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Venezuela: Failure of the Communal State

By: Trino Márquez - Nov 11, 2013, 5:38 pm

EspañolDecentralization and Participation

Hugo Chávez won Venezuela’s 1998 election with a set of promises that included decentralization. He insisted on the importance of strengthening the power of the nation’s states and municipalities and the consequent resilience of their governors and mayors.

For the first time in national history, the strong majority Chávez possessed in the Constituent Assembly of 1999 voted for decentralization, in accordance with his promises. The new constitution — approved by popular referendum on December 15, 1999 — did, in fact, include a lot of reforms towards decentralization. The 4th Article affirms, for example, that the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is a decentralized federal State.” In addition, the 185th creates the Consejo Federal de Gobierno (Government Federal Council), “the organ in charge of the planning and coordination of policies and actions to develop the process of decentralization and competence transference from national government to states and municipalities.”

Popular participation, at that point, appeared to be associated with a preference for local governance. To realize that — according to Article 182 — the Constituent Assembly created the Consejos Locales de Planificación (Local Planning Councils), presided over by the mayors, local representatives, and civil society organizations.

The balance of power with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela — states, municipalities and community boards — were to be the foundation of participative democracy. The people would be the protagonists of the government’s decisions. That is how Chávez promised it during the campaign, or, at least, that was the idea conceived according to the constitutional text.

Changes to the Discourse

But a few years after the constitutional reform of 1999, which came into force in March 2000, Chávez became uncomfortable with decentralization and local political organizations going against his government. So his speech changed course into a new model, a combination of old, utopian socialism, agrarian Marxism, and Latin-American indigenism. Charles Fourier and his communes, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Juan Carlos Mariátegui, Che Guevara, and FARC — all of them found themselves in a strange mix.

“21st Century Socialism” and some ideas about a communal state started to be appear in Chávez’s speeches from 2004, although his thoughts remained unclear. More ominously, however, he started attacking decentralization as “neoliberal.” He started talking about the indissoluble unity of the state, about democratic participation, the merits of popular Power, and a new form of organization: the communa.

In 2007, these ideas took shape in a new proposal for constitutional reform, although voters rejected this in a referendum. The proposal delineated Chávez’ idea of state. Its new geometry of power (“Nueva Geometría del Poder”) was an important element, along with his pursuit of a communal state.

Ignoring the rejection three years prior, Chávez passed centralization and communal state legislation, with the Ley Orgánica de las Comunas (LOC) in December of 2010. So he went ahead and built the institutions he wanted, with no regard for the referendum that dismissed these ideas just three years before. This communal state would substitute the republican which emerged after the military rebellion that overthrew dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958.

In contrast, this new state did not tie popular participation with the decentralization. Rather, it pulled state government and municipalities in a lower level of power. The community boards, for example, no longer existed.

The Communal State Today

The commune is a “socialist space defined by the integration of nearby communities . . . which recognize each other in the territory occupied by them and in the activities that serve as their sustenance” (LOC, Art. 6).

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Inhabitants of the José Pío Tamayo commune. Source: Blog Comuna José Pío Tamayo.

Their implementation, however, has been less than impressive. Near Caracas, the only commune to be created has basically disappeared. Its name was Gual y España and it was the first pilot project, initiated by Hugo Chávez in 2008, for what the new state would be.

Initially, it had 118 inhabitants, grouped into seven “production units,” and 73 hectares where different goods would be produced. Today, 13 individuals are left, most of the hectares are unproductive, and there is just one production unit — not that it works properly. This project of social engineering failed, as happens with all authoritarian utopias trying to impose by force ideas and ways of living.

These projects will always fail, because they impede the spontaneous order of voluntary interactions, as expounded by Adam Smith, Ludvig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek.

The case of Gual y España stands as a symbol of those who lead the entire country. Nowadays, the chavista project is a folly played out in reality. Nicolás Maduro looks to maintain the plan he received from his ideological mentor and political father. But reality is obstinate, and neither have proved able to gather sufficient followers to found and work on communes. Even their own partisans think the commune idea is a delusion.

Perhaps the worst part of the communes project is that it has weakened states and municipalities, especially those controlled by the political opposition. Popular participation has also suffered, since it cannot work against top down wishes.

The communes idea is a chimera — a fanciful legend — and the communal state is another failure of Venezuelan regime.

Trino Márquez Trino Márquez

Doctor of social science, professor at the Central University of Venezuela, and academic director of Cedice-Libertad. Follow him on Twitter @trinomarquezc.