My first and arguably most surprising encounter with the Bolivarian Revolution was at the Ministry for Popular Participation. The Ministry was created, I was told, in accord with President Chávez’s desire ‘that the people should take power’.
I asked: ‘What does that mean?’
After noting thousands of years of ‘empires obstructing people from participating in politics’, one official said that ‘the US has had 200 years of representative government, but in your system people turn over control to others’.
Instead, in Venezuela, ‘we are humbly proposing a system where people hold power in a participatory and protagonist democracy. We want a new kind of democracy to attain a new kind of society.’
On the wall was a diagram. It had lots of little circles, then other larger ones in another layer, and so on. The idea, they said, was ‘to establish numerous local grassroots assemblies or councils of citizens where people can directly express themselves’. These would be the foundational components of ‘a new system of participatory democracy’. The bottom layer focuses on communities with ‘common habits and customs’, according to the officials. ‘We define them as comprising 200 to 400 families, or 1,000 to 2,000 people each.’
Local units would send ‘elected spokespersons’ to units another layer up. This second layer would ‘encompass a broader geographic region’, and from there ‘spokespeople would be elected to another layer, and so on’, creating a network covering ‘parishes, municipalities, states and the whole society’.
The smallest units were meant to become ‘the decision-making core of the new Venezuelan polity’. Chávez and the Ministry hoped, they said, to have 3,000 local assemblies in place soon. Their goal was to have enough ‘in four or five years to account for 26 million Venezuelans’.
They didn’t want ‘a dictatorship of the proletariat, or of any other kind’, they said. Strikingly, they also said they didn’t want ‘what Ché Guevara died for’. They wanted to build something new, from the bottom.
I asked: ‘What happens if the local assemblies want some new policy and the ministers, legislature or Chávez don’t want it?’
‘No matter,’ they said, ‘the assemblies, once they are in place and operating, rule.’
But, I said: ‘You don’t want an assembly of 100 families making a decision for the whole country, surely.’
‘Correct,’ came the answer, ‘the local assemblies can only make final decisions bearing on their own area.’
‘Suppose one assembly decides it wants some change on crime that has to do with federal courts, or police, or whatever, extending beyond that community?’ I asked.
‘On every level there should be a response,’ came the reply. ‘On the lowest level, assemblies would do whatever they could within their community. But crime goes beyond a community and requires going to the next levels, where the issues would have to be confronted, too.’
Okay, I asked: ‘Suppose one local assembly wants a younger voting age. They bring it to the next higher level and members there are excited about it too. Does it go up to a legislature and does the legislature have any choice?’
I was told: ‘Had they decided something bearing only on their local neighbourhood – which is all that is happening now – such as the age required for local votes, it would simply be enacted, under their supervision, for them, without having to be discussed more widely.’ But if their ambitions stretched further, ‘their proposal would go up, as far as is relevant. Then the proposal would go back to the base of all assemblies for all to consider.’
These Bolivarians, entrusted by the Chávez Administration with building a new, parallel polity, didn’t want any more representative decision-making than absolutely necessary. They wanted the proposal from one assembly to be discussed by spokespeople and then brought back to other local assemblies – eventually to all of them – to be decided at large.
‘If support came,’ I was told, ‘then the goal is that it would yield a new voting age, whether Chávez or mayors or the legislature or anyone else wanted the change or not.’
Surely, I said, there must be many elected or just appointed mayors, governors or bureaucrats who would obstruct this vision, not wanting their power reduced – or that of the populace increased.
Yes, I was told: ‘Many bureaucrats have held positions for 20 or 30 years and about 60 per cent of them are putting brakes on the proposal.’
‘Even among ministers in the Chávez Administration,’ I asked, ‘do some resent that they would go from having power to just obeying the public? Cuba’s _poder popular_ began with many of the ideals you express, but never got to the point where the national power was participatory. Do you believe that the Chávez Government will help the assembly system reach its full development, or that after a while the assembly system will have to push against the Government to get full power?’
The answer was: ‘Only the organized population can decide. We are on a path to invent a new democracy. We have gone forward from what we had before. There are no guarantees, but we are trying to go further.’
There was no need, the officials said, to remove or otherwise forcefully conflict with the old structures. Rather, the new system would be built alongside what now exists and would prove its worth over time, in parallel. Many would come around – others wouldn’t. But, either way, in time the old forms would be replaced by the impressive reality of the new forms’ success, not by fiat or by force.
‘How will Chávez’s initiative encourage people to create these local assemblies?’ I wondered. The whole assembly structure was a project in development, the officials said, and there were diverse ideas about how to make it happen.
Here was the most striking and instructive idea I heard. ‘We Bolivarians have a programme for citizens in barrios to gain ownership of their current dwellings. They need only petition to do so, but they have to do that in groups of 200 families or more for the petition to be accepted.’ The dwellers then get their homes and the community of families, it is hoped, becomes a grassroots assembly.
Prodding the people
I asked: ‘Do you find that the Government has to prod the people to participate?’
The officials replied: ‘The people are taking initiative, but it is very important that the Government supports them. People taking power involves a new way of thinking and a new culture. The President and we are working hard to make participatory democracy happen, but we all have limitations in our heads to overcome, as well as old structures.’
This was a recurring theme. In Venezuela, while there have been coups and thus struggle against capital and external imperialism, at the moment the struggle seems to be more against the imprint of the past on people’s habits and beliefs.
‘How many people,’ I asked, ‘already support this programme?’
‘The full picture of assemblies is very new, just about to be announced,’ they said. ‘But the general goal of people’s power – maybe about a quarter understand and strongly support, with more soon.’
They emphasized they didn’t want a system ‘that gives power to another person’. They didn’t want ‘representative democracy’. In the Venezuelan model the people elect ‘spokespeople, not representatives’.
They told me that ‘the socialism we are trying to construct incorporates understanding the history of past efforts in Russia, Cuba, and so on, but it is not about state-run enterprises or a dictatorship. We have to create our own model to reduce the working week, to defend nature and to create social justice for both the collective and the individual. If it continues, capitalism will put an end to the planet. We have to find a way for everybody to have a better standard of living but also to preserve the planet. A virtuous individual thinks about the community. That is what we are looking for.’
In the Bolivarians’ unusual approach, the leadership is far ahead of its populace. It seeks to exist in parallel and to become prevalent without violence and even without confrontation. It seeks to embody the seeds of the future in the present. It is trying to win adherents by evidence, not force. There is always a danger of authoritarianism when a government is prodding a populace. But the Bolivarian Revolution could also provide a remarkable model, both of a better world and of a very original way to get there.