The immense changes in the political and social landscape of Venezuela in the last decades are difficult to understand without the emergence and unique development of democratic innovations. The country has both offered the most fecund ground for participatory mechanisms and experimentalism with communitarian institutions, and extremely polarized evaluations of their efficacy and impact.
The origins of this participation boom in Venezuela are however not only based on Hugo Chávez’s political movement and ideas, but also in a new social and political discourse and practice that agitated Venezuela’s civil society beginning already in the 70s and 80s and shared across the Christian Democracy, the new parties of the left and human rights movements. Thus, Venezuela began a process of decentralization in the late 1980s as part of a major period of institutional reform designed to restore legitimacy to the discredited political system of the time, infusing life into active initiatives from outside the State.
In the 1990s, these practices expanded with civic and human rights, the creation of civil society organizations and state delegation of social programs to community organizations, which were of central importance for the later development of the constitutional reform of 1999 and the conception of participatory democracy included there.
As a result of this process, Venezuela’s revolutionary Constitution of 1999 defines the right to directly participate in public affairs and the basis for an institutional architecture that enables citizen participation on all levels. The preamble already declares the aim of refunding the Venezuelan Republic to establish a “democratic, participative and protagonist” society through decentralized, alternative and revocable institutions, setting the ground for a political system with no declared competition between the principles of a representative or participative democracy. A high number of mechanisms of direct democracy and deliberative and representative institutions coexist with more avant-garde measures such as the inclusion of indigenous groups’ representatives in governmental deliberative bodies, the promotion of co-governance in environmental and territorial planning, and the central role of civil society in the decentralization of the state and the management of municipal public services.
Its most remarkable feature regarding the organization of the state is the institutionalization of two extra Powers next to the classical tripartite division. The Poder Ciudadano (Citizen Power) and the Poder Electoral (Electoral Power), as two new state branches independent from the Judiciary, the Legislative, and the Executive, are comprised of social representatives and their designation is also done by citizen-led Councils (Consejo Nacional Electoral and Consejo Moral Republicano).
Nevertheless, the further incorporation and regulation of these innovations in legislation and administrative structures have followed a more complex path, evidencing a certain trial-and-error approach to Chávez’s political project. From 1999 to 2005, new legal acts attempted to formalize democratic innovations as mostly co-governance instruments for consultation and decision-making at the regional and local planning level. With a more deliberative character but the possibility of taking binding decisions, their consultation is required to craft policies with community groups. However, the failure of these new institutional designs is well-recognized in the literature.
The political expansion of these institutions only took place during the second stage of Chávez’s government, from 2006 to 2009. Most famously, the Ley Orgánica de los Consejos Comunales from 2006 (Law of Communal Councils) formalizes nationwide micro-spaces for participation and management of public projects. The idea behind these experiments is to integrate community organizations, social groups, and citizens into a system of decision-making in which the citizens’ assemblies embody the greatest expression of sovereignty.
But from 2006 onwards, the concept of 21st Century Socialism, the appeal to Bolivarian values and institutions, and to the Popular Subject of Power, have also had the consequence of a strong polarization. After 2009, the Government accelerated legislation to formalize a “Communal State" by seeking a new socio-political organization in which participation and socialism are conceptualized as principles of a new model of society. In total, at least 11 laws have been passed between 2009 and 2015 which introduce new definitions for participation.
Participation is therefore concretely consolidated in the creation of a number of spaces that somehow belong to the state structure but are mainly comprised of citizen representatives, elected at the local level and with a strong communitarian character.
The most important cases in this sense are the Consejos Comunales (Community Councils), Comunas (Municipalities), Mercalitos Comunales (Communal Markets), and Comités de Tierras Urbanas (Land Committees), fundamentally aimed at local management, public planning and the social administration of public services by communities. These are also the most relevant cases, not only because they are widely assessed and disputed by academic literature, but because of their extraordinary expansion and replication all over the country. As extremely politicized and controversial spaces, they are also probably the most emblematic cases from the Chávez era.
The Community Councils, in particular, have been subject to considerable debate, with opinion sharply divided as to whether they represent a radical new vision of decentralization and participation, or just reflect another way to further centralize power, previously within the hands of President Hugo Chávez and currently of Nicolás Maduro. The fact that almost the totality of democratic innovations is government-led and that civil society organizations are mostly present within state structures has also led to political and academic debate about Venezuela in contrasting terms of representative and participatory democracy, of socialism and authoritarianism.
Experiences of direct democracy, through referendums and public consultations, are also abundant. More recently, some initiatives to use digital tools for monitoring and denouncing corruption, and to bring citizens closer to the work of the administration and the legislative bodies, have been attempted. There are a number of innovations aimed at the democratization of the Judiciary and at granting its independence through the incorporation of citizens to candidate selection process (Comité de Evaluación Postulaciones del Poder Ciudadano).
The outcomes of institutional experiments have nevertheless been heavily influenced by political polarization, causing even the very democratic character of Venezuela’s government to be brought into question. Thus, finding objective, well-documented and independent analyses on democratic innovations in Venezuela remains an ongoing challenge.
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