Venezuelan Communal Councils
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In April 2006 the Government of Venezuela passed The Law of Communal Councils (consejos comunales) which empowers local citizens to form neighbourhood-based elected councils that initiate and oversee local policies and projects towards community development. Communal councils convene and coordinate existing community organizations as well as promote the creation of new work committees, cooperatives and projects as needed in defence of collective interests and the integral development of the community.
The jurisdiction of each council is limited to a self-defined geography housing under 400 families, but unlimited in scope of activities within the community. All key council decisions are made via discussion and majority vote within a citizens' assembly with at least 30% of the adult community present. Councils are highly autonomous although they are often required to coordinate with municipal administrations and receive funds from various levels of government.
Over 19,500 councils have already been registered throughout the country and billions of dollars have been distributed to support their efforts.
The law of Communal Councils was reaffirmed and updated in November 2009.
Communal councils are a group of elected persons from a self-defined residential neighbourhood of about 150 to 400 families in urban areas, or closer to 20 families in rural areas, and potentially 10 in indigenous communities. The principal decision making body of a communal council is the citizens’ assembly. The formal functioning committee is composed of the following five units:
- Citizens' Assembly
- Executive Body
- Financial Management Unit
- Unit of Social Oversight (Anti-corruption)
- Community Coordination Collective
All council persons are people within the community elected by the citizens' assembly for a period of 2 years. No person can occupy positions in more than one unit at time.
In the process of creating a communal council a Provisional Promotion Team from outside the community is often required to help organize the first citizens' assembly. The first assembly elects a provisional Promotional Commission and Electoral Commission. These Commissions define the geographic boundaries of the community, conduct a census and organize the first elections for the formal functioning committees.
In practice a large majority of assembly participants and elected spokespersons are women.
All members within the defined community above the age of 15 can participate in the citizens' assemblies, which have the power to elect and revoke community spokespeople to the communal council, as well as approve projects and development plans for the community. The quorum for elections is 20% of the community. Other assemblies require 10% of the community to achieve the required quorum.
Assembly elections are done directly (i.e. proxy votes are not accepted) and in secret. Other decisions are generally made by majority of raised hands. Meetings are 2-6 hour public events often held outdoors in the streets, basketball courts, empty lots or other available public spaces. Attendance varies typically from 50 to 150 citizens. Frequency of assemblies vary from weekly to less than once a month depending on the preferences and needs of the executive body.
The executive body consists of:
- one elected spokesperson from each work committee or community organization
- one elected spokesperson from each of any defined 'neighbourhood micro-units' (small groups of families connected through being contiguous to a particular estate, block, road, building, etc.)
- one elected spokesperson from any formed commissions
There is no formal hierarchy among spokespeople. Specific responsibilities such as administration and meeting coordination are rotated or taken on by those most keen. In practice the internal structure varies with the preferences and capacity of the community.
Examples of work committees and community organizations that may be represented within a communal council include:
- land committees
- health committees
- cultural groups
- sports clubs
- neighbourhood associations
- education Missions
- Bolivarian Circles
- water boards
- electric boards
- energy boards
- transportation organizations
- environmental groups
- food committees
- grandparent clubs
- electoral battle units
- political parties
- small businesses
- Non-governmental organizations
And others kinds of groups, without any defined limit.
Financial Management Unit
The Financial Management Unit is a group of five community members elected by the Citizens' Assembly. This group is responsible for administrating financial and non-financial resources generated, allocated or awarded to the council. They promote the creation of cooperatives for local development projects, and drive efforts towards the participatory budget and prioritizing of community necessities. They support local economies, micro-financing, provide social assistance resources and present accounts when requested.
Unit of Social Oversight
The Unit of Social Oversight is a group of five community members elected by the Citizens' Assembly. They are an independent group who monitor and report on the application of council resources and activities towards the community development plan. They are also known as the Anti-corruption Unit.
Community Coordination Collective
The Community Coordination Collective (composed of all elected spokespeople serving on the Executive Body, Financial Management Unit & Anti-Corruption Unit) is charged with galvanizing community organization, informing and training community members, and coordinating with the local community-based “militia” army reserves.
Comparisons to Other Examples of Community Governance
Communal councils are probably most similar to the practice of a tribal or community meeting within very small rural communities. In such meetings the assembly may be the highest decision making body with a potentially large scope of decision-making activities as needed within their jurisdiction. But this model is exclusive to tiny communities that are too remote and unique to be effectively governed by distant municipal governments. Communal councils on the other hand exist along the full spectrum of population density from apartment complexes in the large city of Caracas to tiny remote indigenous communities.
The Town meeting model is similar in that it invites the members of the community to discuss and potentially vote on important budgets, polices or plans for the community. A key difference is that Town meetings are normally only held on a yearly basis and serve as rare and limited citizen input into what is otherwise a representative government system. Comparatively communal councils may hold citizens' assemblies as frequently as needed and are relatively independent of the municipal representative system.
Other examples of locally elected councils such as community councils, civil parish, civil township, town council, and city councils are models where the decision-making power is formally delegated to the elected officials and thus not comparable to the participatory nature of the communal councils which have citizens' assemblies as the highest formal decision-making authority.
Eight months after the law was passed, over 16,000 councils had already formed throughout the country. 12,000 of them had received funding for community projects – $1 billion total, out of a national budget of $53 billion. The councils had established nearly 300 communal banks, which have received $70 million for micro-loans.
As of March 2007 19,500 councils have been registered.
Local newspapers frequently include multiple stories about communal councils and advertisements by mayors celebrating their transfer of funds to the councils as doing their part for the “5th Motor of the Revolution: explosion of popular power”. (See links below)
As of April 2007 a majority of the councils are still provisional going through a process of legitimization, registering their official documents, electing spokespersons and generally formalizing their structure according to the new law.
- Video interview with Michael Albert about Communal Councils in Carora and elsewhere in Venezuela.
- Últimas Noticias (March 5, 2007)"Minpades registra 19 mil 500 consejos comunales".
- Venezuelanalysis.com (November 25, 2009) "Venezuela’s Reformed Communal Council Law Aims at Increasing Participation" Suggett, James
- Wynter, Coral & Jim McIlroy (2006) “Marta Harnecker: Venezuela’s experiment in popular power,” Green Left Weekly, issue #693, December 6, 2006.
- El Universal (2006) “Fides entregó más de un billón para consejos comunales,” El Universal, December 9, 2006. Fox, Michael (2006) “Venezuela’s Secret Grassroots Democracy,” Venezuelanalysis.com, November 28.
- Ultimas Noticias (2006) “Bancos comunales satisfacen necesidades de crédito,” Ultimas Noticias, November 11.
- Últimas Noticias March 5, 2007 >
- "LEY DE LOS CONSEJOS COMUNALES" Gaceta Oficial de la Rupublica Bolivariana de Venezuela. No 5806. April 10, 2006. English HTML version - Spanish HTML version - Spanish PDF version
- Marcano, L. Ciro (2009) "From the Neo-Liberal Barrio to the Socialist Commune", Human Geography, A New Radical Journal
- "Consejos Comunales", Ministerio de Participacion Popular y Desarrollo Social, Gobierno Bolivariano de Venezuela
- La Escuela de Ciudadanos, Consejos Comunales section - list recent news articles about the councils.