Venezuela's Communal Economic System

In this series of articles, Helen Yaffe discusses her experience with Venezuela's communal economic system.

By Helen Yaffe

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A young woman and her baby standing on the plot of land that has been prepared for the construction of her new home (Helen Yaffe)
A young woman and her baby standing on the plot of land that has been prepared for the construction of her new home (Helen Yaffe)
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Yaffe is the author of Che Guevara: the economics of revolution, and was invited to visit Venezuela by the Vice Ministry of the Communal Economy. All three articles are from her personal blog, www.palgrave.typepad.com/yaffe/.

The articles included here include:

  • Introduction to the Communal Economic System in Venezuela

  • Housing for the people in Venezuela

  • Community organisation in the barrios of Caracas

Introduction to the Communal Economic System in Venezuela

The invitation to Venezuela came from the Vice Ministry of the Communal Economy, part of the Ministry of Communes and Social Movements. The Vice Ministry is responsible for fomenting production and services within grassroots communities to accompany their political organisation through communal councils and communes. Having read my book, Che Guevara: the economics of revolution (published in Cuba as Che Guevara: economía en revolución) they were interested in discussing whether elements of Che´s Budgetary Finance System could serve as useful tools in Communal Economic System (Sistema  Económico Comunal – SEC) and in other sectors or branches in the Venezuelan economy.

In just five days we have already participated in seminars, discussions, and visits to Enterprises of Social Production (Empresas de Producción Social – EPS) which along with the Family Productive Units, constitute the Communal Economic System.

The morning after arriving, we travelled to a mountainous region of Aragua State to join over 70 participants at a two week seminar on Latin American political theory, named after Peruvian Marxist José Mariategui. Most of the participants (still) there are Venezuelans, representing multiple different social movements, communes, EPS, and institutions of people’s power (poder popular). The participants are divided into self-coordinating groups which share responsibility for the functioning of the seminar, thus empowering and training them in the organisational and political challenges involved in this type of theoretical work. Once the seminar has finished, the participants will organise similar seminars in their grassroots constituencies, as part of the process of multiplying the knowledge and skills necessary to empower the population.

On Sunday 22 September, I gave a presentation about Che’s approach to political formation in the transition to socialism. It covered his vision of the role of education: education as culture, political education and education for production; as well as his attitude towards the political and material position of technical personnel and explained how the new salary structure created in revolutionary Cuba served to break the link between work and remuneration, undermining the operation of the law of value in the transition to socialism, and linking personal improvements to national development.

The audience engaged with the presentation and appropriated the theoretical and practical principles to their own reality in Venezuela today, discussing contradictions which emerge and the extent to which it would be possible to adopt similar policies in Venezuela – especially those promoting technical training and education for production in general. The presentation and discussion went on for four hours, with informal discussions continuing on to the following day.

On Wednesday 25 September I accompanied the Vice Minister of the Communal Economy, Ana Maldonado to two EPS in Guarenas, 45 minutes outside of Caracas. There are two forms of EPS, one is DIRECT social property – which means that the community in which they are established own, as well as manages, the means of production. The other is INDIRECT social property, where the state (the viceministry) owns the means of production, but the workers manage it. These tend to be larger and more strategic units of production but the intention is that as the workers capacity and commitment increase, these will be transferred under ownership of the community, becoming enterprises of DIRECT social property.

In both forms of EPS, the producers elect representatives to administrative positions from among themselves on a two year rotational basis, so that all the workers have the opportunity to develop managerial, organisational and accounting, as well as productive or manual skills. According to those I met, these administrative workers continue to participate in the productive process when their administrative tasks are completed or when there is a specific need.

The enterprises we visited were a carpenters and an ironworks, both of them producing for the Great Housing Mission Venezuela (Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela) which has already built nearly 500,000 housing units since 2011 and has a goal of constructing 2.6 million new homes by 2019. Both EPS were located within a large warehouse which had been empty for 30 years prior to its rehabilitation for these projects. The nearly 60 workers in these two enterprises are local residents who were unemployed before they joined the EPS. In both enterprises the workers received three months of training on site when they began. They have seen the fruits of their labour as new homes have been erected in their own neighbourhoods and in surrounding states.

There are 32 carpenters, half of them women, and including disabled workers. In a discussion following the tour of the workshop, their “vocera”, there woman spokesperson, explained to the Vice Minister that their production process was being jeopardized because the private company which supplied the specific nails they needed for their production had refused to provide more. This led to a discussion about the problems of dependence on private interests which are politically opposed to the Bolivarian Revolution. The Vice Minister and her team immediately began coordinating with the workers to find a solution.

There are 24 workers in the ironworks, many of them young men, but with a smaller proportion of women. They produce iron doors for the construction of homes under the housing mission. They were clearly very proud of their work and the fact that they had repaid the initial start-up credit provided through a government funding institution and had also generated an ‘excedente’ – a surplus which would permit them to purchase additional machinery.

Having read about the EPS and the Communal Economic System it was extremely useful to start visiting those productive units and talking to their workers about what this new productive model means for them today in Venezuela.

Housing for the people in Venezuela

This family built there own house, with help from the community and resources from the government, under the Great Housing Mission Venezuela.

On Thursday 26 September, 2,397 Venezuelan families received the keys to new homes built under the Great Housing Mission. Initiated in 2011, the programme aims to construct 2.6 million new homes by 2019 and is well on the way to the 500,000 milestone. The new home owners were handed the keys by government ministers, vice ministers and state governors in 17 of Venezuela’s 23 states. Acts of this type take place throughout the country ever Thursday.

I travelled over mountains and above clouds to the Consejo Comunal de Cumboto in Municipio Costa de Ora, Aragua State to learn about how the housing mission is organised there and to celebrate the “entrega de casas” (presentation of the houses) to members of that community. Surrounded by fertile mountains, the ceremony of entrega was presided over by Ana Maldonado, Vice Minister of the Communal Economy and General Ramos Viñas, President of the Housing Institute in the state. Despite the incessant rain the community had gathered for the ceremony and there was a party atmosphere. The exception was the brigades of mostly young workers who continued labouring on the construction of an additional 51 houses for the communal council. Their work starts with clearing the land and laying foundations. Many of them were local youngsters outside of work or education. Under this scheme of “socialist work brigades” they have received training in construction skills and many of them will benefit from the construction project. The recipients of the homes are determined democratically by the community itself, through the Citizens’ Assemblies, and in this case most of the beneficiaries are elderly people and single mothers. The population of the area is 900-1,000 and in addition to the 65 homes already built or under construction they calculate that an additional 100 homes will be needed. In some cases this work may involve dismantling rickety wooden houses to replace them with the new structures which have 2 to 3 bedrooms, sitting room, kitchen and 1 to 2 bathrooms.

The Vice Minister and the General visited several of the new properties and spoke to the beneficiaries, community representatives and members of the community gathered. The people’s sense of pride at having constructed their own homes was palpable, without depending on private companies or even state institutions to execute the work for them. The beneficiaries, including elder women, contributed towards the construction effort in any way they could. The community gathered, most of them women with their children, under a marquee in the middle of the street where there was a sound system and a table on which were laid out, not just the 14 keys to be handed over during the ceremony, but also samples of products made from Cacao plant by a collective of 8 locals, including chocolate, punch, soaps and herbal tea. The men and women involved have received education in Cacao ecology under the Revolution and were extremely proud of their organic and diverse production.

After addressing the community about the political objectives and goals of the Housing Mission, the Vice Minister and the General handed over keys to the 14 homes which have been completed. The people cheered and applauded as the women and men of their community received the keys to their new homes. The Vice Minister and the General made two announcements which were received by rapturous applause and cheers. First, that the Vice Ministry of the Communal Economy would provide micro-credits to assist with the production of Cacao derivatives and that the community producers would be invited to participate in the national production fair in December. Second, that all the new houses inaugurated that afternoon would be provided with the white goods, or kitchen equipment, within the month.

The handing over of keys to this small community was an emotional and exhilarating celebration. It will have a huge impact on their lives. Meanwhile, this type of ceremony happens every Thursday throughout the length and breadth of this big country. The experience of meeting the community and beneficiaries in the consejo communal de Cumbotes gives us some idea of the impact this will have across the nation, for the Venezuelan people.

Vice Minister of the Communal Economy, Ana Maldonado, and General Ramon Viñas, President of the Housing Institute in Aragua state, hand out keys to 14 new houses to members of the community.

Vice Minister of the Communal Economy, Ana Maldonado, lends a hand to the "socialist Work Brigade" labouring to build 51 new houses in the community.

Another family receive the keys to their new home.

13 keys to newly built houses ready to hand over to their new owners, plus products made from Cacao plant in the community by a collective of 8 locals.

Community organisation in the barrios of Caracas (+ photos)

The road was steep with sharp curves, but at least it was made with concrete and not the mud track that existed before the Venezuelan government provided materials for the barrio (neighbourhood) of Antimano. We drove up towards the top of the mountain to meet the consejo communal (communal council) of Las Torres. The consejo was set up in 2000 with some 350 inhabitants, but the population has now doubled to 715, including children. It was a stunning view, looking down over the precarious homes balanced on the mountainsides surrounding the urban sprawl of Caracas in the valley below.

Las Torres is one communal council among ten which have amalgamated into a “Comuna” called Las 17 Voces de Ezequiel Zamora. The total population of the Comuna is 5,860 and they meet every Wednesday in assemblies attended by hundreds of residents.

Las Torres alone has 50 “voceros” and “voceras” (male and female spokespeople) and less than two weeks ago held its two-yearly elections to 17 committees or areas of representation.

1) administration and finances (4 committee members)

2) social control (5 committee members)

3) health (this and all the rest have one representative)

4) habitat and housing

5) communal economy

6) foodstuffs

7) culture

8) people with disabilities

9) sport

10) transport

11) elderly

12) children and adolescents

13) education

14) energy and gas

15) national territorial defence

16) youth

17) mothers

In addition to the construction of the new road, since 2008 Las Torres has received materials and technical assistance for the construction of housing and other social facilities like a playground, a school (to be built) and they are currently improving the medical clinic which is run by Cuban doctors. The construction of the additional social facilities has been funded with the “exedente” (surplus) earned from the consejo’s own transport service, the “ruta communal” (communal route), set up with help from the government and now possessing 17 minibuses for transporting locals up and down the mountain at prices below those charged by the private companies. This service employs 30 locals.

Prior to the reconstruction process, Las Torres had 109 “ranchos”, precarious homes made from slim wooden planks, many of them donated by the Coca Cola corporation. Since 2008, the community itself has built 108 new homes from scratch and land has been cleared for numerous additional homes to be built. The process starts with representatives sent from the national land institute, who evaluate the safety and conditions on the site of proposed constructions. Ranchos are dismantled (the material recycled) and the strong concrete buildings erected in their place. 17 “ranchos” were declared to be in high risk locations so the new homes were relocated to different plots. One individual in Las Torres handed over a large plot of his unused land to the community for the construction of 7 of those houses. The houses have three bedrooms, a sitting room, kitchen and a bathroom. A good portable drinking water service has also been established and the process of electrification is at the planning stage.

The construction materials are produced by the community in its own ironworks and other construction teams producing the housing blocks and other elements, as well as building the houses. The ironworks employs 3 locals and the other construction work employs 36, but this number will rise to 70 with the new projects underway and more residents incorporated. Next week work will start on the construction of another socio-productive unit, a workshop to make household products, such as detergents and soaps. This will employ an additional 15 locals.

It is clear from meeting the residents of the consejo comunal de Las Torres, that the grassroots organisations formed in the early days of Chavez´s first presidency as a political expression of People’s Power are consolidating and expanding into integrated organisations with socio-economic functions, which in turn increase their political strength.

One of the "ranchos" to be dismantled and replaced with a newly built home


Working on construction materials

"Voceras" of Las Torres in one of the newly built homes and its owner

Inside a new home built by Las Torres consejo comunal

Playground built with money made from the communal transport service