I had seen the notices posted on the entrance to each Bloque at the Urbanizacion where the family apartment is:
Eleccionnes de Voceros y Voceras de los Comites de Trabajo Del Consejo Comunal; Parroquia San Juan
(Elections of Spokespersons for the Work Committees of the Communal Council, San Juan parish)
We walked around back to where the old elementary school is, and there they were, set up at two portable tables, poll volunteers, candidates, and a few voters trickling in and out. Suddenly we recognized Angela Gonzales, who we met two years ago as a spokesperson at the larger Barrio Adentro clinic in the Plaza de San Martin. She greeted us enthusiastically, and began introducing us to her friends and colleagues.
My wife attended school here, but Angela introduced us with a smile as “international observers”. Everyone knew we had just dropped in, but they seemed pleased that we were curious enough to come by and they liked the label. People wanted to take pictures posing with us (I am still hoping to get a few to post here).
The elections were for two oversight groups (Administration and Controller), and a number of technical committees (Infrastructure, Health, Environment, Energy, Culture, Housing, and others). I asked Angela what the purpose of all these communal councils was. She said, “they are intended to be a link between the Federal government and the local community.”
I asked another candidate how much of the community is participating in the vote. He said in the first elections, 1-2 years ago, about 35% of voters participated here, but they were hoping for 45%-50% this time. I met Auristela Gonzales, a candidate for the environmental committee. I told her my work in the United States was in this area and I would be interested to hear what her plans were. She replied she would like to do something about garbage underneath a nearby bridge overpass that sometimes piles up for days, and to plant more trees.
As we were talking, I heard her and Angela say to each other, not really to me, “our President is such a great man”; ” yes, he is a wonderful leader.”
Perhaps sensing my hesitation, Angela then said, “big changes are always very difficult”.
After this interesting and agreeable visit, I thought more about the purpose of the Council. I thought about our Community Council back home. On matters of neighborhood scope, we deal with the City government. Why were these neighborhood committees going directly to the Federal government?
I asked someone whose name I agreed not to mention here. Oh, that’s simple they said. This is a way for the Chavez government to bypass the five metropolitan governments in Caracas. During the last municipal elections in 2008 or 2009; in Caracas, Maracaibo and Valencia, opposition candidates solidified control of a large majority of metropolitan governments. This is where political opposition to Chavez is concentrated.
The committees are another parallel institutional, they continued. What the Chavez government can’t control, they just find a way to go around. Furthermore, the new Law of the Communes, certain to pass, will make it the law of the land to continue what began some years ago, fiscally starving municipal governments so they have no power anymore.
The Law of the Communes, I had learned, would operate like the Expropriation Law except with funds instead of property: fiscal resources not presently being utilized by municipal governments could be returned to the central government to provide for a social need.
I am curious to find out what the Communal Council at San Juan parish will do. I also wonder whether in practice these committees really wind up helping to neutralize municipal governments. I have heard that municipal governments in Caracas like Chacao do a great job of keeping the streets safe, traffic moving, public spaces maintained. Hostility between national and local governments, if really true, seems really unfortunate and unnecessary.