By Asad Ismi
Julio Chavez is one of the leaders of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. In his country, he is known as “the other Chavez” (referring to President Hugo Chavez, to whom he has no family links).
As mayor of the city of Carora (in Lara province located in western Venezuela), Julio Chavez is well-known for bringing the Bolivarian Revolution to the municipal level by introducing participatory democracy at the grassroots. He did this through the remarkable creation of a municipal constituent assembly, a participatory budget, and one of the largest networks of communal councils in Venezuela.
Having left the mayoralty, Julio now serves as a deputy in the Lara provincial legislature for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV — the ruling party headed by President Hugo Chavez.). He is also member of the Presidential Commission on Participatory Democracy and Popular Power. I interviewed Julio when he recently visited Toronto.
Asad Ismi: Tell us about Venezuela’s creation of participatory democracy.
Julio Chavez: We are building a revolution with the people; they are the historical actors, not the objects of this process. The crisis of capitalism includes the crisis of representative democracy and its continuing corrosion. In contrast to representative democracy, we are constructing participatory democracy in Venezuela, which involves the creation of popular power from the bottom up. We aim to bring the changes brought about by the Bolivarian constitution at the national level down to the municipal level.
So what we’ve been doing in Venezuela is transferring power and resources to the grassroots: that is, to the organized communities so that they can then resolve their own problems because they know best themselves what their problems are.
A.I.: How did the people participate in the creation of the revolutionary municipal constitution?
J.C.: It was the Bolivarian constitution approved under President Hugo Chavez that provided the legal framework for reconstructing the political structure of the country from the grassroots up. In Carora, we convoked a municipal constituent assembly to create a new municipal constitution that would be consistent with the Bolivarian constitution.
The municipal constituent assembly provided for direct participation of the people. We organized the people by neighbourhoods and ensured that they would elect representatives of these areas to the municipal constituent assembly. The representatives of the neighbourhoods brought with them the views of the neighbourhoods to the municipal constituent assembly. So the neighbourhoods were now directly represented rather than indirectly, which was the case before.
Through discussion, the municipal constituent assembly created new ordinances that reflected the concerns of the neighbourhoods. The old ordinances were not allowing the process of transformation required by the new Bolivarian constitution; for example, they would not allow the creation of a participatory budget or the nationalization of private enterprises. The new ordinances make the municipal laws consistent with the Bolivarian constitution and facilitated endogenous socialist development which is for the benefit of the people rather than for the benefit of private profit.
A.I.: Tell us about the participatory budget that you introduced at the municipal level.
J.C.: Through the municipal constituent assembly, for the first time, the people had the power to decide how to spend their budget; this sort of decision-making was traditionally in the hands of mayors. The people who organized at the community levels were given all the information about the resources they had at their disposal; they were also given the power to establish priorities. So the people could match the priorities to the amount of resources they wanted to devote to them.
People at the neighbourhood level not only decide what their problems and priorities are, but they are also in charge of executing the change that is needed. In this way we ensure that resources are not concentrated in the core of the municipality, but are distributed to the outskirts, especially the rural areas that have formerly been marginalized and now can control their own budgets to solve their problems directly.
We also ensure that the decision-making process at the municipal level is now open, transparent, honest and participatory, as everyone can have access to the information about what resources are available, how they are going to be spent, and thus be involved directly in the implementation of policies.
A.I.: In Venezuela, it is said that the real engine of popular revolutionary power consists of the communal councils. Tell us about the role of these councils.
J.C.: The councils are part of the birth of a new state. They are inspired by the rich experience of Venezuela’s indigenous people, who live communally. This is the essential communism which is the genesis of our proposal of building a socialist government. We are basing ourselves on this ancestral experience of our original peoples, and on their cosmological vision.
Usually in a state there are three levels: national, provincial, and municipal, but we are going beyond these levels to the grassroots. We think that the real roots of the nation are in the grassroots community at the bottom. It is from the heart of that community that the communal councils arise. The councils are the source of power itself, which comes from the people.
The councils are forms of self-government that aim to develop communities without the inequalities and imbalances that occurred under past neoliberal governments. Once we have advanced in the transformative process, the councils will replace the municipal governments that are symbols of the old state, and which are bureaucratic and clientelist.
The communal councils came out of the original municipal constituent assembly, which created the policies for a new state. The councils were assigned the task of carrying out these policies. The communal councils are organizations of between 200 and 400 families who live in a given neighbourhood. All of the families of a neighbourhood are members of the communal council, and they organize themselves into different committees, such as committees for housing, water, and lands.
The communal councils also have their own bank, which can get money from the municipal and national governments. The money in this bank is for financing socially productive projects that create employment for the people.
The communal council decides what projects are needed by the neighbourhood and buys the labour and materials required for their completion. In this way, the councils have built houses and schools, and paved roads for much less cost than when these tasks were contracted to private companies. Also, socialist industries are being set up that are controlled by the councils.
The different communal councils unite into the socialist commune. The commune is the expression of self-government stemming from a new vision of what a real socialist and revolutionary state should be. This state should be based on popular power which deepens the democratic participation of the Venezuelan people. With the communes, we are creating sustainable communal cities, and this is the way that we will be building the new state of Venezuela.
A.I.: Can you give us an example of an activity that the municipal government used to do, but that is now done by the communal councils?
J.C.: In four years, our municipal government, with the help of the Lara provincial government, built 700 homes. When we carried out the building of houses through the housing committee of the communal councils, in eight and a half months and with less resources, we built 2,900 homes. So, compared to what we did in four years with the old state bureaucratic structures, more than four times the number of houses were built by the communal councils in less than one-fourth of the time.
This is a very stark example that shows that it is possible to construct a new state when we follow the policies of the Bolivarian constitution, the laws of our municipal constituent assembly, and our revolutionary dedication.
There are many examples like this in the areas of public services, parks, health care, transport, sewage and water treatment. The old state took two or three years to build water treatment plants with exorbitant costs. Now the communal councils, in less than a year, have constructed water treatment plants with good technology that resolves the problem of water for the whole community.
Similarly, the communal councils will build 4.4 kilometres of roads with the same amount of money that it cost private companies to build 1.4 kilometres of roads. Obviously, with the work of the communal councils, there are lower costs and greater efficiency and quality.
A.I.: In this transfer of power from the municipality to the communal councils, you have experienced considerable opposition from the Venezuelan élite that benefited from the previous arrangement. Please tell us about this opposition.
J.C.: Remember that the municipalities that the Revolution has now taken over were historically in the hands of the most extreme oligarchies. Practically all the economic and political power was concentrated in the hands of a few families. The private commercial media are also in the oligarchy’s hands. The media are instruments in the hands of the political opposition which has opposed the Bolivarian Revolution. In my city of Carora, I would be attacked in the media every day: they would call me crazy, a gangster, and a drug addict.
We have a vicious opposition with close to neo-Nazi attitudes, because the élite does not forgive that the rural and urban poor are now the government. Our policies provide opportunities for those historically excluded from any participation, for those whose voices were never listened to because they did not have prominent last names, social status, or economic power. Now the oligarchy has to listen to such people who lift themselves up with great dignity to say, “It is enough, four hundred years of silence is enough.”
Now the hour of the people has come to make the revolution in peace and in democracy.
A.I.: Could you tell us about the replacement of capitalism and its accompanying individualism with the communal bonds of social responsibility in Venezuela? Is this the definition of the Revolution?
J.C.: Yes, it is. The neoliberal model is a savage model. Historically, it has been shown not to work, politically or economically. So we are looking for a model that will not give privilege to capital, but rather to the society, to men and women. Another world is possible through the road of socialism. The new man and woman have to promote values of solidarity and humanism, and think of the welfare of their neighbour, of attending to the elderly, of supporting the rights of indigenous people, of returning to women their protagonist role in society, of taking care of the environment.
This new man and woman have to distance themselves from any material interest, from capitalism, from personal accumulation, and devote themselves to the collective good. Men and women with such a new vision are what we want to create, and we are doing so with a new revolutionary education.
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, December 2009/January 2010
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the radio documentary The Latin American Revolution ahich has been aired on 40 radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Europe reaching about 33 million people. He is also author of the anthology with the same title which can be ordered from the CCPA.This is the fourth in a series of articles on the Latin American Revolution. Thanks to Dr. Maria Paez Victor and Dr. Carles Muntaner for translation of the interview.
(See below an excerpt from Julio Chavez’s speech to students at the University of Toronto.)
Ten Years of the Bolivarian Revolution:
Venezuelans Now Have High Levels of Health Care and Literacy
By Julio Chavez
I want to talk about what we have achieved in ten years of revolution in Venezuela inspite of coup attempts, sabotage and other aggression directed against us by the United States. The essence of the Bolivarian Revolution is the series of “missions” (or social programs) we have created for the benefit of the people. These are strategic programs of inclusion such as Mission Barrio Adentro which provides free health care to every Venezuelan, Mission Robinson that provides free education and Mission Zamora that redistributes land to rural workers. When the revolution started in 1999, more than 40% of our population was illiterate. With the collaboration of Cuba, in less than three years, we taught three million Venezuelans how to read and write. Now we have one of the highest levels of literacy in the world. With Mission Sucre, the people do not have to go to university. The university comes to them in their neighbourhoods and rural areas and in this way we have obtained a very high rate of university enrollment.
When President Hugo Chavez took power in 1999, almost 80% of the people had no access to medical services. Mission Barrio Adentro which is undertaken again with Cuban help, has provided 46,000 Cuban doctors to Venezuelans. This mission has set up popular clinics and diagnostic centers all over the country and taken care of 24 million patients. Mission Milagro (meaning miracle) has restored the sights of thousands of Venezuelans. Mission Gregorio Hernandes takes care of disabled people who were formerly excluded from medical attention and Mission Sonrisa (smile) provides free dental care.
Mission Mercal has set up community markets that provide food subsidized by the government in many neighbourhoods so people can afford to eat properly. Part of this mission is a network of large supermarkets in big cities. Now food is in the hands of the people whereas before private companies used to control it and deny it to the public (as in 2002) in order to cause a crisis for the government. Mission Arbol is aimed at recovering forests and nature and includes the creation of protected reserves. Mission Guaicaipuro makes available all the above programs to the native people of Venezuela in a culturally sensitive fashion. For example, when native Venezuelans are taught literacy, it is in their own language not Spanish. We also have missions for the homeless, unwed mothers and children. Mission Musica aims to teach music to one million children and include them in popular orchestras.
So we can say today that Venezuela’s income from petroleum is used to fulfill the needs of its people. With these social programs of inclusion, we have been able to significantly reduce unemployment in Venezuela despite the present crisis of capitalism. In 2007, we had 6.2% unemployment. When the revolution started in 1999, unemployment was almost 20%. The minimum wage for Venezuelan workers in ten years of revolution has increased by more than 600%. Infant mortality has been reduced from 21 per 1,000 babies to 13, and illiteracy has been reduced to 0.4% from 40% of the population. University enrollment has grown from 21% of the population to 36%, the second highest in Latin America, after Cuba. We have accomplished all this while winning almost every single election since 1999.
We want to share our social programs with the rest of Latin America and we are doing so by advancing the process of regional integration through the creation of progressive trade alliances such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). ALBA promotes trade that answers the social needs of the people not the dictates of the capitalist market. We reject free trade pacts. Complementing ALBA is the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) which sets up the first South American parliament, and Telesur, the first television channel of South America that provides alternative media for our people. Then there is Banco del Sur or the Bank of the South which pools the resources of Latin American countries to fund progressive projects in many countries. Venezuela alone has $35 billion in currency reserves and Brazil has much more.
We are also linking up with our friends in Africa and we just finished a very important conference with African countries. We have alliances with both China and Russia. Our integration initiatives are particularly important in light of the military aggression of the United States against us. The U.S. is setting up seven military bases in Colombia (our neighbour) and has also reactivated its Fourth Fleet in Latin America. This militarism is aimed at crushing the social process we are implementing in Venezuela and at ending the winds of change in Latin America.
To those who dream of building a utopia, we say it is actually possible to build it and we are trying to do this in Venezuela with peace and democracy. Canada has to recognize this. You can’t be part of the problem. You must be part of the solution.
Thanks to Dr. Maria Paez Victor for translation of the speech.