Communal Enterprises & Economic Autonomy


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Source: Venezuealanalysis.com

Eastern Venezuela is home to extensive petroleum extraction and processing operations which have their hub in the cities of Barcelona and Puerto la Cruz in Anzoátegui state. The Luisa Cáceres de Arismendi Commune, one of the most advanced communes in the country, grew up in the shadow of this multibillion-dollar business in one of Barcelona’s working-class neighborhoods. This is a rapidly-expanding commune – remarkable because of its success in an urban context – which focuses on recycling and waste disposal to maintain itself. In Part I of this two-part series, Luisa Caceres’ communards explained the challenges of building a commune in a country besieged by US imperialism. In Part II, the communards talk about the commune’s social property enterprises and about self-government.

Social Property Enterprises

Direct Communal Social Property Enterprises [henceforth EPS] are collectively-owned economic projects under new social relations. The Luisa Cáceres Commune has two active EPS.

WASTE COLLECTION

Ingrid Arcila: We had a problem with waste disposal in the [Simón Bolívar] municipality for a very long time. The problem was endemic: trash would accumulate on the streets and many parking lots turned into dumpsters. The crisis made the situation more critical: it became a public health problem.

Now, since the commune took over waste collection in 2020, the streets are clean and the health of residents has improved significantly.

Johan Tovar: Luis José Marcano, Barcelona’s former mayor [and current Anzoátegui governor], campaigned saying that he would transfer responsibility and control of public services to communes. He consulted the population to determine if they would ratify the transfer. The result was an overwhelming yes. That is when the Luisa Cáceres Commune requested a transfer: the commune would take over trash collection and asked that the garbage truck be assigned to it.

However, things were not so easy: though the mayor signed off on the transfer, the bureaucracy dragged its feet and sabotaged the process. It was a struggle, transferring state functions to popular power is never easy.

Arcila: On March 2, 2020, the garbage truck was finally passed to the commune, and we said “let’s put our noses to the grindstone.” We knew nothing about the process of garbage collecting, but we weren’t afraid. Right then and there, a few of us got on the truck and began the collecting process, while another group sat down around the table and began drawing up a map, a pick-up schedule, etc.

We also developed an environmental education plan so that people would not dump their waste in places where trash had accumulated in the past. The plan went hand in hand with a process of cleaning up critical zones such as parking lots and sidewalks.

When the people in the community saw that the streets were clean, they began to change their behavior, they began to feel more closely connected to their neighborhoods, and more people began to help with communal garbage collecting.

Carlos Herrera: The transfer of state services involves a four-step process on our end: waste collection, transport, recycling, and dues collection.

Now, when it comes to dues collection, there is an issue that must be eventually solved: we do waste collection in the entire territory of the commune and beyond. This includes both households and commercial entities, such as stores, restaurants, etc.

However, when it comes to paying fees for the collection, the city government has decided that commercial entities, which are the largest contributor by far, will pay their fees to the municipality, while the commune will collect household dues.

This is a real problem because when the garbage truck breaks down, the household fees collected by the commune are not enough to pay for the repairs and we have to beg the city government to help us. This is highly inefficient and generates a relationship of dependence that isn’t positive.

Tovar: There have been two bottlenecks in the process of transferring waste collection to the commune. The first was the transfer process’s very slow time frame. Later, when the truck was eventually given over to us, it came with assigned drivers who were not part of the commune. These drivers went as far as to sabotage our plans.

Things were not working and we had a meeting with Marcano [former mayor]. Our position was that we needed full control of the garbage truck and of the whole waste collection process. Eventually, we got full control of the truck.

The second bottleneck is payment collection, which Carlos [Herrera] mentioned. Since the bulk of the cash that is owed goes to the city government, that keeps us dependent on them, because the funds that the EPS gets are not enough to maintain the truck.

Another issue is that the commune has to collect payments by going from door to door. This isn’t easy because people are not used to paying for services. The minimum quota is 50 cents [of a US dollar] per month, which is a very low rate, but people are often remiss.

The household-to-household collection process generated some friction, but eventually, we won the hearts and minds of the community, including those that do not sympathize with the government. While the payment collection process is still limping along, it generates enough income to cover workers’ salaries and basic truck maintenance. Unfortunately, when it comes to replacing a tire or a mechanical arm, we have to request support from the city government.

I should also add that private waste collection companies (and much of the country’s waste collection is being privatized these days) charge two to three dollars per household, so ours is a very inexpensive service.

The bottom line is that we are still struggling for the full transfer of control. Until we are able to collect commercial sanitation fees, the process won’t be self-sustainable. We think that, eventually, as the commune’s organization expands, we will be able to pressure the city and successfully control the entire process. When that happens, we are likely to have an overhead in the commune, which would give us more autonomy.

For the commune, waste collection represents a leap forward in terms of organization: it is an exercise in democratic grassroots power and an important step toward self-government. Now, when there is some problem with waste, people don’t call the municipality’s offices, they come to us, or – if there is a disagreement regarding sanitation fees – people call for an assembly and the matter is debated. In other words, an exercise in democratic power is growing, and that is good for the commune.

Herrera: We were one of four communes that had waste collection transferred. Unfortunately, the other communes remained too dependent on the institutions and tutelage. When it comes to commune-building, tutelage doesn’t work.

Nonetheless, while Luisa Cáceres has not achieved full autonomy in the garbage collecting project,, the commune has an important degree of independence.

RECYCLING PROJECT

Herrera: Our commune’s recycling project got started not as an economic activity, but as an educational one. When the waste collection service was transferred to the commune, we realized that the process should go hand in hand with an environmental campaign: we coined slogans and organized recycling workshops… Later on, we eventually realized that the recycling process had economic potential.

The recycling project is a new but growing one. We classify and commercialize seven kinds of plastic, and we also collect and resell scrap metal. We used to sell it all back to the city government, but unfortunately they didn’t pay us, so we had to turn to a private enterprise. We process approximately one ton of recyclable material every day, and the revenue amounts to about 500 USD per week.

There are other important benefits to recycling: we are reducing the amount of waste that the commune generates by about 20% and the community is acquiring environmental consciousness. In short, we are creating both jobs inside the community and revenues for the commune. At the same time, we are taking steps toward the fifth goal laid out in Chávez’s strategic Homeland Plan: saving life on earth.

Rosa Cáceres: People are getting used to the process of recycling. Some bring recyclable material to our headquarters. Others call us (and we go to collect the material) because they understand that there is an environmental crisis and want to do their part. There are also people who sell recyclable material to the commune to supplement their income. Either way, there is a new and growing recycling culture in the community.

A New Way of Living

Building a communal society involves many struggles, some internal, others external. Commune-building is a long-term struggle, in which there will be many setbacks.

OCCUPYING A MERCAL STORE

Tovar: The Mercal store [part of a state-subsidized food distribution system] was inaugurated here in the community in the mid-2000s. With the imposition of the blockade, shortages began and Mercal shelves were empty.

Around 2018 there was a wave of privatizations. Meanwhile, at El Maizal, they were in the midst of a campaign to recover abandoned facilities and lands for the commune. That inspired us. First, we formally requested that the Mercal be transferred to us. but nothing happened. Around the same time we heard about the privatization of another Mercal, so we decided to take matters into our hands. In fact, the commune’s women were at the vanguard of the takeover.

Arcila: After a long process, the commune decided to take over the Mercal, to put it at the service of the community. Women were in the first line of combat; then come the men.

The Mercal takeover was back in 2019. We went in and we said to the manager: “Good afternoon. Please give us the keys and your phone. This Mercal now is in the hands of the commune.”

The manager was a bit taken aback, but she agreed. Of course, we eventually returned the phone to her, but during the takeover, we had to make sure that she didn’t call her bosses or even the police.

Later, police forces laid siege to the Mercal but we didn’t yield. Eventually, the Mercal boss came here to talk to us. We held a very large meeting with the commune’s parliamentarians and the spokespeople from the communal councils, and we explained to the Mercal representative why we did the takeover: reactivating the Mercal and putting it at the service of the community, and safekeeping the common goods and the infrastructure, which was being dismantled before the takeover, were our objectives.

When the commune took over that storefront, the first thing we did was to fix the walk-in freezer and the air conditioners so that we could offer a good service to the community. We also established a security plan so that the assets in the space wouldn’t be lifted.

Tovar: The Mercal takeover trained us in new methods of struggle. After the fact, we discovered that ours had the correct tactic: our brothers and sisters at the 5 de Marzo Commune [Caracas] had also had a Mercal in their sights at the same time. However, they proceeded through the bureaucratic path and didn’t succeed at controlling the facilities.

When you see the photos of that space, there is nothing there. Basically, it was looted. Also, we know now that other Mercals, such as the one in Oropeza [Puerto La Cruz, Anzoátegui], are now in private hands.

Tomás Guanique: Chávez said: “The commune should not be an appendix of the state.” He was right: communes should be self-sustainable. Here, at the Mercal, we are learning it firsthand, and we have to work much more to be truly self-sustainable. That is why the coming together of communal initiatives in the Communard Union is so important.

As it is right now, we have agreements with institutions to fill the shelves of the Mercal, but we are the ones who set the conditions. One of our goals is to show that we [communards] are capable of producing and administering, and that – when it comes to satisfying the true needs of the pueblo – Chávez’s commune is the way forward.

COMMUNAL WOMEN’S CENTER

Evelin Delgado: The Communal Women’s Center has several work lines: accompanying women who are victims of gender-based violence, medical attention for pregnant women, sexual education for adolescents and adult women, etc. The center also provides empowerment tools to women. Both psychological attention and workshops are held here with one goal: generating the conditions for women to be independent.

Norka Medina: The Communal Women’s Center was inaugurated in early 2020. In addition to offering medical attention to pregnant women and sexual education workshops, one of our main lines of work is accompanying victims of machista violence.

We offer emotional and psychological support, and we seek legal advice from the local Women’s Institute [a branch of the Women’s Ministry]. This is very important because the police are permeated by a patriarchal logic, and victims can be revictimized when they introduce a claim.

Because the Communal Women’s Center is committed to the physical and psychological integrity of women who live in the commune, we also organize vaccination campaigns, birthing workshops, and sexual education seminars.

Finally, we are committed to women’s independence. If we work with a compañera so that she gets out of a cycle of machista violence, we also have to give her the tools so that she will not be economically dependent. That is why we hold sewing and pastry workshops.

Arcila: This is a feminist commune, and women are in the vanguard. As a commune, we look to Luisa Cáceres [a hero in the independence struggle] because she is a symbolic guide for our struggle. However, our society continues to be permeated by machismo, and that is why the Communal Women’s Center is so important.

“PABLO CHARACO” PLANT NURSERY

Arcila: One of the things we do when we clean-up an urban area where waste has been accumulating is to embellish it: we paint used tires, fill them with dirt, and plant decorative plants. This helps people to rethink space, to see it in a different light.. The plants that we grow in these urban spaces come from the Pablo Characo Greenhouse.

Rosa Cáceres: We got this project going in June 2021 and we named it after Pablo Characo. Pablo was a compañero from Guanape who struggled against transgenic seeds and developed a corn variety that was neither hybrid nor transgenic, but resistant to pests. He died last year, a victim of COVID-19.

The commune itself built the nursery. Here we care for more than 1500 seedlings, including ornamental and medicinal plants, fruit trees, comestible plants, and trees for reforestation.

One of our objectives here is to change the “chemistry” in spaces that have become informal dumpsters. When the commune cleans a space, we try to alter the prevailing logic. A few plants can make all the difference!

Finally, the nursery is also used for teaching: kids come here and learn about the care of seedlings. Because they had no school during the pandemic, and this is an open space, kids from the community came every day. Now that they are back to school, they come on Saturdays.

Chávez, Self-government, and the Communal Future

At the Luisa Cáceres Commune, self-government has become a powerful model, inspired by Chávez’s legacy. Here, the communards reflect about the challenges they face in the construction of a self-governed society, and about the communal future they are building.

Tovar: The problems that we face as a nation must be solved collectively. The government has a role, the commune has a role, and even private enterprises can have a role.

Nonetheless, the immediate crisis that we are facing, which was triggered by the sanctions and the blockade, is really an expression of the crisis of the capitalist system. That is why the commune has such an important role to play: it is a viable alternative to capitalism. Attempts to superficially modify the existing system will not get us out of the hole, as Chávez often reminded us.

For example, everyone knows that in urban centers in Venezuela waste is an endemic problem. In fact, for us, it became a public health problem. From the perspective of capital, we could say that the solution would be privatization. But would that be a good solution? Would a private enterprise really offer a good service? Could people afford to pay for it? Here, at the Luisa Cáceres, we think that the solution is communalization.

Now our streets are clean, but the process wasn’t easy. We had allies at the local level, but we also had enemies inside the city’s bureaucracy. This means that the process involved a struggle.

In the end, it was a learning experience: we discovered that communal organization is viable. In fact, I would argue that, in the dilemma between communalization and liberalization, the first is far more efficient and is also, no doubt, far more empowering.

Communes teach us that self-government (and communal production) is the way to get out of the current crisis. In the last instance, the Luisa Cáceres Commune not only solves problems such as waste, water, and gas, we also project a better, healthier, richer way of living in the community: we organize, we communalize, and we advance toward self-government.

However, we still have a long way to go. Self-government cannot just be a matter of words; it cannot be a permanent precarious balancing act between popular power and institutions. Full autonomy of the processes is a must, otherwise we could become an appendix of state institutions.

Herrera: I should highlight, however, that when we talk about autonomy, we aren’t talking about isolation. That is not our goal. Chávez talked about communal “productive linkages” (encadenamiento productivo). He also spoke of the need to transcend local and regional spaces, and organize with a perspective that is national and even international. That is where the Communard Union comes onto the scene.

Tovar: This process isn’t easy. Although the sanctions have had devastating consequences and at times we have encountered resistance at the local level (because this is a neighborhood with many members of opposition) our largest challenges have come from within the process: there are currents inside the revolution that are not in favor of the commune, and that is harmful.

In the end, however, problems get solved through hard work and long debates, while being honest and committed to the people. Further, we are in the vanguard when it comes to management of services, and that has won the hearts and minds of the people in the community.

Darío Carrasquel: Chávez taught us that economic and political issues should not be split into different spheres. He taught us that we must organize, plan and supervise our own processes so that we will take root and be able to satisfy our economic needs. All that must be linked to a new way of thinking and of doing politics. If we are able to link our political and economic goals, the revolution will have a happy ending.

Tovar: We are still learning from Chávez. Every time we listen to his Theoretical Aló Presidente 1, we find new messages. This is related to our concrete practice in the commune: through our own experience we discover new content in Chávez, and thus our concrete experience becomes a praxis.

One of the most important messages that Chávez left us is that the new political-territorial organization of society (which he called the new geometry of power) begins with the communal council and goes up through the commune. That is how we can become self-government.

If the communal council is the basic organizational cell, then it is also the space that will foster the new socialist society. The communal council is the first space for dealing with the conflicts and contradictions that exist in any society. The communal council is also where people organize, reflect, and deliberate.

However, when a problem cannot be solved there because it is too complex, then we take it to the commune. The commune is a diverse but unified working body: a social body where the most complex problems in our society can begin to be resolved.

Chávez emphasized the importance of the spirit of the commune. He said that the commune would “give birth” to a new materiality. Of course, building a new materiality and a new socialist society, has to do with both science – we cannot stay in the dark ages – and with people’s consciousness. Because of the importance of consciousness, Chávez talked about our origins and about the history of resistance and struggle here.

The spirit of the commune is not a metaphysical issue, it is something that has to do with ideas that become tangible in the social relations organized by us. This means that we have to question – and struggle against – capitalist relations, and we also have to struggle against the modern bourgeois state. Chávez confronted Hobbes and Machiavelli with Simón Rodríguez, Simón Bolívar, and [Ezequiel] Zamora. In so doing, he was imprinting the spirit of Nuestra América on his way of doing politics.

When Chávez talked about the commune, he was not just referring to clusters of people meeting in assemblies here and there. He was also proposing a unified national body, because when the communal council and the commune cannot solve a problem, then it must go to that unified national body. which Chávez called the “communal confederation.” He said that it should come into existence by 2029. In the Communard Union, we are committed to that objective

The Communard Union is a newly-founded league of communes that, following Chávez’s proposal, is working to solve larger problems in a diverse and unified body.

Our strength is based on unity! Together we become stronger, and that is how we can confront the monster of capital.

Gabriel Cova: The Communard Union is very important for us. It is the space that brings us together, where we learn from each other about how to solve problems. It is also the place where we can expand the project. A commune cannot survive in a bubble, and that is why we are so committed to the Communard Union.

Herrera: When Chávez said “Commune or Nothing!” we took it to heart. What does it mean to us? The commune is not any organization, the commune is the day-to-day process of building self-government. It is the space where our means of production are put at the service of the people. And this, I should highlight, is a process devoid of paternalism – it is a process of empowerment.

Guanique: We are a rebellious commune, with a fighting spirit. Little by little, we are helping to make Chávez’s dream come true.

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