“The Commune or Nothing”: Popular Power and the State in Venezuela

This study offers an account of the dynamic relationship between the popular sectors (poder popular) and the public or state sector (poder público) in the movement towards the communal state.


As a member of the Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle of New York delegation to Venezuela this past August, this researcher was able to observe a variety of community-based organizations and their social production of goods and services in both urban centers and the countryside. [1] The U.S. delegation arrived at a time when the government had just recommitted itself to promoting the formation of communes (a union of community councils) and to agree to share responsibility with these bodies in the governance of the country. The revolutionary aim of this co-responsibility is to achieve a form of direct participatory and protagonistic democracy called the communal state. This study offers an account of the dynamic relationship between the popular sectors (poder popular) and the public or state sector (poder público) in the movement towards the communal state.

Some Observations on Community Organizations

The heart of the Bolivarian revolution is not articulated in either the Venezuelan opposition press or in its imitation by U.S. counterparts, but rather in the communitarian values, social production of goods and services, and commitment to food sovereignty that one encounters among the Chavista base. These practices are clearly at work in the life of the José Ignacio Paz Castillo Elementary School in La Pastora, Sucre. Students enrolled at the school, volunteer brigadistas coming from local colleges, and members of the Blessing of Life Grandparents Club all contribute to the cultivation of vegetables and ornamental plants at the school. This arrangement provides for inter-generational learning and hands-on lessons in botany, making the school just one of thousands of agro-ciudad production units that dot the urban areas and suburban landscape. Grandmother Elena Millan, one of the founders of the club, told us that the neighbors had lobbied the Ministry of Education to renovate the school, a project that was brought to completion in 2012. After proudly showing the delegation the building and grounds where she herself attended school as a child, Elena said, “this school is our legacy of love and these children are our family; we give our all and we do not ask for one cent. This is the true Venezuela.”

I found this same communitarian spirit at the Alexis Vive Collective, located in the 23rd of January neighborhood and part of the Panal 2021 Commune. We met 20-year-old Yarlin Hernandez at the cooperative’s radio station, Arsenal 98.1 FM, a frequency that emits the free expression of the voice of the barrio. The commune is not only a political unit of self-governance, but it also plays an educational, cultural, and recreational role. Perhaps most urgently, the members of the commune are striving for food security and food sovereignty for about 20,000 residents of a territory that unites several community councils. To further this goal, the government has granted the commune some land in the countryside for agricultural production.

The socio-productive capacity of El Panal includes a green house, community vegetable gardens, two bakeries, a sugar packing plant, four basic supply stores, and a block production facility. [2] Yarlin describes the commune as the ultimate instance of popular power. She said, “commune members, all of us, participate in daily decisions about how to run everything in the commune. Why are we building these means of production? It is not about capitalism here. We constructed the bakeries to help guarantee our food security. We took courses on how to make bread with our own hands.  This is part of the social political formation of our people.” With regard to the social function of the organization, Yarlin said, “we host a variety of social activities including sports for youth and reading groups. This is our way to counter delinquency, especially among youth.” Yarlin is optimistic about the future and emphasizes the inclusive nature of the cooperative: “‘Yo Soy Chávez’ means that I practice a form of socialism that has room for everyone.”

At almost every agricultural production site we visited—in both the city and the countryside—technical advisors, training, and material inputs were provided by government programs, and in particular by CIARA, the Foundation for Training and Innovation in Support of the Agrarian Revolution.  We often met brigadistas, mostly college students, who were volunteering their labor and technical advice. Some of these sites also benefited from Cuban advisors who are experts in organic farming methods.

In just a few years more than 26,000 agricultural production units have been set up in the city and suburban areas.[3] Some of these units are producing enough food that, after feeding cooperative associates and their families, the excess can be sold at socialist kiosks for “solidarity prices” well below private market prices. Although some agricultural projects have failed and most food is still imported, the base of Chavismo and their allies in the government have made an earnest start at making Venezuela food sovereign and secure as a strategic objective of the revolution. [4]

Dual Power and Co-responsibility

The struggle for food sovereignty is meant to complement and fortify the gains made in housing, healthcare, education and labor rights by the majority of Venezuelans. The writer’s observations during the August 2013 visit to Venezuela support the hypothesis that recent progress in human development in Venezuela has been in large part an expression of the dynamic relationship between the popular sectors and the socialist-oriented policies of Bolivarian revolutionaries in the state.  This contribution will maintain that two features of this dynamic relationship—dual power and co-responsibility—drive the political, social, and economic forces at work in the current government campaign to accelerate the formation and registration of communal structures. [5]

Dual power refers to the protagonistic role of popular power, first in its more spontaneous form during the so-called Caracazo, the rebellion against neoliberal reforms in February of 1989, and later in more organized forms, especially since the victory of Hugo Chávez in the Presidential elections of 1998. In this protagonistic role, popular power has pressured the state to promote a direct, participatory, and democratic type of socialism. At the same time, Bolivarian revolutionaries within the state have dramatically increased social investment and enacted structural reforms.

As a result of aggressive social investment and structural reforms taking place since 1999, Venezuela has seen its GINI index, which measures inequality, fall to the lowest level in all of Latin America and the Caribbean (from .4865 in 1998 to .3902 in 2011) and its happiness rating (2013) tops all of South America. [6] The percent of persons in poverty has decreased from 50.4 percent in 1998 to 25.4 percent in 2012; meanwhile, extreme poverty has fallen from 20.3 percent in 1998 to 7.1 percent in 2012. [7] The social missions have dramatically increased citizen access to health care, higher education, nutrition, and housing. [8]  Of course, formidable obstacles that predate Chavismo remain, such as a high crime rate and corruption in the public sector, while the Maduro administration is waging a concerted effort in an attempt to make progress in these areas. The big picture, however, is that dual power in accord with article 299 of the constitution is promoting “integral human development.”

This dual power relationship is complicated by the government policy of promoting the co-responsibility for governance by popular power (represented by communes) and public power (represented by city, state, and federal authorities). The concept of co-responsibility can be found in the constitution (article 184), the organic laws of popular power, and the government’s five year plan (section 2.3). The practice of co-responsibility is expected to gain traction as an all-out campaign by the government to accelerate the formation of communes, referred to by Hugo Chávez as “the commune or nothing”, gets underway.

The “commune or nothing” campaign raises a philosophically interesting issue that has implications for praxis. While consistent with dual power, the role of the state as registrar and catalyst for the formation of communes raises the immediate question as to whether co-responsibility compromises the autonomy of popular power in favor of legislative and executive functions of the liberal democratic state. This question goes to the heart of the Bolivarian revolution because the political end of forming communes is the establishment of the communal state. The communal state is envisioned as a direct participatory and protagonistic form of democratic socialism, and the “expression of popular power” that is “exercised directly by the people.”[9]  The apparent paradox is that while the communal state is the ultimate expression of the autonomy of popular power, it is also the ultimate institutionalization of this power.

A brief look at the historical development of the commune and the content of its legal personality can help unravel the paradox. Some communal councils were formed in 2002, even before their legal formalization in 2006. [10] Though there was an uptick in the number of councils registered after the organic laws of popular power were passed in 2009 and 2010, it was not until August 10, 2012 that the first commune was registered by the government. [11] There has also been a commitment to the communal state from above, but it only recently has taken a more serious turn. It was especially after Chávez’s famous Golpe de Timon discourse before a cabinet meeting on October 20, 2012 that the formation of communes became a top strategic objective of the government. In a discussion of such matters with his ministers, Chávez lamented the go-slow approach of his cabinet. His word had an impact, as he entrusted the acceleration of commune registrations to then Vice President Maduro “as I would my own life.” On August 22 at a gathering of comuneros, President Maduro identified the commune as the centerpiece of democratic socialist governance. [12] Presently, Maduro is spearheading the charge with a reactivated presidential commission on communes. [13]

According to preliminary data of the September 2013 census, there are presently 39,111 communal councils, 1,341 communes, 27,291 collectives and social movements, and 1,264 forums of social struggle registered with the Ministry of Popular Power. [14] This does not count non-registered organizations and those still under construction. The government’s 2013 – 2019 five-year plan, projects that 21,060,000 citizens, that is 68 percent of the country’s 30.5 million people will be represented by communal structures by 2019. [15]  In moving full steam ahead, the protagonism and autonomy of popular power within the dual power relationship will be tested as popular power adopts a legal personality that is bestowed upon it by the state.

The Legal Personality of Popular Power

The promulgation and content of the organic laws pertaining to popular power are consistent with its autonomy and protagonism.  These laws of communal organizations were passed in 2009 and 2010 after a process of consultation with constituents.  According to one of the architects of these laws, the Director of Social Policy Research and Advisory Services for the National Assembly, Ulises Daal,  there were 6,762 activities that involved 639,576 persons in the process of informing and consulting the public about the proposed laws. [16] The organic laws revise the first law of communal councils (promulgated in 2006) and include norms concerning the formation and registration of communal structures, public and popular planning, communal banks, communal justice systems, and the procedures of social control (including financial auditing). [17] The legal definition of popular power in the Law of Popular Power acknowledges and codifies the “sovereignty” of the people:

“Popular power is the full exercise of sovereignty by the people in the political, economic, social, cultural, environmental, international, and any other sphere of the progression and development of society through their diverse forms of organization that build the communal state.” [18]

The law also specifies that public power must be obedient to popular power. Moreover, public sector planning should include the input of spokespersons for the communal structures. [19] Based on the content of these laws and the ample consultation with constituents prior to their final passage by the National Assembly, it appears that the content of these laws insists on upholding constituent autonomy.

There is another reason for these laws and that is public accountability. Just as citizenship bestows rights and obligations, so too does the registration of communes. For example, the communes benefit from public resources and therefore need to be held accountable for the administration and auditing of programs supported by such resources. [20] As registered organizations, the communes also have input at the appropriate levels into local, state, regional, and national economic and social planning that will impact the sorts of popular—public partnerships that are available for implementation. [21] Institutionalizing the commune, then, does not mean subordination of the commune to the state. On the contrary, as writer Dario Azzellini points out, these laws actually create a parallel form of governance in which the constituents are engaged in direct democratic governance of their territories. [22]

Since, theoretically, the Bolivarian revolution aims at the gradual transfer of the functions of state bureaucracy to an eventual confederation of communes, these latter structures require a legal personality that conforms to the 1999 constitution and thereby gives them democratic legitimacy. [23] Organic laws, by definition, have been determined as constitutional even before final passage by the National Assembly. [24] Daal and others have argued that the most important features of the communal state, though not called “communal” explicitly in the 1999 constitution, are derived from articles of the constitution that deal with rights of citizens. These articles comment on citizens’ ability to participate in direct and protagonistic democracy starting at the community level and to exercise co-responsibility for governance. [25] The fact that the 2007 referendum to reform the constitution was voted down, and included language pertaining to communal structures, does not mean laws of communal structures cannot be derived from the constitution of 1999.  For example, Daal refers to articles 62 and 70 which address the direct democratic participation of the citizenry in public affairs. [26] At the heart of the debate over the democratic legitimacy of the communal state is its relationship to Article 2 of the constitution which explicitly identifies the sort of state founded by the constitutional reform: the democratic and social state based on the rule of law and justice (Estado democrático y social de Derecho y de Justicia). [27] Daal argues that the communal state is “founded in” and “does not replace” the democratic and social state. This founding of the communal state is expected to occur through the evolution of co-responsibility. But where is this co-responsibility supposed to take the revolutionary process?

Co-responsibility: Public and Popular Power

The dual power that informs the relationship between the Chavista base and the state is entering a new stage of development—shared responsibility for governance by popular and public power—by means of an acceleration of the formation and registration of communal structures. This call for “the communes or nothing” raises an internal dialectic within the state, between those who support the construction of a communal state, and those, including some nominal Chavistas, opportunists, and opposition deputies, who reject it or who just do not care. Since the commune is not only a political unit, but a socio-productive unit of self-governance, it stands in a collaborative and sometimes competitive relationship with the public and private sectors.  The law also anticipates the gradual transfer of public functions to organs of popular power. [28] Not all mayors, however, are happy about eventually devolving their power to communes. [29]

Rather than view the parallel powers of the liberal state and the communes as an increasing divide, Daal appears to view shared responsibility as a means of convergence on a democratic form of socialism. The great experiment in direct participatory democracy taking place in Venezuela raises the real possibility of bridging the alienating divide between the state and civil society. As Azzellini points out, “the communal councils tend to transcend the division between political and civil society (i.e., between those who govern and those who are governed).” [30] In traditional social contract theory (Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes), the general will of the people delegates the people’s power to a sovereign that is a separate being, and the sovereign presumably will act in the interest of the general will. More often than not, this delegated power of the sovereign can be expected to degenerate into an alien will that pursues its own interests against the people. The Bolivarian revolution hopefully seeks to and will manage to reverse this alienation; constituent power is to be restored to the constituents in the form of a self-constituted power, the people as legislator, the people as sovereign. For this to work, all constituents, not only Chavistas, must have an equal voice.

So what is the endgame? Can the confederation of communes and a transfer of state functions from the public to the popular sector be accomplished without a degeneration of popular power into centralized or authoritarian socialism?  And what exactly happens to the liberal democratic state in the process? These questions will not be answered in theory but only through praxis, in the determination of the popular sectors and of revolutionaries within the state to stay the course towards direct democracy and the goal of universal human development. The most immediate challenge to this project is the more extreme elements of the U.S.-backed counter-revolution, which deny the democratic legitimacy not only of popular power, but even of the internationally recognized presidential elections held by the liberal democratic state in April 2013. The counter-revolution apparently seeks to rehabilitate the failed neoliberal model of the fourth republic in a country where a pueblo bravo will not accept servitude on any account.

Dr. Fred Mills, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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[1] This essay benefits from my participation in an August 2013 delegation of the Bolivarian Circle of New York “Alberto Lovera” to Venezuela. I am especially indebted to delegation leader William Camacaro and translator Christina Schiavoni. Any opinions and shortcomings are, of course, my own. All translations by the author of official Venezuelan documents are unofficial.

[2] This information was gathered from a site visit by the delegation (see note 1) and http://www.avn.info.ve/contenido/comuna-del-23-enero-producir%C3%A1-sus-alimentos.

[3] AgroCiudad, 1.1, March 2013, p. 3. This newsletter reports on the progress of the Project for the Development and Consolidation of Urban and Suburban Agriculture.

[4] On cooperative failures see the radio interview transcript, Venezuela Analysis, Radio Al Revés, April 13, 2011. http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/6128. Accessed 22 Sep. 2013. For the specific goals and bench marks with regard to food sovereignty, see Plan de la Patria, Programa de Gobierno Bolivariano 2013 – 2019, objective 1.4.

[5] For the concept of dual power as it applies to Venezuela, I am indebted to the pioneering work of George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. Of course, all shortcomings in my interpretation of dual power are my own.

[6] World Happiness Report (2013), The Earth Institute, Columbia University, p. 23.

[7] For Gini Index and Poverty statistics, see Instituto Nacional de Estatistica.


[8] CEPALSTAT, on Venezuela, social statistics, http://interwp.cepal.org/cepalstat/WEB_cepalstat/Perfil_nacional_social.asp?Pais=VEN&idioma=i. Accessed September 19, 2013. ; See CEPALSTAT on Venezuela, social statistics, accessed Sep. 22, 2013.

[9] Gaceta Oficial, No. 6.011, 21 Dec. 2010, Ley Orgánica de las Comunas, Title II Art. 6 and 7, no. 1. All references to organic laws of popular power, including communal structures, are in Leyes Del Poder Popular, República Bolivariana de Venezuela, Asemblea Nacional, Caracas, Venezuela, 2012. Subsequent references will only refer to the particular laws within this compendium. ; Ley Orgánica de las Comunas, Title II, Art. 7, no. 1. ;  Leyes de Poder Popular, Art. 8, 8. See also Ulises Daal, Donde esta la Comuna en la Constitución Bolivariana? Caracas: Ediciones de Asamblea Nacional de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela, 2013, p. 112. Hereafter Daal (2013).

[10] Daal (2013) mentions that there was some legal basis for the councils as early as 2002 in Decreto No. 1.666 which was about the process of the regularization of land tenancy in urban areas.

[11] Reinaldo Iturizza. Desear La Comuna (Opinion), Correo Del Orinoco. Aug. 25, 2013. http://www.correodelorinoco.gob.ve/poder-popular/desear-comuna-opinion/. Accessed September 19, 2013.

[12] Censo Comunal 2013 avanza en todo el territorio nacional. Correo Del Orinoco, Sep. 14, 2013.

http://www.correodelorinoco.gob.ve/nacionales/censo-comunal-2013-avanza-todo-territorio-nacional/. Accessed Sep. 22, 2013.

[13] Jorge Arreaza.  Comisión Presidencial para las Comunas estudiará estrategias para facilitar trámites de registro.  Correo Del Orinoco, Aug. 23, 2013.

http://www.correodelorinoco.gob.ve/nacionales/comision-presidencial-para-comunas-estudiara-estrategias-para-facilitar-tramites-registro/. Accessed Sep. 22, 2013. See http://www.ciudadccs.info/?p=403775 for Maduro on advancing the communal state. Accessed Sep. 22, 2013.

[14] Ministry of Popular Power, Venezuela. http://www.mpcomunas.gob.ve/iturriza-informo-que-mas-69-mil-organizaciones-del-poder-popular-han-sido-censadas/. Accessed Sep. 22, 2013. This data might not be final.

[15] Plan de la Patria. Programa de Gobierno Bolivariano, p. 68. Accessed Sep. 22, 2013.

[16] Daal (2013), pp. 114-115.

[17] For a good summary of the reform of the 2006 Law of the Communal Councils see Tamara Pearson, Venezuela Analysis, Dec. 4, 2009. http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4980. Accessed Sep. 22, 2013.

[18] Ley Orgánica del Poder Popular. Gazeta Oficial, No. 6.011, 21 Dic. 2010, p. 7. See also, Ley Orgánica de Poder Popular, Capitulo II, Art. 9.

[19] Ley Orgánica de Planificación Pública y Popular, Gazeta Oficial, No. 6.011.

[20]See Ley Orgánica de Contraloría Social, Gazeta Oficial, No. 6.011.

[21]See Daal 4.4.2,  formulación de planes comunes en correspondencia con el Plan de Desarrollo Económico y Social de la Nacion, pp 98-91.

[22] Dario Azzellini, The Communal State: Communal Councils, Communes, and Workplace Democracy. NACLA Report on the Americas, Summer 2013, p. 3.

[23] See, for example, Ley Orgánica del Poder Popular, Art. 7, 2. One of the goals of poder popular is “la transferencia desde los distintos entes político-territoriales hacia los autogobiernos comunitarios, comunales y los sistemas de agregación que de los mismos surjan.”

[24]Constitution of the Republic of Venezuela (CRBV), Article 203.

[25] See Daal (2013); see also Hermánn Escarrá: “El Estado comunal es constitucional.” AVN, 25 Nov. 2012. http://www.avn.info.ve/contenido/herm%C3%A1nn-escarr%C3%A1-estado-comunal-es-constitucional. Accessed Sep. 19, 2013.

[26] Daal (2013), p. 117.

[27] For a critique of the communal state, see for example, Allan R. Brewer-Carias, “The Situation of the Venezuelan State after the April 2013 Presidential Elections: The Chávez’s Institutional Legacy.” Presented at the program on the “Presidential election and beyond.” Venezuelan American Association in the U.S. N.Y. April 2013. See also, Estado Comunal tiende a eliminar la libre participación ciudadana, Diario de Caracas, 10, Nov. 2012. http://eldiariodecaracas.com/politica/estado-comunal-tiende-eliminar-la-libre-participacion-ciudadana. Accessed Sep. 19, 2013.

[28] See, for example, Ley Orgánica de las Comunas, Article 64.

[29] See Azzellini, Summer 2013 for a discussion of this issue.

[30] Azzellini, Summer 2013, p. 27.