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Venezuela Lets Councils Bloom
Critics Say Chávez Backs Local Bodies to Boost Central Control

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.

"It's a metaphor that may not mean a lot or, on the contrary, may mean the progressive empowerment of the people," Lanz said. "But there could be an immediate clash with a counter-logic that is culturally and structurally in place, and that's the logic of the state. Meaning, all the people power is automatically in an anti-state orientation."

In the neighborhoods, it's hard to find anything but bubbling enthusiasm for the councils.

Council members are elected, and each oversees a committee that concerns itself with an issue such as education or health care or youth services. When big decisions are made, they must be put before a neighborhood assembly of residents, representing on average about 400 families. The state provides funding for a wide range of projects.

Organizers are often fervent, using the language of populist revolution when explaining the inner workings of the councils.

"Our job is to end poverty in all its forms, to contribute to the strengthening of the Bolivarian Revolution based in the thinking of El Comandante Chávez," said Rodrigo Tovar, one such council organizer. "Our job is to take the message to the most humble and needy people, and that message is to take happiness to the people."

For Venezuelans in poor barrios -- who felt excluded under the corrupt power-sharing system that ended with Chávez's election in 1998 -- the community councils are a means of empowerment. A December survey released by Latinobarometro, a Chilean polling firm, found that in all of Latin America, only Uruguayans had a more favorable view of their democratic institutions than Venezuelans.

Nancy Peralta, 44, is among those who have reveled in their new responsibilities in a community council. Her job is to assist sick or incapacitated residents of her neighborhood, ensuring that they know which hospitals or clinics offer certain services, for example.

"I move around!" she said with a broad smile. "I run and run. I'm even getting a little sick myself. I have bad knees. There's so much marching around in this revolution."

Peralta works in Sucre, a sprawling district of Caracas that claims to have more community councils than any other municipality in the country. One of the biggest council backers here is José Vicente Rangel Avalos, son of the former vice president and the mayor of Sucre. He said city governments will continue to provide services even as community councils expand. But he foresees change -- and welcomes it.

"That you have to reassess institutions -- of course you have to reassess," he said. "Why? Because they were created so many years ago in Venezuela. The city halls go all the way back to the colonial era."

The idea of change goes over well on the far eastern side of Caracas, in the neighborhood called La Hacienda Maria.

On a hill overlooking the city, a dozen residents who had just finished work sat around in plastic chairs recently, talking about governing. Baric, who once worked for a big U.S. company but now is heavily involved in community work, ran the meeting with precision.

The chatter was hardly revolutionary -- on this night it was about how to get neighbors to pick up after their dogs and how to ensure no one is hurt by monkeys that somehow got loose. But there was also talk about a sports complex the group wanted to build and about managing a bank that would provide loans for all manner of projects.

"Things are working," said Lusitania Borges, a council member. "The government gave power to the people so they can channel their concerns and resolve problems. These are problems that were never fixed by mayors, [municipal] council members and governors. What happened before was nothing but pure bureaucracy."

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