How the Sanctions Affect Collective Lands: Voices from Cinco Fortalezas Commune (Part II)

A commune led by women in the east of Venezuela finds ways to overcome the impact of the US blockade.

“Las Cinco Fortalezas de la Revolución Bolivariana” – that is the full name of a marvelous commune in eastern Venezuela, in the sugarcane growing Cumanacoa township. Led mainly by women, this commune has had a history of intense struggle. It consolidated around 2016, when a group of the region’s day-laborers seized the land from the original landowner. Six years later, the communards found themselves in a second battle, after a businessman scammed the local producers by taking their crops without payment.

The recent scam – along with the crisis and sanctions – are important hurdles along the way, but the communards are willing to work hard and fight. With 57 collectivized hectares devoted to growing sugarcane and a powerful commitment to communalizing life, Cinco Fortalezas is set to be a breeding ground for socialism. In Part I of this interview we learned about the history of Cinco Fortalezas and its communal production enterprises. In Part II, the communards tell us about the impact of the crisis and the blockade on their lives, and about the creative ways in which they are overcoming those obstacles.


US Sanctions: Impact and Grassroots Solutions

Far from being passive during the crisis, Cinco Fortalezas Commune has developed a range of creative responses to difficulties as they emerge, demonstrating that communes can provide a popular, sovereign solution to the crisis – an alternative to capitalist restoration.

Vanessa Pérez: The year 2016 was very hard for us. In Cumanacoa, rice and flour were nowhere to be found. That is when we decided to plant cariaco corn [an endogenous variety] to make arepas and atol [corn drink], while pumpkins and cassava became our staple foods. We even learned how to make soap!

However, during those years, public institutions had not entirely lost the practice of supplying credits and farming implements, and that helped us a great deal. With the surplus from production, we were able to invest in the Barrio Adentro clinic, in the school, and so on.

Luis Gonzales: Among those hardest hit by the crisis are the youngest and the oldest. When things got difficult, we remembered what Chávez would say: Only the people will save the people. He was right!

Oswaldo Noguera: Here we also grow cambur manzano [a small banana], which became the base, along with atol, for the diet of the community’s children. We also began to produce homemade cornflour. All those things helped us survive during those early years.

Things are not easy now… but we have learned a few things along the way!

Luis Gonzales: The economic war and the blockade were devastating, but the fact that we are organized and the commune operates based on a collective logic, made those years somewhat less hard on us. We began to look for collective solutions to our collective problems: we processed corn, began collecting medicinal plants to make up for the medicines shortages, and sugarcane juice was always available as a treat for the kids.

The sanctions are a mechanism to maintain US domination: the hegemony of their model and the dominance of the US dollar is all that matters to the White House. Life, human rights, and democracy are of no interest to US imperialism.


Luis Gonzales: Fuel shortages hurt the local economy a great deal. This is a problem when it comes to production. Transporting machinery and agricultural inputs, moving crops – all that requires fuel.

Fortunately, this commune is not too far from the closest town, and there are three schools in the territory. There are communes that have it much harder: people there have to walk for hours to get to a meeting and kids have to do the same to get to school.

Oswaldo Noguera: Getting the gasoline to operate our machinery is difficult, and we often have to negotiate with the local government to get it.

The gas shortages delay our work preparing the land and caring for it. The bottom line is that the blockade has reduced our production.


Vanessa Pérez: To supplement the income, the Communal Parliament decided to temporarily assign small plots of land to families that are part of the sugarcane EPS.

We also have a seed bank to help family producers. Most produce corn, but they also grow beans and other short-cycle crops.

Luis Gonzales: On average, every family is producing one to two hundred kilos of corn per year. Of that, they give ten percent to the commune, which in turn distributes it to the popular canteen [serving free meals to those in need] and to the school.

This initiative has been an important tool to mitigate the blockade’s effects.


Vanessa Pérez: For us, the commune has been key to overcoming many hardships: production went down but it never stopped and we made sure that everyone got something from the commune. The commitment to solving our problems together was a lifeline.

Luis Gonzales: I think that the commune is the most important tool for overcoming capitalism and its constant exercise of violence… It goes without saying that the blockade is a violent policy.

Communes can offer true solutions to the pueblo. How? If someone is sick, we share knowledge about alternative medicines and collect herbs. If that does not solve the problem, the commune will purchase the medication or we will pool resources collectively to buy it.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the commune is a solution not only for Venezuela, but for all the working people of the world.


Caring for the Community

The sanctions and crisis have had a devastating impact on the lives of working-class Venezuelans, and many grassroots organizations have taken on responsibilities that were previously assigned to the state. Cinco Fortalezas Commune is no exception.

Rosarí Salazar: The Communal Parliament is the place where we identify the needs and resources of the people in the commune. We do this with our limited means, but we also give love and affective support to people in the community: solidarity and sisterhood, those are values that are part of our commune’s DNA.

Vanesa Pérez: The sugarcane EPS is the financial muscle of the commune, so when someone is sick or dies, the resources often come from the surplus of that enterprise.

Additionally, the workers with plots on communal lands give a part of the production to the popular canteen and the schools.

The commune also supports local schools with materials and we have donated blood-pressure monitors and other medical instruments to Barrio Adentro [public clinic]. Some of the commune’s income is also allocated for solving problems such as public lighting and water distribution. For instance, we recently purchased a pump to get water to the communities that live on the higher lands.

Finally, Candela and Las Minas are two poor communities. People live in humble huts there, and children and the elderly are in very vulnerable conditions. On top of it, these communities are very far away from the commune’s epicenter, where the canteen serving free lunches is located. Since the situation there is critical, we proposed in the last meeting to find mechanisms so that the food goes to them and not the other way around.

The sanctions and the sugar mill’s scam has left us very low on resources, but we are able to do a lot with the little bit we have. For us, it doesn’t matter if someone is red [Chavista] or blue [opposition], it doesn’t matter if we like or dislike someone; our objective is to generate better living conditions for everyone who lives in the commune.

Rosarí Salazar: Years ago a Barrio Adentro doctor’s office was built here, but it had terrible structural problems. When that happened, we got word that the Healthcare Ministry would no longer assign a doctor to the commune. We couldn’t let that happen, so we decided that we would turn a vacant building into a medical clinic.

We got to work quickly, and, fortunately, we were able to keep the doctor and a nurse in the commune.

Also, there are three popular canteens in the commune. The canteens provide free lunches to those in need. The project came out of an agreement with the Food Ministry: they would open popular canteens in the municipality and, in exchange, we would grow beans to supply the canteens.

Finally, the commune takes care of its old. They taught us a lot about the land, they struggled with us, and now it is time for them to take it easy. We care for them, take them to the doctor, and give them food bags. In total, we care for ten seniors in the community.


Chávez’s Spirit and the Commune’s “Mística”

Upon visiting a commune, one always feels that Chávez’s spirit is alive. This is not an esoteric idea: his socialist project lives in the actions of the communards. The epicenter of Cinco Fortalezas Commune is what they call the “communal mandala,” a self-built structure where the communards gather for their meetings.


Yusmeli Domínguez: Why did we build a mandala? What does it mean to us? How did we build it? Why is it here?

We built the Mandala ourselves with natural materials collected in the commune, and it has four points of entry: to the East, where the sun rises, is fire, which means strength, vitality, energy. Then there is air, looking towards the mountain that hugs these flatlands. A wonderful cool freeze comes from the hills. Towards the south is water, because the gate looks towards the aljibe [natural whater source] that waters our crops and gives us life. The last entrance represents the land, the soil where we grow the food we eat.

We built the mandala with our hands but nature provided the materials. Everything from the rocks to the wood and the plants that surround the Mandala come from communal lands. For us, its architectural form is loaded with symbolism: collective work, solidarity, and happiness. Chávez’s spirit lives on here: we are his sons and his daughters because we carry him in our hearts and in our consciousness.

The Mandala is where we hold our parliament meetings: here we gather, debate, build consensus, and plan. It is the epicenter of the commune.


Vanessa Pérez: Our first encounter with the Communard Union was about a year and a half ago. The Argelia Laya Brigade [Communard Union brigade] was in Sucre state in September 2020. Finally the brigade arrived to this blessed land. It was love at first sight!

We have been working together ever since: they have worked with us to make the sugar mill scam known more widely; we have shared educational projects; and have collaborated with the other communes in the Union.

When we went to the Foundational Congress, then we committed even further to the Communard Union. We thought: here is where we belong, these people are keeping Chávez’s communal project alive and well, this is our home.

We are very happy and proud to be part of the Communard Union. Of course, not everyone sympathizes with it. I remember that people warned us about the Communard Union. They told us “Be careful!” and added, “These people are land thieves.” Land thieves? Like us, El Maizal and other communes are bringing the land back to life!

The commune is the way forward. We are Chávez’s children, and we will be loyal to his dream of building socialism. We struggle with Chavez’s legacy in mind. We do so for our children and grandchildren, who will live in that better, communal world that we are building today.

Luis Gonzales: The Communard Union is a political and spiritual force, but it also opens the way forward in a practical sense. The only way to break with the market is to establish exchange among communes. If we produce sugar, El Maizal produces cornflour, and the Che Guevara Commune produces coffee, why should we all buy those goods in the capitalist market?

Vanessa Pérez: We have been working hard to build a commune, and we are getting attention not because of our words, but because of our actions. We are teaching by example: showing people that working together is not only possible, but is also better and dignifies us.

We have run into many problems and have made mistakes. Hurdles were placed on the path so that we would trip… But we are the children of Chávez and, like him, we believe that the commune is the straightest path toward socialism.