The learning process is a basic argument for, and an important outcome of, participatory democracy. Parallel to the decision-making, a process of learning takes place where people learn how different things work and function and how they can influence them: a budget, a health station, a community kitchen. Knowledge is required to participate in building up society, and the ability to learn from each other is crucial. Through the knowledge process citizens learn to take responsibility.
Venezuela has been the host of several important conferences lately. Within a few weeks of each other a national conference on workers-run and co-management run factories, a Latin-American conference on the same theme, and a Latin-American conference on participatory democracy have been held in the city of Caracas. The Latin-American conference on participatory democracy was organised to discuss how power is handled and to start a real exchange of ideas and experiences. Is Venezuela becoming the centre for practising, discussing and divulging examples of participatory democracy?
Participation is a key word in the Bolivarian revolution. Not simply that it is mentioned around 90 times in the constitution, but that it is through participation that the revolution has been saved, maintained and developed. The proclaimed Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela is a revolution made up of parallels. When governors, mayors, ministers, officials, bureaucrats, members of parliaments are too slow the president’s short cut around that thick middle layer has been parallelism. An important part of what is actually being won in the process is created through parallels.
President Chavez is creating a parallel bank, health and education programs, and a parallel to CNN – Telesur. The left-wing theory of creating parallel powers to break down and end the old order is taken to new breathtaking heights. The parallels are working – illiteracy has been exterminated and people are indeed gaining more and more power.
During the Conference on Participatory Democracy, excursions were organised to Caracas slums, called or and barrios. After hours of looking into community kitchens that give small children, pregnant women and elderly people lunch every day, a brand new info-centre with several computers with high speed internet where students of all ages can do their home work, the medical clinic that announces dance therapy that the Cuban doctors give several times a week, Claudia Lopez from the Coordinadora del Agua, Cochabamba Bolivia bursts out in a huge smile and says: people are so happy with what is happening here. The journalist and founder of www.lavaca.org Claudia AcuÃ±a also mentioned joy in her piece from the conference. That joy is contagious and I am sure a factor in all the participative processes.
Around 1,300 persons attended the first day if the conference, but the success was not the numbers but the mix. One remarkable thing about revolutionary processes is that they make people meet outside their own social boundaries. The participants at the conference were men and women (majority women), old and young, poor and rich, academics and people who have just learnt how to read and write, intellectuals and beginners, professors and students. Mixture is good but difficult; people are not used to it. Some people take up a lot of space, others almost none.
In Venezuela the difference between men and women is marked. Women participate more; at the grassroots level there is a clear majority of women being active. At the top there is a clear majority of men being members of parliaments, mayor and governors. There is also a marked division between those with too many words and those with lack of words, mostly based on class differences but also gender. Men talk more on the expense of women.
The difficult thing in the workshops was to redistribute time and space. The rule about putting your name on a list and then respecting an amount of time given to talk didn’t seem to fit anyone. Those with a surplus of words talked more than the time given, did not respect the list, launched questions whenever they wanted to. The silent ones talked very concentrated and short when they were given time. Young people found it difficult to find a space in the workshops and unfortunately many vanished. And there we were – it was as if all the difficulties and contradictions that exist in society were being reproduced in the small workshops.
Examples of participatory democracy do exist in other countries, but they have to be put into another context. Some states undermine and other states bolster participation. Venezuela and Cuba are two examples of states that, in different ways, promote participation and redistribute power so that people can take decisions for their communities. In Argentina and Bolivia participation is being criminalised, repressed and fought against.
This also became a learning process because many Venezuelans think that Argentina has a progressive president. And surely seeing Kirchner on TV the days after the summit of the Americas, defending national sovereignty and criticising Mexico for being too soft on the US, he looked radical. In fact, we were told by Claudia AcuÃ±a, author of a book about worker- run factories in Argentina, the occupied factories are facing evictions. She talked about representative democracy taken to its extreme – demonstrations are not allowed. Instead, they are told, when they want to defend a threatened factory they should go through their representatives. What people see on Venezuelan TV news is one thing; reality on the grass roots level is quite different. Despite the differences it is very obvious that people, experiences and examples can engage in a learning process together.
Venezuelans are often very open with their problems and do not try to give a romanticised picture of the process. There are problems with corruption which are very hard to track down and with so called revolutionaries profiting from that. There are cooperatives that just work like any other company. There are leaders who do not want to give power to people, afraid of loosing it themselves. Development in the country is uneven, some mayors like Freddy Bernal in Caracas and Clemente Scotto in Caroni really push for and come up with ideas about how to give people power. In other places participatory democracy is not being implemented with the same enthusiasm. And so people listened and learnt.
Processes like the World Social Forum, movements and parties could learn from this, to create learning spaces. When does a conference become successful? Not when it thinks it has something to tell society, but when it actually achieves bringing society in and becoming part of a learning process.
For more information about the conference see www.participamos.org