Grandmothers and Engineers


Providing water to Caracas's hillside barrios such as Antímano is no easy feat. Photo by Susan Spronk and Rebecca McMillan

The Heads and Hearts of Venezuela's Bolivarian Process

By Rebecca McMillan and Susan Spronk

A little known fact about Venezuela is that grandmothers and engineers are at the forefront of the struggle to improve access to water and sanitation in poor neighborhoods.

Nancy la Rosa, Rosalba Ruíz, Florencia Gutiérrez, Petra Escalona and Sulay Morales, all in their golden years, are working as spokespeople and organizers of the technical water committees (MTAs, mesas técnicas de agua) in the low-income Caracas parish Antímano. Engineers such as Romer Malave and Daniel Pereira spend a few days a week walking through the neighborhoods to inspect infrastructure and resolve problems. This new relationship between barrio (slum) residents and civil servants has transformed water service delivery in Caracas, an effective example of how popular power is built under the Chávez administration.

The MTAs are an innovative experiment in radical urban planning. Beneficiary communities map their own water and sanitation needs to help to plan state-financed infrastructure development. Because of heavy state investment in water and sanitation infrastructure and this participatory methodology, 
Venezuela now has 96 percent coverage in potable water, one of the highest rates in the region.

Beyond improving access to services, the MTAs are seen as a driver of popular organization for political and economic inclusion. The committees were one of the first participatory initiatives promoted under Venezuela’s Bolivarian Process, which aims to build a protagonistic and participatory democracy as part of the country’s transition towards “21st century socialism.” Despite impressive advances in service access, the MTAs and other popular organizations confront two of the Chávez government’s most daunting adversaries: bureaucracy and corruption.

A Tale of Two Cities: Water, Race and Class

Caracas’s water system is one of the most complex in the world. Given the city’s mountainous topography and the dense peri-urban barrios that climb its hillsides, providing universal access to water and sanitation is no easy feat.

Before the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, the Caracas water policy was highly discriminatory. The city center and eastern middle-class suburbs, where most residents self-identify as “white” according to the recent census, benefited from high-quality public services, while the sprawling poor settlements of western Caracas, where most of the residents identify as “mixed” race, developed informally in the absence of attention from the state.

No systematic, planned expansion of water networks existed in the popular sectors until very recently. In fact, in the mid-1990s Antímano and other popular parishes didn’t even appear on city maps. The settlement and its more than 150,000 inhabitants were zoned as “green space,” even though many factories lined the highway that runs past the barrios.

Infrastructure investments in the barrios have developed in a piecemeal fashion, usually following the logic of clientelistic networks of the government of the day. In many cases, neighborhoods have constructed their own illegal connections.

The result has been what urban geographer Karen Bakker describes as an “archipelago”: incomplete, fractured water and sanitation networks, and highly uneven service access within neighborhoods.

Engineers: Managing the Water Cycle

Walking into Barrialito, in eastern Caracas’s Santa Cruz del Este, one is immediately struck by the din of children playing, dogs barking, buses zooming and people chatting. It is August 28, 2012, and we are accompanying Daniel Pereira, a young HIDROCAPITAL engineer in his late twenties as he inspects some recent installations developed in cooperation with the local MTAs.

As we follow him through the circuitous alleyways and stairwells of the barrio, residents emerge from their homes to join the tour. Greeting Ingeniero Daniel with a mix of stern frowns and big smiles, the community members compete as each tries to explain the intricacies of their water system to the specialist. One woman, frustrated because she had not had water that week, accuses her neighbor of closing the valve which allows water to reach her house.

Most barrios operate on a water cycle whereby households receive water at predetermined intervals. The cycle is managed through an elaborate schedule of manually operated water valves. HIDROCAPITAL aims to train community members to manage the valves; however, in Barrialito, the valves are still managed by the municipality. In other cases, private contractors are responsible. This job is a source of local employment for community members and is also seen as safer for them, since outsiders may be mistrusted in the barrios, where violence and delinquency are perennial problems.

Through the MTAs, community members and HIDROCAPITAL engineers have been able to regularize the water cycles to make the service more predictable. Now that people know when water will arrive, they can plan to store enough water in government-issued tanks to last them until the next cycle. “Our pipes run along here,” explain community members at another point in the tour. Their pipes were installed illegally, and they are now seeking a formal connection. Exasperated, Daniel tries to make sense of the tangle of hoses snaking through the overhead trees.

He then catches sight of a pipe protruding from the ground. “And what is that?” he exclaims impatiently. “Oh that’s nothing,” shrugs one resident, as he casually pulls the loose pipe out of the ground and throws it away in an unsuccessful attempt to hide the evidence of a clandestine connection.

From Protest to Participation: The History of the MTAs

Discontent with the water service reached its climax in the 1990s. At that time, many households in the barrios received piped water only every two months, if at all. Water protests occurred daily in Caracas.

When Aristóbulo Istúriz was elected as mayor of Caracas in 1993, he proposed the MTAs as a way of channeling the frustration into organization for solutions.His strong commitment to public participation led him to appoint a change team to experiment with new forms of local governance. The team included Victor Díaz and Santiago Arconada, current and former Community Coordinators for HIDROCAPITAL, respectively. They spearheaded the implementation of a model of local-level parish governments aimed at overcoming the inertia of the municipal government in addressing the city’s most pressing problems.

During the first parish assembly in 1993, Istúriz proposed the technical water committees, with the goal of improving the relationship between the community, the municipality, and the state water utility. Soon after, the first MTAs were born in the parishes of Antímano and El Valle.

These early experiments were so successful that when Chávez took office in 1999, the leadership of HIDROCAPITAL set out to reproduce the experience across the city. They set up the utility’s community management office to institutionalize the relationship between the utility and the technical water committees. In 2001, the mesas became national public policy. Today, there are an astounding 9,000 MTAs nationwide.

Public Ownership and Social Control

Much of the debate in water politics has focused on private versus public ownership. But it is now recognized that solutions to the water problem cannot depend on this simple dichotomy. Most utilities throughout the global South have failed to serve the urban and peri-urban poor, regardless of who owns and operates them. Consequently, the Red Vida, Latin America’s most important anti-privatization network, emphasizes that the planning and delivery of services must also bedemocratic. They call for citizen participation in the management of urban water utilities as one way of exercising social control.

In Red Vida’s view, community service management is a way of changing decision-making structures in urban planning, as well as a strategy for empowering the poor through experiences in organization and self-management.

International development institutions such as the World Bank have also advocated for participation in service provision. But unlike the social movements’ demand for “water democracy,” which is ultimately about changing power relations, the mainstream approach focuses only on improving service efficiency and does not place enough emphasis on the need for heavy public investment in networked infrastructure.

This narrower vision usually limits participation to fairly passive forms of consultation or “voluntary” labor contributions for water projects, instead of transferring real decision-making power. Moreover, these initiatives are rarely accompanied by a significant redistribution of resources, as in Venezuela. 
Two innovations set the MTAs apart as an innovative, radical case of community management: its methodology based upon the teachings of Paulo Freire, and the community water council (consejo comunitario de agua), the space where multiple MTAs come together to interface with the water utility.

The MTA Methodology: Census, Map, Diagnosis

Through their participatory methodology, the MTAs attempt to break down the intellectual division between those who plan and make decisions (the bureaucrats and technocrats) and the citizenry. According to Santiago Arconada, a former union activist and HIDROCAPITAL’s first Community Coordinator, the approach is based on popular educator Paulo Freire’s idea that “everyone has knowledge.”

When a community starts an MTA, they follow three steps. First, they draw a map and conduct a census of the community. Self-mapping is a way of inserting the barrios into the political landscape of the city. It also helps residents build a collective history of their neighborhood, linking their history of marginality to political action. In cooperation with the water utility, the community then diagnoses its water problems as a springboard for project planning.

When the Chávez government introduced the communal councils in 2006, they too adopted the MTA methodology. Communal councils bring together 150-400 families in urban areas (around 20 in rural areas) to plan and execute community development projects.

The technical water committees, as well as other community organizations (land, sports and recreation, health, etc.) have now been incorporated as working groups of the communal councils. Each communal council elects a group of voceros or spokespeople who represent the MTA on the communal council. Given the dominance of women in the movement, most of these spokespeople are voceras. The spokespeople act as a liaison between the communal council and the water utility and other government institutions. They also attend community water council meetings on behalf of their MTA. The community water council brings together HIDROCAPITAL staff with MTA representatives from all of the sectors on the same water cycle to manage the cycle and plan solutions to water problems.

Popular Power: the Community Water Council

It’s 5 p.m. on a Thursday and the traffic in Caracas is bumper-to-bumper. We are in “El chino,” the large white Ministry of Environment van, with Victor Díaz, a geographer by training who cut his political teeth in the student movement at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in the 1980s, and is the current Community Coordinator for the Metropolitan Region for HIDROCAPITAL. The occasion is the bi-weekly community water council meeting for the parish of Antímano.

Victor takes advantage of the trip to Antímano to catch up on some missed sleep. Between dealing with an emergency situation involving vandals in La Vega and fielding personal calls from community members about everything from broken pipes to yellow water, he has had a busy week.

When he arrives at the community center, his energy levels are immediately restored. He greets community members by name, mock-scolding those who have missed recent meetings. Judging by the big warm smiles that spread across the faces of the neighbors greeting Victor, the affection is genuine and mutual. Romer Malave, a recent engineering graduate in his early twenties, oversees the water cycle in Antímano. He arrived before Victor and is chatting informally with a group of residents. A few of the attendees are community members who only show up when they have a particular problem. Many, though, are elected spokespeople for their sector’s technical water committee. Some of the older women have been working with the MTAs for more than ten years.

Victor opens the meeting with a lengthy discourse on the importance of participation, which we suspect might be for the benefit of the gringa researchers in the room, and announces the plans for the upcoming Fiesta de Agua. During the Fiesta de Agua, the government delivers tanks to communities, as well as funding for projects solicited by the community. Victor insists that the communities must distribute the tanks according to need and not political affiliation. “Just because someone is an escuálido [figuratively, rotten aristocrat, or opposition member], doesn’t mean they don’t deserve tanks. To act like that would be counter-revolutionary.”

Following the address, one of the spokespeople invites people to speak, according to a list she compiled before the meeting. One by one, the participants—mostly women—stand up to describe the water problems in their neighborhood.

Sometimes, solutions are found during the meeting. Usually, Romer, the engineer, will schedule a time to visit affected households. Often, Victor gives his personal cellphone number to the community members to discuss a problem further, reminding barrio residents not to abuse it.

“I want to know when your water arrives, so call me,” he says to one young mother carrying a baby whose water did not arrive according to schedule. “It doesn’t matter what time it is.”

This rapport between the utility and the community is a significant departure from the previous era, when the utility staff would not even set foot in the barrios and as Victor put it, “plan everything from their air-conditioned offices.” 
This improved relationship between state and citizen has translated into real service improvements. In Antímano, several major infrastructure projects have been planned and implemented with community participation, reducing water cycles in some sectors from every two months to as little as every eight days. Water service has also become much more predictable.

However, challenges still remain.

The Limitations of the MTAs

While the utility is now more responsive to communities, it is difficult to discern how much decision-making power the MTAs have in practice. Government bureaucrats in air-conditioned offices still retain a high degree of control in selecting and prioritizing community projects.

Indeed, the MTA spokespeople in Antímano are skeptical of government claims that there is popular power in Venezuela. While they support Chávez wholeheartedly, some of the women believe that many organizations have been usurped by people who seek personal enrichment, as opposed to the well-being of the whole community. “There are a few greedy people who are screwing the whole process,” says Sulay, one of the revolutionary grandmothers, expressing her frustration.

Stories abound of corrupt construction unions that have stolen money intended for community projects or community organizations that hoard funds for themselves. (Although the incidents are new, most will admit that corruption is a very old problem in Venezuela. At least now, “politicians rob us less” since the oil wealth is being channeled to the communities.)

Moreover, the committees are constantly butting heads with what one meeting participant calls the “institutional bureaucracy.” One sector is still waiting for a project that they’ve been pushing for since 2003. Despite persistent promises that water cycles will be shortened, some sectors in Antímano still only receive water every 21 days, for only 3 days at a time. “It’s the bureaucracy’s fault,” says one elderly woman, proudly donning a Chávez fanny-pack and red t-shirt. “That’s why things don’t arrive.”

Her statement points to a difficult balance that HIDROCAPITAL tries to achieve: incorporating checks and balances to ensure accountability, while also being flexible enough to respond to the needs of communities. The balancing act does not always succeed.

But the problem of bureaucracy is not only a problem of inefficiency or excessive paperwork. Some are worried that imposing bureaucratic requirements on the community-based organizations is a way of neutralizing their ability to organize outside of official state-sanctioned channels—a way of controlling the popular organizations.

The rigid bureaucratic structures also mean that the institutions are slow to evolve. As Santiago Arconada explains, the leadership of the water utility and the municipality are often reluctant to cede power to the communities, because it means giving up their own privileges. On a tour of Antímano, the women also expressed frustrations with the government’s move to subsume MTAs within the communal council.

From an urban planning perspective, bringing the water committees to cooperate with committees responsible for such things as land, housing, and electricity is very progressive. Moreover, it is part of a broader strategy that aims to build an alternative, participatory state in Venezuela.

However, the result is also that the MTAs have lost their status as an independent, grassroots form of organization. In practice, many MTAs in Antímano today consist of little more than one committed spokesperson who acts as community representative at the communal council, plus a loose grouping of people who attend meetings only when they have problems.

The mandated affiliation with the communal council also adds an additional layer of bureaucracy. “The communal council won’t give me the papers I need to work with the institutions,” says Nancy, whose repeated conflicts with her communal council have slowed her committee’s projects.

The Future of the MTAs

Amidst all of these problems, the October 7, 2012, presidential elections and the recent illness of President Chávez have plunged Venezuela into deep reflection on the future of the Bolivarian Process and the role of popular organizations within it. With 81 percent voter turnout, Chávez received 54 percent of the popular vote. But the main opposition candidate, Capriles Radonski, came in second with a substantial 44 percent of the vote. While such a mandate would be considered a landslide victory in Canada or the United States, it is too close for comfort for many Chavistas.

At an October 11 meeting of the community water council, the participants cautiously celebrated Chávez’s victory. But with the closest margin thus far, they know that they have a lot of work ahead of them.

Like many popular organizations in Bolivarian Venezuela, the MTAs find themselves torn between their firm commitment to the Chávez government and their desire to denounce the negative elements of the process, such as the problems of bureaucracy and corruption.

It is also unlikely that the MTAs have the autonomous capacity to survive a Chávez defeat. As Victor instructs the MTAs, “If the opposition wins one day, I won’t be here anymore. A new government will bring in different civil servants. This is why you need to learn to be autonomous.”

Victor’s statement strikes at the heart of one of the contradictions of the Process: to what extent can popular power be decreed from above?

“No one is going to give us power,” retorts the fiery woman with the Chávez fanny pack. “We need to take it ourselves.”

Rebecca McMillan is a graduate student in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. She was in Caracas from August to October 2012 doing field research on the mesas técnicas de agua and sanitation politics. 

Susan Spronk teaches international development at the University of Ottawa. She is a trade unionist and research associate with the Municipal Services Project (http://www.municipalservicesproject.org/). She is working on a project comparing local water management in Bolivia and Venezuela that is funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada. The authors would like to thank SSHRC and the University of Ottawa for sponsoring this research.

The authors would like to thank SSHRC and the University of Ottawa for sponsoring this research.