lot more willing if they know their participation is meaningful.)

The mechanism Anros is proponing to move toward the goal is “community government.” In community governments, “…people of each neighborhood decide priorities of development and build organized power, with the objectives of improving living conditions and relations between neighbors.” In the structural diagram they showed us (via laptop and projector), a community government council is in the center, linked to a variety of community institutions: cooperatives, the church, neighborhood associations, schools, Land Committee, Health Committee, sports clubs, Bolivarian Circles, and others. From what I understood, community councils need to be registered formally before the law, which Bolivarian Circles aren’t; most community organizations now are not legally constituted (and this is an impediment to competing with the opposition which has thousands of registered NGOs).

For today’s meeting, the goal was to establish a basic agreement and a plan of work (to do what exactly, I’m not sure.) In closing, one of the initial speakers said, “Dreams cease being dreams when we put dates and goals to them! That’s what we’re here to do.”

Easy to Say, But…

But to achieve community councils is not easy. One of the major challenges they’re facing in getting started is interference or resentment from established local governments. In a way the community councils seem to be a parallel governance structure, and naturally the mayors and city councils don’t want to cede their power. A speaker from a municipality that began building a community council in 2002 emphasized that you need to start from the base – rather than the mayor trying to impose his or her ideas on it from above, or creating a community council by decree. He also discussed budgetary issues in some detail, and summed it up with, “This is our experience, I hope you will learn from our mistakes!”

The other big obstacle is the present-day weakness of community organizations in Venezuela. A translated passage from Anros reads:

’Organize’ appears to be the magic word that torments Venezuelan revolutionaries, in these days of confrontation with the counterrevolutionary opposition. To organize the people and the diverse sectors that fight for, suppose, or show enthusiasm for the revolution in progress and to consolidate and advance the process of change are the two most urgent tasks of the Venezuelan revolutionary process. But how to do it?

Organize is a verb easy to pronounce but difficult to apply in social practice, more so now that the instruments on which it depends, parties, labor unions, guilds, neighborhood associations, etc. are obsolete, decadent or have lost their historical relevance, and are rejected by the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans who do not actively participate in them.

In some ways it looks as if the Venezuelan left is facing a problem very similar to that which plagues North American unions and the U.S. left: How to organize people? How to build grassroots organizations that are real participants? But of course there are many differences between the Venezuelan project and that of the U.S., one of the chief being that the Venezuelan government is actively promoting grassroots organizing and community participation in local government. And, of course, the U.S. is a Northern country, the Northern country, the belly of the beast, while Venezuela, oil-rich though it may be, is part of the global South. But even though we are operating under divergent conditions, I think folks in the U.S. may have a lot to learn from Venezuelan efforts.

After a lunch break (arepas of course) they broke down into two groups and started to get into the nitty-gritty details. Unfortunately I missed most of that. But a couple interesting tidbits: one woman in the small group sessions said she views Anros “like a papa, that gives us support.” And another man spoke eloquently on the need for community government, declaring, “I don’t believe in political parties. I believe in the people that came out on the 13th of April…” (that being the day when Chavez was restored to power after the short-lived coup of 2002.)

Instead of taking the bus back, we hitched a ride with a friend of Pablo’s who was headed our direction. Along the way we stopped for a coco frio, which is a hollowed-out coconut filled with coconut-flavored water. It’s a popular drink, though personally I prefer water-flavored water. (It didn’t help that I’d spent the drives up and down San Luis trying not to be motion sick.) We got back to Caracas late Sunday night with lots to think about.


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