Grassroots Participation in Defense of Dictatorship: Venezuela’s Communal Councils and the Future of Participatory Democracy in Latin America


With Venezuela’s Chavista political movement battling to keep its grassroots participatory experiments alive amid a cataclysmic economic depression, we have a new crucial case for assessing the evolution and continuation of participatory institutions under left-wing populist governments. Based on original recent survey data, we marshal evidence to show that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s (PSUV) use of grassroots participation to defend the Maduro regime has weakened the quality of community-level participation, just as it may have lengthened the life-span of Chavismo’s most important and expansive participatory institution, the Communal Councils—the main phenomenon we document here. The continuation of the Councils, despite a massive economic contraction, defies expectations that the groups would disappear when conditions became considerably less favorable than during the economic boom that existed during their 2006-2008 launch. It also raises crucial questions about the power politics dimensions of grassroots-level mobilization, an aspect of participatory democracy that scholars have too often neglected.