Heading North, Looking South: Reflections on a Year in Venezuela


I can’t help but reflect on what I am leaving behind as I walk down the ramp onto the airplane that will carry me back to the US after nearly a year living in Venezuela. There exists the tendency — perhaps, common among people like me, raised and educated in the best private schools and universities in the US — to compare any other system of government with ours, to see our representative democratic system as the essence of true democracy, and assume that other countries are condemned to have semi-democracies that have a long way to go if they ever hope to achieve our level of political development.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Venezuela and came across the first participatory democracy I have ever seen. Participatory and “protagonistic” democracy is a model that attempts to stimulate and guarantee the people’s active participation in the process of governing the country. Today in Venezuela, this new model is being developed and promoted as an alternative to the more traditional representative democracy. At first the political changes manifested themselves as graffiti all over Caracas and other urban areas reading “NO,” “Chávez NO se va” (Chávez will not go), and “NO volverán” (they will not come back). At first, I did not understand.

In all of the countries I had previously visited, including my own country, the governments primarily represent the interests of the economic elites, including the owners of the media. It is not a coincidence then that the media generally defends the existing system of government, the status quo. In order to express their opposition to the systemic violence, oppression, and exclusion, the masses are left with few possibilities besides spray paint on the concrete jungle that traps them in their urban barrios.

In Venezuela, as it turns out, the situation is similar but with a few key differences. The elites do control the media, but, unlike in other countries I know, the government does not exclusively serve the interests of the capitalist class; thus, the owners of the media actively seek to destabilize the government. The people, on the other hand, continue to have their voices excluded from the private media, and thus spray paint on concrete remains a key public platform. But, unlike in other countries I have known, the people in Venezuela use their platform to clearly declare their support for the government. Now, for the first time, the graffiti in the barrios invites the government to come on in. I quickly learned that the ubiquitous graffiti was but a hint of what lay beneath the surface in Venezuela’s newly founded participatory democracy.

Participatory democracy demands that citizens play a role in developing government policy, prioritizing projects and budgets so as to benefit the entire community. It is a form of democracy that facilitates monitoring the government’s progress, its level of corruption and inefficiency. The Bolivarian Constitution firmly establishes the people’s right to participate in the democratic process. According to Article 62 of the Constitution, “All citizens have the right to participate freely in public affairs, either directly or through their elected representatives.”

In my last week in Venezuela, I visited a small Andean municipality in Merida State called Santos Marquina where Article 62 was being put into action. The young mayor Balmore Otalor had organized a “participatory diagnostic,” in which any and all members of the community were invited to participate. Some of the organizers of the diagnostic were assigned to take care of the children while others explained the process through which the community members would determine which problems were most pressing for them. Some sixty people, both young and old, showed up for the meeting which was held in someone’s garage. The meeting covered issues such as alcoholism, the need for a new bridge to cross the river running down the middle of the municipality, and — most pressing, according to the votes tallied — the lack of a regular supply of running water.

The next part of the meeting consisted of a discussion about what would be needed to solve the water problem, what the mayor’s budget looked like, and what the community itself could do, without depending on the state or national government for help. The meeting, and others like it in Santos Marquina, will allow the municipality to set their 2006 budget with active participation from the town’s residents in an open, inclusive, and transparent manner. By becoming the driving force behind government policy, the electorate can also become the agents of change in their country. This model of democracy attempts to give life to the classic ideal of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” One of the many results of creating a participatory democracy is that most citizens stay informed, educate themselves, and, whether they support it or oppose it, have a strong opinion about Venezuela’s political process known as the Bolivarian Revolution.

As the plane climbs up over the Caribbean basin, leaving the green hills surrounding Caracas behind, I wonder if I will find the same level of political involvement, the same depth in the democratic process, when I arrive in the US after my hiatus in Venezuela. I am traveling North but looking South.

Chesa Boudin is the translator of Monthly Review Press’ Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez talks with Marta Harnecker. He is currently researching Public Policy in Latin America at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. This essay is based on a section of The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions and 100 Answers, forthcoming from Thunders Mouth Press.