People Power: Democracy and Popular Participation in Venezuela

Opponents of socialism love to paint any country that pursues a path other than neoliberal capitalism as “dictatorial” and “undemocratic” [1]. Venezuela, a socialist country, is naturally a victim of this slander. In this essay, I would like to argue that this characterization of Venezuela is in fact slanderous, based in nothing but propagandistic phrase mongering. In fact, Venezuela is one of the most democratic countries in Latin America, perhaps even the world.

Let’s begin with Venezuela’s elections. I have argued in the past that elections are not the only, or even the primary, component of democracy. Elections, in my view, are nothing more than a tool the people can use to exercise political power. This-power in the hands of the people-is what democracy really means. However, given the focus on Venezuela’s electoral system as “fraudulent” or “meaningless” [2], I feel it is necessary to mention them here. The idea that Venezuelan elections do not mean anything, or that they are rigged, is a complete fabrication.

The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSVU, has been repeatedly affirmed at the polls, winning twelve of fifteen major elections between 1998 and 2015 [3]. The government has won these elections cleanly, and has immediately conceded on the rare occasions when it has suffered defeat, including December 2015’s parliamentary elections [4].

Nicolas Maduro, dubbed Chavez’s “handpicked successor” by bourgeois media sources [5], actually won the election squarely. A presidential election was held in Venezuela in April 2013 following the death of President Hugo Chávez on 5 March 2013. Voters gave Nicolás Maduro—who had assumed the role of acting president since Chávez’s death—a narrow victory of fifty-one percent (51%) over his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Governor of Miranda [6]. The fact that this victory was so narrow is a strong indication that it was earned. Fraudulent elections have, historically, resulted in the victor winning by a huge margin, upwards of ninety percent (90%). If Maduro really was manipulating the system, why did he not do so to a greater degree? Why did he only award himself 51% of the vote? This is a very low number to choose if one hopes to rig an election successfully. Why not choose something like 80 percent, giving yourself a kind of safety net should things go awry? Put simply, if Maduro wanted to rig the elections, he could have done a much better job of it.

The elections in Venezuela are not necessarily proof that the country is a democracy, but they are strong evidence in favor of it. After all, the people have evidence that the PSVU would step down if voted out. If they disliked the Party, why not vote it out? Indeed, the country’s own opposition has learned this. In 2004, the opposition enacted their constitutional right to a recall election, seeking to have then-President Hugo Chavez removed from office. However, Chavez remained in power after the recall was rejected by a wide margin of fifty-eight percent (58%) [7]. The Venezuelan people had an opportunity to vote out Chavez, and yet declined to do so. If democracy is rule by the people, then democracy in Venezuela means Chavismo. The people chose Chavez, just as they chose Maduro.

A predictable retort here would be that the people have not chosen Maduro. There would have been a recall election had the supposedly dictatorial government not suspended it in order to secure its own power. This, too, is incorrect on a number of levels.

In order to explain why, we must examine who the opposition actually is. In the words of Afro-Venezuelan activist and feminist Maria Emilia Duran, the opposition is “a white, bourgeois, classist, racist and sexist elite that has no patriotism…They want a Venezuela where only they exist, not Black, Indigenous and poor people” [8]. Venezuela’s opposition is not made up of poor or working people oppressed by the government. It is a wealthy elite whose actions are motivated by a desire to empower themselves, not the people. Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, connected to multinational oil companies, called for national strikes protesting the Bolivarian Revolution. Opposition leaders, claiming that Chavez was a “dictator” who wanted to “make Venezuela into another Cuba,” ordered sectors of the country’s armed forces to arrest him and installed wealthy oil businessman Pedro Carmona as president [9]. Carmona, a right-wing politician backed by the U.S. [10] sought to undo all of the actions taken by the revolution. But the Afro-descendant, Indigenous and working class masses-in a word, the oppressed-who supported the revolution immediately responded to his ouster, holding large protests outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas calling for his return [11].

The opposition and supporters in Venezuela could not be more different. One wishes to install a wealthy businessman as head of the country, while the other wishes to lift up the most oppressed sectors of society. The opposition wants nothing more than to take power away from the people of Venezuela.

The opposition has routinely made use of illegal actions in order to satisfy these aims. Of the 1,957,779 signatures submitted during the first phase of the recall, for example, over thirty percent—or 605,727—had irregularities, including signatures from over 10,000 deceased persons [12]. The submission of false signatures is a major offense and allowing the recall to proceed under those circumstances would have undermined the credibility of the entire Venezuelan electoral system. The country’s right-wing opposition responded to the suspension of the recall referendum process with indirect calls for a military coup. What else is this but an anti-democratic action? The opposition is attempting to impose its will on the people of Venezuela through the artificial inflation of signatures. If the government were as unpopular as opponents claim, the internal opposition would not have felt the need to do this. The opposition’s own actions are proof of its real, anti-democratic character.

Nonetheless, the opposition is crying foul and has called for street protests, claiming the constitution has been violated [13]. The opposition is striving to portray themselves as helpless victims who have been thwarted by the socialist government. However, the opposition’s narrative is at odds with the facts on the ground. The opposition is not a grassroots movement born out of frustration with the government, but rather a group of privileged elites willing to resort to dishonest, violent tactics to ensure that the masses of society return to a state of exploitation and ignorance rather than empowerment. These groups should not be trusted under any circumstances.

In light of this evidence, we can confidently assert that the government’s repression of the opposition is not, and has never been, dictatorial in the classic sense of the word. In fact, the opposite is true. A democratic state is one in which the power of the people is the highest authority. This cannot be the case if certain elements in the state wish to rob the people of power. The opposition in Venezuela, as I have shown, is one such element. The repression of anti-democratic, right-wing organizations is meant to facilitate the exercise of people’s power. A truly democratic state must repress anti-democratic elements if it wishes to remain worthy of the label. Democracy is not a state of affairs in which the people can theoretically exercise power, it is one in which this is materially the case. This cannot be achieved so long as oligarchic groups are permitted to exist. While allowing opposition protests to occur may seem democratic on the surface, nothing could be further from the truth.

That covers elections, but elections are not the end of the democratic process. There exists in Venezuela a “dual” or “constituent” network of communal councils in which the people make decisions directly. This is a democratic process on its face. If the people manage their communes directly, power cannot reside anywhere but in their hands. Still, these councils are not free of contradictions or conflicts. In order to really understand democracy in Venezuela, we need to go deeper, examining not only the inner workings of these councils, but also how they came to be.

In Venezuela, the concept of constituent power arose at the end of the 1980s as the defining trait of a continuous process of social transformation. The main slogan of the neighborhood assemblies was “We don’t want to be a government, we want to govern.” This idea, understood in increasingly radical terms, came to orient the revolutionary transformation, acquiring  broad support in the political debate of the 1990s [14]. This idea has its roots in the beginnings of the Bolivarian revolutionary process itself, which called for the building of a “participatory and protagonistic democracy” [15]. Originally, this concept was used as shorthand for a “third way” that went beyond both capitalism and socialism. In 2005, though, Chavez and others came to understand that socialism was the only economic system capable of fostering such a participatory order. Thus, the idea of participation was officially defined in terms of popular power, revolutionary democracy, and socialism [16].

Communal councils began forming that same year as an initiative “from below.” In different parts of Venezuela, rank-and-file organizations, on their own, promoted forms of local self-administration named “local governments” or “communitarian governments.” During 2005, one department of the city administration of Caracas focused on promoting this proposal in the poor neighborhoods of the city [17]. In January 2006, Chávez adopted this initiative and began to spread it. On his weekly TV show, “Aló Presidente,” Chávez presented the communal councils in a favorable light, calling them  “good practice” [18]. At this point some 5,000 communal councils already existed. In April 2006, the National Assembly approved the Law of Communal Councils, which was reformed in 2009 following a broad consulting process of councils’ spokespeople. The communal councils in urban areas encompass 150-400 families; in rural zones, a minimum of 20 families; and in indigenous zones, at least 10 families. The councils build a non-representative structure of direct participation that exists parallel to the elected representative bodies of constituted power [19].

According to the text of the law, communal councils will “represent the means through which the organised masses can take over the direct administration of policies and projects that are created in response to the needs and aspirations of the communities, in the construction of a fair and just society” [20]. This reflects an understanding of democracy as “rule by the people.” The communal councils are meant to be a training ground for people’s self-government, a preparation for the Leninist concept of “the withering away of the state” [21]. While the councils themselves are not necessarily a concrete step on the road to communism, they offer us a vision of what communism might look like.

At the moment, the communal councils are financed directly by national state institutions, thus avoiding interference from municipal organs. The law does not give any entity the authority to accept or reject proposals presented by the councils. Legally, the state is not allowed to interfere with the communal process. This, too, represents the germs of a new order: one in which the people govern themselves. Put another way, the communal councils are the building blocks of a genuine democracy.

The relationship between the councils and established institutions, however, is not always harmonious; conflicts arise principally from the slowness of constituted power to respond to demands made by the councils and from attempts at interference. The communal councils tend to transcend the division between between those who govern and those who are governed. Hence, liberal analysts who support that division view the communal councils in a negative light, arguing that they are not independent civil-society organizations, but rather are linked to the state. In fact, they constitute a parallel structure through which power and control is gradually drawn away from the state in order to govern on their own [22]. This is one reason why it is enshrined in the constitution that the Venezuelan National Assembly is obliged to consult with these community organizations. Article 2 of the Communes law states that a community parliament is the “maximum authority of the self-government in the Commune” [23]. Its decisions are made through the passing of rules for the regulation of social and community life, toward public order, cohabitation and the collective interest. It can pass community development plans, sanction community letters, oversee debates, and even dictate its own internal rules [24]. These are all vitally important aspects of life. The council gives its members choice in the running of schools, the building of public works projects, and the production of goods. In short, the councils bear all the markings of democracy.

A large, connected group of these councils became known as a commune. As of 2016, 45,000 communal councils and 1500 communes organize hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s 31 million people. Included in this network are the cooperatives, Enterprises of Social Production. These are either state-owned or operated directly by the communes themselves [25].

Above the communes stands their Communal Parliament, empowered to decide what communes produce and how it is distributed. According to the Commune Law, the Communal Parliament envisions integrating the communes into a regional and national federation, to construct “a system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption rooted in social property” [26]. However, this Parliament has only met once, right after the electoral defeat of the Chavistas in December 2015 [27]. This illustrates a tension between the communes and the government. Indeed, the communes regularly run into conflict with the government. However, this does not mean that democracy in Venezuela is nonexistent. Rather, it means that contradictions will always exist in class societies. The struggle between the communes and the government illustrates the importance of building communism. Only when there is no state can the people truly govern themselves. To put it in Lenin’s words, “Only when there is no state does it become possible to speak of freedom” [28]. Socialism is vastly more democratic than capitalism, but genuine democracy can only come about with the abolition of classes (and thus the state) achieved by communism. Venezuela shows us that if we care about democracy, we must be communists.

This is not to say that the government is wholly opposed to the communes. Far from it. In 2002, Chavez gave peasants titles to land, and in the cities, urban land committees, CTUs were one of the first organs of grassroots self-organization. “By 2016, more than 650,000 titles to urban land had been granted through the CTUs, benefiting more than a million families” [29]. The government’s support for this initiative reflects that it is truly a government for the people, operating in their best interests to the fullest extent possible. This remains true today.  The Maduro government works with the collectives  through the variety of  Social Missions such as community health care, housing, food, education [30].

All of this shows that Venezuela is not undemocratic. Indeed, the direct management of social life through councils and communes mean that it is a great deal more democratic than the United States and other capitalist countries. Despite the myriad contradictions inherent in the Venezuelan system, the country is proof that the masses are capable of governing themselves. It is only socialism that can provide them the opportunity to do so. If one is concerned with democracy, one must struggle for socialism and against capitalism.

  1. Trombetta, Reynaldo. “Let’s call Venezuela what it is under Maduro: a dictatorship.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 Nov. 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Hetland, Gabriel. “The Truth About Chávez.” Jacobin, 20 September 2015
  4. Hetland, Gabriel. “The End of Chavismo? Why Venezuela’s Ruling Party Lost Big, and What Comes Next.” The Nation. 22 June 2016.
  5. Duell, Mark. “Former bus driver and Chavez’s handpicked successor is elected president of Venezuela.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 15 Apr. 2013.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Buxton, Julia. “Venezuela After Chávez.” New Left Review 13 July 2013
  8. Fúnez, Ramiro S., et. al. “Afro-Venezuelan Slams ‘Racist, Sexist’ Opposition Protests. Telesur English 11 April 2017
  9. Forero, Juan. “VENEZUELA’S CHIEF FORCED TO RESIGN; CIVILIAN INSTALLED.” The New York Times., 12 Apr. 2002.
  10. Vulliamy, Ed. “Venezuela coup linked to Bush team.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Apr. 2002.
  11. Golinger, Eva. Correo del Orinoco International, 13 April 2010 “Coup and Countercoup, Revolution!”
  12. Ceja, Lucho Granados. “Why Venezuela Suspended the Recall Referendum Against Maduro.” TeleSUR. Mision Verdad.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Roland Denis, Los fabricantes de la rebelión (Caracas: Primera Linea, 2001), 65.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Hugo Chávez, El Poder Popular (Caracas: Ministerio de Comunicación e Información, 2008), 38.
  17. Duran, Cliff. Moving Beyond Capitalism Routledge Critical Development Studies Series, 2016.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Lenin, Vladimir, Collected Works, Volume 25, p. 381-492 1918.
  21. Duran, Cliff. Moving Beyond Capitalism Routledge Critical Development Studies Series, 2016. Op. Cit.
  22. Elkins, Zachary, Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton. 2009. The Endurance of National Constitutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune. Verso, 2016. p. 19-20
  26. Ibid, 21.
  27. Ibid, 36
  28. Ibid, 59.
  29. Ibid, 58.
  30. Robertson, Ewan. “Maduro Demands Greater Government Support for Venezuela’s Communes.” 08 August 2013.

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