Democracy in action: a visit to Venezuela’s communal councils

We travelled to Caracas in July 2010 to see how the Bolivarian revolution was progressing. Of everything we saw, we found the degree of community level organisation the most impressive. Since 2006, thousands of communal councils have been set up by Venezuelans.  The size of the communal councils can range from 150 families in cities to 10 families in rural areas. Following the tradition of social movements in Venezuela, communal councils are set up to deal with local problems such as schools, roads and cultural-political activities.

Before visiting Petare, one of the largest barrios (slums) in Latin America, to attend a communal council meeting, we did not fully realise the importance of these councils in the lives of local people as well as in the revolution. When we arrived, a well attended meeting was already underway.  The main item on the agenda was decent accommodation for those who live in poor and unhealthy housing conditions. After an informative briefing by the speaker, who was a woman in her mid 50s, each individual worker (brick layers, guards, electricians, etc) involved in the housing project took a turn to explain what has been done and any obstructions faced so far.
Discussions were not restricted to the housing project and related problems. Several other issues were raised and discussed by the participants, including education and setting up a local supermarket.
There were people from all walks of life in the meeting: workers, unemployed, housewives, teachers etc.  The eagerness of the people to actively participate in the work of the communal council was particularly striking.
The next day we went to La Bombilla, another barrio with a communal council.  This communal council was building a house for orphans. All the workers in the building site were local workers who were volunteering to support their community.  La Bombilla also has its own social TV and radio station, which are run in collaboration with the communal council.  The communal council in the area has been dealing with education, health, transport, sports areas and many other things that affect life in the community.  The experience of community organisation has transformed the community.  As one of the volunteers said, “Before the only government officials we saw in our community were soldiers or police. But now we see doctors, teachers, and sports trainers in our community”.  
During our visit to 23 de Enero, a barrio with a population of 300,000 people, we were told that the area has been largely governed by the Socialist Commune, a coordinating body made up of 7 communal councils. The Bolivarian government agencies have been providing assistance in many areas, including funding workshops and training local people.  With the collaboration of Alexis Vive Commune, the Socialist Commune was successfully running several projects such as local shops to provide cheap food and clothing, setting up urban farms in empty lands, building sporting areas, repairing buildings, and providing security.
In many council meetings we witnessed lively political discussion about the laws relating to new forms of the governance and the coming election on 26th September. There is no doubt that in time, community councils could play an important role in determining the way the country is governed and priorities are set.  We came back to London feeling very hopeful about the future of the revolution. We think that Venezuelan revolutionary experience is an example not only for Latin America but for us here as well.