Grassroots Democracy And The Social Production Of Housing

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Above photo: Rigel Sergent, spokesperson for the Movimiento de Inquilinas and member of the Movimiento de Pobladoras y Pobladores. (Venezuelanalysis)

Venezuela’s cities have given birth to a powerful social movement aiming at urban reorganization through self-governed assembly processes.

Rigel Sergent is a spokesperson for a powerful tenants’ anti-eviction movement called Movimiento de Inquilinas (henceforth “Inquilinas”). That movement forms part of the Movimiento de Pobladoras (henceforth “Pobladoras”) which is a wide platform for urban struggle. Earlier this year we interviewed Hernan Vargas, a spokesperson for Pobladoras [click here for part I and part II of that interview]. In this interview, we focus on self-management in the movement and its discrepancies with the existing institutions in Venezuela. Sergent has been a part of the movement since its early days in 2004.

You are part of Pobladoras, a grassroots initiative that works for the “urban revolution” and struggles against big landlords. Within that movement, you are a key spokesperson in the Movimiento de Inquilinas. Can you tell us something about these organizations, which are interesting expressions of Chavista commitment and rebelliousness?

Pobladoras is a platform of organizations that have worked in a coordinated way for some fifteen years. That is one of its great successes: a fifteen-year history connecting different expressions of struggle for the right to the city, for the construction of a new collective habitat, and for an urban revolution.

Pobladoras brings together five different organizations that struggle for the right to housing: Movimiento de Inquilinas [tenants’ anti-eviction movement], Campamentos de Pioneros [self‐construction housing initiative], Movimiento de Trabajadoras Residenciales [residential workers movement], Comites de Tierra Urbana [Urban Land Committees, henceforth CTU, formed in the early days of the Bolivarian Process to struggle for urban land titles], and Movimiento de Ocupantes de Edificios Organizados [vacant building occupiers movement]. However, we are not merely a housing-rights organization. The organization does not limit itself to fighting for reformist claims.

One of the first projects that brought us together was organizing to stop urban evictions. Our first unified action was stopping evictions, but we simultaneously worked to make the practice known. Around that time (in 2004), there was also a struggle in the barrios to make people owners of the land where they had built their houses in the hillsides of Caracas. Those were the days of the Comites de Tierra Urbana. In 2003 there was also a movement of people occupying vacant buildings, and it all began to come together around 2004. Those were our first coordinated efforts in what later became known as Pobladoras.

Since then, we have generated a common political program. On January 8, 2011, we presented our “Urban Revolution Program” to Chavez, which represents a synthesis of our first seven years of work. Our practices generated new political theses which connected with Chavismo’s guiding political premise: the construction of a communal society. That’s to say, the territorial and democratic components of [Chavez’s] communal proposal coincide with the Pobladoras struggle.

With this program as a guiding strategy, we organize our decision-making as democratically as we can. Each organization within Pobladoras has its assembly, which is its highest political body… From there, the Pobladoras platform connects with the different organizations and develops a plan of action based on the decisions taken within each organization.

Inquilinos might be the organization within Pobladoras that is most heterogeneous in social class terms. We struggle for the rights of tenants, and many of the people come from the middle class. It might be a working middle class that is no doubt precarious, but it is not the most vulnerable sector of our society. Often, they are depoliticized and don’t have a firm class perspective.

That is my base organization and our work isn’t easy. However, we can say now that Inquilinas is an organizational project which has grown politically. We have advanced in the struggle against evictions and in the fight against urban land speculation. We struggle against evictions, but we also fight for people’s right to a home. Along the way, the political struggle has gone through a process of maturing.

Many people come to us simply to stop an eviction, but through their participation in the Pobladoras movement as a whole, the struggle creates solidarity and fraternal bonds. This allows for a qualitative transformation, which is very important to us. Finally, I should highlight that the majority of those in the movement are women. Patriarchal patterns make women more vulnerable when it comes to housing. For that reason, Pobladoras (and Inquilinas) is mostly constituted by women.

Movimiento de Pobladoras y Pobladores march. (Movimiento de Pobladoras y Pobladores)

The Pobladoras is non-statist project and works through direct democracy. Can you tell us something about what it means to work in an autonomous organization of that kind?

Pobladores has matured over time. Over the years we have come to understand that the self-managed path is our only option. But here we should make one thing clear. People in institutions often think that Pobladoras is simply about self-constructed housing. Autonomous management is not the same as self-construction. To give you an example, someone can build his or her own home, but she or he doesn’t necessarily participate in a process that aims at the collective transformation of the city. That person is not thinking about planning and she doesn’t struggle for the collectivization of resources. She isn’t struggling for the land beyond the plot where she is building a home. In other words, there is an individual decision process rather than a collective one, so that does not break with the logic of capitalist society.

That is why in our organizations we focus on self-management and aim to create a transformative collective experience.

In Chavez’s last speech, he emphasised the communal transformation of society. It was a call for self-government and self-management, and that is what we subscribe to. Chavez’s call was to develop socialism on a local, grassroots level, and that cannot be done without popular democracy, self-management, and self-government.

This also brings us back to one of the Chavista cornerstones: massive, protagonist participation that forges another way of doing politics and revolutionary democracy. This means that the decision-making process cannot be vertical. Instead, it should involve processes where those affected have a say. The decision-making process must happen in a new way, generating consensus through debate.

Finally, regarding new democratic processes, they must also involve shifting away from the world of capital into the world of labor, shifting away from private property and turning towards social property, which entails a new way of managing resources. However, when we talk about resources here, we aren’t just talking about socializing resources in the sphere of housing, but in all spheres of life.

Self-management also requires a rupture with our collective cultural baggage. It isn’t about individually detaching ourselves from the logic of capital, which isn’t possible. Rather, it means collectively struggling to build another set of values. In other words, we cannot talk about self-management without talking about solidarity and organization.

Campamento de Pobladores Kaika Shi (Caracas) assembly. (Movimiento de Pobladoras y Pobladores)

Obviously, popular self-management will sometimes enter in contradiction with the state. Can we talk about this?

Self-management implies struggling to socialize the state’s resources. It would be idealistic to imagine that just by declaring yourself self-managed you can begin to construct and do politics. There are objective conditions that are necessary to develop self-management processes. One of the things that we have to consider is how to gain control of some of the state’s resources. Since the state owns the oil rent – which has shrunk in the past few years but is still there – Pobladoras has to demand the socialization of those resources. That leads to collision with the existing logic of administering resources, which is top-down, essentially part of the bourgeois institutional framework, and involves decisions made behind closed doors. Thus, we get involved in a struggle with the state.

I remember that a housing minister once said to us: “This is all great, now you are going to build your own homes, look for your own solutions.” This happened in the context of a debate regarding the state’s housing policies, which didn’t have a revolutionary and popular orientation.

The truth is that the pueblo does have the capacity to build [on its own]. In fact, the great majority of homes in Venezuela were built by the people themselves: 70 percent of homes in Venezuela have been self-built; 20 percent were built by the state; and 10 percent by the private sector. That is evidence that the pueblo has an enormous potential.

What is the shift that we are proposing? Historically, people built their homes where they were able to, with the very limited resources that they had at hand, and without planning. In other words, they self-built without support from the state. The conditions for the construction of a new habitat were not there.

What do we propose? We aim to generate other conditions where the potential of popular construction will be exponentially increased through self-management processes that must be supported by the state. That is what we fight for when we have meetings with representatives from state institutions – whether it’s in the housing ministry, vice presidency or in regional and municipal governments. The pueblo has this extraordinary potential, and it should be reinforced!

There is another area of friction with institutions: the temporality or our way of working is different from that of the institutions. Obviously, a self-managed construction process cannot be measured with the same bar as the construction of a housing block developed by a private building enterprise. For example, in a “Campamento de Pioneros” construction process, the main thing that is built isn’t the homes – the main thing that is built is collective organization and a new social habitat. And that requires time for consciousness toemerge.

Collective decision-making is totally different from the methods of a private enterprise where the boss simply decides things: this is how the house is going to be, so many meters, such a color, etc. Collective management is a dialectical process. The timeframes of self-managed processes are longer; otherwise there can be no transformation, no qualitative leaps in people’s consciousness.

So our process of organization and construction is totally different from situations in which the state simply gives a family the key of a new house. When the key is given to a family, they are tremendously grateful, but the home doesn’t produce new values, new worldviews.

This comes along with numbers, which also clashes with the state. If the Great Venezuelan Housing Mission buildings were produced in a self-managed process, most likely the numbers wouldn’t be what they are today. So what we believe is that we should work in a coordinated effort. For instance, there are a lot of AVVs [housing assemblies associated with the Great Venezuelan Housing Mission] that organize in a territory, take a plot of vacant land, and then the state commits to building the homes. We believe that while people wait for the state to build their homes, self-management processes aimed at the construction of collective consciousness can happen.

Actually, there is an AVV called Jorge Rodriguez Padre here in Caracas. There, the process of construction was coordinated by the state with a private construction company. The building came to a halt due to budgeting issues. Eventually, the community shifted to a self-managed construction process with us.

Another AVV called “Constructores El Panal,” which is part of El Panal Commune in 23 de Enero, was in the same situation. When they saw that the construction came to a halt, the community decided that they were going to build their homes through a self-managed process. It is true that such a process may often be slower, but the potential to build new relations of solidarity while breaking with the state’s logic is tremendous.

In any case, we are not saying that now everything should be self-managed. However, we are claiming that more than a few crumbs should go to these initiatives. That is because, first, the communal path is self-managed, and second, the alleged “inefficiency” of self-management initiatives also has to do with their not having access to resources.

My personal position is that we should open a broad political debate as was done in the community and alternative media years around 2004. Then, people demanded that 33 percent of the radioelectric space should go to community and alternative media, 33 percent to the state, and 33 percent to private hands. I think we could advance towards a proposal that would work along those lines. Actually, there are folks from Pobladores who sustain that self-management could take over 50 percent of housing production, and it is possible that they are right..

Of course, for this to happen the organized communities would have to take over the means of production, the machinery, the control of strategic inputs such as cement, beams, etc. They would have to coordinate with factory workers in those sectors.

All this involves struggle. We have to generate conditions, and we have to have resources… But from our perspective, the collective process is key because we propose a quantitative jump in housing and habitat construction.

Pobladoras does not only build houses, but it also builds community through collective organization. You have said that to revitalize Chavismo, the bases have to be incorporated into the political debate. What do you propose?

I would say that rather than “revitalizing Chavismo,” we should talk about revitalizing the way of doing politics within Chavismo. All this goes back to a debate that I mentioned earlier: who makes decisions and how are they made?

We understand that the current conjuncture is very complex. When faced with this complex situation, what has the political leadership done? It closes in on itself. They may argue that there are security issues, or that they need to act quickly, but the real issue here is a lack of trust in the pueblo, and that is a huge error.

If decisions happen in consultation with the people, they will not only be more effective, but will also be supported by them. It is fundamental in any transformation process that the political leadership listens to the voices of organized people and that isn’t happening. In this sense, the revolution is going backward. The political leadership talks about the communal state, but the truth is that we have taken steps backward even within the logic of the bourgeois state.

The key to Chavista politics is not that Chavismo should have representation in the different spaces of constituted power – that is not enough. The issue is how to transform the institutions. However, when you look at it, the decision-making processes are almost always behind closed doors and with advisors who may well be close to the popular movement but also supplant the popular movement.

Revitalizing the way of doing politics has to incorporate the pueblo. Yet what we find is often the opposite. When people make criticisms, they are often characterized as hurting the revolution or even as its enemies. The political structures must begin to understand that Chavismo is diverse, that it has many expressions of organization, that we have our own ways of doing politics and our own analyses of things. This crisis requires a process of incorporating grassroots analyses and proposals. Closed-door politics is not the solution.

We understand that in certain circumstances decisions must be taken from above. In those cases, the decisions have to be explained to the people. The political leadership must take time to explain its policies, its decisions. This is something that the pueblo recognized and appreciated in Chavez, and it is also part of a revolutionary democracy

All this must be considered when we think about revitalizing the Chavista way of doing politics, and it must happen in all spaces within Chavismo. It has to happen in the state. It has to happen in the party, which is every day more and more closed in on itself. Even popular power groups have to correct course in this sense: the closed-door attitude sometimes manifests itself in communal councils or communal organizations. We have to transform the way of doing politics from top to bottom.

Movimiento de Inquilinas press conference. (Movimiento de Inquilinas)