After five regional commune conferences held through August and September, the first National Conference of Comuneros and Comuneras was held in Caracas on 16 and 17 November. While forums and cultural events were put on in various main plazas of the city, the two main components of the conference were a communal economy fair to display and sell what hundreds of communes around the country produce on the Saturday, and working group discussions on the Sunday.
The journey started outside the supermarket on one of the main roads of Merida, where I watched the sun set as I waited for the bus that would take us to Caracas. The Merida Ministry of Communes guy messaged me every five minutes or so to assure me that the bus was nearby, and when it arrived and I got on, introduced me to the other comuner@s as “the journalist”. I sat down, and as it got dark, people constantly came up to me to tell me their commune story, their ideas and proposals. One man, from the Valle del Chama commune, an old and energetic retired teacher, told me how people are encouraged by Maduro’s latest measures with the economy. He said his son, who is as “opposition as you can get” was even positive, saying that he had confidence in Maduro now. Others emphasised strongly – and it became clear they were on to something at the Communal Economy Fair the next day – that the communes are about production, development, and being less dependent on imports and transnationals. Around me others debated, then as it got late people settled down. One man got up and sang a song called Batalla de Carabobo, about Maduro and building the communes, and people clapped along. Then the retired teacher got up and told some fairly adult political jokes…”Why did Capriles break up with his last girlfriend?” “Because in bed she would yell out, más duro, más duro!” (Harder, harder – but mas duro in a Venezuelan accent sounds like Maduro).
We struggled to get to sleep sitting upright in our bus seats, with the driver blaring music on full volume all night, then at around 8am we pulled into Caracas. A woman, Irene Carrizo from the Apartaderos Commune El Paso de Bolivar 1913, recited and acted out a story about Bolivar. A retired teacher proposed that the Merida communes organise a cultural event, and a woman agreed, saying “Yes, because communes don’t just cultivate land, but also the spirit”.
Saturday: Communal Economy Fair
The bus driver dropped us off at the National Communal Economy Fair, where communes sold a sample of their produce; from vegetables, to bread and sweets, coffee, handicrafts, metal pots, and clothing. For VA’s image gallery of the fair and to see the range of communes and their produce, click here. The display was impressive, especially given that each commune represents around 8-15 communal councils, and each communal council up to a thousand or so adults over 15. Also, not all communes were present. The commune ministry in each state had been in charge of providing transport to get to Caracas, but clearly there were some communes that weren’t able to attend for various logistical reasons. The Apartaderos commune on my bus for example, sent three representatives, but weren’t able to bring their organic produce because they couldn’t organise a truck for it. They brought a small sample of organic butter and other things though.
The fair was absolutely packed, both with comuner@s selling their produce, as well as locals buying it. The queues for each section (manufacturing, produce, handicrafts etc) were a good 100 people or so deep, all day. It showed that communally produced products are seen as just as legitimate as commercially produced items. Unfortunately though, it was hard to have long conversations with anyone, as the plaza was so packed, and a stage at one end blasted out speeches and communal cultural events all day.
However, Lorena Gracia of the El Valle del Chama commune reflected on the fair, telling me, “It’s lovely, because there is a lot of integration, you can see the work that is being done, and the organisation. The people are enthusiastic about building the communes… the fair shows what communes can do, that we’re capable of countering this economic sabotage ”.
The Minister for Communes, Reinaldo Iturriza arrived at the fair at around 10am. People at the stalls chatted to him, while others beside them kept selling and talking to customers. As he moved on, the fruit sellers continued to yell to customers “Come here, come here, we are the comuneros, working for the people!”
At around 2.30pm Iturriza also addressed the public and the press. I thought it was notable, but unsurprising, that only public press and alternative media were present, with the odd exception of Cadena Capriles. The work of the communes is completely silenced by private media, especially the international private media. And, while public media journalists are often harassed and even kicked out of opposition events, the Cadena Capriles journalist stood right next to the minister and was treated well, like the rest of us.
As Iturriza tried to speak, people yelled out the names of their communes, wrote the names down on pieces of paper and passed them to him, and they cheered as he repeated the names or read them out. Their pride in their commune was clear. Iturriza's hands were eventually full of pieces of papers, and as someone from the VTV crew put a microphone on him, to go live, he was relaxed, happy, and came across as being very down to earth. “We’re going on air” one cameraman yelled out, and another argued with him about the timing. Iturriza laughed. VTV and Radiomundial went live, and the crowd chanted “Poder popular!” (Grassroots power!) and “Commune or nothing” over and over, barely letting Iturriza speak.
Afterwards, I walked around the stalls again. It was cute, the number of communes called Hugo Chavez. It was also inspiring to see the incredible range of talent that people have, not just in the cultural events the communes put on (dance, stilts, rap, storytelling, singing, and more) but in terms of the creative and colourful handicrafts, clothing, and sweet food, and in terms of people’s technical knowledge. It was important that the products were sold directly to customers, without intermediaries- who are often the ones who jack up prices, and who make the production-consumption process more alienating.
There were a lot of agro-ecological products and products made from recycled materials. The environmental awareness of the comuner@s impressed me, and I felt it contrasted somewhat with the awareness of some people in the commune ministry. The ministry in Caracas was in charge of the logistics of the fair, including the lunch for the participants, and that arrived in foil containers with polystyrene lids, cans, plastic bottles and so on. Unfortunately that sort of thing is common in most mass events in Venezuela (and to be fair, most other countries too). The ministry in Merida had told me though to bring my own cutlery and plate, as they had the idea of eating cooked food and not producing so much rubbish, but I guess the ministry in Caracas had a different idea. One person from the Merida ministry told me that the ministry in Caracas had organised everything, and the other state ministries knew little about what was going on.
On the other hand, it was useful that the comuner@s and the ministry workers travelled together in the bus, it broke down what little barriers there might have been between the two groups. While ministry workers in other countries wouldn’t travel overnight on uncomfortable buses with ordinary people, the one with us read out quotes from the Blue Book by Chavez and gave us a detailed lesson on Middle Eastern politics. Later though, he told me was concerned, because the communes are “meant to be an antidote to bureaucracy and corruption”, yet he saw a few of the communer@s replicating institutional ways and being individualist. I argued though that such behaviour, for people who have grown up under capitalism, is inevitable when a project is just starting off.
We spent the night in a worker run factory called Social Property Company (EPS) Confecciones La Veguita, in the Macarao Commune. The factory has been making bags, school uniforms, and baby clothes for four years now, and another carpentry factory was under construction next door. The commune also has a bookshop, its own transport and blacksmiths, and has substituted shanties in the community for dignified housing.
Written on the wall of the main sowing area was, “In socialism, the economy is at the service of human beings, and it is a key instrument for creating equality” – Hugo Chavez, Alo Presidente 455.
As around 60 comuner@s from Merida found places in the factory for their mattresses, sheets, and pillows (previously used for victims of the 2010 floods), workers and members of the Macarao factory and commune served us some spaghetti Bolognese they had prepared for dinner.
That night a few comuner@s per commune were able to meet with Maduro and Iturriza, in a live televised discussion. Those from Merida who participated later reported back to us that at the meeting Maduro emphasised four main things. The first was the importance of the “movement for peace” and the communes’ role in combating violence. The second was the Barrio Tricolor mission, which he said should become a mission of the communes, where rather than focusing on building and repairing houses and buildings, the focus should be on “building community”. Thirdly, and “most importantly”, was the role of the communes in transforming the economic structure. “Without that, we’ll never arrive at socialism,” the reporting comunero said. Communal based production should be interconnected, rather than isolated, he emphasised. Finally, Maduro talked about combating the “economic war”, through increased production and with the state supporting small and medium business. He suggested the communes organise censuses of such businesses in their area.
“You all are the vanguard, without you there wouldn’t be a new Venezuela. The communes are the epicentre for a truly human life, for a socialist life,” Maduro said at the meeting.
Sunday – Discussion groups
Sunday was discussion day; it was held at the Bolivarian University, and consisted of working group discussions and proposal making in classrooms. The four areas of discussion were: national networks of grassroots communication, networks of production and consumption against speculation and hoarding, consolidation of the national commune congress, and education schools for comuner@s. I joined the Andean region on the third floor, and the communication discussion. It was facilitated by people from the School of Socialist Education, and began with a string activity for people to get to know each other and their different communes. Then there was an all in general discussion, followed by breaking into four even smaller groups to formulate concrete proposals, which people then wrote up on large pieces of paper and were also typed up on a computer in each classroom.
People argued for the importance of making the commune movement more visible in national media, and also criticised the lack of internal communication for the organisation of the national conference. Apart from the lack of information regarding the logistics of the event, people criticised that no one had the proposals that came out of the regional conferences, and we couldn’t develop on those proposals, as was the aim. Few people were aware that there is a plan for a national congress, and that Sunday’s discussion was to contribute to the organising of that. On the other hand, most people told me that they felt that the discussions gave them lots of ideas to take back and implement in their commune. Nevertheless, it was frustrating that there was no all in wrap up of the discussions and proposals coming out of each discussion area.
“It was important that we exchanged information between different communes from different states, we exchanged phone numbers, and that will help us develop grassroots markets in our district,” Gracia told me.
To close the conference, there were more cultural performances by various communes, and an open mike for comuner@s to speak on, followed by some closing remarks by Iturriza.
“The conference has been very good, communes should be part of the government, they should be felt and lived, we’re part of the battle against speculation,” said one comunera on the open mike.
“We’re here, we need to continue working together,” said a comunero from Trujillo state.
“This is one more experience for us, so that we can fulfil the dream that Chavez planted. We feel proud to be part of the giant commune family,” said a comunero from Lara.
For Iturriza , the conference was “an absolute success, it surpassed our expectations in terms of the amount of food sold and in terms of participation. This is a people who are very motivated… our hope for the future is that this important commune movement… starts to have more and more weight in national politics”.
“I want to build my commune because it’s a totally different form of life. I dream about this, about building something with different values. I don’t think ‘commune’ is just a word, just another meeting, it’s a lot deeper than that. Many of us still aren’t clear about what a commune is, it’s not an event, it’s a new state of things, where there’s no exploitation, there’s equality, love, simpleness, wellbeing for all, not just for me and my pocket… that’s why I fight for it,” Antonio Portillo of the El Valle del Chama Commune, Merida, told me after the conference was over.
“When Chavez died, at first there was pain, anguish, sadness, crying… it was a beating to the soul, but it didn’t stop us going on, and the proof in that is that Maduro won the elections. True, there was a slump in motivation, but we’ve climbed back up, and I think slowly we’re getting there. I’m confident that we’ll win the municipal elections, and that will help with stability,” Portillo said.
I asked him then if being involved in a commune had changed him, “Yes I think it has, we have more friendships in our community, it’s enabled me to meet more people, and not just in my community, but in the whole municipality. This gathering shows how we’ve changed, we’re sharing experiences”.
“There are still difficulties. Sometimes we call a general meeting and only 40% of the community attend, it’s a lot of effort to get that many people, normally we just get 15%. There are people in my community who have a negative influence on the process, they tell people that the commune and the communal councils are useless, and the people have to listen to this every single day, and some of them start to believe it. So we have to talk to people all the time and insist that yes, things can be achieved. For example, we fixed the road. The government provided us with the resources but it was our voluntary work. I participated in that, even though I don’t know much about construction. We could fix even more if we had more material support. It helps us to convoke people and do things.”
And how is the national commune movement going? I asked him. “I see two things. One, things are going well, there is an upward trend. Two years ago we proposed a regional meeting, but we didn’t do it because we weren’t capable then. Now we have this national meeting. Then there is the negative part. I think the communes are very far away from consolidating themselves. We lack a lot for our commune to be a real commune. We have projects for example, for agricultural production, but we aren’t implementing them yet”.
According to the communes ministry, a total of 677 registered communes and communes under construction were represented at the national meeting.