Friday 1 February 2008

Venezuela: New mission, laws to extend popular power

by Federico Fuentes, Caracas from Green Left Weekly 6 September 2008 The August 24 announcment by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to officially launch the social mission April 13, and the decreeing of 26 new and reformed laws on July 29, represent a further push to empower the poor communities. Moreover, these moves represent a new offensive as part of Chavez's stated aim of building "socialism of the 21st century" and eradicating poverty by giving power to the people. Among other things, the new mission and laws build upon the communal councils that have been established across the country with the goal of organising the Venezuelan people, in order to transfer responsibilities until now in the hands of the state bureaucracy inherited by the Bolivarian revolution. Mission April 13 is named in honour of the successful struggle of the poor majority, who along with the majority of the armed forces, defeated the coup organised by Venezuela's business federation, Fedecamaras, on April 11, 2002. The coup briefly removed Chavez from the power, but an uprising resorted him two days later. Eradicating poverty The mission's objective is "eradicating poverty in all its manifestations", according to minister for participation and social protection, Erika Farias. With the aim of expanding throughout the country, the mission has begun with pilot projects in 47 sectors across eight of the country's 24 states, with more than US$186 million already approved as initial funding. The money will go directly to communal councils — grassroots bodies based on communities of 200-400 families in urban areas and 20-50 families in rural areas — where 80% of the projects will be directly carried out by the community and 20% by the corresponding ministries. Farias stated that mission would have three fundamental components: political, social and economic. It will promote new forms of social organisations "in the path towards the construction of socialism", such as the "socialist commune". Evoking the Paris Commune of 1871, the world's first example of workers exercising political power, the communes will involve the participation of already existing communal councils, along with various social movements. First elected in 1998 on the back of popular discontent with neoliberialism, Chavez moved quickly to promote the organisation of his social base among the poor people into a to advance his radical project of national liberation. Both before, and more so after, his election, an explosion of numerous forms of local community organisation occurred in the form of neighbourhood associations, health committees, housing organisations and others. Communal councils The creation of communal councils, legally recognised in April 2006, served to bring together these different sectoral organisations around discussing and acting upon a local development plan. The idea behind the councils is that it be the communities themselves that diagnose the local problems, democratically decide on the tasks to be solved and, with funding from the national, regional and municipal budgets, begin to tackle these basic problems. According to Farias, there are currently 36,000 communal councils. Farias explained that Mission April 13 would aim to integrate all the other social missions in order to "be able to opportunely respond to the necessities of the communities", such as water, electricity, roads, housing, schools and health. Since 2003, the Venezuelan government has established more than 30 social missions. Confronted with the urgency of meeting the most pressing needs of the poor, and the inefficiency of the existing capitalist state institutions, the government established socialmissions in the area of health, education, food distribution and housing among others. The missions have relied on bringing together existing local community organisations and promoting them in unorganised areas. Cuba has also played a crucial role in the missions, providing doctors and teachers working as volunteers in poor areas. The government has promoted further social missions in areas such as culture, tree-planting, energy saving, indigenous rights and tackling the problem of street kids and homelessness. Farias explained that in the economic area, "the community and government will promote organisational forms that facilitate the transformation from the capitalist model towards the socialist model … which is in the framework of the new [popular] economy law based on the promotion of socialist units of production". The new popular economy law was one of the 26 decrees issued by Chavez on July 29, the last day of the enabling law granted to him by the National Assembly that allowed the president to decree laws in relating to defined areas. While the right-wing opposition have strongly attacked the newly decreed laws, in essence the new laws form part of the project that aims to open the way to the construction of socialism that Chavez presented to the Venezuelan people in 2006, when he won with more than 63% of the vote, and fall within the framework of the constitution voted upon by the Venezuelan people in 1999. Many of these laws are directly related to the expansion of community control over community affairs. As a package, the laws aim to strengthen popular power. For example, the law on public administration, along with enshrining the social missions in law, outlines a commitment for joint management of state institutions between public authorities and communal councils. The law integrates communal councils into the public administration, facilitating the transfer of control over activities previous carried out by public administrative bodies to communities. The housing law directly involves communal councils in national housing projects. The councils will also play an important role in agriculture and food distribution, through the new law of food security and sovereignty. The new law for the development of the popular economy, which states that "the productive model needs to respond to the necessities of the community and be less subordinated to the reproduction of capital", points towards production controlled by communities through "companies of social production", "companies of social distribution" and family-based production. Four days before the decrees were announced Chavez had stressed the importance of building "communes", arguing that without communes "how do we transfer property?" The day of the launch of Mission April 13, Chavez said, "a factory installed in a neighbourhood will belong [to the community], because it is collective property". "In this way we are sowing the seed of Bolivarian socialism, which is not a copy of [previous models] but rather something we are creating. This is real democracy."

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