In other countries, when we build apartments, most or all the times, the developers or the government do not create spaces for community democracy or self-sustaining agriculture. Some apartments and flats do have some form of committees with varying level of participation. However, in Venezuela, things are done differently here.
First, we need to understand that Venezuela has a severe housing crisis. Due to the oil boom and subsequent dominance of the economy, the rural (agricultural sector) was abandoned. Rural masses came in droves to urban areas in search for better prospects. However, majority could not get a decent job that would allow them to live in proper housing. Hence, shanty towns like around in Caracas appeared where the poor was pretty much excluded from the society. With the advent of oil economy, agriculture has declined in its importance as it was cheaper to import food products from overseas
With the revolution in 1999, the government had inconsistent plans in resolving the housing backlog and crisis. Then, big floods of 2010-11 which created many Venezuelans homeless. It finally drove a big point to Venezuelan government: You need a concerted effort to resolve the housing crisis soon. Secondly, with rising purchasing power among Venezuelans during the revolution, the consumption has began to outstrip the domestic agriculture production. Yes, Venezuela is self-sufficient in some products for first time in a long time. However, there are many mouths to feed and current food shortages highlight the importance of decentralizing agriculture. Under the revolution, the government actively encourage of devolving power to the citizens as they believe representative democracy has failed the society historically. The concept of communal councils (group of few hundred families) and communes (group of communal councils) were introduced half-way through during Chavez’s presidency. As for the moment, these two self-governance mechanisms (mentioned above) are parallel system with municipal (city council) system (relationship has been uneasy).
Some Reading Materials (before we proceed):
(* Bear in mind, Venezuela is very decentralized state, it has been in the process of devolution since late 80s, way before Chavez)
Grand Housing Mission (GMV) next to Tiuna El Fuerte, Caracas
Towards end of the brigade, we got the chance to see self-governance and urban agriculture at play in one community. We went to La Fuente housing complex in a middle class suburb of El Paraiso, Caracas. It is a home to 9 tower blocks, 153 families and in total, has over 500 people. The people residing in well designed homes are from the shanty towns of Caracas. La Fuente is a good example of Venezuelan Grand Housing Mission (GMV) which is meant to tackle housing crisis.
As the residents are coming from very low-income brackets, the payments of house purchase is based on your financial capacity. Hence, a socio-economic study is done to assess the financial capacity. Residents pay the purchase in installments (depending on their social status) WITHOUT INTEREST. The apartments are sold at 1/5 of the MARKET RATE and the installments are about 10-15 times lower than market rate (the installments are not affected by Inflation). In extreme cases, those who have no financial resources are given fully free equipped houses. For those who struggle to pay the installments, PDVSA (state oil company) Black Gold Foundation actively assist those residents to find productive works to pay off the installments.
In La Fuente alone, they have 30 social enterprises. Below each apartment tower block, they have created spaces for businesses to be set up (though ones we saw were empty). However, there is one big challenge in regards to businesses operating here. Residents treat them as though it is their family business and the challenge is to change their mindset that they live in the community (more like how to contribute community).
As mentioned previously, residents living here are from different shanty towns and hence, different cultures and mentalities are brought in. This created problems in the early days as the integration of the residents were hard. Over time, people overcame the differences through participating many communal projects. To ensure peace in La Fuente, there are restrictions when you can play music and drink. In future, the community in La Fuente are looking to create communal justice to resolve inter-family disputes. As La Fuente is a small community, there were no schools within its perimeter. To overcome, the government social missions (like on education) cover some of the educational gaps of the community.
On top of apartment blocks (currently 7 out 9 blocks), the community devoted empty spaces to urban (& organic) agriculture. Most of the produce are community consumption. Any excess would be sold at the market a discounted rate (1/3 of capitalist price). The profits are reinvested in purchasing discounted seeds from public foundation. Under the Cuba-Venezuela Bilateral Agreement, Cuban agricultural specialists are brought in to train the community at La Fuente on how to grow and maintain the organic plots (Cuba is leader in organic agriculture)
Urban Agriculture at La Fuente apartment complex in Caracas
It is self-governance in action but works hand-in-hand with representative structures of the country (relationship between these systems are not easy). For example, PDVSA works with communal councils to develop projects that are needed by the community. The community draw their own maps where their council should cover. For example, La Fuente communal council (El Gigante) covers the 9 tower blocks. It has a collective leadership with a number of spokesperson (vocero or vocera)
In each tower block, families pay maintenance fees and elect two people to manage the bank accounts. All the problems faced in communal councils are resolved through consensus. Communal council also propose projects that would benefit the area. In every communal council, you need to have two mandatory vocero (a) – one on financing and another auditing. This is to ensure the money spent on the communal projects are well spent. At the beginning, the state pumps a lot of money to finance many communal councils. However, now, the state encourage communal councils to build productive works for the community to self-sustain. People have the right to formulate the communal budget but participatory budgeting remains limited.
When a communal council is created, an assembly of people (over 15 years) must be convened. Two commissions (Promoting and Election Commission) are elected by the community. Promoting Commission promotes and education the concept of communal council to the community. The Election Commission organizes elections within the communal council and does receive help from Venezuela Electoral Commission (CNE). Later, minimum of two to a maximum of 5 spokespersons are elected (including two compulsory ones – finance and auditing)
The spokesperson are elected to represent the needs of community and they are elected for 2 years. They are expected to work in their own communities. Spokesperson can make their own decisions but they need to get the consent and approval of the community When important decisions are made, the citizen Assembly is convened to vote and debate on this matter. Most importantly, if the spokesperson fails to carry his or her duties, he or she can be RECALLED anytime. In La Fuente, the spokespersons in every 3 -4 months detail out the financing that are going on in the community. Moreover, an increasing people in La Fuente are actively participating in popular auditing. When the projects are materialized in front of the eyes of the community, this create a new impetus for greater participation in community councils.
Having said that, let’s us acknowledge there are problems with community councils:
i) I personally believe it is every right of Venezuela (left, right or centre) to organize themselves to create community councils. Hence, it is possible to middle class communal councils that are not supportive of the government. Some times, opposition infiltrates the communal councils to sabotage the process from within.
ii) Clash with existing bureaucracy (i.e. with mayoralty office). For example, communal councils in Merida (Andean city) issue permits (for street sellers) and determines how many should be issued. The opposition mayor office of Merida issues another round permits in the same streets of communal councils. This creates confusion among the people
Having said, we have to understand the revolution is a massive school and everyone is learning as they go. Hence problems and success are part of the process of deepening democracy.