A Commune Called ‘Che’


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Source: Monthly Review

A big fluffy dog. That is all Simón Bolívar got out of the Andean people when he went there looking for recruits and supplies at the time of the independence wars. The dog, named Nevado, entered the history books, but the coolness of Andean Venezuelans to Bolívar’s project did not. A population of small farmers who owned their land, the region’s campesinos were not willing to sign up for just any abstract proposal that involved much risk and unclear objectives. Moreover, these highland communities were not so leader oriented: in one of the stories told about Bolívar’s visit, the hero of Venezuelan independence got the dog because he asked to be shown their leader!

Just as the independence struggle had different resonances in the Andes, so too does Venezuela’s project of communal socialism. The region is home to one of the most successful communes in the country today, and, like other working communes, this one has a solid productive basis (a chocolate factory and coffee cooperative) and is run by seasoned cadres. However, the Che Guevara Commune is markedly different from others that sprung up in response to Hugo Chávez’s call to build communes as “the basic cells of socialism.” More methodical, cautious, and pragmatic, the communards in these hillsides have built their project little by little, organizing their communities around the production and processing of two labor-intensive cash crops and the know-how they have acquired from cross-border migration.

The Che Guevara Commune is far removed from the bustle of Venezuela’s huge coastal cities. You reach it by following a steep winding road from the shores of Lake Maracaibo into La Culata National Park. Lush vegetation and tall bucare trees provide good shade for coffee and cacao, which has only begun to be farmed in recent decades in this region, due to the migration triggered by the construction of the Pan-American Highway along the lake’s perimeter in the 1950s. Many of the migrants in the area come from neighboring Colombia, bringing their traditions of hard work and, just as often, the political consciousness of veteran leftists fleeing persecution.

Such was the case of Neftalí Vanegaz, who came here in the early part of this century. A coffee grower who always maintained good relations with the guerrilla in his zone, Neftalí eventually fell under the suspicion of local paramilitary groups. Those were the days of Álvaro Uribe’s fascist offensive and the most aggressive phase of the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia. It was a time when suspicion was practically a death sentence. One day, facing down a pair of would-be assassins, Neftalí barely came away with his life. He wrested a pistol from one assailant, which jammed during the struggle, and then chased the other attacker away by brandishing the useless but menacing weapon. Having won this first battle in a stacked contest, the only thing to do now was flee. Neftalí made hasty tracks first to Medellín and later began an odyssey through El Salvador and Honduras that took him to Venezuela’s arid Guajira region.

Farmer Neftalí had fled with his young wife, Dioselina, and their infant son Felipe. It took them six days of walking through difficult terrain to get to the Guajira, where they had to live by fishing and hunting. In one difficult moment, they even ate a rare tapir. Life was hard in that sunbaked region, not the least because of the mosquito-borne illnesses. After two years, they pressed on. Once they got to the highlands around Lake Maracaibo, it felt more like home. The region resembled Neftalí’s mountainous birthplace in Colombia. The family set up a small farm, which later became the core of the Colimir cooperative in 2004, when Chávez first initiated the drive to make cooperatives. The farm would also become the keystone of the Che Guevara Commune.

From the torment of war, and having survived a dire crossing, the fugitive Vanegaz family ended up in the storm of Venezuela’s socialist construction. A quick learner with revolutionary experience in his blood, the son, Felipe, would grow up in the fascinating context of the Bolivarian process. Felipe and both his parents would ultimately become important communal leaders.

Coffee and cacao production have a special relation to Venezuelan independence. It was cacao that lined the pockets of rich creole planters in the country two centuries back (called “grandes cacaos” for that reason). Emboldened by their wealth, with egos inflated by this export crop, the colony’s cacao planters felt they were second to none in the metropolis and hence worthy of independence. Yet cacao was a crop that relied on enslaved people’s labor, and the three waves of independence wars changed the demographics of the fledgling republic. With many enslaved people being freed or freeing themselves during this tumultuous epoch, growing cacao became less viable. This meant that, after independence, the new republic’s main cash crop became coffee, which requires intense work but can be cultivated by families. Agricultural production in post-independence Venezuela often just shifted on the same plantation: from cacao in the lowlands to highland coffee cultivation.

Today, in a similar way, the fallout from Chavismo’s revolutionary advances, and especially the blockade imposed by the United States, has driven many Venezuelans back to coffee growing. This makes for a telling historical echo between what happened in the wake of the first independence struggle and the blowback from what could be called the second attempt at independence—this time from world capitalism—two hundred years later. The key agricultural input for coffee growing is simply the elbow grease that family producers can provide. Yet the product is as good as gold, since it can be turned into hard currency locally, in neighboring Colombia, or in the international market. This is a clue as to why a small coffee-growing cooperative that lived through innumerable difficulties following its founding in 2004 would become the backbone of one of the country’s flagship communes.

A group of us from Caracas are visiting the Che Guevara Commune to investigate its responses to the U.S.-imposed sanctions, with a special interest in the innovative organization of labor and novel production techniques applied in its highland coffee cooperative and lower-lying cocoa factory. The trip is surprisingly rapid, consisting of a short flight to Mérida’s El Vigia airport and a two-hour drive along the Pan-American Highway, then up steep hillsides to the village of Rio Bonito Alto, in the Mesa Julia township. It feels as if we have been beamed here into the commune, suddenly finding ourselves face to face with the coffee-processing plant of the Colimir Cooperative, which is buzzing with activity, its cyclopean drying tumbler and huge rotating dryer in constant motion, all amid a persistent odor of burnt coffee and diesel fuel.

We are met by Neftalí’s son, Felipe, who emerges from the plant in stained work clothes and accompanied by his own lively 3 year old. He begins by explaining the vicissitudes of the cooperative since its founding. Despite his youth (in the Global North, he would be considered generation Z), Felipe is a person who believes firmly in industrialization, maintaining a strictly scientific approach to socialist construction. It is an attitude that, in my mind, resonates with certain facets of V. I. Lenin’s thought (remember the slogan “Soviet power plus electrification!”). Felipe also has a pragmatic approach to the social and organizational side of socialist construction. A communal project’s raison d’être, he tells us, is always the real needs of the community: when such needs are felt and understood, cooperatives thrive. Conversely, cooperatives lose ground when collective needs are not understood, with people becoming more individualistic and ultimately turning away from the project.

The recent history of communal construction at Mesa Julia bears out Felipe’s thesis, with its decade and a half of ups and downs conditioned by the perceived needs of the local population. After being founded by his father Neftalí in 2004, the Colimir coffee-processing cooperative virtually disappeared when the state corporation Café Venezuela set up shop in the zone and began buying coffee from local producers a few years later. People followed Chávez’s lead in almost everything at that time, as it was laid out in the weekly television program Aló Presidente. This meant that, by the end of 2006, when the official discourse began turning away from the cooperative model, many people around the country began to perceive the earlier drive as a mere error. Most cooperatives at the time had either failed or simply ceased to produce, continuing to exist in a kind of bureaucratic limbo, making the whole initiative seem like a dead end.

Still, pressing economic necessity was never too far away, and when the global economic crisis hit in 2008, things got going again at Colimir. In the first years of the cooperative, members had organized “collective work Mondays”—that is, voluntary work sessions involving all associates—which were reborn in 2009. Tough times made for more solidarity in the community and the cooperative’s seasoned leaders were able to channel people’s spontaneous barn-raising efforts into something resembling Lenin’s Red Saturdays. Then came renewed interest from helpful sectors of the government and a trickle of funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology, which supported the cooperative in a project of cultivating coffee seedlings and funded some terracing of the area’s hillsides.

This was also the time when Chávez, after a few years of mixed success in forming state-owned enterprises, sent out the more radical call to make communes. He said that communes, as scattered foci of political and economic democracy, were to be the place where socialism was born. A group of militants in the Mesa Julia zone responded to the call by incorporating at first ten and later as many as fourteen consejos comunales to form the Che Guevara Commune. However, the Colimir cooperative, which would later become its main economic motor, initially maintained its identity separate from the umbrella figure of the commune. The slight trickle of government support became more substantial when a new funding body, the Consejo Federal de Gobierno, helped finance the productive unit’s infrastructure. Membership then boomed, reaching almost one hundred associates, only to fall away when the building project and the money associated with it ran out.

The hardest period for the coffee producers at Colimir came with the COVID pandemic and the country’s severe economic crisis. Fuel shortages made drying the beans nearly impossible, and production came to a complete halt. When the Consejo Federal de Gobierno reached out and offered to help, the cooperativists researched solutions, discovering that coffee drying was being done elsewhere by burning the coffee husk itself, thereby drastically reducing dependence on diesel fuel. They also learned that the equipment to do so could be bought in Colombia. It was a triumphant day when these novel machines, financed by the Consejo Federal, arrived to Colimir’s hillside coffee-processing plant, and were received by the communards. Thus, in the first months of 2021, a light shone at the end of the tunnel for a cooperative hard hit by U.S. sanctions, and yet held together by the social glue of pressing necessity and the firm mettle of its resilient communards.

As mentioned before, coffee in this zone is as good as money, and, at a certain point in the history of the Che Guevara Commune, it became so explicitly. This was during the two-year period when Colimir issued its own currency, called the cafeto, and made it equal in value to one kilo of coffee. We learn about this coffee-as-currency project when seated inside Colimir’s small, comfortable business office, where Felipe has taken us to escape the persistent humming of the drying machines and diesel generator. This is where the cooperative manages its financial operations, which relied on an innovative local currency during those two years. The rise and fall of the cafeto at the Che Guevara Commune is a story worth telling for its insights into communal production, especially the importance of breaking the straitjacket of commodity exchange, while showing the real difficulties of such an attempt.

The economist Hyman Minsky used to say that anybody can create money; the problem lies in getting it accepted. However, getting people to accept the cafeto was not especially difficult for the communards at Colimir, given the economic crisis at the time. Runaway inflation, a product of economic attacks and an import-dependent economy, was systematically pulverizing the value of the Venezuelan bolívar, while the use of the U.S. dollar was illegal. This made people open to trying a new currency. Moreover, campesinos in the area were already measuring value with coffee. They would price a motorcycle or pair of boots in terms of kilos of coffee, using this as a shared base from which to speak about something’s worth in a way that remained relatively stable over time.

By issuing the cafeto, the Colimir cooperative was thus in some basic sense just formalizing what people were already doing spontaneously. When producers came from around the region to the administrative offices of Colimir to sell their harvest, they were met with a “general equivalent” that was both familiar and new. The cooperative bought coffee from its associates and other producers most often with a digital version of the cafeto—they even developed their own Android app for it—but sometimes also with paper bills. Additionally, the cooperative made loans in cafetos, since small growers in the area always need financial support during times of planting and harvesting. At one point, there were some 17,000 cafetos in circulation, backed by an equal quantity of coffee stored at Colimir.

Felipe, pragmatic and always thinking about the future, looks back at that time with a critical perspective. Creating a local currency solved a problem, but it was not in itself a socialist measure. “The cafeto was more reliable than the Venezuelan bolívar, because it maintained its exchange value over time,” he explains. “Since the dollar did not circulate freely at the time—it was illegal—the cafeto was perfect.” However, he indicates that people also found the new currency confusing, since rising coffee prices meant that debts contracted in cafetos had to be paid back with nominally greater sums. Hence, the cooperative found it difficult to collect loans it had advanced to local producers. “Unlike many other enterprises, we were not victims of the devaluation,” Felipe says. “Yet we lost money because we lent to people who did not pay us back.”

Working in the office today is the cooperative’s financial coordinator, Yeini Urdaneta. It is her responsibility to juggle the community’s numerous requests for economic support (to help cover the costs of births, medical visits, funerals, and so on), but she also had to manage the loans to producers and the problem of unpaid cafeto debt. Despite the difficulties, she agrees with Felipe that “the overall experience of the cafeto was good, because it allowed us to circumvent hyperinflation.” Urdaneta proudly shows us one of the cafeto bills—printed with color xerox—that she keeps folded in her wallet as a memento, along with a still crisp mimeographed sheet of paper explaining how the cafeto was to be used. Tellingly, if somewhat quixotically, the norms begin by saying that the cafeto project is meant to “satisfy collective needs.”

It is not surprising that the cafeto experience was a mixed one and a source of ongoing reflection at the Che Guevara Commune. In capitalist society, money expresses socially validated labor time. The value it represents is universal—you can obtain any commodity with money—but it results from private labor activities. Money fetishism derives from this contradictory situation: a currency has real buying power, but this power comes from dispersed private labor activities that leave no trace on the bills. Insofar as communes attempt to make labor something valued in itself—especially for the use values it generates—instead of simply geared toward anonymous exchange value, it is understandable that they will turn to halfway measures such as barter or, in this case, the use of local currencies more closely connected to concrete labor activities and their products. The final evaluation of these transitory measures will itself depend on the course of the overall transition toward a post-capitalist society, of which these vanguard communes hope to be the initial cells.

Apart from the Colimir coffee cooperative, the Che Guevara Commune is home to a sizable cacao-processing plant. On our second day at Mesa Julia, we drop down some five hundred meters along a steep concrete path to visit its offices, factory spaces, and greenhouses, all dedicated to the different stages of chocolate making. This second productive project of the commune got started some five years after the Colimir coffee cooperative. Yet, the comrades working here represent the vanguard of the commune, if not in a productive sense, at least in an organizational one. The main impulse for organizing the consejos comunales in the zone, and later the Che Guevara Commune, came from the circle of this cacao plant—the Che Guevara Socialist Production Enterprise (or Che Guevara EPS, for its Spanish language acronym). It was also that group that gave the commune its distinguished name.

The Che Guevara EPS’s main spokesperson is Ernesto Cruz, who migrated from Colombia decades ago for economic reasons. Soft spoken, studious, and hardworking, the now 40-something community organizer is seated at a desk in the plant’s small office, explaining how the commune got its revolutionary name. “My aunt Olga Veracruz, who was politically formed in the midst of the war in Colombia, was the one who proposed calling the commune ‘Che Guevara.’” Ernesto tells us how Olga encouraged people to organize first in communal councils and later in the commune, proposing that Che Guevara’s conception of solidarity should be the guiding principle for the region’s communards. “That is why we call ourselves the ‘Che Guevara Commune.’”

Ernesto’s revolutionary aunt belonged to the old leftist tradition. Having followed her nephew’s footsteps by settling in the zone, she organized reading groups with local women and was the moral force behind a local newspaper with a leftist vision. However, naming the commune Che Guevara was met with some resistance in this conservative region, where religion is a cultural mainstay. Evidence of dissent from the community can still be seen in the cocoa plant’s lunchroom. The space is dominated by a large Che Guevara painting based on Alberto Korda’s famous photo showing the young revolutionary with a leonine mane and uplifted eyes (Korda airbrushed them that way). Next to it, someone has discreetly pasted a Psalm of David! Juxtaposing psalm and painting might indeed represent a struggle in the region, but because the Bible verses speak of “the beauty of people living harmoniously together,” they resonate well with both the commune’s overall project and Che’s commitment to solidarity and self-sacrifice.

Fiction tells us that visiting a chocolate factory should be an adventure full of mystery and surprises. In Roald Dahl’s classic story, the most telling surprise is how labor is carried out. Chocolate-making depends on the “enlightened slavery” of Oompa Loompas, who lived on a sad diet of caterpillars until factory owner Wonka rescued them from the bad food and dangerous predators of Loompaland. In this way, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory offers readers a deus ex machina solution to the problem of wage labor and tries to whitewash capitalist exploitation. In the Che Guevara EPS, there is a different, less mystified solution to the problem of exploitation, though from a capitalist perspective it is just as surprising. Here, exploitive and alienated labor is overcome through the ample application of democracy to all stages and steps of the production process. The surprise comes because in capitalism we are led to believe that this is all impossible, since supposedly workers need bosses and do not understand producing.

Workplace democracy and self-organized labor is what is most valued by Zulay Montilla, who works alongside Ernesto in the plant’s administrative area. “This is direct social property,” she tells us in reference to Chávez’s distinction between direct social property, which is self-managed by communities, and the indirect form that is state run. “There are fifteen workers at the plant, and we are organized according to four areas: administration, accounting, production, and training. However, more important than the structure of the organization here is that there is no president, no manager, no boss. Decisions are made collectively in assembly with equal participation from all workers.” Anticipating a question that goes back centuries in this region, Zulay explains: “When people ask, ‘Who is the boss?,’ we tell them that there is no chief here, that everyone’s voice counts equally.… But it can be hard for them to understand this new form of organization.” A few centuries ago, perhaps, she would have sent those same inquirers packing with a big fluffy dog.

Ernesto’s family has something like revolutionary discipline in its bones. Organization, planning, and a seriousness that verges on somberness are the most noticeable characteristics of their modus operandi in both work and in life. Asked how they are, even casually, family members generally respond: “We are ready for war!” War is meant figuratively, of course. Nevertheless, they brought this determined attitude with them from Colombia. It is the ethic of revolutionaries in that war-ridden country and it is all about hitting the ground running. On arriving to a new territory, one begins by capturing militants, building a cell, and, of course, producing food for one’s people.

All of this was very foreign to the Venezuelan locals when the Cruz family arrived to Mesa Julia some twenty years ago. Then food was abundant, and Chávez’s revolutionary government seemed capable of doing all the necessary organizing and mobilization. But then came a war-like situation: the country was nearly brought to its knees economically, first by the “economic war” (2014–16) and later by the sanctions (2016–present). In this new context, the Cruz family’s attitude began to get more traction. This is in part because the commune they built has won credibility by providing the community with schooling, cooking gas distribution, and transportation, at a time when the state is no longer willing or able to do so. For example, the commune constructed a small school, painted with numbers and bright colors inside, in the upper region of Mesa Julia in what was formerly a state-run Mercal grocery store. They also repaired an old city bus to take people up and down the steep hillsides. For all these reasons, neighbors in the area are beginning to see the value of communal work and look to self-organization rather than top-down solutions to address their problems.

Ernesto is an atheist and, even in informal conversation, he frequently invokes Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy to underpin his monistic-materialist approach to life and work. Yet, he says that there is one thing Christianity teaches that is a necessary supplement to revolutionary socialist ideology: desprendimiento, meaning both detachment and generosity. (Che Guevara’s life embodied it too—for example, when he left the safe, stable existence he had in Cuba to fight in Congo and later Bolivia.) Just ten years ago, desprendimento seemed to have nothing to do with Chavismo. They were like Lewis Carroll’s proverbial raven and writing desk. In that golden era, the Bolivarian Revolution was literally the gift that kept on giving. It spewed out food, cars, and houses by the millions, to say nothing of the educational and health services it offered freely to the country’s residents. What need, then, was there for sacrifice or self-denial? Fast forward to the present and the downfall of Chavismo’s original social contract has started to cause massive shifts in allegiances. Those who believed that a revolution was just about receiving material goods have begun either falling by the wayside or eagerly seeking to join the privileged elites. Only those who had a grasp on the then esoteric concept of desprendimento—often from some previous experience in revolutionary practice and ethics—could see the way forward without their vision being clouded by resentment or pain.

When Ernesto evaluates the current situation, in which the Che Guevara Commune has only the barest thread of state support and has had to pick up much of the slack in assisting the community, he is far less visceral than urban Chavistas who frequently speak as if they had had their favorite bone stolen by the crisis: “Chávez told us that the way to overcome capitalism is with the commune. Now, however, it often seems as if the state has lost sight of the communal project. It’s a real problem, but we should be self-critical: many within the Bolivarian process imagined that this revolution would have access to the oil resources forever. That was a bad calculation, and we are now trying to find our feet.”

Ernesto looks to the future with measured optimism: “All this doesn’t mean that Chávez’s communal proposal was mistaken. Quite the contrary: we have to generate conditions to develop production and diversify, and experience shows that the commune is actually the way to do it.… In our effort to construct a new hegemony, it is important that we have been able to be self-sufficient in great measure. The EPS is producing chocolate and Colimir is producing coffee—those concrete achievements help people to not become demoralized.” Before leaving, we visit the outdoor drying patio, where the cacao beans are spread out and raked under the sun, the greenhouse for seedlings (to improve the quality of local cacao trees), the fermentation sheds, and finally the clean, cool rooms where chocolate is poured into molds to make a marvelous array of bars and bonbons. The inebriating smell of chocolate permeates every space of the building, in a kind of olfactory counterpoint to Ernesto’s sober reflections.

Being ready for war takes on a direct, more literal meaning in the last days of our trip. Word has gotten out that a group of foreigners is visiting, and certain unspecified actors in Tucaní, where our hotel is located, are said to be shadowing us with a view to a hold-up or kidnapping. This is hardly surprising, since the whole frontier area is rife with criminal groups and some branches of the police have fallen into crime. Felipe, who meets us with a worried look on his face, has brought this alarming news. He tells the group that we need to abandon the hotel and spend our last night in the commune’s bunkroom. There is a small militia here that guards the buildings and grounds (this protection is needed because stealing crops has become common during the crisis). They were initially formed as part of the Bolivarian Reserve, but later, as that project began to lose direction, the armed organization Tupamaros offered them additional training. It is almost certain that the militia also receives some help and training from across the border.

I know the context of the Bolivarian militias well, having spent a year in the university’s reserve when I first arrived to the country fifteen years ago. The ranks of our volunteer battalion were mostly filled by cleaners, janitors, and drivers at the university. They were all authentic Chavistas, totally committed to the country and to the revolution. Few professors or administrators were willing to take part, since they thought volunteering in a popular militia was beneath them and threatened their status as professionals. Old habits die hard in the middle classes. As one of the few who broke with the professorial ranks, I was welcomed completely by these milicianos, who showed themselves to be true internationalists and, between our long hours spent in drills, asked questions about left movements in the world to the bookish foreigner who had appeared in their midst.

This was light-years away in the heyday of Chavismo, when all of us were focused on defending the project, since its anti-imperialism and recently declared socialist objectives would almost surely bring about, we thought, a U.S. invasion. Up in the commune’s bunkroom, I encounter that same kind of revolutionary spirit and grassroots internationalism again. The miliciana charged with taking care of us is a woman named Herrera, who sleeps there with her three beautiful children. Herrera offers us warm pieces of pork and frisbee-sized arepas that we wash down with generous cups of sugary coffee. After the lights go out in the commune’s bunkroom, with my belly full and sleep beginning to waft over me, I notice a wooden rifle is laid out on the bunk above her. The guerrilla uses these for training. I fall into slumber thinking that the authentic article is surely stashed elsewhere.

The next day, we set off early for the El Vigia airport accompanied by Felipe and his partner. Our backpacks are full of chocolate and coffee, while our minds are fairly spinning from the generosity, solidarity, and commitment of a group of communards who more than live up to their project’s revolutionary name. The memories and mementos make me think we came away from this Andean redoubt with better luck than Bolívar. Yet the best gift we received from these communards is surely what they have taught us by example.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Michael April 3, 2022 7:12 am 

    What a wonderful article. I could say much in praise of it for many reasons, but I will say no more.

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