MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is giving more power to the people or at least more power to local community councils. Thousands of these councils are being founded around the country. Chavez calls them an engine to help transform Venezuela into a socialist state. At first glance, they may appear like neighborhood watch groups but the councils have lots of money - thanks to Venezuela's oil revenue.
NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas, Venezuela.
JUAN FORERO: In the teeming Sucre district of Caracas, the gym is packed. It's a sea of red - the colors of Hugo Chavez's so-called Bolivarian Revolution. With pomp and ceremony, hundreds of people - old and young - on this day, get their high school equivalency diplomas through a government program. And most of them say they will now serve the revolution through conseho(ph) consejos comunitarios or community councils. That was the message from Sucre Mayor Jose Vicente Rangel.
Mayor JOSE VICENTE RANGEL (Sucre, Venezuela): (Through translator) There are people who don't understand Chavez's revolution. Well, you are Chavez's revolution.
FORERO: He also told them that they are the cornerstone in Chavez's big plans - the socioeconomic remaking of Venezuela that he dubs 21st century socialism. Jose Luis Campos(ph) is a 33-year-old factory worker who received his diploma. He says he shows his loyalty to the revolution by spending much of his free time working for his community council.
Mr. JOSE LUIS CAMPOS (Factory Worker, Sucre, Venezuela): (Through translator) This comes from my heart, and where I live you have to have lots of love for your community, as our president says.
FORERO: The councils are made up of anywhere from a handful of members to several dozen. Each is elected to a two-year term. Each then oversees a committee that preoccupies itself with some issue important to the community -public works, education, health care, youth services. Big decisions like building a community center must be voted upon by special citizen assemblies that represent the neighborhood. Those assemblies represent up to 400 families.
(Soundbite of people playing soccer)
FORERO: One of Sucre's poorest sectors is Petare. It's filled with young people playing soccer, cinder-block homes built helter-skelter, scooters and overcrowded buses negotiate its narrow streets.
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FORERO: Franklin Mota(ph) - all wiry energy and self-confidence - is a member of a local council.
Mr. FRANKLIN MOTA (Member, Community Council, Sucre, Venezuela): (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: He talks of road repairs, potable water, schools, health clinics, soup kitchens. The list goes on and on, and he thanks the government for the community council to which he belongs. Not everyone is so thankful. Teodoro Petkoff is a leftist intellectual - editor of the Tal Cual newspaper. He's also critical of what he calls Chavez's autocratic governing style; and while he thinks the councils could work, he worries that they'll be to beholden to the president.
Mr. TEODORO PETKOFF (Editor, Tal Cual): (Through translator) Where does the money come from? The president of the republic. Their direct dependence on the president of the republic creates inevitably the danger of subordination to the president.
FORERO: Also critical is Leopoldo Lopez. He's the mayor of Chacao, an affluent district of Caracas, where many people oppose Chavez. He says the councils really aren't about giving more say to citizens. He says they're way of sidestepping local governments, which happen to be the only government entities where the opposition still has some influence.
Mayor LEOPOLDO LOPEZ (Chacao, Caracas, Venezuela): When you understand what the government is proposing, everything leads to the centralization of power by the central government.
FORERO: Government officials like Rigoberto Lanz, who works on social issues in the Ministry of Science and Technology, acknowledge that the future of the councils is uncertain. He says there's sure to be a clash with the centralized government once the councils get stronger. But he says the idea is nevertheless a bold one and one that reflects the democratic spirit in the government.
(Soundbite of indistinct conversation)
FORERO: At the Hacienda La Maria neighborhood - in a green and lush district of eastern Caracas - people greet each other with kisses outside Alick Pinson's(ph) house, then they go in through the metal gate.
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FORERO: Seated on plastic chairs, they talk about everything - from the monkeys running loose in the neighborhood to the need to redistribute land to a new community bank. One eager member is Richard Canino(ph).
Mr. RICHARD CANINO (Member, Community Council, Chacao, Venezuela): We make the decision and different things like culture, education, public service, environment.
FORERO: Canino strikes a cautionary note - he says it's all just getting started. But like many other council members, he says this could become the new face of Venezuela.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela.
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