Creative Tensions in the Communal Project: A Conversation with Hernán Vargas (Part I)

A candid exchange with the recently appointed Venezuelan Vice-minister of Communal Economy.

Recently named Vice-minister of Communal Economy, Hernán Vargas is a longstanding activist of the Pobladores movement in defense of the right to housing. In this two-part interview, Vargas reflects on a variety of themes including the tensions that have emerged between the state and grassroots groups, the exhaustion of the rentier economic model, and the Communes Ministry’s role in the project of communalizing society.

In a process of transformation, contradictions are destined to emerge. However, in the Bolivarian Revolution, some of the contradictions between the state and the grassroots movements might be seen as “creative tensions” [a term coined by Álvaro García Linera]. As a person who comes from a grassroots movement but now has a role in the ministry, what creative tensions do you see operating in Venezuela today?

Although it has been transformed at many levels over the past twenty years, the Venezuelan state continues to carry an institutional baggage inherited from the colonial model based on looting and dispossession. This contradiction operates in all Latin American countries where there are progressive processes of transformation.

When the communalization of society – the emergence of grassroots democracy, self-government, and new social relations centered on life – began to take shape, a clash between the old state and the emerging model could not be avoided. This situation can become more or less acute depending on the correlation of forces.

The Venezuelan state has different spheres of action, from the local to the national, and certain class interests may enter into contradiction with communal initiatives at the regional level. At the end of the day, we are talking about a struggle between the old and new model. Such a struggle will emerge in any revolution.

However, it’s also worth highlighting that the Bolivarian Process has long been characterized by the transformative power of its creative tensions. In fact, creative tensions are at the very origin of the Chavista project, and I would even dare to say that they are the root of the communal model. As such, many of the contradictions that emerge should not be interpreted as a limit or a barrier, but as a spark.

From my point of view, what looms over us today is the absence of a debate to get rid of false contradictions. This debate is necessary so that Chavismo can turn its internal contradictions into productive, creative tensions.


What are the policies that you are currently promoting from the Ministry of Communes?

The ministry’s orientation now is a line of work aimed at triggering the reactivation of popular power. In 2006 Chávez talked about the “explosion [flourishing] of popular power.” In so doing, he initiated a new era where communal councils (and later communes) were at the center of the political sphere. That is not to say that there weren’t grassroots organizations before 2006, but most of those developed and intermingled with the new communal project.

The main challenge of the Ministry of Communes is to promote communal power in the current conditions, marked by a blockade and exhaustion of the rentier model. We cannot attempt to mechanically duplicate what Chávez did in his time. With his 3R.nets [an initiative to address the pressing problems in Venezuela], President Nicolás Maduro is pointing to a new era with radically different material conditions, but with the same historical objective.

The end of rentierism [overreliance on oil profits] is becoming a reality in Venezuela, but the rentier “model” is alive and well. That is, the majority of the people hope for a recomposition of rentierism and the same can be said for the political class. Indeed the country should aim toward the recovery of some of our oil exploitation – as it does – but the old rentier model is not viable.

In the midst of this sea-change, [Communes Minister Jorge] Arreaza has been calling for the renovation of communal councils while pushing for the activation of citizens’ assemblies [the governing body in communal councils]. In so doing, we are wagering on socialism. However, beyond activating the communal model on a political level, we are working to activate the communal economy. In the next few months, our plan is to go to the communes, listen to the people, and see what is going on there. Based on that research, we will build a comprehensive plan.

For the communal project to develop, there has to be a life-centered economic project to sustain it. In other words, the economic model for the communes cannot reproduce the logic of capital.

We are exploring mechanisms to encourage the emergence of an economic model based on life. Of course, there will be contradictions and some will try to get a “good deal” out of it, but we see our role in the ministry as accompanying the communes and other communal organizations, and fostering channels so that conditions for the reproduction of life outside of the logic of capital can flourish.


These aims are admirable, but what are your concrete plans?

Chávez talked about social property and also economic forms that would be steps in that direction, including Indirect Communal Social Property Enterprises [EPSIC for its initials in Spanish]. Over the years, the Ministry of Communes has registered over 300 EPSICs. EPSICs are a hybrid between state and communal property.

We have begun to survey these EPSICs to learn about their current situation. We do all this to reactivate a transition model.

One such case is Arreboles de Barinas, a lumber mill that was recently reorganized and renamed “Renacer de Chávez” [Chávez Reborn]. When we visited it, we discovered that it was privately managed. This is actually illegal, but things like this do happen in times of crisis.

The idea is that those EPSICs should be provisionally co-managed by the state and the people, but eventually the community – organized in communal councils or communes – will take control of the administration of these enterprises.

When the crisis was most intense, the state had almost no capacity to manage such companies. A lumber mill requires raw materials and a variety of inputs, and when the country’s oil profits dropped from 50 billion US dollars a year to 700 million, the resources to keep the mill operative disappeared.

Our objective now is to reorganize the administration of the EPSICs, to bring them in line with the law. In so doing, the state and the organized communities will be direct participants in administering the enterprises. There, the enterprises’ income will be administered so that it is destined for wages, maintenance, and raw material purchases, but a social investment fund will also be established. This fund will be oriented towards communal development – or, as I said before, towards life.

Going back to the Renacer de Chávez lumber mill, the “surplus” will be distributed among the local communes so that they are able to solve infrastructure problems in the community. This is a virtuous cycle because, due to the exhaustion of the rentier model, the state has no resources. In such circumstances, companies like Renacer de Chávez can be the solution to the local problems.

We are also financing communal crops on a small scale and promoting “Economic Communal Circuits.” Our idea is that the production should enter a distribution circuit that ensures that the crops go to the people directly, without intermediaries. In the current cycle, we are focusing on supplying food to school canteens, popular kitchens [casas de alimentación], and communal markets.

In other words, we are aiming to promote the production of use values that will be distributed outside the capitalist market.