The Book: Community councils in Veinte Tres de enero…
It is not uncommon to hear people that live in Caracas barrios to say, “Chavez is good for now.”
They are among his most ardent supporters, but also have the strongest memories of government abuse. They are ready to defend Chavez, and violently if necessary, but are careful to keep their independence. Of course, this does not mean they cannot take advantage of what Chavez offers.
In a Veinte-Tres parking lot, people are voting. This is Venezuela’s participatory democracy in action. The people are voting for representatives to the board of a new community council that has been founded in La Redoma, a neighborhood of Veinte-Tres.
The community councils are an idea put forth by the government to help residents organize and better their neighborhoods. Once formed, every community council gets 300 million Bolivars for public works that they propose and implement themselves. Their formation is intended to allow people to take responsibility for their environment and not have to wait for the government to make repairs and improvements.
Receiving the money often takes time. A Veinte-Tres resident named Jose Luis says that he helped establish a community council in his neighborhood several months ago, but they have not yet received the money requested for their projects.
Jose Luis is still optimistic. “This is something I believe in,” he says. “This is something beautiful. It is a new experience and it will succeed.”
In the parking lot there are lists of the community council positions and the candidates running for them. There is the Women’s Committee. There is the Communal Bank. The Committee of Service. The Committee of Education. The Committee of Culture. The Committee of Health. The Committee of Sport.
A steady flow of people go in and out of the voting station throughout the day. By eleven in the morning more than one hundred people have voted. At four in the afternoon the voting will end and the ballots tallied in view of the candidates to avoid possible disputes.
“We want the councils to give us things to make our land prettier,” one woman says.
I am watching the voting with R and D, another student from our university who has just arrived in Caracas. Having previously traveled in Latin America and involved in grassroots organizing in the US, Daniel strong believes in Chavez’s revolution.
Through some network he is involved in, he has introduced us to a man named Oell, who says he agrees that Viente-Tres needs to become “prettier.” A lifelong Veinte-Tres resident, Oell has taken it upon himself to explain to people how to form community councils and get the money the government is offering.
Leaving the voting center with Oell, we get in a bus to visit another neighborhood of Veinte-Tres where a group of residents interested in forming their own community council are waiting. Oell says he is educating people about the community councils completely on his own initiative. He is not paid. Until a few months ago, he worked for the government helping to write the community council laws, but recently he quit.
“The communists had arrived,” Oell says. “They didn’t want to listen to people with experience.”
I ask Oell to explain this statement, but he does not elaborate.
“I am helping organize the community councils because I believe in them,” he says. But I am not Chavista. Chavistas are the family of Chavez. I am a revolutionary.”
What he wants is to make Veinte-Tres “not have to be part of an institution to get help.” He sees the community councils as being liberating from Chavez, even if most Veinte-Tres residents support him as president.
When we arrive in the neighborhood, Oell encourages the residents assembled in a small concrete park to stand up, say their name, and talk about what they want to see improved in their neighborhood. This is the second group of people wanting to form a community council that Oell has introduced us to. The first group had been mostly middle aged women. In this group, they are mostly the elderly.
They listen to Oell describe the process of founding a community council. Nobody seems particularly excited. Perhaps they are even a bit weary of ideas and promises. They do not want to commit effort and get nothing in return. No one takes notes. They listen to Oell to decide if forming a community council is even a process they want to begin.
Obnoxiously, during the meeting a rat crunches its way through the trash in an open sewer drain. It scavenges in the trash with its pointed nose, looking, trying to grasp for some nourishment.
Finally, after little response from the residents, an old man leaning on a cane speaks up. He accuses his neighbors of a lack of energy and excitement. “It is important to have more enthusiasm,” he says.
Everyone agrees, but the only thing that gets anyone visibly excited is trying to decide on a name for the community council.
“Perdigon,” one man suggests.
“Patriotica,” suggests another man.
“Bolivar,” suggests a women.
Laughter breaks out. Quickly it is decided that a patriotic or Christian name is important. People start standing up and calling out the different names that they like.
“Good, good, this is good,” Oell says.
The names of revolutionary Ezequiel Zamora and Jesuit priest San Pedro Claver are agreed upon as possibilities. A final decision will be made later.