Among the many challenges in rural organizing are the merely physical ones: the distances that must be crossed. Producers in the countryside are by their very nature separated across a territory and must come together to debate, socialize, and plan. In Venezuela, the problems endemic to rural organizing are heightened by the gas crisis and the scarcity of auto parts. This meant that simply getting to the Foundational Congress of Venezuela’s fledgling Communard Union – staged in March of this year – was a real ordeal. Many arrived on the backs of trucks, enduring hours of tropical sun, car exhaust, and road rattle. “My butt fell asleep on the trip,” a smiling old man from the East of the country told me. Having made the odyssey in an open truck bed, he was evidently shaken but in good spirits. If the challenges were many, the stakes were also high. These people’s purpose in making the trip – whether arriving in ramshackle buses, trucks, and even walking when close enough – was to participate in an event that, despite its humble appearance and modest surroundings, may change the destiny of the country by bringing it back to the path of socialism.
Why build a league or union of communes? That is, what is the role of a commune in Venezuela and why try to unify them? Communes became important during Hugo Chávez’s last years when he developed a strategy of advancing toward socialism by using these grassroots spaces of self-managed production and substantive democracy as its basic cells. Since the president’s death, the communal project has faced numerous challenges, including the post-Chávez government’s rightward turn under the pressure of sanctions and hybrid war. Despite these challenges, commune-building goes forward in an almost miraculous way in the country, driven by grassroots bases whose commitment can be explained by a combination of loyalty to the former president, the pressing necessity to produce food, and their political consciousness. Sown across the country and without much support, Venezuela’s functioning communes are embattled outposts, weakened by their isolation. However, there have been attempts to build unity and coordinate these efforts. The most important of these is the Communard Union (Unión Comunera).
The urgent need to overcome the isolation of communes and accumulate forces in the popular movement is both the raison d’être for the Communard Union and explains the huge draw of its first Congress. Hosted in Lara state by El Maizal Commune, the Foundational Congress brought together – so the organizers said – almost 500 delegates from 48 communes. Since March is always dry and hot in this low-lying region, the organizers had a constant, more or less Sisyphean battle against heat and dust. To this effect, they initially seated delegates under the roof of El Maizal Commune’s machinery shed, before the event migrated to a huge thatched caney that had been expanded to provide shade for the participants. Despite the torrid atmosphere, the congress was kicked off with a great deal of “mística,” a passionate interchange of slogans, and the intoning of revolutionary songs. Among the slogans, the most common was “Commune or Nothing!” This slogan was also employed in an expanded form: “Commune or Nothing, that is the mission, as Chávez said in Golpe de Timón!”
El Maizal is the most powerful commune in Venezuela today, and it has played a central role in promoting the Communard Union. When its charismatic spokesperson, Ángel Prado, took the microphone to open the congress, he talked about how his commune has recently been through some difficult times. The idea of forming a union of communes emerged, Prado said, because a few years ago El Maizal found itself alone facing both the counterrevolution and what he calls the internal, reformist “fifth column.” For this reason, they began building a network of support with other communes and other Chavista groups in the country. One important step involved the “Argelia Laya” youth brigades that traveled the country under difficult conditions, connecting with incipient or abandoned communes and motivating their members. Overall, the work of promoting the Union has been going on for some four years – starting in 2018, when the country was shaken by violent right-wing street protests – and it has been very hard work.
Prado has recently been elected mayor of the nearby Simón Planas township, campaigning on the official PSUV ticket. I noted that in this initial discourse, he was emphatic that the Communard Union does not see the government as an enemy. While admitting that there were still debates on this subject, he said that the fledgling Union was committed to being just as constructive as it was critical in relation to the central government: to the degree that they criticize, they would also try to build something, construct an alternative. Instead of antagonism, Prado said, what is really at stake are different visions of the country: “The government has its plan, its interpretation of the Plan de la Patria [the Plan for the Nation that Chávez developed before dying], while we have our own interpretation of the Plan!”
In the revolutionary interpretation of the Plan de la Patria the communes have a central role. Communes can govern in Venezuela, Prado went on to say, but not if they are isolated one from another. In this sense, the first aim of the Communard Union is to defend the communards and their projects. Second, it will encourage new communes and communal initiatives. Prado added that he hoped that the Union would soon have its own school for educating members and also be able to send some people to other countries to learn, for example, about seed production or the use of agricultural inputs. In conclusion, Prado said that the most difficult task in these four years had been to overcome differences with fellow communes and build unity. In any case, they had finally succeeded in uniting people, and before us today – he was referring to the Foundational Congress itself – was the impressive result. He projected that the upcoming decade would decide whether the Bolivarian revolution would continue or not, and the Communard Union had an important role to play in that struggle.
Later speakers during the Foundational Congress’s opening day echoed Prado’s claims. However, some tried to push the envelope of radicalness and put alternative visions on the table. For example, Johann Tovar from the commune Luisa Caceres de Arismendi in Sucre state picked up on Prado’s reference to the next ten years. Yet instead of talking about tough electoral scenarios and the need to support the government, Tovar said he wanted to see a “communal republic” emerge in Venezuela. Another critical voice was Marta Lía Grajales from the San Augustin Convive initiative in Caracas, who said that the government does not represent the people: it does not call on them to participate any more. For this reason, it was all the more important that the Communard Union is now maintaining Chávez’s ideals and goals alive, because that is what people really want.
In these opening sallies, one can perceive some of the debates that form the shifting sands of Venezuela’s popular movement today. What is the relation to the government? Is it symbiotic, a kind of détente, or antagonistic? Should the communal movement aspire to replace existing state power and, if so, over what timeframe? The success of Venezuela’s communal movement depends in great measure on making sure that these differences are neither forcibly suppressed nor irreparably divide its ranks. In the opening presentations, one could also glimpse the complex relation to the state and government authorities that is central to Venezuelan political culture; this is a loose, open-ended, and even optimistic approach that predates the Bolivarian Process but was also reinforced during those two decades. A skeptic would say that this relationship is not so much complex, as improvised. In effect, the relation between the popular movement and the state in Venezuela eludes definitions, errs on the side of flexibility, and there are almost no red lines, but rather a push and pull that depends on the circumstances.
In side conversations with some participants, I learned that they felt this excess of flexibility and tendency to improvise the relationship with state power could spell the future downfall of the project, since the attempt to dance with the bureaucracy without any clear red lines, usually ends with the latter controlling and subordinating the popular movement and its projects. Without doubt, these claims have history on their side. Kindred movements in recent Venezuelan history have generally run aground for this reason. One only has to look at what happened to Chavismo Bravío; an attempt to regroup the Chavista left around 2012-13; the Ezequiel Zamora Revolutionary Current, a campesino movement that was born in 2005; and the Marcha Campesina, which emerged in 2018. These movements and projects, which were powerful in their time, have all tended to become coopted in one way or another, some even becoming appendices of the state and its official PSUV party.
Program and Statutes
In the late morning, I took a break from the Congress to walk around El Maizal Commune, thinking about both the positive aspects of deals with the government and also the negative sides of it, especially the slippery slope that can result from such collaboration. I was impressed by how El Maizal Commune’s infrastructure was in sparkling conditions that were completely unprecedented. Just six months ago, when I last visited, the grounds were decidedly underattended not to say scrappy. Now, however, newly-painted fence posts, a freshly-graded driveway, and improved meeting spaces spoke for new funding sources. The truth is that these improvements were made possible because of Prado’s recently-obtained position as mayor. Arguably, such material fixes go beyond just show: an air-conditioned office or a caney with electrical outlets for charging phones are surely not basic necessities, but they do demonstrate to people in a concrete way that communal projects offer the hope of an alternative modernity. That is to say, they are physical evidence that what is shared and socialist does not have to be backward in a technological sense and does not have to be a return to some premodern lifestyle.
The impact of a shining example in a community is something that Chávez understood very well and was often central to the projects he promoted in the heyday of the Bolivarian Process. For example, a modern children’s hospital, such as the Childrens’ Cardiologic Hospital, built for people who never had one in the past has the effect of making them raise their horizon of expectations. That poverty and dependency is not an inexorable destiny was an important lesson of these large projects, and the hope is that people who have had a modern hospital or school in their neighborhood will come to expect this as something they deserve, not as a gift but a right. After such experiences, people can become the motors of a revolution that has a high degree of irreversibility inasmuch as their expectations, their knowledge of their rights and of the existential possibilities that can be attained on a massive scale, become new benchmarks by which to judge all future governments and other state authorities.
Back in the newly electrified caney – a small version of this kind of shining example – Carlos David Vargas, a spokesperson for the Vencedores de Carorita commune in Lara, was at the microphone presenting the Union’s program. Called “our professor” by many of the communards, Vargas spoke at length and with an evident theoretical heft. The Union’s programmatic declaration was typical of Chavista documents in that it begins with a historical retrospective, in this case reaching back to the 1990s when Chavismo was born. That thirty-year perspective reveals that Chavismo is less about winning elections, and more about emphasizing the role of participation and democracy’s class content: the majority’s well-being. Chávez himself had called elections “festivals of political machinery” and had recognized that only popular power could transform the existing society and state. Seen in this way, the commune – with its social property and substantive democracy – was the principal and most lasting expression of the Chavista project. This is where the Communard Union’s historical mission comes in: its program would be to pick up this essential element of Chavismo (barely existing on the government’s radar) which also means recognizing the communal project as a not merely local initiative but also a national one. Regarding that national project, it involves ending the bourgeois state and replacing it with the communal state as the ultimate aim, with a federation of communes being projected as an intermediary measure.
It fell upon Juancho Lenzo of the Andean project Tatuy TV, affiliated with the Che Guevara Commune, to expound the Union’s statutes. He said that the aim of the project would be to create a nationwide political movement of communes directed at building socialism. It would also be an ecological and feminist movement, committed to Bolivarian socialism and internationalism. Among the values and principles that the Union espouses, according to Lenzo, many are expressed in El Árbol de las Tres Raíces (i.e. the values of Venezuelan historical figures such as Simón Bolívar, Ezequiel Zamora, and Simón Rodríguez). It would be a progressive, humanist movement, conscious of the African and Indigenous contributions to Venezuelan socialism. Regarding the criteria for entering the Union, these stipulate that, to be admitted, a commune must be real – that is it must do concrete work in its community – and be legally registered, though the latter was less important. Turning to questions of organizational structure, Lenzo explained that there would be a National Congress that convenes every four years (this was the first such meeting). There would also be a National Direction that included three militants from each region (Andes, Center, Center West, East, and Plains region), a National Council for Monitoring and Control, and a Disciplinary Council.
During the lunch hour, the unflaggingly energetic master of ceremonies, Carlos Rodríguez, had the idea of asking each delegate to give a brief introduction to their respective communes, and tell those assembled about the various productive projects they had going. One-by-one these delegates stood up to tell their stories: La Unión Commune in Barinas produces animal feed: Cinco Fortalezas in Sucre state produces sugar cane; El Milagro in Simón Planas produces textiles; Lanceros de Atures en La Miel produces black beans, textiles, baked goods, and raises pigs; Mariscal Sucre Commune in Sucre state is working with family production units; Armando Bonilla Commune has conucos (family subsistence plots); Luisa Caceres de Arismendi in Barcelona does trash collection; Benicio Aroca in Valencia has conucos and family plots; Sarare Commune in Simón Planas produces baked goods while raising animals…
The first day of the Foundational Congress closed, as the sun was going down in Simón Planas, with a unanimous show of hands in approval of the program and statutes and a cascade of cultural activities, the highpoint being a pair of visiting Italians who led those assembled in an animated singing of Bella Ciao. In the background, there were banners of participating organizations, including the MST, and also a freshly-printed one showing the Communard Union’s logo: a left-handed fist striking an open right-hand, which is a gesture Chávez frequently used to indicate a combative spirit. At last, some organizers took the stage. They had careful explanations about the logistics and lodging that had been prepared for delegates. Most important, however, the organizers had a surprise announcement to make: Jorge Arreaza, Chávez’s son-in-law, had just been named Minister of Communes and would be visiting the congress on the following day!
The New Minister Arrives
When the sun rose on the congress the next day, there was bubbling excitement in the air, with much debate and the hum of rumors circulating among the delegates. The announcement that Jorge Arreaza had been named Minister of Communes had been greeted with great enthusiasm by many of those present. They saw it as a validation of the Communard Union’s work. However, others were more skeptical and felt that Arreaza’s nomination and his blitzkrieg visit simply reflected how the government was concerned about any organizational project taking shape that is autonomous from the official PSUV party and hence potentially critical.
It should be pointed out that Arreaza is reputed to be different from most actors in the Chavista bureaucracy. He is understated and reserved, yet open to communication with the bases. Perhaps most important, however, is that the new minister is said to have lately gone through a kind of existential crisis and soul-searching process that has brought him closer to the country’s popular movement. The story behind Arreaza’s recent soul-searching is that for many years he lived in a virtual bubble, first as Minister of External Relations and then as Minister of Industry (even turning down supplementary pay that ministers receive because he was convinced that the problems of the country were relatively superficial and simply exaggerated by the media). The bubble exploded when Arreaza left the Ministry of Industry a couple of months ago to run for governor in Barinas state. Though he lost these elections, the contact with the people that the campaign involved and the awareness it brought of their suffering from both the blockade and governmental mismanagement, served as a kind of wake-up call. Since Arreaza firmly believes in socialism, he was deeply troubled. Nevertheless, after considerable reflection and reading (and in contrast to what most of the government thinks), he concluded that the commune is the way forward for Venezuela.
As the morning wore on without Arreaza arriving, the delegates assembled in the caney were led in the singing of revolutionary songs and exchange of slogans. This was not just a show of high spirits. In fact, the main organizers were meeting apart at this time to plan how they would manage Arreaza’s presence in the event. When the new minister finally showed up in his three-vehicle entourage, it was almost mid-day and the sun was bearing down. Ángel Prado came forward to mediate the situation. He took his time with an extensive introduction. Prado gave Arreaza a hearty welcome but, with some friendly backhandedness, pointed out that there were also two ex-ministers of the commune in the audience. He talked about the discord and disagreements these former ministers – Reinaldo Iturizza and Blanca Eekhout – had each had with El Maizal Commune while implying that there had also been disagreements among them. Despite the humorous tone, Prado’s intention most likely was to show those assembled that ministers come and go but the commune remains…
When Arreaza took the microphone, he was wearing a “¡Comuna o Nada!” t-shirt and had an El Maizal cap pushed down over his head. He tried to be as humble as possible, claiming to have been surprised when Maduro designated him Minister of Communes just two days ago. However, Arreaza was clearly thinking about how to manage and control the emergent communal movement. In this vein, he warned those present that if a right-wing government came to power, it could be extremely damaging to the commune and the communal movement. Further, he made a direct plea to the delegates: it was the role of the right wing to oppose the government but the popular movement, by contrast, should try to make itself heard – it should focus on putting forward proposals and projects! Arreaza also went on to point out that Chávez had had doubts about the concept of a communal state, thinking instead that it is the society, not the state, that should be communal. For example, Arreaza said, we should not imagine that the President of the Republic’s role would ever cease to exist, replaced by a system of communes!
Next, the new minister delved into a more theoretical register to support a conciliatory or at least careful relation to the state in the approach to communal construction during the socialist transition. In this vein, he made mention of Chávez’s idea that socialism should be built by creating injertos (grafts) in the existing society. According to Arreaza, this approach is implicit in István Mészáros’s Beyond Capital, a book dear to Chávez and key to his strategic thinking about socialism. There Mészáros describes how the Goethe family house was rebuilt from within, because building codes in Frankfurt at that time did not permit structures that overhang the street to be built any longer. This process of internal reconstruction was, Arreaza claimed, the way that communes should behave: rebuilding from within, without bringing down or destroying completely the state in its complex, organic relation to both wage labor and capitalist civil society.
The minister concluded on a personal note, referring to a few passages from Doña Barbara, Romulo Gallegos famous novel about the plains regions of Venezuela. He said he liked these passages, which his father had read to him as a child, because they point to the importance of voluntad (will or willpower). Gallegos had highlighted the value of perseverance in poetic language that referred to the Venezuelan plains as an open territory that is “a good site for effort.” Switching from father to father-in-law, Arreaza next reminded those present that Chávez himself had said that faith could move mountains, but willpower combined with strategy could move whole mountain ranges. (Whatever the paternal connections here, Arreaza was likely emphasizing willpower at this point, because the government and especially his ministry has very little money these days to offer the communal movement.)
With this, Arreaza wound up his speech. After the applause, there was a brief congratulatory discourse from Edson Bagnara, a representative from Brazil’s landless workers movement MST that has been helping build the union. However, Ángel Prado soon asked for the microphone again. He did so because a powerful historical precedent had just occurred to him for what the communards are doing in the present. His idea was that Simón Bolívar died in 1830 before finishing the emancipatory project that he had tried to promote. In that epoch, it had taken about thirty years before the revolutionary campesino leader Ezequiel Zamora and the subaltern classes in Venezuela managed to take up that project again in the Federal Wars (1860s). Now we are in a similar moment, Prado said, though the timeframes have been compressed: just nine years after the death of Chávez – in a period when a too-pragmatic government seems to have sidelined socialism as a program – the communards are picking up where he left off, reprising the emancipatory project and advancing toward socialism!
Jockeying for Positions
The Foundational Congress of the Communard Union concluded on the second day with the nomination and election of regional and national spokespeople. This process changed the dynamic of the meeting considerably. Now the open microphone and rousing discourses gave way to negotiations and hushed agreements. To name local spokespeople, participants divided into smaller groups according to the five regions. The methodology employed was to look for consensus but decide by majority vote if consensus could not be achieved. At this stage of the event, it was clear from the behavior of those in the groups – in addition to the short time frame allotted to these debates – that most of the decisions about who would assume a given post as spokesperson had been made previously (a pre-congress had been convened a few weeks earlier). Unfortunately, too, sectarism and power plays were operating just beneath the surface in some of the regional groups.
In this process of naming spokespeople, one can see some of the weaknesses and limitations of Venezuela’s emergent communard movement. Like the earlier-mentioned flexible attitude toward state power, this has much to do with questions of political culture. A given political culture, whatever its proximate causes, emerges and always has an intimate relation to the society where it operates, with its implicit playbook responding to the needs and often the contradictions built into that society. In Venezuela, a longstanding practice in political and social movements is to insist that there be widespread democracy and a certain level of horizontality but also quietly inject strong doses of top-down centralism to avoid chaos. These practices are at least a century old in the country, and they most likely derive from the relative lack of labor organization in its oil-extracting economy. Slow to change, they were clearly operating in the Union’s organizing procedures, with its reliance on pre-meetings and vertical interventions in the democratic decision-making process.
Thus, it is undeniable that the Communard Union repeats some of the same negative practices that allowed for the coopting and even collapse of prior movements. One could even argue that the failure to establish red lines with the government and the weakness of its internal democracy explain the absence of some important Venezuelan grassroots movements and communes in this project (La Minka, El Panal, Pobladores). However, these problematic behaviors are an almost inevitable part of Venezuelan political culture, and it is likely that all popular movements in the country in the near future will continue them. Further, it is important to recognize that recourse to these practices does not necessarily imply that the current movement is destined to succumb as earlier ones have. That is because the failure of prior campesino movements in the past decade was due partly to their scale – they did not reach deeply and widely enough into the country – and to the overall political conjuncture and balance of forces. Since both the political panorama and the scale of popular rebellion in Venezuela could change in the future, that in turn means that the Communard Union, despite its lack of red lines and despite its excessive centralism might become, one day, a revolutionary nationwide movement capable of putting a Chavismo committed to socialism – a Chavismo that promotes and relies on the commune – once again in a hegemonic role in the country.