Venezuelan government encourages communities to organize communal councils
By Ewam Robertson
Mérida, 29th May 2014 – The Venezuelan government and commune movement are taking steps to move towards the creation of what is referred to as a “communal state”, which involves community organisations assuming collective control of local production and decision making.
Communes in Venezuela are formed out of groups of community councils, which are small neighbourhood organisations representing 250-400 families – where local residents organise to develop their local community and run community affairs. They can also receive public funds to undertake a variety of projects in their area.
Communes themselves are created when an election of local residents is held to select spokespeople from each community council in a given area to form a communal parliament, which has different sub committees and covers community affairs over a larger territorial zone. The commune can then take on larger scale tasks and responsibilities than individual community councils. They can also register with the Ministry of Communes, which makes them eligible to apply for public funding for productive, educational, cultural, infrastructure or other development projects.
40,000 communal councils and 600 communes
There are currently around 40,000 communal councils and 600 communes registered in the country, with more communes currently in the process of formation.
Over the past year and a half the Bolivarian government has stepped up efforts to encourage citizens to organise themselves into communes. This coincided with a speech that late former president Hugo Chavez made in October 2012, criticising the lack of progress in establishing communes in the country, and the appointment of Reinaldo Iturriza as minister of communes by President Nicolas Maduro last April.
Some of the main ideas behind the creation of communes expressed by activists and commune ministry figures are for local communities to play a greater role in productive activities such as agriculture, and for communities to play a greater role in local decision-making and administration.
Presidential Council of communal governance
Earlier this month, President Maduro created a Presidential Council of Communal Governance to act as a direct link between the government and communes and to receive proposals from communes on how government policy can better support communal development.
“You make the proposals, I’ll articulate them with policies, and you send me the criticisms about the shortcomings of the Bolivarian government. Long live grassroots criticism, let’s learn to grow from criticism, let’s not fear the truth, that’s Hugo Chavez’s method,” said Maduro to 10,000 communards (commune members) in Caracas upon making the announcement.
Governmental support to agriculture marketing and distribution
Another announcement was that authorities will distribute 980 cargo trucks to communes in order to support their productive and agricultural activities. This will help local farmers transport their goods to markets without expensive private sector middlemen charging speculative rates for the service, which drives up the prices of food and reduces farmers’ incomes.
Press also reported that Maduro agreed to a meeting with communards to examine difficulties for communal enterprises in issues such as investments and sales, in order to resolve these issues with presidential law-making powers.
Various other commune meetings are planned for June such as a national communal productive fair. There is also a proposal to be debated soon in the Federal Government Council for the transfer of some competencies of local government to the communes.
Dameris Herrera, a spokesperson of the Orinoquia commune in eastern Venezuela, told media her impression of the announcements. “He [Maduro] is saying that yes we can, especially in the transfer of powers, because we can be the administrators of many things that are being done at the level of the constituted power [local representative governance], and as the constituent power [direct participatory governance]; we have this responsibility,” she said.
Commune movement organising around the country
Meanwhile, communards have been meeting around the country on an independent basis to better organise their movement and present the government with their proposals and requirements for development.
In the Andean town of Mesa Bolivar, Mérida state, some 600 communards representing over 50 communes in the region gathered last weekend to discuss how communes can combat what they describe as an on-going “economic war” against the country’s Bolivarian revolution.
“The aim of this meeting is to reflect, debate and design actions against the economic war, in the areas of supply and revolutionary auditing [of distribution and sales], and in the area of production and socio economic projects,” said Alonso Rua, a member of the Communard Council of Mérida, to Venezuelanalysis.com.
The gathered activists, displaying a range of ages and backgrounds, many of whom were rural workers, met for an open air assembly in the town centre. They then held working groups on security, the economy, communication, and political education. Youth activists met in a separate meeting to discuss issues specific to them.
The more general aim of the meeting, the seventh of its kind over the past year, was to tighten links between commune activists and to advance the organisation of their movement toward goals of local self-management and production.
“What do we want with all this? First, self government, so that we are our own governors. That is to say, truly realise what the constitution says, which is a true democracy,” said Luis Pimental, a high school teacher and member of a commune near Lake Maracaibo, to VA.com.
The communard continued, “When talk began about communes, I was skeptical, and I asked myself, 'Are we really prepared for this?' Yet with what I’ve seen, I’ve realised that yes, there are a lot of people [in the commune movement] with a lot of knowledge, who have been making a valuable contribution”.
However, some communards warn that beyond the presidency and ministry of communes, many public institutions and figures have been resistant to recognising the growth and potential of the country’s commune movement.
Conflict with bureaucracy in state institution
“We continue coming up against a bureaucracy that is present within state institutions, that on many occasions doesn’t allow the community’s proposals to be attended,” said Betty Vargas of a commune in the city of Mérida. Her commune is currently planning to establish a new community run higher education centre in a semi-rural zone near the city.
Nevertheless the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) governor of Mérida state, two local mayors, and representatives of the national government and state institutions were present at the meeting in Mesa Bolivar.
During the open air assembly, the National Land Institute handed three communes new land titles as part of a policy to transfer land to communal organisations for the development of their productive and agricultural projects. One of the communes, India Caribay, plans to plant crops, fruits, and construct a fruit processing plant with public financing.
Liskeila Gonzalez, a youth member of the commune, told VA.com of the importance of such projects for the community. “I want the commune to achieve the creation of the farm and fruit processor. In the end, it’s the communities around India Caribay that will benefit, and if a person is in need, the fund [from production] will be there to help them,” she said.
She added, “In the commune we all take part in decision-making. There aren’t bosses, a president, anything like that. We’re all equal and we all work the same”.
A similar meeting of communards was held on the same weekend in the eastern state of Monagas, where reportedly hundreds of communards from 39 communes met.
Further, a national meeting of the independent National Communard Network is set to take place this weekend in Lara state in the west of the country. At least 3,000 are expected to attend, where discussions will take place to further advance communal organisation.