CARACAS, Venezuela — On a recent evening, under the dim light of an elementary school classroom in a poor Caracas neighborhood, 11 people debated the ideological drawbacks of handing out government funds as personal loans.
"We're not helping anyone by giving personal loans," Ernesto Silva, a 28-year old engineer, told the others as they discussed how to spend money the Venezuelan government had made available to them for community projects. "We're promoting capitalism and materialism."
"Personal loans can generate a productive culture in the community," countered Alexander Pacheco, 38, a computer specialist.
The discussion was part of a meeting of one of the country's several hundred new Community Councils, President Hugo Chavez's latest - and one of his more controversial _initiatives on the road to what he calls 21st Century socialism.
The councils are small citizen-run groups that theoretically will, in due time, take the place of mayors, governors, and other municipal and regional representatives and promote grass-roots democracy. Their money comes from different government institutions that fund their small projects; their power is supposed to come from their local roots.
"All power to the Community Councils," Chavez said recently. "Power to the people."
Not all local officials like that idea, and critics say the Chavez government is trying to use the councils to gain even more power in a country of 27 million people where he already controls the courts, congress, and the military.
Similar councils are being launched by Chavez's leftist ally in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega. Saying they are nothing but a Sandinista Party power-grab, several opposition parties have announced plans to strike down the law that created them.
But, as illustrated by the discussion in that Caracas council meeting, using the populace to promote an ideology won't be that simple. Indeed, many council members say the government fears them, and complain that it hasn't ceded enough control to them.
"The president has been too shy with regard to the Community Councils," said Felipe Perez, an economist at the IESA business school here and member of his neighborhood council. "He talks a lot, but he's given very little real power to the councils."
Chavez, a former army colonel who took part in a failed coup in 1992 and was first elected president in 1998, has worked hard to create a new economic bloc of Latin American countries, which includes Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, while excluding the United States and the "evils of capitalism."
He has been a divisive, albeit overall popular, leader, using soaring oil export revenues to provide health and education to the many Venezuelans who had been neglected for decades. But he and his supporters also have attacked independent news media and excluded from public jobs many of those who do not support his policies.
Perceptions about the role of the councils vary so widely that it's not totally clear if they are part of Chavez's efforts to increase the power of his political machine or open it up to new opinions.
So far the councils seem to center on providing people a means to develop and enact projects they believe are useful to their communities.
"This is just neighbor-to-neighbor thing; the state giving power so we can resolve our own problems," said Ana Maria De Arriba, a housewife and treasurer of a Community Council in the eastern Petare neighborhood of Caracas.
De Arriba said her council had used government funds to refurbish three kindergartens and was working to stop motorcycles from using an alley bustling with pedestrians.
Politics can play a role in the discussions, she added. But she insisted that her council had members from political parties and movements both pro and anti-Chavez. Members are elected in town-hall-like meetings open to all the community.
"We have people who are with the government and some who are against it," she said. "The call is to work for the good of the community."
For his part, Perez said his council has 13 members who are against Chavez and two who are in favor, including him. Perez's biggest concern is that the government will not trust the councils enough, fearing it might lose power.
"They say the people lack political education," he said. "But it's the politicians who lack political education."
A top aide to the mayor of Caracas, Anibal Leonidas Lizardo, said the politicians, especially pro-Chavez officials like himself, were supporting the councils' work.
"This is a chance to deepen the revolution," he said. "This is direct democracy."
Problems loom, however. The 23rd of January neighborhood of western Caracas, where Silva and Pacheco debated the merits of personal loans, already has seen complaints about corruption and malfeasance by some council members.
What's more, the power struggle between the political parties, the local politicians and the Community Councils seems to have only begun.
"We don't want any more governments or parties, what we want is community-run governments," said Lizandro Perez, a community leader in the 23rd of January. "In this scenario, the president would have to cede power and be just the spokesperson for the people."