Venezuela’s Communal Councils: Holding on During Dark Times

By Michael McCarthy and Jared Abbott*

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro walking with community leaders

Maduro in Protected Cultivation Houses of Quibor-Edo / Flicker / Creative Commons /https://www.flickr.com/photos/chavezcandanga/8402610886/in/photostream/

Venezuela’s Communal Councils (Consejos Comunales), created in 2006, endure as an influential grassroots mechanism amid the country’s cataclysmic economic depression and political crisis. Increasingly, their primary function appears to be helping embattled President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling party maintain loyalty among its declining base. Three factors linked to Chavismo’s melding of party and state have enabled the Councils to survive amid radically changed conditions: linking them to state-run food distribution programs, giving them problem-solving functionality, and building block-level group ties in Council-created spaces.

  • Survey data we collected in late 2018 demonstrates that participation in Councils has declined as resources have contracted, but the groups remain alive and well. Our poll of more than 1,078 Communal Council participants revealed that about a third perceive the Councils’ reach as remaining as strong as before the economic slide accelerated four years ago, while another 13 percent believe participation has even grown. Sixty-two percent of respondents who reported ever participating said that they still did in 2018.
  • The Councils have been critical in minimizing major disturbances in popular sectors over the past five years through the role they have played – in coordination with the Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción (CLAP) – in distributing monthly food boxes to a large majority of the population. Not surprisingly, of all the Councils’ thematic committees, food committees are by far the most active. Council participants reporting being active in a food committee increased from zero in 2009 to 20 percent in 2018.
  • Our survey and interviews show that the Councils have been crucial in sustaining the party’s capacity to mobilize its core supporters in key moments such as during widely criticized elections that Maduro held in May 2018. Our research also finds that most Councils are not necessarily ideologically soaked spaces of pro-regime behavior, although many citizens understand them in highly political terms. Participation, while heavily skewed toward Chavismo, reflects the whole Venezuelan political spectrum and often transcends partisan politics. Our survey shows, moreover, that over 60 percent of Venezuelans reported as recently as last December that the Councils benefit the whole community, not just party members. This practical problem-solving dimension helps enable the Councils to retain relatively broad support among Venezuelan society.
  • Our survey results suggest that the Councils are effective in increasing positive attitudes toward the government even in the absence of direct material benefits. For instance, of those who reported that their opinion of the ruling party improved since they began participating in a Council, the vast majority cited their improved social status in the community or increased political efficacy, rather than the receipt of material benefits through the Councils, as the reason for their improved attitude toward the party.

The Councils have operated across three competing models: a “deepening democracy” model focused on expanding avenues of citizen participation within the existing political system; a utopian “dual power” model aimed at replacing the existing political system with a radical direct-democracy; and a “vanguardist” model where the councils serve as a direct instrument of the party to mobilize and grow the electoral base. While all three models played an important role during the early years of the Councils, the vanguard model has recently superseded the others. Although still sometimes used by different party factions to stimulate debate about the government’s policies and performance, the Councils’ role in consolidating a loyal base of supporters to withstand the current period of economic and political crisis has been much more important.

The Councils’ evolving relationship with the ruling Socialist Party raises serious questions about whether, as political and economic conditions grow less stable, participatory institutions like the Councils open political spaces for engagement and incorporation, or devolve into a cynically deployed tool of populist autocrats – with unsettling implications for the future of participatory democracy that some leftist parties in Latin America advocate. Indeed, the Venezuela example suggests that, when political and economic conditions become less favorable for sustaining participatory institutions, most parties will either abandon them or instrumentalize them as part and parcel of an authoritarian power consolidation strategy. The groups’ changing political character becomes a matter not of “if,” but of “when.” Political party leaders can, if they want and if they try, stay true to the participatory vision through imaginative leadership and creative organizational schemes. In Venezuela, however, they have not.

September 9, 2019

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at GWU’s Elliott School, and publisher of Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America. Jared Abbott is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Harvard University. This is adapted from their article, Grassroots Participation in Defense of Dictatorship, in the Summer 2019 Fletcher Forum.

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1 Comment

  1. Roger Friedman

     /  September 9, 2019

    It seems that it is always in question whether a non-governmental civil society organization is an authentic forum for public self-determination, a means of co-opting legitimate grievances into powerless channels, or a front for mobilizing support for partisan purposes. The same seems to be true for labor unions. Why is this the case? Has anyone written about this?

    Reply

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