El Sur Existe [The South Exists] is an urban and periurban commune in Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city. Its communards have displayed impressive flexibility and creativity in these times of imperialist blockade. They initially worked to develop an economic foundation for their commune that would respond to people’s material needs. Then they worked to strengthen a model of self-government where executive and legislative decisions have to be taken by the community, not by an isolated few. In Part I of this two-part piece for the Communal Resistance Series, El Sur Existe communards explained their commune’s history and its productive initiatives. Here in Part II, they talk to us about the impact of the sanctions and about self-government.
Impact of the blockade
Ricardo Camilletti: The blockade destroyed much of what had been achieved during the revolutionary process: social investment was practically brought to a halt, and the rights that had been acquired by the working class vanished. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the sanctions brought the pueblo to levels below those in 1998, the year when Chávez came to power.
It so happens that here, at El Sur Existe, we started building a commune in the midst of the blockade. Obviously, it is never easy to build an organization that goes against the grain, against the logic of capital, but it is so much more difficult to do it in these conditions! Some compañeros abandoned the collective struggle, because they were forced to look for individual solutions, while others left the country.
Alexander Lovera: The price and scarcity of fuel has had a devastating impact on production here, but we have kept our doors open. We have one advantage: while this is, to a great degree, an urban commune, there is peri-urban land here as well, and production never stopped in those areas.
Eduard Echenique: Although the blockade has brought out some ugly stuff in people, El Sur Existe has been a lifeline for many people in the community. Our social and family production units have been key in that regard.
When imperialism tried to bring us to our knees, we reinvented ourselves through solidarity and creativity.
Wilmer Solano: It is because of the blockade that we are not producing school uniforms right now. The desperate situation here provoked people to loot shops. When things were most critical, someone broke into our workshop and they took some of the sewing machines. When hunger takes over, things can get ugly!
Even so, while it’s undeniable that the blockade has had a negative impact on the commune, we have kept at it, and we have learned that there are many things that can only be solved collectively.
Care for the community
Wilmer Solano: The Communal Brigades [BRICOM, for the initials in Spanish] are about the transfer of responsibilities to the community. Jobs that used to belong to the local government are now being self-run or co-managed. We coordinate with the townhall to solve problems with electricity and water, and we do maintenance in the school and medical center.
This initiative was the outcome of a diagnosis that we did in the commune. We realized that we had to bring a stop to the general deterioration of public services. That is how, little by little, caring for public service infrastructure in the commune’s territory and its surroundings has become one of our most important areas of work.
Máximo Pinto: I work as a kind of bridge between people in the commune and those in the city. Whenever there is a problem, folks will come to me, and I do follow up so that the issue is dealt with.
We used to have a chronic flooding problem here, but we were able to almost completely resolve it. We have also addressed problems with public lighting. Now the commune is well-lit at night, which is very important.
Wilmer Solano: We began to organize the BRICOM brigades in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. We carried out a census to see who in the community might volunteer for the project, and we have been active ever since.
CASA COMUNAL DE LOS ABUELOS [COMMUNAL GRANDPARENTS’ HOME]
Eduard Echenique: Two years ago, when the COVID-19 lockdown coincided with the blockade, we realized that there were elderly people who needed care and attention. That is why we began to organize meals and gatherings. We wanted to create a space where our grandparents could come together, eat, and enjoy both cultural events and each other’s company.
We also care for the elderly by offering recreational spaces, and activities as sewing workshops and vegetarian cooking classes.
Jenny Vano: We focus a great deal on production, but we are also developing the commune’s cultural arm. We do politics through culture.
We maintain the community’s Infocenter [computer center] and organize cultural events for kids and for the elderly. Additionally, we incorporated a cultural collective into the commune: these young people are organizing lively music and theater classes. Dozens of kids participate, and the initiative is becoming a sort of epicenter for the commune’s work.
Wilmer Solano: We have a civic-military body to deal with complex situations. Once some people tried to break in and dismantle the slaughterhouse, but we were able to repel them with our own means and with help from the military.
More recently, the director of the local medical center tried to remove four stretchers from the center. People went there and said: “Nobody can take this away. This belongs to the people! Nobody is allowed to take even a needle away from this medical center!” Then a citizen’s assembly was organized to protect the medical facilities.
Wilmer Solano: We are the government in this zone. That, of course, doesn’t happen spontaneously. The commune has to offer real, tangible solutions to people’s problems. However, the kind of self-government that we are aiming for is not just about solving people’s problems. Our variety of self-government is about real participation and communal autonomy. We cooperate with the local government, but it is not about clientelism or tutelage.
Ricardo Camilletti: It is tough to organize local self-government, because there is no preordained game plan to tell us how to do so. Perhaps the closest experience is the Paris Commune, but it is a very distant one now.
We interpret self-government as a process that allows us to transition toward socialism while satisfying our collective needs – both social and economic – through an organizational structure that must be executive and legislative at the same time. That is what a communal parliament or a people’s assembly means to us.
The commune must interact with the state, but it must also remain autonomous. In this sense, one of our aims at El Sur Existe is to expand through the transfer of responsibilities that the local government once had. This has to happen in cooperation with the local government, but to ensure efficiency, the transfer has to be complete. Why? Our experience shows that we are more efficient than public institutions when it comes to solving real-life problems.