February 2009 marked ten years since Hugo Chávez took office in Venezuela, following a landslide election victory that swept the country's traditional parties out of power. Since assuming the presidency, Chávez has presided over a controversial process of radical change, commonly referred to as the 'Bolivarian revolution' - after Simón Bolívar, who liberated Venezuela and much of South America from Spanish colonialism.
While hugely popular with many in Venezuela, Chávez's policies and his outspoken criticisms of the US government have made him powerful enemies, both at home and abroad, especially in the media. Chávez has also polarised opinion on the global left, with a divide becoming visible between those who characterise him as authoritarian and others who stress the democratic nature of his government.
In Venezuela, the first years of the 'Bolivarian revolution' saw Chávez speaking about combating 'savage neoliberalism' and searching for a more humane capitalism: a Venezuelan 'third way' as a solution to the severe socio-economic crisis that the government inherited.
However, the response that these measures provoked among Venezuela's traditional elites and their allies in the US government led to the radicalisation of the process, and in early 2005 Chávez surprised his supporters and opponents alike when he publicly rejected capitalism as a model for Venezuela and spoke of the need to instead create a '21st-century socialism'.
Apart from debating what 21st-century socialism should and shouldn't be - and insisting that it has to be original - nearly five years since Chávez called for its creation in Venezuela, what is the evidence that the country is moving in that direction?
This is one of the key questions I wanted to explore in my new feature-length documentary, Inside the Revolution: A journey into the heart of Venezuela. Filmed in the country's capital, Caracas, in November 2008, the eve of the tenth anniversary of Chávez's presidency, I wanted it to go beyond the simplistic mainstream media reporting on Venezuela that focuses virtually all developments in the country on the figure of Chávez, and instead provide a platform for the voices of the government's grass-roots supporters who are driving the process forward.
What came out of the filming was that arguably the most significant development, in terms of pointing to where Venezuela's 21st-century socialism seems to be heading, is the creation of the community councils.
Joel Linares is a Christian grass-roots community organiser in Winche, a barrio in the east of Caracas. He explained to me: 'The community council is an organisational expression of the community. It isn't the only one, but it's perhaps the most developed one.' Likening them to a roundtable of the community, where all its social actors get together, Linares described how each council, representing between 200 and 400 families, would meet and agree on the measures to be carried out within that community.
'The community council has legitimacy because people of that locality know that its members are there by way of an election in a citizen's assembly, which is the highest authority in the community. The highest authority isn't the community council - it's the citizen's assembly, which is made up of all the people living in that community.' Linares explained how the councils had the power to manage resources, among other things, which in his opinion gave them the functions of a government.
Unlike Venezuela's worker cooperatives, another significant initiative promoted by the Chávez government, which are headed by presidents, the community councils are horizontally structured, with all of the spokespeople, or voceros, working for free and considered of equal rank.
The council itself is composed of various commissions, including a communal bank, which looks after the funds; a 'social controllership', which monitors spending; and an 'employment commission', which registers community members for paid jobs and tries to ensure they receive preferential hiring. No spokesperson is allowed to belong to more than one commission.
Since 2006 an estimated 20,000 community councils have been created in Venezuela, and they seem to be the key component in promoting 'popular power' and participatory democracy in the current stage of the country's 'Bolivarian revolution'. In our next article, Steve Ellner offers an assessment of their development so far and the challenges they face.
Pablo Navarrete is Red Pepper's Latin America editor. His new documentary Inside the Revolution: A journey into the heart of Venezuela is out now: www.alborada.net/alboradafilms
Either we invent or we err
Steve Ellner considers the achievements, and criticisms, of Venezuela's community councils
The creation of community councils in Venezuela was partly a reaction to the inefficiency of the state bureaucracy, particularly at the municipal level. In his congressional address unveiling a constitutional reform proposal in August 2007, President Hugo Chávez affirmed that he had 'misgivings regarding established local authorities' and had greater faith in the capacity of the people at the local level. He went on to point to the high abstention rates in city and state elections as placing in doubt the legitimacy of local officials.
More recently, Chávez's proposal to group community councils in a given zone into 'communes' (which in turn would form part of a 'commune city'), in order to solve common problems, threatens to undermine the power of municipal government by creating a parallel structure.
In private, local authorities, including mayors, have expressed fear that the scheme is designed to phase out city government, as Leandro Rodríguez, adviser to the National Assembly's citizen participation, decentralisation and regional development commission, and Sergio Lugo, an adviser to the Mérida municipality's department of local planning councils, told me.
Nevertheless, the community councils are not in a position to supplant municipal government. At this point, they are undertaking work only on priority projects, a far cry from taking on the myriad functions of municipal government. Applied to the community councils, the Rousseau-inspired utopian ideal of direct democracy displacing representative institutions - a vision sometimes embraced by Chávistas - is thus highly misleading.
A more realistic assessment comes from Marisol Pérez, who heads the state government of Anzoátegui's community council office. 'This is an experimental process,' she says. 'The celebrated phrase of Simón Rodríguez [Simón Bolívar's tutor] so frequently invoked by our president, "Either we invent or we err," is applicable in a big way to the community councils.'
Chávista political leaders, whose rhetoric typically emphasises popular decision making, have increasingly highlighted the activities of the community councils. Aristóbulo Istúriz and Jorge Rodríguez, the Chávista candidates in Caracas's two major mayoral races in November 2008, divided their respective platforms into two parts: programmes directly undertaken by the state, and support for 'popular power', consisting mainly of the community councils.
In another mayoral race in Caracas, the Chávista candidate pledged to construct a 'metrocable' up the slum-ridden hills of Petare, similar to another one that is near completion in the barrios of San Agustín. According to the plan, each station would contain a facility, such as a library or theatre, that would be placed under the administration of a community council.
An 'atom bomb'
Meanwhile, government critics argue that the community councils are inefficient and warn that they weaken representative democracy by undermining intermediate bodies between the national executive and the people, be they the municipal government, state planning agencies, or even the new Chávista party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
Américo Martín, a former leftist who ran for president in 1978, calls the community councils an 'atom bomb', bound to produce chaos by making clientelistic demands of a magnitude impossible to satisfy. Another leftist turned anti-Chávista, Teodoro Petkoff, harps on the quixotic nature of community councils, which he likens to the worker cooperatives and worker-management schemes also promoted by the Chávez government.
Petkoff argues that these experiments bring to mind Marx's indictment of the utopian socialists: 'Instead of recognising the historical conditions of emancipation, they envisioned fantastic conditions and a reorganisation of society invented by themselves.'
These arguments against the viability of the community councils overstate the case against them. The fact is that thousands of projects throughout Venezuela have already been satisfactorily completed, and many more are underway, an accomplishment entirely new in the nation's history. In addition, community council leaders are engaged in a wide variety of activities and programmes that have no precedent in Venezuela's community movement.
Politics and the state are very much at the centre of the community council phenomenon. Council leaders often find themselves on both sides of the line separating civil society and political activism. Thus, for instance, council meetings sometimes devote time to discussing electoral strategy and logistics. After the PSUV was created in 2007, it canvassed for Chávista candidates in the communities, causing the community councils to recede somewhat from the electoral arena.
Nevertheless, in early 2009, the participation and social protection minister Erika Farías called on the community councils to form brigades to campaign in favour of the Chávez-sponsored constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits on all elected positions, a proposition that was approved in a referendum held on 15 February 2009. The electoral activity of those connected with the community councils and other government-funded social programs overshadowed the PSUV in the campaign.
Some writers stress the need for Venezuelan social organisations, including community councils, to strive for absolute autonomy vis-à-vis state and party. These include leading Venezuelan activists and writers such as Roland Denis, Javier Biardeau, and Rafael Uzcátegui (of the anarchist periodical El Libertario). John Holloway, a renowned theoretician who defends this viewpoint, stated at the time of the World Social Forum in Caracas in 2006: 'The great danger that exists in Venezuela today ... is that the movement "from above" will swallow ... the movement "from below".'
The fixation on autonomy, however, is somewhat misplaced. Social programmes and the organisations they create, not autonomous social movements, are the backbone of the Chávista movement.
Prior to Chávez's election in 1998, Venezuela lacked the kind of vibrant, well-organised social movements that paved the way for the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. For many years in Venezuela, neighbourhood and worker cooperative movements were independent of the state, but they failed to flourish or play a major role in the lives of non-privileged Venezuelans. In contrast, the Chávez government's injection of large sums of money into community councils and other social programmes has served to stimulate the marginalised sectors and show them ways to take control of their lives. Specifically, state resources in the form of allotments for community council projects, loans for worker cooperatives, and stipends for students enrolled in makeshift educational programmes (known as 'missions') have been essential in activating people along organised lines.
In spite of financial dependence on the state, rank-and-file Chávistas tend to be critical, and their support for the government is hardly unqualified - thus explaining, for instance, Chávez's defeat in the constitutional referendum of 2007.
For the Chávistas, the 'revolutionary process' consists of people gaining control of their lives in the areas where they live, more so than in the workplace (as communists, Trotskyists and other hard-liners advocate). This emphasis is reflected in the fact that the community councils have received far more attention and resources than the worker-management schemes ever did.
The councils are subject to a host of problems, including poor financial management, 'free riders', and the deep-rooted scepticism among many community members toward neighbourhood leaders' intentions. Pro-Chávez writers who focus on the community councils and similar social programmes, while providing useful information, generally skirt these thorny issues. The pro-government media also shy away from open discussion of knotty problems of this type, even though they frequently refer to the community councils.
Furthermore, critical debate is lacking within the PSUV. By avoiding nitty-gritty problems, the Chavista leadership ends up glorifying the community councils and creating the myth that they are a panacea for countless problems, a notion that may be designed to pay electoral dividends. The shortcoming is particularly serious given the government's stated commitment to more than double the programme's funding in 2009.
As the community councils gain experience, two processes fraught with tension are underway. First, marginalised and semi-marginalised sectors of the population gain confidence and experience in collective decision making. Second, steps toward institutionalisation are designed to create viable mechanisms that monitor and guard against ill-conceived projects and misuse of public funds.
But the effort to achieve incorporation, on the one hand, and institutionalisation, on the other, is a complicated balancing act. Mechanisms and procedures to ensure efficiency cannot be imposed all at once. The massive and ongoing participation of the non-privileged depends on the flexibility and comprehension of those in charge of public financing.
'We don't hound the council spokespeople, and we give them the benefit of the doubt,' says Marisol Pérez of the Anzoátegui state government. 'After all, many of them are novices who could easily drop out if they perceive that the obstacles are too great.'
In addition to the social and institutional dimensions, a third objective is political: the mobilisation of those who benefit from the community councils in order to defend the government in the face of an intransigent opposition with extensive resources. Achieving these distinct and not always compatible objectives is a formidable challenge for Venezuela's uncharted path to socialism.
Steve Ellner has been teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, since 1977, his latest book 'Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon' (Lynne Rienner Publishers) is out now.
Pablo Navarrete is a British-Chilean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the founder of www.alborada.net and a correspondent for the Latin America Bureau (LAB)