Venezuela’s Participatory Socialism

Venezuela’s construction of “21st-century socialism” is a unique experiment in the annals of history. It contrasts sharply with previous socialist experiences where the state seized control of the means of production and the revolutionary party dominated the political system, running the society from the top down. The core of the Venezuelan originality lies in its commitment to participatory democracy, the exercise of power from the community level. As Hugo Chávez proclaimed in his inaugural address to a new term in January 2007, “pure socialism has to be rooted in communal power, the communal councils.”

Abroad and at home, opponents characterize Chávez’s call for socialism as simply the project of an authoritarian leader who wants to tighten his hold on power. But this ignores the fact that the origins of Chávez’s political persona lay in a popular rebellion, the Caracazo of 1989, when tens of thousands of people from the outlying slums of Caracas descended on the center of the city where the rich lived, throwing the existent political order into crisis. Chávez was appalled when the army was ordered to fire on the demonstrators, killing hundreds, and it was after this that he started organizing the military coup that failed in 1992. Given the broad popular hostility towards the two main political parties that dominated the government, there was significant support for Chávez when he was released from prison in 1994. Between 1989 and 1998 there were over 6,000 protests against political and economic conditions in Venezuela (López Maya 2005: 90). Chávez’s election in 1998 reflected this broad popular discontent as he promised to “refound” the country’s institutions to create a more humane society.

The transformations of the past eight years have all been carried out in tandem with the popular classes.1 This is why the “Bolivarian Revolution” has triumphed and moved forward in ten elections and referendums, as well as defeating a coup attempt and an economic shutdown orchestrated by domestic and international adversaries.2 The virulent offensive of the upper classes to maintain their privileges has only encouraged the mobilization of the historically marginalized sectors to defend their recent conquests and demand further changes in the status-quo. And this mobilization from below has been embraced by a government that is committed to building a more equal and a truly democratic society based on solidarity.

The Bolivarian commitment to participatory democracy reflects a rejection of the liberal reduction of democracy to only formal institutions of representation. Consequently, the process of transformation in Venezuela has concentrated on the local level (i.e., within communities and workplaces) where direct participation in decision-making is more easily implemented.

A new stage in the Bolivarian revolution has begun — we have to “transcend, to go beyond the local,” Chávez stated in a speech at the swearing in of the Presidential Commission for Constitutional Reform and Communal Power on January 17, 2007. Along with an expansion of participatory democracy, an educational campaign is underway to advance socialist values; legislation has been passed to enhance control over the inherited state apparatus as well as national resources; and a new political party committed to Bolivarian socialism is being founded. Many problems and conflicts will undoubtedly emerge as the Bolivarian process unfolds, but these new undertakings mark a fresh approach in the struggle for socialism.

From Humanized Capitalism to Participatory Socialism

On the weekly television program Hello President in February 2006, Chávez first proposed to Venezuelans that the Bolivarian Revolution ought to “construct a new Socialism of the 21st Century” in order to achieve its goals of building a more humane, egalitarian and just society that prioritizes humans needs and not those of capital. Until then, the strategy had been to humanize capitalism. Both the spaces for citizens’ direct participation in public administration as well as socio-economic programs, or “Missions,”3 were viewed as parallel to and complementing the regular functioning of state institutions. It was believed that domestic capitalists would be willing to give up some of their privileges and form part of a “strategic alliance” together with the state and the social economy for the advancement of a nationalist project (Lanz 2004).

But the coup and the bosses’ strike of December 2002-February 2003 showed that collaboration with the propertied and privileged elites was impossible. This, together with the limits of the missions in solving the most pressing problems of Venezuelan society, forced the government to publicly acknowledge that a humanist logic clashes with capitalism’s logic of profit-maximization. “Capitalism can’t be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice,” stated Chávez in his closing speech of the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Deeper changes were needed to prevent the emergent islands of cooperation from being corrupted by capitalist values and practices as well as to secure the resources and environment necessary for their consolidation.

It has been clear from the beginning that the socialism Venezuelans are trying to build is not inspired by the state-centered and authoritarian version of the former Soviet Union but by experiences of self-government like the Paris Commune (Wilpert 2006; Lebowitz 2005). As Chávez noted at the 2005 World Social Forum, the socialism of the 21st century should be “a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.” In a non-orthodox reading of Marx’s work, the satisfaction of humans’ needs for all-round development is seen to be at the core of his conception of communism — “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx & Engels 1848: 115).

The Bolivarian Constitution — drafted by a Constituent Assembly and approved by the voters in a referendum in 1999 — guarantees the “overall human development” of Venezuelan citizens (Bolivarian Constitution, Article 299). More importantly, the constitution recognizes the centrality of participatory practice, not only as a tool of inclusiveness, but also as a learning process that allows individuals to develop the capacities and attitudes necessary to break with psychological and ideological barriers that limit human development. Article 62 states that “the participation of the people in the formation, execution and control of public matters is the means necessary to accomplish the protagonism (protagonismo) that will guarantee their complete development, both as individuals and collectively.” This focus on human development as a process and participatory democracy as a means for achieving it is a central component of Bolivarian socialism.

The Chávez government’s pledge to advance the revolutionary process through radical democratic means can be explained by its resolve to construct a society that allows Venezuelans to become protagonists or subjects and not just objects of the transformation. It is recognized that Venezuelans will develop the capacities and attitudes necessary for socialism only through practice. Like many theorists of democratic socialism, the Bolivarian process asserts that solidarity and collective action are possible because humans’ behavior is largely determined by their past experiences, and institutions can be designed to facilitate rather than to penalize cooperation (Bowles & Gintis 1986; Albert & Hahnel 1990). The establishment in Venezuela of the political, economic and social structures of the Socialism of the 21st Century is an attempt to advance the Bolivarian Constitution by reconfiguring institutions and thus individuals’ activities according to the principles of equality and solidarity.

New Spaces for Participatory Democracy at the Local Level: Communal Councils

Since the approval of the new constitution by 70 percent of the Venezuelan electorate in 1999 and the passage of a package of 49 laws in December 2001, public decision-making has been decentralized. Space was opened up for direct participation: citizens can initiate petitions, and they have the right to conduct audits of state institutions, to revoke the mandate of any elected official,4 and to co-nominate candidates to the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Council and other government posts. But it wasn’t until April 2006, when the Law of Communal Councils was passed by the National Assembly, that an effort to create an institution for local self-government took shape.

An earlier attempt to institutionalize citizens’ direct participation in local public administration had been launched in June 2002 with the Local Public Planning Councils (Consejos Locales de Planificación Pública — CLPP). Inspired by Porto Alegre’s experience with participatory budgeting, its aim was to allow citizens to participate in the allocation of public funds and to control the implementation of public works. Fifty percent plus one of council members were to be elected among candidates from their own communities, with the remainder being appointed by municipal authorities (Article 3 of the CLPP law). But although the law demanded that all 335 municipal governments create the councils before a six-month deadline (October 12, 2002), very few were actually established. Also, because the municipal government had the ultimate say in their operation, most CLPPs functioned undemocratically, often subservient to the verticalist and clientelist practices of local governments and traditional parties (Wagner 2004a/b/c; Fuentes 2005).

These planning councils had been perceived in article 182 of the Bolivarian Constitution as part of a national system of participatory planning where representatives of the communities and members of the municipal government would exercise a form of co-government. But it soon became clear that the institutions of representation were not ready for direct citizen participation and that the municipality was not the most appropriate level for it. Indeed, due to Venezuela’s unplanned geopolitical organization, some municipalities have populations of up to a million, making direct participation virtually impossible.

It was fundamentally from this realization that a new institution for participatory democracy emerged. “Communal councils” — as well as parish (parroquia) councils — were referred to in Article 8 of the law of CLLPs as “the principal center for the participation and protagonism of the people in the formulation, execution, control and evaluation of public policies, as well as for the organized community to put forward ideas and proposals in front of the Local Public Planning Council.” But even though the planning councils were expected to promote the creation of communal and parish councils, only a couple of municipal governments took the initiative of creating such institutions for autonomous decision-making.

Inspired by these few experiments of local self-government, especially the one in the municipality of Cumaná (in the Sucre parish), the Law of Communal Councils was passed in 2006. It sets up guidelines for the creation of an institution that is identified as the “building block” of a democratic, self-managed state, or “non-state,” that would characterize Venezuela’s Socialism of the 21st Century. According to Ronald Denis, a long-time political organizer in the barrios of Caracas and a former Vice-Minister for Local Planning, the communal councils are also inspired by the European experience with workers’ councils in the early 20th century. In Venezuela, there are also antecedents in the Neighborhood Assemblies (Asambleas de Barrio) organized by the communities themselves in some parts of Caracas during the 1989 Caracazo and its aftermath. (Denis 2006).

To ensure effective participation, the law states that each communal council is to be comprised of between 200 and 400 families in urban areas, more than 20 in rural areas, and as few as ten families in indigenous communities. The diminutive size of the councils is intentional according to Julio Fermín, the director of a 25-year-old non-profit center that advises and works with community organizations: “Based on past experience with community organizing in Venezuela under Chávez, it was found that with 200 families, people don’t have to rely on public transportation to attend the assemblies. It becomes more of a neighborhood meeting and people feel their voices can be heard more readily. People believe they have a real stake in an assembly and the council when the numbers are limited” (Interview, March 2007).

To set up a communal council, those interested in its creation form a provisional commission of “promoters” to organize the first meeting. In that gathering (for which the quorum is approximately ten percent of community-members over the age of 15), a new commission of promoters and an electoral commission are elected. The new promoters are in charge of preparing for the constitutive assembly, conducting a census and drawing up a map of the community. In the constitutive assembly, which must be attended by no less than twenty percent of residents over the age of 15, community members elect their spokespersons (voceros) to thematic working commissions, which are also decided on by the community depending on its needs. Five-member financial5 and “social control” (or public auditing) units are also elected by the assembly. Once the communal council is officially founded, the assembly meets to conduct a “participatory diagnostic” of the community’s problems and the resources it has for solving them. The councils are empowered to undertake any kind of activities such as housing, education, sports, or communications projects, forming cooperatives, supervising health care facilities. In addition, the councils can also set policing and criminal policies for delinquency, drug and family abuse.

Communal councils are inspiring many Venezuelans to exert their right and duty to participate in local decision-making. María Luisa Vásquez, a middle-aged woman who has been organizing under Chávez since he became president, captured the new spirit of participants in the communal councils: “We have spent many years in different efforts and organizations to advance the Bolivarian revolution. We have worked hard, many of us have neglected our own families, and we have all had our share of failures as well as successes. But the communal councils have given us a new hope. I sense that for the first time, we have the real possibility of taking control of our lives, of creating a real democracy from below that can excite and motivate apathetic Venezuelans.” (Interview, March 2007)

Initially, there were concerns about whether the attempt to bring together the different actors and organizations that already existed in the communities would create in-fighting around claims of deserved leadership and resources. But in most cases there was none, or only short-lived disagreements (Fox 2006). Community organizations soon realized that they can only influence the decision-making process if their members participate in the communal councils. There is also little conflict because, as members of the same community, they have very similar understandings of their own problems.

While the main impetus for the formation of the communal councils is coming from those who support Chávez’s call for socialism, there is no political test or discrimination as to who can establish the councils. In Caracas and elsewhere a number of councils comprised of opponents of the government have been set up and have received funding. But rather than seeing this as a threat, it is believed that communal councils can serve to change the minds of some people in the opposition who don’t relate to Chávez’s charisma and militaristic style. According to Marta Harnecker, who has worked with the Ministry for Participation and Social Development (Ministerio de Participación y Desarrollo Social — MINPADES) on the promotion of the communal councils, to politicize the councils would be a “grave mistake” because that would exclude “many people who are not Chavistas.” Harnecker added: “participation itself can politicize people” and “win people over to this project” (Fuentes 2005). Although the mainstream media has portrayed Chávez as a polarizer, the Bolivarian process is a very inclusive one. Indeed, even after the winning the referendum in 2005, Chávez called on the opposition to join the social transformation process (Wilpert 2005).

In August 2006, only a couple of months after the communal council law was passed, there were 14,655 councils nationwide, encompassing almost a fourth of the country’s population (Barbereni 2006). According to the Ministry of Popular Participation and Social Development, in late May 2007 there were 18,320 registered councils, and another 5,000 were finishing the registration process (MINPADES 2007a). Seeking both to promote the communal councils and to transfer resources to the communities, the Presidential Commission for Communal Power (in charge of drafting the law of communal councils) has also been handing out grants for social projects decided on by the councils’ assemblies. In December 2006, 12,000 councils had received $1 billion Bs. out of a total national budget of $53 billion Bs. (FIDES, 2007).6 For 2007, it is planning to deliver $6 billion Bs. (MINPADES, 2007a).

Although there is no limit in the law, councils generally receive $30,000 Bs. per project, which is not much — only enough for a modest street-paving. But the idea is that councils can also gather resources from their own communities, and residents can volunteer their labor to reduce costs. In municipalities where the mayors are committed to supporting the communal councils, they can provide them with technical expertise for the design of projects as well as resources like construction machinery. Councils can also apply for funding to their municipal and regional governments and other public institutions.

The most important criticism of communal councils relates to their direct relationship with the national executive. It is argued that the guidelines used to fund projects are not clear and that this nontransparent decision-making can lead to clientelism. Which community projects are funded by the Presidential Commission for Communal Power, is determined by an unelected group of persons appointed by the president. This can generate a dependence that undermines the councils’ autonomy. Indeed, in a national meeting of communal councils in March 2007, they called for the Presidential Commission to be elected by the base.

The opposition has argued that Chávez may oppose the creation of such an autonomous institution because it would undermine his authoritarian proclivities. But this position ignores Chávez’s long commitment to “empowering the people” as put forward in his Bolivarian Agenda of 1995. And this pledge has been implemented with the promotion of other autonomous community organizations such as the land and water committees, as well as cooperatives. According to Denis (2006), the direct relationship between the presidency and the communal councils shows that although ideally it would be preferable to have a network of councils at different levels, it has not been possible to do so because it takes time; and it’s also because the intermediate levels of government often do not provide support for the councils.

The specific rules governing the communal councils have yet to be written. In Venezuela, each major law, like the one for the communal councils, requires specific rules and regulations. Only recently the Presidential Commission for Communal Power has begun to discuss a draft, although without an open debate. Many argue that rules are urgently needed so that in addition to clarifying the procedures for decision-making (minimum quorum for assemblies, for example), legal sanctions can be taken against those who misuse funds that belong to the communities. Indeed, although the law ensures that both its financial unit and its controller unit (which has semi-autonomous powers to oversee spending) are elected by the assembly, there have been some cases where the local communal bank has managed and spent the funds without the assembly’s consent.

Although the new constitution recognizes the responsibility of the state to take an active role in guaranteeing the rights of all Venezuelans, another concern with the communal councils is that they could be used to dismantle the state and the protections it provides. Critics argue that the state shouldn’t pass on to the communities public service projects such as street paving, the construction of garbage dumps, bus stops, sports facilities, etc. In our view, these are indeed responsibilities of the state. On the other hand, it is widely agreed that the participation of the communities in the design, implementation and supervision of these projects ensures both their effectiveness and efficiency. Community members themselves know better than anyone what they need, and can closely control the execution of projects to ensure their quality.

Most importantly, the participation of the communities in these projects allows them to learn important skills such as project design and management, as well as how society works. This knowledge and these skills generate in community members feelings of self-worth, self-confidence, pride and autonomy that are crucial for their effective participation in decision-making. Moreover, through their involvement in the councils, community members can realize that there are others with similar or more difficult problems who deserve more help than they do. Communal councils are schools not only for democracy but also for solidarity because they promote a collective consciousness among community members who participate.7

Changing the State from Inside and Outside

The experience of the communal councils has already shown members that in many cases the support of the local and regional governments is necessary to make their tasks much easier, especially when undertaking more complex projects. According to Luis Lander, a noted political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela, the biggest problem that communal councils are facing is that, although the Chávez government tries to provide them with technical assistance teams, “there are not enough skilled and qualified people to go around to advise and work with the rapidly burgeoning communal council movement” (Interview, March 2007). Also, the failure of the CLPPs has created an understanding that if the existing state institutions are not transformed, they will most likely undermine the communal councils rather than promoting them.

Since the discovery of oil in Venezuela in the early 20th century, the county has a history of corrupt governments, elitist and sectarian political parties, and bureaucracies that have served the aristocracies and the bourgeoisie, not the poor. Under the Chávez government, in spite of early legislation attempting to make public administration more transparent and accountable, the state ministries and bureaucracies remain largely dysfunctional and are riddled with clientelism and corruption. Until recently, it was believed that new institutions parallel to the existent state apparatus could be built and that they could eventually replace it. The missions, which bypassed existing ministries, are a clear example. But it soon became clear that the duplication of functions led to inefficiencies and that the missions were replicating some of the same problems the ministries had.

Soon after Chávez’s reelection in December 2006, a new strategy to transform the inherited state institutions started to take shape. It recognizes that change has to come not only from outside through the pressure exerted by new participatory institutions but also from within the current bureaucracies. This meant changing the legal framework, even rewriting some of the laws established in the first years of the Bolivarian revolution. As Chávez explained in a speech during the swearing in of the Presidential Commissions for Constitutional Reform and Communal Power on January 17, 2007, many laws like the agrarian reform law (Ley de Tierras) “have to be revised to meet the new exigencies that have emerged and the new needs of deepening and accelerating the agrarian revolution.” He added: “There were many others, even some of the enabling laws that were poisoned with elements that neutralized the development of the revolution.” According to Chávez, members of the executive branch will be working on a proposal for the reform of some articles of the constitution (none about principles or individual rights, as the opposition has claimed) that will be submitted to the National Assembly for debate and then taken to a referendum later this year. Also, new laws for the police, for social control (or supervising) of public administration, among others, will be drafted.

Confederation of Communal Councils

It is anticipated that the transformation of the state will also come from the communal councils as they consolidate on a regional and national basis. In his inauguration speech in January 2007, Chávez expressed his hope that by the beginning of 2008 the communal councils would have enough density so there would be “communal territories,” and that by April 2010 (the bicentenary of Bolivar’s independence declaration from Spain) a “communal power” would have been established through a national confederation of communal councils. MINPADES estimates that between 30,000 and 50,000 councils would have to be set up to provide a minimal grid of communal governance for the country (MINPADES 2007a).

A few cases of neighboring communal councils coming together to make decisions about common problems already occurred before Chávez’s call for communal territories. For example, in the Sucre parish the “Unified Bloc of Communal Councils” was created bringing together several communal councils. The Chávez government has encouraged the articulation of the councils by offering greater funding to projects put forward by more than one council.

Members of the new communal councils are also holding ad hoc joint meetings in which they learn from each other. In March 2007, in a poorer barrio of Caracas in the San Juan parish, a workshop comprised of about forty participants from eighteen different communal councils met to discuss the problems they face. Most of the participants were young or middle aged, and over two-thirds were women. The participants wasted little time making rhetorical statements, focusing on the common issues they confronted in the councils and the community at large, and how to come up with solutions. Participants talked in particular about bureaucratic difficulties, such as how to confront the mayor’s office and government agencies that were not providing the support they promised.

In his January 17, 2007 speech, Chávez explained that the idea of “federations” of communal councils and the “confederation” at the national level reflects “a new concept of decentralization.” At the regional level, the communal councils will be able to organize in a more rational way than the existing municipal and provincial governments (which are a potpourri of different sizes with diverse interests and identities) by redistributing political power according to population density. The idea is that federations of communal councils will create their own political subdivisions or “socialist cities,” based on a “new, revolutionary concept of the city.”

Many supporters of the communal councils have called for the dismantling of all representative institutions. However, Chávez has made clear that local and regional governments will not be eliminated, at least in the near future. At the same time, communal councils “are not to be subordinated to the mayor or to any other government entity.” He has rejected the idea of limiting the councils to being participatory appendages of bureaucratic institutions. Denis (2006) suggests that the “communal power” and “constituted power” (i.e., the bureaucracies of state institutions and political parties) are dual powers from which a new synthesis could eventually emerge in the shape of a truly democratic state. Exactly how this synthesis will occur is not yet clear. But it is recognized that there needs to be some kind of coordination between different levels of decision-making. Funds previously going to municipal governments that were distributed according to a development plan now go directly to the communities without any planning. It is argued that representative institutions at the municipal and regional levels are still necessary to advise and implement development plans that reduce regional inequalities and the inefficient allocation of resources.

Although there is a proposal to eliminate the planning councils (CLPPs), an improved version of them might be necessary precisely for these reasons. Moreover, communal councils also need to coordinate their activities with productive sectors. Denis recommends creating another type of council that brings together communal councils and workers or factory councils — the “self–management” councils.

Promoting Socialist Values: The “Moral y Luces”8 Campaign

Beyond the question of how to articulate the organs of direct participation with those of representation in order to create a truly democratic state, there is the challenge of changing Venezuelans’ values so that they act for the greater good and not just for their narrow interests. The successful transformation of the state requires that the changes coming from inside and outside are guided by the socialist ideals of equality and solidarity. As Luis Lander explains, “the challenges are many. The struggle for communal democracy is by no means guaranteed to succeed. Unless there is broad participation, the councils could simply become one more bureaucratic layer, racked by political infighting and squabbling over the spoils of political office. Chávez and the central government could also become a stifling force if they try to impose their agendas on the councils from the top down. So, much depends on the members of the councils and the assemblies that elect them having a determination and a new spirit that is concerned with the common good and breaks with Venezuela’s old political mentality.”

Venezuela, and particularly Caracas, may be one of the more difficult places to try to build a socialist society. With the rise of the oil economy in the 1920s, Venezuela became tightly bound to the United States, which imported its oil and sent back high-cost manufactured goods. The nouveaux riches in Venezuela used their wealth to adopt the more grotesque aspects of the United States’ consumer society, with nearby Miami becoming their favorite playground with many buying second homes and sending their children to the United States for education. This raw selfish consumerism, the worst side of capitalism, had a trickle-down effect, causing many of the dispossessed in Venezuela to feel that this was the dream they had to aspire to if they wanted to get anywhere in life. It explains why the agricultural lands of the countryside were never developed, why so many people migrated to Caracas and a few other major cities, and why 70 percent of the country’s food and so many other consumer products are imported from abroad.

In his January 17 speech, Chávez underlined the importance of an educational campaign on socialist values to encourage Venezuelans to see beyond their narrow individual self-interests. “Let’s declare this year the year of education in all places, ‘Ethics and Knowledge’ at all times,” he stated, referring to the new Mission Moral y Luces that will be supervised by a Presidential Commission with the same name. This program encourages Venezuelans to use schools, social organizations and workplaces to discuss the importance of building a new citizen with socialist values through an analysis of practical issues that affect their lives. Hundreds have already volunteered to serve as “promoters” of these discussions, and some have gone inside state institutions to encourage the debate (RNV 2007). The ministry of Higher Education has a plan to prepare up to 100,000 volunteers nation-wide and to aid in the preparation of reading material (MES 2007a). In early May, 752 study groups of 10 to 30 members (Círculos de Estudio y Trabajo “Moral y Luces”) committed themselves to facilitate critical reading and writing activities within cultural, economic and political organizations and institutions (MES 2007b).

The goal is to change people’s values and thus their perceptions of their own needs. It is recognized that a battle of ideas must be fought in order to make Venezuelans put aside the individualistic ideology inherited from their experience with capitalism and embrace cooperation as rational behavior. As Venezuelans’ are empowered to make decisions, it is important that they are guided by the principles of equality and solidarity so that they allow for the development of all and not only a few. Communal councils, and especially the federations, are crucial spaces where these values can be exercised and developed.

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela

The new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela — PSUV) will also play a critical role in the promotion of these socialist values at the communal level, in state institutions and in Venezuelan society at large. On December 15, 2006, Chávez called for the dissolution of the parties in the ruling alliance and for them to take part in the founding of a new party that will bring together all Venezuelans committed to the construction of a socialist society.

This project has provoked intense discussion in Caracas. Several of the smaller parties are resisting Chávez’s call to leave their flags and participate in the construction of “the most democratic party in the history of Venezuela.” They argue that they first want to be sure the party has an open participatory structure, and that they want to help construct the platform and political program for a socialism for the 21st century. At the other extreme, the 70 year old Communist Party of Venezuela is saying it will remain outside the new party unless it endorses the principles of Marxism-Leninism.

Nevertheless, the process of forming the PSUV has shown a true commitment to pluralism and democratic principles. Registration is open for any Venezuelan 18 years or older. According to Alberto Müller, political analyst and member of the PSUV Permanent Commission, a total of 5.4 million Venezuelans (more than 70 percent of the 7 million who voted for Chávez’ reelection in December 2006) have registered for the new party (Müller 2007). The plan is to consolidate members in groups of 200 according to their area of residence to ensure their effective participation in decision-making. They will elect spokespersons, who — for three months starting in August, and in constant consultation with their groups — will work on debating and defining the party’s program. In December 2007, party members will have a referendum to vote in the program, and not until mid-2008 would the party leadership be determined (Lebowitz 2007).

The PSUV could help reduce both Venezuelan politicians’ in-group culture as well as the personality cult of Chávez that Wilpert (2005) identifies as the two greatest internal menaces to the process. It should transform group allegiances from the largely empty signifiers of party flags to more easily identifiable ideological tendencies. Also, the party should be an effective tool in identifying many of the new leaders that have emerged from grassroots organizing. By creating a more collective leadership with a shared commitment to advance the revolutionary process, the new party will not be so reliant on Chávez’s charisma and leadership. Through the party, supporters of the socialist process will be able to critically analyze its path and prevent mistakes from being made.

As manifested in the workshop of communal council representatives in San Juan parish in Caracas, there is a lot of interest in the PSUV. Many of the participants in the workshop believe it would end the current multi-party factionalism and that a united, consolidated party would be better able to assist and relate to the communal councils. But all the advantages that the creation of the PSUV could bring to the Bolivarian process depend on party members’ true commitment to the construction of socialism. Moreover, the fatal problems of the 20th-century Communist parties can only be avoided if the leaders and members of the PSUV have a real commitment to participatory democracy. It is through democratic practice and the creation of democratic structures in the party that the tendencies toward bureaucratization and the isolation of leaders from the base can be averted.

Encircling the Capitalist Economy and Venezuela’s Socialist Path

The Bolivarian socialist path has not been not one of direct confrontation with capital but one of gradual “overflowing” or “transcending” (desbordamiento / superación) in which democratic socialist ideas and practices expand as they demonstrate their superiority (El Troudi & Monedero 2006: 78-111). The strategy for transcending capitalism has not been one of full nationalization and generalized workers’ control. But it is certainly one that seeks to use national resources for the satisfaction of human needs and for making the Venezuelan people the protagonists of their own transformation. Nationalization per se is not the goal, but putting those resources towards social use is. Indeed, although there is “no plan to eradicate private property in Venezuela, as long as it subordinates itself to the national interest and the socialist project” (Chávez, April 12, 2007), the government has shown that it won’t vacillate in exerting its political power to bring those resources under state or collective control once capital violates this principle.

Based on Article 115 of the 1999 Constitution that allows the state to take control of private property “for reasons of social interests,” approximately 20 idle private factories have been expropriated and re-opened by their workers under a co-management model in partnership with state representatives (Trigona 2006). In addition the Chávez government is evaluating 700 other idle production facilities that could be expropriated and turned over to former workers. Of these, 155 are committed to establishing co-management with the workers (Wilpert 2005, 2006), and another 60 are under negotiation. (Interview with Luis Primo, March 2006).

Also one of the largest privately owned companies, CANTV, a telecommunications firm with substantial US investment, is falling under state control along with the US-owned electrical power company, Electricidad de Caracas. Regarding the remaining transnational petroleum corporations in Venezuela, the state-owned PDVSA is renegotiating existent contracts with the likes of Chevron, British Petroleum and Exxon Mobil, to achieve control over administration and ownership of the majority of the shares.

However, a further transformation of the Venezuelan economy away from capitalist logic is still pending. Although the number of cooperatives has exploded, much still needs to be done to advance the democratization of most workplaces, including state enterprises where attempts at workers’ participation have stagnated (Piñeiro 2007). Besides the state-managed food and supermarket distribution network, Mercal, most economic exchange takes place through a somewhat regulated capitalist market.

The 2007 decision of the Chávez government to create a new Presidential Commission in charge of advancing mechanisms of socio-economic planning, as well as the new emphasis given to the concept of social property, should eventually lead to the establishment of mechanisms for democratic planning between the communal councils and workplaces. Experiments with cooperatives and co-management where workers’ participation was tied to the number of shares owned showed that collective property is not necessarily social property (i.e., that it doesn’t ensure that production seeks the satisfaction of social needs, not just those of the workers’ collective). Only when the economy is democratically controlled by society will the selfish and atomistic logic of capital be replaced by a humane, more holistic socialist logic.

Rather than seizing control of the means of production throughout the economy, the strategy appears to be to promote the consolidation of socialist values and relations first in the political and ideological spheres and then in the economic one (Lebowitz 2007). Lebowitz argues that once people learn to appreciate real democracy in the political sphere they will demand that the economy be democratized and controlled by society. The transition from a capitalist to a socialist economy could take place much as did the transition from feudalism to capitalism: small merchant and manufacturing enterprises took hold in the midst of feudal societies, gradually expanding their activities and capital until they became the dominant mode of production (Burbach et al. 1997: 5). Given the accelerated pace of economic life in the contemporary world, the pace of transition will certainly be much more rapid in Venezuela, but the very idea that the transition is being shaped by activities at the grassroots is a positive development.

The Bolivarian Revolution recognizes the importance of using national resources for the human development of all Venezuelans. But it also acknowledges that in order for them to exercise effective social control, Venezuelans must be prepared to make decisions in the interest of society and not just of themselves. They understand that to build a socialist society it is crucial to promote the values of equality and solidarity, and that these socialist values as well as other democratic skills are only developed through practice.

Venezuelans are taking up the historic challenge of constructing a truly democratic, socialist state. They are using the strategy of transforming the inherited capitalist state from within, and of exerting pressure from outside, particularly through the new participatory institutions of communal power. The Bolivarian experiment is contributing to our understanding of the potentialities and challenges of founding a society that finally allows for the “free development of all” as envisioned by the Communist Manifesto over a century and a half ago.

Notes

1. Wilpert (2005a) discusses the evolution of the Bolivarian Revolution from its inception in 1998 up to the recall referendum in 2004, showing how the decision of the Chávez government and its supporters not to give in when domestic capital went on strike in 2002-03 led to the radicalization of the process and a change in its support-base from the middle class to the most marginalized sectors. Raby (2006) argues that the combination of Chávez’s commitment to the popular sectors, popular movements willing to mobilize, and the support of the army, has allowed the process to radicalize. In this article we will show that the relationship between Chávez’s government and the Venezuelan masses isn’t really a populist one because it seeks to mobilize the popular sectors not only to ensure their support but to propel them towards self-government.

2. The ten elections and referendums since Chávez’s election in December 1998 are: 1.) April 1999 -– Referendum on convening a constitutional assembly; 2.) June 1999 -– Election of delegates to Constituent Assembly; 3.) December 1999 -– New Constitution approved; 4.) July 2000 -– mega elections under new constitution (president, governors, and National Assembly); 5.) December 2000 -– local elections and union referendum; 6.) August 2004 -– recall referendum of Chávez by opposition is defeated; 7.) October 2004 -– election of governors; 8.) June 2005 -– local elections; 9.) December 2005 -– new elections for National Assembly; 10.) December 2006 -– Chávez elected to new term as president.

3. The “Missions” are special programs to promote education, health, and culture, funded by the surplus from oil revenue and managed directly by the executive branch of government. For an analysis of the most important missions, and a study of their impact in three Venezuelan municipalities, see D’Elia (2006).

4. The right to recall elected officials was most notably employed by the opposition in August 2004, when a referendum was held to remove Chávez from office. It failed by a vote of 59% to 41%.

5. Both to ensure that communal councils manage their financial resources transparently and to allow for the transfer of state funds directly to the communities, the financial units of the communal council — also known as “communal banks” — are legally defined as savings and credit cooperatives in which all adults in the community are automatically shareholders. Leaders of Venezuelan cooperativism have argued that the communal bank doesn’t comply with the cooperativist principles of free association (where people consciously decide to be members) and that the legal concept of civil association (in which membership is automatic) would be more appropriate.

6. The official exchange rate is 2,150 Bolívares for one dollar.

7. See Piñeiro (2006) for a study of how workers’ participation in their cooperatives results in the expansion of their self-interest to include broader interests shared by the other members.

8. The term “moral y luces” is borrowed by Chávez from the South American liberator Simón Bolívar who said: “Moral y luces son nuestras primeras necesidades.” These words are translated by Venezuelans into English as: “Ethics and knowledge are our first necessities.”

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