If there are obstacles, the shortest line between two points may be the crooked line. —Bertolt Brecht
One of the central debates about Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his “Bolivarian Revolution” concerns the question of democracy. To supporters, he has ushered in an “explosion of popular power,” with the ills of representative democracy giving way to the promise of participatory democracy. To opponents, Chávez is a ruthless dictator, riding roughshod over constitutional order and ignoring the country’s true needs in his quest for perpetual power. (Those in the latter camp might claim as new evidence for their views Chávez’s January appointment as defense minister of Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, who has been accused by the United States of colluding with Colombia’s FARC rebels in drug and weapons trafficking and is branded as hostile to democracy by opposition politicians in Venezuela.)
Both of these views can be found in the largely agrarian municipality of Torres (population 197,000), in the central-western Venezuelan state of Lara. The pages of El Caroreño, Torres’s only newspaper, are filled with vivid images of potholed streets, dilapidated housing and hooded bandits. The scathing attacks regularly unleashed by El Caroreño’s fiercely anti-Chavista editor (and ex-mayor of Torres), Javier Oropeza, against the “ineptitude” and “negligence” of Torres’s past two mayors, Julio Chávez (2004–08) and Edgar Carrasco (2008–present), leave little doubt regarding the paper’s opinion on the source of the municipality’s woes. Yet although many of the problems featured in El Caroreño are quite real, it is difficult to sustain the idea that they stem from Hugo Chávez’s “dictatorial” ways or the leadership of Julio Chávez (no relation to the president) and his successor.
The reason is that since Julio Chávez won office in 2004, it has not been the mayor (or the president, for that matter) who decides how to spend the funds in Torres’s budget. Instead, through a unique participatory budget, modeled in part after the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre’s famed experiment in direct democracy, these decisions are made directly by citizens through a series of community and district-level assemblies. Unlike many Venezuelan municipalities, where there is more revolutionary talk than walk, the changes Torres has undergone as a result of participatory budgeting (PB) are dramatic and undeniable. However, the path to popular power has been more “crooked” than straight because, while Hugo Chávez may not be the tinpot dictator he is often portrayed as in the mainstream US media, his revolution is hardly free of contradiction.
The origins of PB in Torres date back to 2002, when a national law was passed mandating PB throughout Venezuela. This law, inspired by Porto Alegre, was meant to function through the establishment of Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs). Despite support from President Chávez, the implementation of the CLPP law has been highly uneven because of opposition from local elites and national bureaucrats in Torres and throughout Venezuela. Oropeza, mayor of Torres from 2000 to 2004, was responsible for establishing a CLPP in accordance with the law. He had won office with support from the MVR (Fifth Republic Movement), Hugo Chávez’s party until the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) was formed in 2007. But unlike Julio Chávez, whom he soundly defeated in the 2000 election, Oropeza, who is from a wealthy landowning family, is no revolutionary. The mayor complied with the letter of the 2002 law and directed his administration to set up a CLPP, but he defied the law’s spirit and refused to recognize the results of the PB that the CLPP had spent months preparing.