Photo: Vero Canno, for venezuelananlysis.com

The Communal State: Maduro’s Inherited Social Control Machine

The PSUV-controlled parliament is going forward with a law to increase the existing influence of 45,000 Communal Councils and its related control structures

Last month, Maduro’s illegitimate National Assembly began the process to pass the Organic Law for Communal Cities, and will soon consider legislation to create a national Communal Parliament. These two laws, although part of the government’s broader national plan of 35 legislative proposals for 2021, are particularly troubling: they seek to further fragment the Venezuelan State and are an extension of the Communal State, the central ideological component of Chávez’s socialist vision. Maduro, however, isn’t interested in the Communal State for the sake of ideologyhe’s looking to expand chavismo’s social control.

What’s the Communal State?

When, in 2007, Chávez launched his “socialism of the 21st century”, along came a new structure known as the “Communal State”, which sought to gradually dismantle the institutions of liberal democracy, establishing a communal governance structure that would eventually dissolve the municipal and state governments.

The Communal State’s overarching structure is extremely complicated and features multiple degrees of indirect elections. In theory, communal councils organize into communes, which aggregate into communal cities, joining as communal federations, and then as communal confederations; the combination of communal confederations sends representatives to the communal parliament. 

In practice, communes are the highest-level institution of this scheme that has developed in Venezuela to date. 

The core of Chávez’s amendments to the Constitution in 2007 incorporated the Communal State as a separate—and powerful—branch of government known as the “Popular Power”, which would co-exist with the Judicial, Legislative, and Executive branches. Venezuelans narrowly rejected the measure, but Chávez then turned to the National Assembly to enact the Communal State through legislation. A series of laws were passed in 2009 and 2010 to establish the creation of communes and the Ministry of Popular Power, which coordinated Communal State development. More importantly, though, the 2010 Organic Law on the Federal Government Council gave Chávez the authority to designate territorial divisions known as Distrito Motores de Desarrollo: districts that would help develop communes into eventual communal cities.

The result is a governance structure based on laborious participation that further insulates higher authorities from accountability.

On the surface, it may be tempting to characterize the Communal State as an innovative community-based form of governance—but this was never the case. In this swarm of power dynamics, true power resides in the hands of the President. As the driving force for Communal State development, the president’s administration wields decisive influence and virtual veto power over each level of communal governance.

The atomized power held by communes and communal councils is nonexistent next to the decision-making authority held by the Executive through the distrito motores. The Communal State bodies, weakened by an imposed system of indirect elections, are completely subdued by the centralized authority. There’s no accountability for the central government and zero constraints on decisions from above.

The Communal State also sterilizes its governing capabilities by institutionalizing decision-making in an endless labyrinth of assemblies and committees. In order to have any voice or influence, citizens are required to constantly participate in assemblies, parliamentary procedures, street-based governance and work committees. The result is a governance structure based on laborious participation that further insulates higher authorities from accountability.

Institutionalized Social Control

After Hugo Chávez’s passing, the future of the Communal State project was in doubt. At first, Maduro didn’t see the authoritarian value of the Communal State: communes hadn’t been linked to macro-level policies and public services hadn’t been transferred to them, key self-governance functions outlined in the 2010 Organic Law of Communes. While Maduro’s government struggled to suppress the National Assembly after losing the 2015 elections, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions put additional pressure on the regime. 

So Maduro reappropriated the Communal State to institutionalize social control over Venezuela’s starving population.

In other words, Maduro’s regime took advantage of the humanitarian crisis it created to make people dependent on the government for food; it then used the Communal State as a vehicle into their communities and homes.

The infamous Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAPs) are required to form around existing communal councils and committee members are responsible for surveying each household. Once families register, the boxes are delivered to the community’s CLAP, which then distributes them to each household. 

The fact that CLAPs are required to form around communal councils reflects a new iteration of the Communal State. Communal structures are now almost entirely an apparatus for distributing goods and food in exchange for political compliance.

Without these existing communal governance structures, the government would hardly have the necessary societal infrastructure, or institutional reach, to implement widespread programs for social control. Unlike municipalities, which had been repeatedly subject to electoral competition in the previous decade, communes and communal councils are always under the central government’s influence. These communal bodies were ideal spaces for the hunger-focused control that underpins the CLAPs.

In other words, Maduro’s regime took advantage of the humanitarian crisis it created to make people dependent on the government for food; it then used the Communal State as a vehicle into their communities and homes. This strategy weaponizes starvation to dissuade individuals from protesting. When mass mobilizations intensified in 2017, the regime used these food networks to mitigate discontent and coerce the country’s most vulnerable sectors of society into submission.

The recent legislative proposal establishing communal cities is evidence that the government will continue to pursue a strategy that depends on social control via the Communal State. The law itself suggests a more sophisticated framework expanding the government’s capacity for coercive control may be in the making.

The Future of the Federal State

Although the Communal State is unconstitutional by its very nature, it’ll never come to replace the municipal and regional governments. This is because the regime depends on PSUV elites and caudillos locales remaining loyal in exchange for political power and access to cash flows.

The party needs local and regional governments to exist for its high-ranking members to benefit from its patronage. This wouldn’t be possible if the Federal State was dissolved and replaced by Communal State.

The Federal State will remain so long as PSUV elites depend on regional elections for their personal wealth and power. The party needs local and regional governments to exist for its high-ranking members to benefit from its patronage. This wouldn’t be possible if the Federal State was dissolved and replaced by Communal State.

Since Maduro continues to control the development of the Communal State, we may see some competition for power between national and regional players. The more likely scenario, though, is that PSUV elites will be appointed to administrative positions tasked with “developing” the nascent communal structures, which allows for more career mobility and patronage opportunities within the party.

The Communal State, from its conception, is only “transitory” and is supposed to coexist with the municipalities and territorial states until a “socialist society” is realized. There are several issues with this dynamic, mainly because “achieving a socialist society” is undefined (and so comically broad) such that a clear goal or timeline for said transformation is impossible to determine. Hence, the coexistence of the Federal and Communal State would realistically continue forever.

The existence of dual state structures generates ambiguity that the centralized government, with control of all other institutions, can ultimately steer in its favor. This means that the government can effectively transfer power to Communal State institutions whenever this proves politically convenient. 

For example, if the party’s preferred candidates lose in municipal or state elections, the central government could simply decide to “expand” the Communal State and transfer authority from those municipalities to the Communal State, effectively nullifying the undesired local election results.

Still, the Communal State remains severely underdeveloped partly due to the corruption and incompetence that’s a hallmark of the regime. It may be that its development will accelerate after the Organic Law for Communal Cities is passed, but that seems unlikely based on the sluggish developments of the communes over the past six years. According to official figures, as of September 2020, there were a total of 3,230 communes and 45,095 communal councils. Six years earlier, in 2015, these numbers were about 1,500 and 45,000 respectively.

Continuing to study the history of Communal State institutions and their evolution into mechanisms for social control helps us understand the effect and purpose of the recent legislative proposals on communal cities and the communal parliament. It also exposes the framework available to the government going forward and may even reveal effective strategies for an eventual redemocratization.