Elías Santana

Ashoka Fellow
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Fellow since 1996
Escuela de Vecinos de Venezuela
This description of Elías Santana's work was prepared when Elías Santana was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


Elias Santana is attempting to mobilize millions of Venezuelan citizens to construct a "social compact" about what their country should look like in the year 2020.

The New Idea

Elias Santana has applied the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy in a powerful and socially useful way. He is mobilizing Venezuelan citizens in their millions to construct a "social compact" about what their country should look like in the year 2020. Fortified by this shared vision of the future, Elias expects a more organized and self-conscious Venezuelan citizen sector to proceed to bring it into being. Several fundamental consequences from this purposeful awakening of Venezuelan citizens are anticipated besides an agreed compact about a preferred future, including reform of the corrupt political party system and a re-authorization of political institutions, which are now stripped of popular credibility. While it is unashamedly and profoundly political, "Venezuela 2020," as the project is called, is avowedly nonpartisan. It will not endorse or in any way support politicians or organizations that adopt its vision, although it will lobby all politicians and policy bodies to do so. It will become the emblem of the third sector of society, the citizen sector, as distinct from the state and business sectors, and its defining character will be that it represents the free and voluntary activity of independent citizens.

The Problem

Venezuela is at a major crisis point. Its severe social and economic problems are aggravated by an almost complete lack of credibility in public institutions and political leaders. The orthodox economic model, based on oil export-led growth, has floundered, bringing with it burdensome international debt, high levels of inflation, stagnant growth rates, high unemployment and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

As Venezuelans begin, instinctively, to reach beyond the borders of their present crisis, they have few working tools to help them. Their attitude of reliance on oil-generated income is one major impediment to change. Government agencies, both local and national, remain largely disjointed and unarticulated, incapable of moving beyond local solutions to local problems. Many who believe in the possibility of change continue to trust in the political party system, which is notoriously known as one of the most corrupt in Latin America. And a large majority of the citizenry appears apathetic and skeptical, believing little can be done to bring about change.

Nonetheless, Venezuela's citizen sector is gaining strength and new visions, and solutions are surfacing. Though the bankrupt political system has failed to produce leaders with inspired visions and ideas to lead the country into the 21st century, enterprising community-based leaders and organizations are emerging. This citizen sector emergence and the increasingly conscious rejection of past political and economic models are widespread and growing, though they have not yet been galvanized by a new integrating vision.

The Strategy

Elias' strategy is to capitalize on, as he puts it, the "deep national feeling" that Venezuelans have to bring them together to envision a better future. Despite their differences, this common bond will be enough to begin a process, in part because of the depth of the current crisis: everyone knows that a fundamental break with the past is required. Once a purposeful future visioning process is enjoined, he believes that it will generate further collaboration at deepening levels and a widening effect.

The facilitation techniques required to enable people to come together and arrive at a common vision of the future are now well known, including variations on the "corporate scenario planning" methodology that emerged from Royal Dutch Shell in the 1980s and has evolved in several directions. Venezuela 2020 is studying these and developing its own techniques based on the many years of experience in Elias' "School of Neighbors" citizenship education seminars across the country.

The School of Neighbors provides the core organizational infrastructure to host Venezuela 2020 sessions, but Elias is actively recruiting and training partner organizations and networks that can also host sessions. The idea is to fan out as broadly and rapidly as possible to enable the greatest possible number of people to participate.

The big challenge, according to Elias, is to link, accumulate and synthesize what is emerging from the thousands of grassroots sessions to arrive at some kind of representative consensus or agreed vision for Venezuela 25 years in the future. Elias intends to do a great deal of the integrating and validating of an aggregated view on the Internet and by asking existing networks to provide formal feedbacks to the grassroots groups. One product will be a document that lays out a shared vision for Venezuela.

At every stage, Elias sees the media as a critical tool to popularize the concept of Venezuela 2020 and to keep society abreast of substantive progress in the articulation of a shared future vision. Several years ago the School of Neighbors established its own news service as part of its broader public education strategy. The intention was to communicate the ways in which people come together voluntarily and make things better, and it was seen as an important antidote to the commercial media's penchant for superficiality, violence and sensationalism. The Good News Agency, as it is called, which regularly produces print, radio and television pieces that it feeds to commercial and public media, will provide the core communications and media function for Venezuela 2020.

As the Venezuela 2020 compact for the future begins to take shape, its participants will open a dialogue with elected officials and government policymakers. It will resist every temptation to become a political party. Politicians and political parties will not be able to participate in its work. Although politicians and political parties will be encouraged to subscribe to Venezuela 2020's program of action, those that do will not be supported in their re-election bids. In other words, Venezuela 2020 is designed strictly to avoid the inherent danger of succumbing to political contests. This concern highlights the central objective, which is to enable millions of ordinary Venezuelan citizens to know that they and only they can make the difference.

The Person

Educated by Franciscans and deeply influenced by the value of community service, Elias immersed himself in social issues from a young age. As a teenager he "organized the dogs" in the condominium association where he lived, transforming a situation that had provoked considerable tension among neighbors into a source of amused pride. From this experience he moved on to lead a number of youth organizations, including a student newspaper and the regional scouts organization.

Elias honed his leadership capacity through years of work in different neighborhood associations. He created the School of Neighbors to underpin and provide citizenship education to the neighborhood associations. He formed local and regional networks of neighborhood associations, and then a national network, to give them a voice at the national level of policymaking. Through this process, the School of Neighbors grew alongside "servicing" the movement.

Through this work Elias has evolved a profound, practice-based and action-oriented theory of education, which he believes to be the single most important function of society. "We train community people to be effective leaders," he says, "but we don't use the term 'leaders.' We encourage self-actualization as the central principle of social action."

Elias has enjoyed an intense career, spanning more than twenty years, full of different challenges and learning. He now finds himself in a new stage of life, more settled and mature, and with a wealth of experience behind him that will help him to face the new challenges that Venezuela's situation implies. He remains ready and optimistic. "You learn how to live by living," he says. He also has his lighter side. When asked why he chose the year 2020, he answered, "Because 25 years should give us just about enough time to bring everyone into agreement."