SCHOOL HELPS DEVELOP NEIGHBORHOOD GROUPS

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

* Elias Santana spreads the ``good news'' about grass-roots democracy in the classroom and from the studio.

Mr. Santana is director of the Venezuela School of Neighbors. And early every morning, Venezuelans can tune in by radio or television to the ``Buenas Noticias'' program to get the latest on neighborhood activism.

``The idea is to show what others are doing. If this person can do it, you can too,'' Santana says. ``We are the only nongovernmental organization in Latin America that has a daily, national television program with regional coverage,'' he boasts. The broadcasts are one way this nonprofit civic organization teaches citizens how to make democracy work for the them.

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Founded in 1980, the School of Neighbors teaches people how to set up and run neighborhood groups. The school has helped create more than 11,000 neighborhood associations in Venezuela, from crime-watch to environmental groups. It disseminates information about activities via broadcasts, weekly bulletins, and newspapers.

Battling corruption is a fundamental part of the school's work. ``The fight against corruption starts at the local level,'' Santana says. ``We inform people about their rights and obligations and how municipal budgets work and contracts are let. We give people the tools, the information, to detect corruption and fight it legally.''

Before last December's poll, the school broadcast on how to register and vote. It organized poll-watchers to prevent fraud at the ballot box. Two years ago, the school helped write legislation and secure 140,000 signatures to enable Caracas citizens to elect their mayor, previously a presidential appointment.

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