Venezuela Lets Councils Bloom

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 17, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Nelly Baric calls herself a Chavista, a die-hard follower of President Hugo Chávez. Roberto Naguanagua doesn't, saying he's an opponent of the populist, nationalist government.

But both Baric and Naguanagua are eagerly participating in one of Chávez's most far-reaching experiments -- community councils that, with money, government consent and popular support, could redraw the way government works in this country. Thousands of councils have been founded nationwide, and they have made decisions on almost everything from trash collection to school construction.

Though no one -- not even Chávez -- has said with certainty just how far community councils will go, many inside and outside government say the idea is to steer Venezuela away from municipal councils and mayors and hand funding and decision-making directly to the people. "If this works, community councils could bury city hall, but something better will be born," said Naguanagua, a teacher who, like Baric, belongs to the council of La Hacienda Maria, in Caracas, Venezuela's capital.

The councils have been buoyed by success stories in some neighborhoods and tarnished by cases of corruption and incompetence in others. But overall, the process of grass-roots decision-making is providing a street-level view into how one of Latin America's more intriguing leaders is trying to bring what he calls "a revolution" to his country.

"Even with the mistakes, the people are emerging, the poorest people, occupying spaces that were occupied before by those blind, hardened classes," José Vicente Rangel, who was replaced as vice president in January, said in an interview. "That is the central point of what is happening in the country."

Some opposition leaders, though, are less certain, suggesting that the councils could be manipulated by a president who already has control of the National Assembly, the judiciary, the state oil company and the country's purse strings.

Leopoldo López, the mayor of the affluent Chacao district of Caracas, said he and others are concerned that the councils are designed to usurp funding and political power from the municipalities, the few remaining entities on the political map where the opposition remains active. He notes that as part of a constitutional reform the president is planning, government specialists have sought to eliminate as many as 200 of the country's 335 municipalities. The focus on community councils could speed that process, he said.

"They want to ensure one government, where the central government controls local government," López said. "They want to eliminate the middle ground, the governorships, the mayors."

Teodoro Petkoff, a left-leaning newspaper editor and a government minister before Chávez came to power, said giving power to the people through community councils could be a "magnificent idea."

But Petkoff, a steady critic of the government in the pages of his irreverent newspaper, Tal Cual, said he does not trust Chávez to permit the councils to function independently. He noted that the Soviets tried a similar experiment, ostensibly to let the people rule directly, but that it failed miserably as party bosses centralized power.

"For me, there's no doubt that a man with such hardened centralized concepts as Chávez will, in a constitutional reform, eliminate any kind of decentralized process," Petkoff said.

Even in the government, some of the more independent-minded thinkers have concerns. Rigoberto Lanz, a sociologist and a top adviser in the Ministry of Science and Technology, said the councils seem to be operating in fits and starts, without a mechanism for making truly big decisions. And while the idea would in theory democratize Venezuela, he said, he wondered whether the councils would not counteract the administration's hold over government.

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