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Venezuelan communities take centre stage

By James Ingham
BBC News, Caracas

In classrooms, town halls and squares across Venezuela, people are coming together to talk about their communities.

Community council meeting in the 23 January district of Caracas
The community council experiment could have far-reaching results

These are the 26,000 communal councils that are becoming the new power base in Venezuela as President Hugo Chavez continues turning his country into a socialist republic.

If changes being proposed to the country's constitution are accepted, then it will be these councils that have more say in what happens in their local communities.

With promises of less bureaucracy in the way, ordinary citizens will, in theory, be able to apply directly to the president's commissions for funds and manage those funds themselves.

The scope of President Chavez's power worries some sectors in Venezuela, and there are plenty of people who oppose reforms which they say are forcing everyone into one way of doing things.

Nevertheless, one recent poll suggested Mr Chavez could count on 70% support if and when his proposed reforms are put to the vote.

Participation

One of Caracas's poorest neighbourhoods, named after the day democracy was restored when a dictatorial president fled the country, is 23 January. Here dilapidated tower blocks stand out starkly against the city's skyline.

Tibisay Cabaniel
There are so many problems. But participating can really help solve our problems
Tibisay Cabaniel
Community council member

Surrounding them are ramshackle, red-brick homes, often built precariously into the hills, almost balancing on top of each other.

The area is beset with crime and social problems, but there is a strong sense of community and a desire from many to improve their lives.

On a rainy afternoon, people from around a dozen or so community councils have come together to talk about their problems and discuss what they want the role of the councils to be in the future.

Tibisay Cabaniel is a young woman who speaks on behalf of many of her female neighbours.

"We have problems with homes that are badly built that at risk of collapsing in the rain. There are mothers without work. There are so many problems. But participating can really help solve our problems," she said.

"Now, with the integration of the councils and the executive powers of the president, we can begin to give answers to our communities," another spokesman, Jimny Avila, said.

"Hugo Chavez is getting rid of corruption and bureaucracy."

As they sat in a circle writing ideas on a flip chart, one problem kept arising - participation. How to get more people to take part in these local forums.

Adriana Scovino, from the municipal council, was leading the discussions and helping the groups.

"They need to learn how to organise themselves and also how to motivate their neighbours into participating," she said.

"For many years we've had a culture of non-participation, but this is changing. It's a slow process. It's not easy."

Money

President Chavez wants to double the number of community councils to 50,000 by the end of the year in what he calls an "explosion of communal power".

Political power is being concentrated in the president's hands. Community organisations that don't think like the president cannot succeed
Leopoldo Lopez
Mayor of Chacao district
He says in the future the councils will take on more responsibilities currently held by governing bodies. They could run local utilities and even choose judges. All their decisions would be approved by local citizens assemblies.

There is plenty of money on the table which should help motivate people.

Mr Chavez recently announced another $800m (400m) to be allocated to 6,000 projects and he is giving each council start-up funds and a new computer that has been made through a Chinese Venezuelan partnership.

But all this is raising concerns among those who dislike the radical nature of the president's politics. Opposition groups say democracy is being politicised, with the local councils used as hubs for political activism.

'Contradiction'

In Caracas's three opposition-run municipalities, there is plenty of work going on with the community, but without the talk of socialism or revolution.

I met Chacao's mayor Leopoldo Lopez in a modern community sports centre. Dozens of children were being taught to swim or dance, all of them on a free, council-run playscheme.

View of the 23 January district of Caracas
Communal councils are making decisions affecting everyday life
"With the amount of money in Venezuela, every area could have facilities like this," Mr Lopez said.

"If more of the profits from oil were spent here rather than overseas for political reasons, then everyone would be better off."

Mr Lopez agrees that people should have more control of their communities, but he says the president's definition of people power is a contradiction.

"Communal councils have to register themselves with the president's office. But if they're not absolutely loyal to the government, they won't get registered. And if there're not registered, there's no access to government funds.

"You need to promote plurality, tolerance and diversity. Without this, there is no democracy," he continued.

"Political power is being concentrated in the president's hands. Community organisations that don't think like the president cannot succeed."

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