This week in dailykos, in a post entitled “And then he kicked the chair out from underneath his feet.” Debbieleft wrote:
He was a machine operator - a factory man. He spent his whole life employed in the factories that made business forms, water pumps, thermoplastic sheeting. After almost forty years as a dependable american worker he was tossed aside and discarded from our society. He managed two years unemployed and over a year with only food stamps to help out. It was obvious he had become very ill, lung cancer? We didn't know. But he was sick, out of money and out of time. Had he called we would have taken him in and helped. But he was a proud man. Yesterday he wrote a note to his children, tied a noose, stepped up on a chair, placed his neck in the noose and kicked the chair out from underneath his feet.
Had this unemployed, ill factory worker, Dennis Paul, been living in today's Venezuela, as I am, he would likely still be alive.
Debbieleft’s ex-husband, Dennis Paul, was one of the 99% of Americans who don’t control our wealth, resources and political power. Having lost his job after 40 years of hard, factory work, he had been used up and kicked to the curb by the wealthy one percent. He was without a job, socially isolated, mentally devastated, and deprived of the medical care which could have kept him alive.
In stark contrast to America’s and Dennis Paul’s lonely desperation, yesterday the people in my neighborhood here in Mérida, Venezuela carried out a huge community service day, a “Mega Operativo Social” in our local cultural center in which folks could buy basic food stuffs (chicken, rice, milk, cooking oil, black beans, sugar, flour, coffee, and many other necessities at hugely discounted prices, thanks to the Chavez government’s Mission Mercal.
Mission Mercal was organized to implement Venezuelan’s constitutional right to adequate nutrition. A medical van was on site to provide free medical, optical and vaccination services, thanks to the Mission A Dentro program, the national network of medical, dental and optical services designed to fulfil the Venezuelans’ constitutional right to universal free medical care.
The constitutional right to universal education, up to the doctoral level, was aided by the Operativo booth which sold school supplies, notebooks, pens, pencils, and the like, at greatly reduced prices as compared to those at private shops.
My neighbors could also improve the health of their pets through the free animal vaccinations, receive, free, a big box of selections from Venezuela’s national literature, and even obtain free haircuts! Such community service operations take place regularly here.
I didn’t need to use the free medical consultations at the Operativo because just a day before I had walked a few blocks to my local medical “ambulatorio”, our free neighborhood doctor and dentist office, to have my blood pressure checked and receive my monthly supply of blood pressure pills. I did purchase about 20 kilos of the discounted foodstuffs at the Operativo at a fraction of private store prices. For less than $10.00, I had my basic food supplies for the month.
Had Dennis Paul been living in Venezuela he would not have needed to end his life because of inability to access lung cancer treatment and medication. He would have been treated for free and received all his needed drugs for free from the government.
Had Dennis Paul been living in my apartment complex, his local consejo comunal (community council) would have assisted him to get the services he needed. The consejo comunal takes a community census every six months or so to ascertain the special needs of its residents. Its elected officers would have helped him to fill out any forms needed to apply for services or arranged for the “medical visitor” to come to his apartment to assist him. And Dennis Paul would not even have been asked if he was a Venezuelan citizen or legally in the country. I have never been asked for proof of citizenship, simply being a human being is enough to qualify for services.
Thanks to the Chavez government, Venezuela now, by its constitution and implementing laws and Missions, puts it top priority on fulfilling the needs of the human beings who live there. The Dennis Pauls in Venezuela do not have to choose death rather than financial devastation and unrelieved physical suffering.
How has Venezuela managed to transform itself into a society which puts human needs first?
First it takes visionaries, those who could see the horrors that the capitalist economic system has caused and had the vision to imagine a human society based on a rational, human-based economic system. Their visions were enshrined in the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution and are now being carried out. But making real the vision for a human society takes a great deal of work. Above all, it takes self-organization at every level of society.
It is much easier to sign a piece of paper nationalizing a steel company or even to seize it by force than it is to create the organization to keep that productive force operating successfully. Fostering the self-organization of the masses of people is critical to creating a new society that works for the majority of the people.
Key to the continuing success of the Venezuelan transformation are the hundreds of thousands of Consejo Comunals, community councils, which are springing up all over the country. Thanks to changes in the Constitution and the enabling laws, communities of 200 to 400 families in a neighborhood or workers in an organization form units of local self-government and self-determination which not only decide democratically about community needs and problems, plan the required changes (with technical assistance from government experts) and receive funding to implement those plans. The number of participants in an average consejo comunal (200 to 400 families) is approximately equivalent of the number of Democratic voters in a Democratic voting precinct in the U.S., which averages 500 voters.)
My own Consejo Comunal meets monthly to discuss community problems and plans. The meetings are frequently characterized by passionate discussion, with everyone having the right to express their opinion on the topic. Meetings can be long and contentious, but usually end up arriving at a consensus. If no consensus can be reached, the issue is put to majority vote.
Different members of the community frequently have different priorities. At a recent meeting, one young man requested that the community council purchase uniforms for the apartment’s youth soccer team with its government funds. An older member objected that the money was needed to fix the lighting system in the parking lot. Passionate contention ensued. Ultimately, the members decided to fund tee shirts and shorts, but not shoes, and go forward with the lighting repairs in three stages, so all interests were satisfied by the compromise.
Such democratic decision-making is not easy or swift. There are always those who try to hog the attention for their ideas, while others become disgusted with the long-windedness and leave before there is a final resolution. Real participatory democracy is messy, but ultimately serves the whole community. It works.
While everyone in our apartment complex is eligible to join the Consejo Comunal, not everyone takes the time to come to meetings. Perhaps twenty percent of the membership participates regularly and actively, but which 20% is active at any one time may change, depending upon the nature of the current problems and proposals.
“Voceros” (voices or spokespeople), not representatives, are elected to express the will of the majority of the group. Members do not turn over their right to vote to their representatives. The power of the vote remains with each member. The “Voceros”are subject to an immediate recall vote if they violate community rights or directives.
Ultimately, it is hoped that the consejo comunal format, or its equivalent, will function at every level of government, county, state and national.
Working out the mechanisms of that network is not easy, as traditional local and state government agencies are frequently competing for funds with the new forms of organization, and the entrenched bureaucracy fights strenuously to maintain its control.
Here in Mérida, there are frequent conflicts between the consejo comunal groups and the local mayor over such issues as building community housing on land designated by the city government for other purposes.
Community councils have initiated on-going, long-term occupations of the desired housing land, erecting tents adorned with signs, and furnished with chairs, couches, even television sets, as community members take turns guarding the land from use by other interests as they await the outcome of the formal administrative and court procedures to obtain the land for their community members.
My local consejo comunal took to the public street fronting our building recently, blocking traffic to protest the planned renovation of the street which would have cut off our residents ability to turn left upon entering the public street from our buildings. The demonstration got the city official’s attention, and they sent a team of engineers and architects to meet with us to discuss the propose changes and a new plan was devised for the road which satisfied the community.
Taking to the streets, blocking traffic and even burning tires, has become a common weapon to draw attention to community problems when following traditional complaint procedures have failed. Again, this type of direct democracy can be messy and inconvenient to those not involved, but ultimately it benefits the community. Not only are immediate problems resolved, but in the very act of organizing to effect a solution, the community members have the opportunity to contribute their ideas and exercise new-found leadership capacities while learning how to write leaflets, give radio and TV interviews and effectively conduct campaigns for change.
Venezuela’s community councils – voices for the people – not only work to solve the structural problems facing their communities, but provide an important social network for improving the quality of life for their members.
Our community council periodically organizes Mercals where cheap food stuffs can be purchased, acts as a conduit to medical, legal and financial help for our members, and keep the whole community informed about pressing social issues.
Members of our consejo comunal recently visited every apartment in our complex carrying boxes of fluorescent light bulbs which they exchanged for expensive incandescent ones – for free to our residents. Consejo comunals all over the country participated in this national campaign to reduce the use of electricity, thus saving residents millions in monthly electrical bills while reducing the strain on the country’s electrical system.
Returning to the Roots of the Democratic Party
In the hayday of the mass Democratic Party in the U.S., the Democratic community was organized into precinct units of 500 voters or so. The precinct captains and officials played the role that the “voiceros” now play in Venezuela. The old Democratic Party precinct organizations not only got out the vote for elections, but played an important social service role in their communities, not merely giving out turkeys to the poor at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but providing needed connections to social services, such as doctors, hospitals and lawyers. The precinct organizations were an important social safety network.
The old Democratic social network has virtually disappeared. The current Democratic Party leadership has been effectively taken over by the same people who were ousted from the official Republican Party by the religious extremists. Once known as the Rockefeller Republicans who were fiscally conservative following the interests of their big corporations and class, but socially more liberal, eschewing racism and religious extremism, they lost their power in the Republican Party to the religious conservative voters. These “Rockefeller Republicans” were denied their traditional leadership roles in the Republican Party, so they invaded the Democratic Party.
Having been driven out of their Republican Party, these rich but socially liberal Republicans, put their energies and wealth into taking over the Democratic Party, ousting the labor unions and progressive groups from office under the banner of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The result the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations, two nominal Democrats who put their liberal Republican policies in place, serving the corporate interests not those of the majority of Americans. These liberal Republicans now control our Democratic Party and our government. It is no wonder that private corporations are writing our health care and fiscal legislation, just as they did under George Bush. Their corporate boys are still in power.
Meanwhile, the majority of Americans are suffering terribly from the Republican policies, religious extremist, neo-conservative and “liberal”. Americans are dying from lack of health care, we are losing our homes and our jobs due to the banksters who looted our economy. Now Americans are choosing to commit suicide rather than continue to endure these humiliating privations.
What Can We Do To Take Back Power From the Corporate Interests?
One answer could be to re-establish our traditional Democratic Party precinct units as “community councils” which could provide a network of social services to the people in their communities while fighting to make the fulfillment of human needs our top social priority.
Democratic councils could pool resources to hire a doctor and dentist to visit the community once a week. We might look to our medical and dental schools for new, idealistic doctors and dentists to staff these services on a per diem basis. We could form buying cooperatives to reduce the costs of basic foodstuffs to our members. Another buying cooperative might be formed to purchase low-cost drugs from Canada or other countries. Lawyers and social service experts might be found to advise on obtaining social security disability and housing assistance. Perhaps some members could arrange to trade services, so an out-of-work carpenter or electrician could repair a doctor’s house in exchange for services.
In order to carry out these extensive social services, our Democratic Community Councils might request a few hours of volunteer work from its members. Many people are without jobs and would willingly volunteer to do productive work for fellow community members.
Naturally, all of the above services presuppose a lot of hard work going door to door soliciting membership to build local organization, conducting meetings, maintaining social contact with other participants.
By organizing democratic councils at the precinct level, we could develop and elect progressive candidates to oust the corporate interests from our party and our government.
Millions of Americans are unemployed and thus potentially have the time to devote to making fundamental changes in this country and in their own lives. But, the majority of these unemployed are isolated from one another. We need to bring them together. Through the precinct form of the old Democratic Party, we could work to unite those who are now living in isolation and privation.
The Consejo Comunal are effecting real change in the lives of Venezuelan. The Chavez government, which has a substantial majority in their National Assembly, is pushing this process through appropriate laws and procedures which give voice to the needs and aspirations of the vast majority of Venezuelans.
We can do the same in the United States, by organizing our citizens block to block. As Michael Moore put it in a recent article:
If we want a life worth living for ourselves and our kids, we have to go get it ourselves. We can’t keep waiting for the cavalry to come. That’s because we’re the cavalry.
Let's build our calvary by rebuilding our Democratic Party precincts along the lines of Venezuela's consejo comunals, and begin to replace the inhuman capitalist system, with its real death panels, by an economic and social system that meets the needs and aspirations of the majority of our citizens.