The Voices of Participatory Democracy in Venezuela
--A review of Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots
By Hans Bennett
There are many different ways that the corporate media continues to misrepresent the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Many critics of this biased media coverage have directly challenged the demonization of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but very few critics, if any, have exposed the media's virtual erasure of the vibrant and growing participatory democracy in Venezuela. Alas, the new book entitled Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots (PM Press, 2010) offers a powerful correction to this misrepresentation by spotlighting a wide range of people and movements that are actively governing themselves with official governmental structures created since the 1998 election of President Chavez, and the growing non-governmental social movements that have existed for several decades.
Venezuela Speaks embodies this non-hierarchical philosophy by presenting the voices of the people themselves in interviews from practically every sector of society, including community organizers, educators, journalists, cultural workers, farmers, women, students, and Indigenous & Afro-Venezuelans. Co-authors CarlosMartinez, MichaelFox, and JoJoFarrell argue persuasively that this untold story of democracy from the bottom-up is key to understanding the complexity of the present-day political situation in Venezuela. They write that "by failing to see beyond Chavez and the government's anti-neoliberal policies, one of the most significant political dynamics in Venezuela has gone ignored and underappreciated--the dynamic between a government that has committed itself to a discourse of grassroots political participation, and the response of ordinary Venezuelans to this call, often in ways that go beyond the expectations of the government, occasionally even challenging it."
Authors Martinez, Fox, and Farrell explain that "the idea of participatory democracy, as opposed to representative democracy has been a pillar of Chavez's political movement since his successful run for office in 1998." The most well-known example of participatory democracy in Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution is the system of communal councils, which have "provided Venezuelans with a legal mechanism to locally organize themselves into democratic structures of between 200-400 families, with the greater goal of determining the way that government funds get used for development and infrastructure projects in their communities."
However, the authors argue that the community councils are just the "tip of the iceberg of the construction of popular power in Venezuela. Over the course of the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuelans have created cooperatives; taken over factories; occupied urban and rural lands; launched community radio and television stations; built centers for culture and popular education; participated in creating national legislation and found numerous other ways of bringing the government's discourse of popular power into reality. Many of these actions have been motivated by the words of President Chavez or have been facilitated by government initiatives. Meanwhile, many people behind these actions continue to pressure the government in order to survive or succeed."