El Panal Commune (Part II): Rebirth from the Ashes of the Blockade

Venezuela’s most emblematic urban commune learns how to navigate the challenges of the country’s multi-pronged crisis.

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Kids stand in front of an Alexis Vive mural. (Dikó)
Kids stand in front of an Alexis Vive mural. (Dikó)
By Cira Pascual Marquina and Chris Gilbert – Venezuelanalysis
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El Panal [The Beehive] is a commune in Caracas' working-class 23 de Enero barrio that has advanced in political, educational, and economic terms. The commune was built by the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force, a collective with a long trajectory of grassroots work in the barrio. This three-part series highlights El Panal’s history, its economic operations, and the ways it has worked to overcome the impact of the US blockade. Read Part I, where we focus on the commune’s history and its economic projects, here.

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Asdrúbal Rondón (Tijuana) is a member of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force. An El Panal Commune spokesperson, he is also the coordinator of the Antonio José de Sucre Brigade | Robert Longa is the key member of the National Direction of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force and a spokesperson for El Panal Commune | Bárbara Martínez (Anacaona Marín) is a member of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force and a spokesperson for El Panal Commune | Jorge Quereguan is an Alexis Vive Patriotic Force member and a communard who coordinates the Porcinera Urbana del Sur | José Lugo is a worker and spokesperson at the Abejitas del Panal communal enterprise, and a spokesperson in communal economy for the Santa Rosa Communal Council, El Panal Commune | Luis Farías (Guicho) is a longstanding member of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force committed to agricultural production in El Panal Commune | Orly Ortíz is a member of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force and an education spokesperson for El Panal Commune | Judith Guerra is the housing spokesperson for the Santa Rosa Communal Counci and an executive spokesperson for El Panal Commune.
Asdrúbal Rondón (Tijuana) is a member of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force. An El Panal Commune spokesperson, he is also the coordinator of the Antonio José de Sucre Brigade | Robert Longa is the key member of the National Direction of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force and a spokesperson for El Panal Commune | Bárbara Martínez (Anacaona Marín) is a member of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force and a spokesperson for El Panal Commune | Jorge Quereguan is an Alexis Vive Patriotic Force member and a communard who coordinates the Porcinera Urbana del Sur | José Lugo is a worker and spokesperson at the Abejitas del Panal communal enterprise, and a spokesperson in communal economy for the Santa Rosa Communal Council, El Panal Commune | Luis Farías (Guicho) is a longstanding member of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force committed to agricultural production in El Panal Commune | Orly Ortíz is a member of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force and an education spokesperson for El Panal Commune | Judith Guerra is the housing spokesperson for the Santa Rosa Communal Counci and an executive spokesperson for El Panal Commune.

Standing up to the blockade

The impact of the sanctions and the crisis has been disastrous. Nonetheless, El Panal’s communards focus less on the hardships that the crisis has brought – which are many and in some cases devastating – than about the lessons learned.

LIFE AND PRODUCTION

Judit Guerra: The hardest thing is seeing the youth leave the country. That is a moral blow for us. My son and my grandchildren left, and I still feel the pain. Also, when we were preparing the census for the communal council elections, we saw how many people had migrated.

But we won't give up! We know that the commune is the way forward. When the blackout happened and we were without water [early 2019], it was the community that found a solution by working together collectively to clean up a nearby spring. Our experience teaches us that solutions become viable and long-lasting only when we work together.

Robert Longa: The economic war, the US sanctions, and, sometimes, the internal blockade have actually become an engine of sorts in the process of communal construction. In the past few years, El Panal Commune made a leap forward. In a few words, the external factors have generated a process of internal maturation in the commune’s self-government and in the development of our productive forces.

Of course, the crisis is not something that should be celebrated. The suffering has been horrific: many people have died and many others went hungry. However, when it comes to El Panal, we have not only resisted, but have also acquired know-how. I would even dare to say that we have grown as an organization. We learned many things and figured out how to break important Gordian knots. Nevertheless, there is still a lot to be done on our end.

The blockade has taught us about the world beyond the confines of our barrio. Before, when we needed cornflour, we would just go to the corner store and buy a packet. It was a simple transaction and we didn’t reflect on it. The crisis brought about food shortages, and because of the food shortages we began to grow corn in the barrio; we also learned how to thresh and dry it, and how to make flour. These experiences brought us closer to campesinos and to factory workers, and it made our contradictions with the bourgeoisie more intense and evident.

We began to reflect: supposing the capitalist actually gets the production to the corner store, what is that capitalist actually doing? Does he grow corn? Does he work in a factory so that it is turned into flour? Or does he just ship it from Mars? No. The campesino produces the corn, the worker processes it, and the capitalist cashes in.

Of course, this is all old news, but the fact that we had to begin to either grow our corn or go hungry made this contradiction all the more tangible.

With the blockade, we learned that it takes six months to grow a hectare of yuca. We also learned that with a trapiche [an artisanal sugarmill] and a few hectares of sugarcane we can make a delicious drink.

The pain and suffering caused by the US blockade are enormous, but we have learned a lot. It’s contradictory – or dialectical – but in some ways I’m grateful.

Orly Ortíz: The blockade has a devastating impact on the Venezuelan working class: many basic goods – from food to medicine – became scarce and tremendously expensive.

As a vanguard movement, when things got really difficult, Alexis Vive was not going to throw in the towel: we decided to focus on production while not abandoning communal organization. In fact, our production initiatives are not an end in themselves. As Anacaona says: when we produce goods, we do so with Politics – with a capital “P” – on the horizon.

Today we have a diversified economy: we produce and process food and also offer services to the community. The blockade is a cruel but efficient teacher: not only have we learned to produce more effectively, but we have also increased our autonomy.

Anacaona Marín: We are not extraterrestrials. We are working-class Venezuelans who went hungry and lost loved ones due to the blockade. US imperialism left its ugly imprint on our lives and on our bodies. There is no denying that. First came the food shortages which were followed by the inflationary spiral, and the blackouts came after that.

El Panal Commune was also hard hit, but our organization was able to act: in the face of the imperialist attack, we were not going to stay put. That is why our morale here is so high!

Jorge Quereguan: As the communist poet Aquiles Nazoa said, I believe in the creative power of the people. In these grueling times, many people worked hard to turn things around. In so doing we are breaking with the rentier, clientelistic logic that the Adecos [Fourth Republic party, still operating] planted in our subjective consciousness.

The pueblo has ingenuity and innovates. What should we do as an organization? We must keep our ear to the ground, learn from them, and channel their creativity towards the common good.

José Lugo: The White House has its eyes on us because they don’t want to see a project with a sovereign and anti-capitalist orientation emerge here. With Hugo Chávez, Venezuela became a bellwether for the continental and a magnet for South-South integration. That is why we have had the imperialist apparatus – its media and its coercive policies – turned against us for over two decades!

Rather than focusing on the US blockade's devastating effects, I want to highlight how these coercive measures became a kind of wake-up call for us. Now we know that we have to produce and cannot remain a dependent country!

Of course, shifting away from dependency isn’t easy, but our practice here at El Panal Commune shows that it’s possible. Moreover, while the blockade is a “war by other means,” we should also acknowledge that this is not an all-out war. Vietnam, Panamá, Iraq… those countries and so many others were actually bombed.

This means that we have some wiggle room to build the commune. Now our economic projects are solid ones, and we are no longer dependent on the paternalist state. We are moving toward self-government and popular sovereignty, as Chávez wanted us to do!

Of course, we have not gotten there yet. When it comes to production, we need to create non-capitalist supply chains so that we get raw materials outside of the market, specifically fabric and other implements in the case of Las Abejitas del Panal [a communal textile workshop]. It would be naive to continue relying on the capitalists to get our supplies forever.

Here, at El Panal, we are advancing in that direction with the primary production units. That makes me proud, but we still have a long way to go.

TECHNIFICATION

Jorge Quereguan: We could say that we are victims, but instead I prefer to think of ourselves as creative and active subjects. In productive terms, we have made a leap forward: we have gone from small-scale craft production to using more technified and complex methods.

In the process, we learned that efficiency is a must because we are competing with the capitalist system. We have to be able to show results. In the technification process, we also have to replace physical work with intellectual work. We have to maximize production, and that requires thinking.

I often remember Che when he said that the Cuban Revolution had to work toward improving the technical side of production. He said that they should make the most advanced productio

n techniques their own. This is important for us at Alexis Vive: a cadre should be politically-educated, well-informed, and technically-prepared.

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Judith Guerra and Hugo Chávez in a communal council space where food distribution operates. (Dikó)
Judith Guerra and Hugo Chávez in a communal council space where food distribution operates. (Dikó)

Solutions to the crisis

In the face of the crisis, El Panal Commune and the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force have developed a range of political and productive responses to the difficulties that have emerged. Their example shows that communes can provide a popular, sovereign solution to the crisis and a viable alternative to capitalist restoration.

FOOD DISTRIBUTION

Anacaona Marín: When it all began back in 2016, we made sure that our productive projects would really be working at the community’s service. For example, our bakery broke away from the logic of the market. In contrast with run-of-the-mill bakeries, which were using scarce flour at that time to bake fancy goods that only a few could afford, we baked bread for the ordinary people of 23 de Enero.

In fact, around that time, we began a planned food distribution initiative: we delivered food bags to 1200 families – the most vulnerable ones – without any conditions. The bags were delivered door to door. They included coffee, sugar, bread, rice, beans, and other goods.

The blockade forced us to organize ourselves better and work harder so that people would say: the commune is the way forward. I think we can say that our efforts have produced results. For example, 44% of the people here participated in the commune’s communal council elections in July [2022], which is well above the average for national and regional elections. In doing so, the people were casting their lot with the communal path. They were renewing their commitment to participative and protagonic democracy.

Orly Ortíz: In the early days of the economic war, we recognized that people needed access to basic goods. At that time, it was almost impossible to get flour, sugar, bread, etc. When the organization [Alexis Vive] became aware of this problem, we decided that distributing food to people should be one of our priorities. Those were the times of the grassroots CLAP before the government-run CLAP actually existed. The project was self-organized, and we know that it saved lives.

Alexis Vive also committed its resources to the Christopher Hernández canteen, which feeds more than a hundred people every day.

Judit Guerra: The organization subsidized its own food distribution program, but the commune also promoted Pueblo a Pueblo, an initiative for bringing fresh produce to the barrios, bypassing middlemen.

That initiative developed a good rapport with the community. I remember that during the blackout – when there was no cash in the street and you couldn’t swipe a credit card because the phone lines were down – we distributed four kilos of potatoes to each family with the idea that people would pay their purchase when the conditions changed. Lo and behold, as soon as the electricity came back, people paid the debt on their own initiative! No encouragement was needed!

Here at the commune, we also organize food fairs for fresh fish and meat. We sell those products at below-the-market prices, but they are not given away. With the profits, the organization can operate the Christopher Hernández canteen, help vulnerable people buy medication, or pay for the funeral of someone who passed away in the commune.

ANIMAL FEED PLANT

Tijuana: One of the bottlenecks in raising pigs and fish is the exorbitant cost of animal feed. That is why we are turning the commune’s sugar-packing plant into an animal feed plant.

Luis Farías: Feeding the pigs with commercial animal feed is very expensive. Now we collect overripe vegetables and fruit in the local markets. We have found that old produce, complemented with animal feed, works well. However, we are currently working to activate an animal feed plant. Our plan is to mill flour, grains, rice, and fish and turn the mixture into dry feed. We researched it and got advice, and now we know that this combination is suitable for pigs. When we get our feed plant going – which will be soon – we will have made a step toward our production goals and will have advanced toward being more self-sustaining.

Jorge Quereguan: An inventor in Carabobo state designed and built our animal feed processing. It can produce high volumes of low-density fish food, mid-density pet food, and high-density food for ruminants and pigs. When we get our plant going, we’ll be able to produce eight tones of animal food daily.

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A communal assembly at El Panal Commune. (El Panal)
A communal assembly at El Panal Commune. (El Panal)

Brigades

The Alexis Vive Patriotic Force has a well-defined strategic project with the commune at its core. However, the organization engages in permanent processes of reflection and self-critique to avoid stagnation and therefore constantly changes tactics to pursue that strategic goal. In 2015, it developed the tactical project of sending food-producing brigades to rural areas.

Anacaona Marín: If an organization is committed to building an alternative, there must be a process of trial and error. If we go back some seven years, you will find that we developed three brigades during this time. The idea was that some Alexis Vive cadres would go to the campo, immerse themselves in peasant life, and learn to produce hand in hand with the men and women who grow the food that we eat in Caracas.

The brigades’ objectives were, as is always the case for us, both political and economic. We realized that we needed to pursue an economic model that would break away from the logic of capital. If we engaged in the circuit that is typical of capitalism – buying, transforming, and selling to buy again – that might plunge us into market speculation. If we did that, we would actually become the servants of capital. We would become a mock commune!

Quite a few of our comrades relocated to rural farmsteads and began to learn from the campesinos there. The brigades left a powerful imprint in our organization: we learned about the harsh living conditions of Venezuelan campesinos. We learned about crop cycles. Also, we learned of the many hurdles that producers face when it comes to growing and distributing their crops.

Tijuana: The brigades were an initiative that began to take shape in 2015 when the economic war was beginning. Robert realized that the new scenario was a hostile one, both for the pueblo and for our organization. It was time to break out of our old routines. In political terms, we were a seasoned political organization, but in an economic sense, we were little more than a mechanism for the distribution of the goods that the Venezuelan state provided.

We deployed two brigades to the East and West of the country. We named the brigades after Antonio José de Sucre and Antonio Ricaurte, two brave officers who committed themselves to Latin America’s independence struggle. The Guaicaipuro Brigade was in charge of maintaining our organizational work in Caracas.

With these deployments, we learned about agriculture and animal husbandry, but we also learned – as Che Guevara did in his first trip through Latin America – about the suffering and oppression of campesinos and about how rural gangs lay siege to campesino production. In fact, on a couple of occasions, we had to confront such gangs to protect the crops.

I coordinated the Antonio José de Sucre Brigade, in the East of the country. There we learned about agriculture, but we also learned about fishermens’ culture and local traditions.

When we came back to Caracas years later, we reflected critically on the whole experience. With the brigades, we acquired a vast knowledge of the campesino’s harsh situation, which coexists with the extraordinary wealth of an elite and the richness of nature. We also learned about the complexities of agricultural production.

All this helps us in our internal processes of deliberation. Now our planning and decision-making processes are much closer to our targets.

Luis Farías: Our brigades aimed to link our urban commune to campesino life and production. Of course, there was a clash of cultures: we were a bunch of barrio kids who knew practically nothing about agriculture, so we had to learn about everything, from caring for seeds and sowing them to crop cycles.

Although we did not meet our objectives in quantitative terms, the learning experience made the brigades worthwhile. The brigades have led to a better understanding of primary production and, more importantly, to a better understanding of our country and the difficulties and injustices that the people in rural areas face. We also built fraternal ties with local communities and left some organizational kernels there.

Tijuana: We made many mistakes along the way. There are many anecdotes. I remember that once, while weeding a field, we destroyed the ocumo and yuca plants because we could not identify them. When the campesino who was teaching us came by, he was horrified!

I also recall a story that seems funny now but was heart-wrenching at the time. The land had been plowed and prepared, and when it came to planting the yuca, the compañeros put the yuca shoots upside down!

The travails of the campesino are invisible for the majority in this country. They produce a lot of what we eat and yet they live in run-down sheds with almost nothing. In Caracas, we have fans or air conditioners and running water, while campesinos live humbly with no electricity and their meals are cooked on an open fire.

Without the work of the campesinos, we would be nothing!

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The urban pig farm began operating with the Year Zero plan, and now it’s grown to raise almost 100 pigs. (Dikó)
The urban pig farm began operating with the Year Zero plan, and now it’s grown to raise almost 100 pigs. (Dikó)

“Year Zero”

Robert Longa is an avid reader and a mastermind of creative solutions. Always thinking outside the box, he is aware that a communal organization such as El Panal must constantly reinvent its practices and engage in experimentation to overcome the metabolism of capital.

Jorge Quereguan: The crisis, the blockade, and the lockdown had a devastating impact on the life of the pueblo. The devastation also affected grassroots organizations and many initiatives closed shop. That is when Robert declared 2020 to be our “Year Zero.” He said: “We have to resist: it’s now time for fishing, hunting, and gathering!”

We shifted gears and we began to focus on primary production. The slogan during the pandemic was “Stay at home!'' But if we stayed at home, what would we eat? So, we modified the slogan to make it: “Stay at the commune!”

Our food production projects took shape in former recreational spaces and vacant lots. Those were the first days of our pisciculture initiative: a swimming pool became home for the tilapias that would supply the commune’s canteen, which feeds the most precarious people in the community. We also began raising pigs and we made vacant lots into vegetable gardens.

That is how resistance became resilience, and that resilience allowed us to reactivate our political horizon: the communalization of society. The crisis demoralized the militancy, but with ingenuity and commitment to production, we saved ourselves from the worst effects (both material and subjective) that the crisis brought about.

We took our first steps by trial and error: we produced initially with homemade techniques and it all began empirically. However, our objective is not just subsistence; our objective is to technify processes and increase our productive capacity – and do all that with a horizon of social transformation.

That is why, little by little, we are technifying and modernizing our production processes and our production is increasing.

Robert Longa: When I came back to Caracas after being deployed in the Antonio Ricaurte Brigade, I encountered a devastating scene. The blockade had paralyzed the economy, the pandemic had led to a lockdown, the organization was in a very difficult situation, and the cadres were emotionally destroyed.

We had to come up with a solution and, with the Life Is Beautiful movie in my head, I began to invent an epic narrative. I knew I had to work in a sentimental and romantic register: I had to get the organization’s cadres going again, helping them recover their morale. Bare survival had to turn into resistance, and resistance had to carve a path toward emancipation.

I put my boots on and said to people: “We have hit zero. We have nothing to eat and nothing to wear but we are going to shift into hunting, fishing, and gathering mode. We are now in year zero.”

The situation wasn’t pretty and we had to turn it around. That is when we began to recover unused land in the barrio’s steep hillsides for vegetable growing. It is also when we began with our pisciculture and porcine initiatives.

We wove a romantic discourse into our production initiatives and our political work, always remembering Bolívar’s phrase: “If nature goes against us, we will struggle and make it obey.”

Our thinking was that if the pandemic didn’t obey, we would struggle against it. In a subversive gesture, we decided to wear the Alexis Vive bandana covering our faces instead of face masks. We did things carefully, but we were determined to rise up from the ashes.

We collectively committed ourselves to defending our model from “zero” [from the ropes]. We would do it without fear. After all, if we are ready to fight imperialism, we also have to defend life itself. And so our emancipatory project was rekindled. Now our productive forces are fully activated, and we are in the middle of reactivating the commune.

This interview is part of VA’s ongoing Communal (and Working Class) Resistance Series.

 

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