Ángel Prado used to only be famous in the foothills of the Lara mountainside adjacent to the vast plains of [Venezuela’s rural town of] Acarigua in Portuguesa state. He was just one more activist of the many in the communal councils of the Simon Planas municipality of Lara State and Paez municipality of Portuguesa State since the early days, when the expropriated strongholds of cattle magnate Orlando Alvarado were put into use to produce beans.
Prado, 36 years (although his face is as exhausted as that of a man of 50), has dedicated his entire life to agriculture, as did his parents, specifically to coffee. His four sons, the largest is six years old, will inherit his goals, his passion for the field. Without studies, he speaks with ancient wisdom, with an ease and a courage that make us fear, indeed, for his destiny.
During those years around 2009 he was seen as a lean and olive-skinned boy who spoke slowly and who intervened wisely when [ex-President] Chávez asked how things were in [the local regions of] Caballito and Gamelotal in that famous Alo President[i] [TV episode] number 344 from the Socialist Commune El Maizal[ii]. In the live show he publicly confronted [then President of the National Assembly] Diosdado Cabello and [then Lara Governor and current presidential candidate] Henry Falcón for the first time due to a series of irregularities in the construction of the Gamelotal-Camariñas road.
Eight years later, more cunning and heavier built, he became known when he overwhelmingly won in the July 2017 National Constituent Assembly elections with 81% of the vote thanks largely to the peasant sector. His victory validated the idea that rather it being his personal aspiration to become Simon Planas mayor, he had the entire community at heart.
The road to the municipal elections of December 2017 was fraught with hurdles and obstacles, depriving him of a victory that he overwhelmingly won with 57.45% of the votes. He tried, it’s clear, but the National Electoral Council did not grant him victory for apparent failures in the registration of his candidacy.
This is where his fame began.
[Laughs], well... We have a plan here: you can view us as a bunch of crazy people, but what we are doing is putting things in order because we have a project of popular organization, which is the communal city. This means leaving the scope of El Maizal and reaching other areas so as to win over the people of other communities.
We asked ourselves: how can we make people fall in love with our project and participate in it, not under our guidelines, but in union with El Maizal? Here everyone likes to talk about elections, councilors, governors, mayors, but when we talk about the communal city everyone asks, "And what is that? How we are going to do that? That's hard.”
We could be starving to death but they say that tomorrow there are elections for councilors and everyone comes out to participate. So what we did was start working outside of our geographical area in specific tasks, taking land for those who want to found a commune. When we were doing all that, people see that El Maizal leads the way throughout the process and they identify with it as the guide.
Then Maduro came out saying that for the [National] Constituent Assembly anyone can run[iii], and then the people said, "This is our time.” I was nominated and we kicked their butts. After we won, people said: we have the commune, we have businesses that we have taken over, we have the Constituent Assembly representative, we have a candidate for mayor, fighting to take the power from the two families who ruled this town for 20 years.
No way, we have lost this one. It’s not like we are an opposition, guarimbero[iv] sector. We are Chavistas, campesinos and workers.
Has this challenge [to the state] limited your access to funding and resources?
Of course. But we are still going. They have tried to stop us. The burning of El Maizal (end of December) was due to Jean Ortiz[v] (PSUV) who installed himself as mayor and set up a landfill beside the farm, which got set on fire and burned 100% of the area of livestock, pastures, grass everything. "They won’t recover," they said, and so we called for sessions of volunteer work and we worked hard for a month and we re-did almost all of the fences again.
Yes, and we will win.
What's happening with Chavez's call for commune or nothing[vi]?
The project of Chavez was socialism right? I observe that the political leadership of the government is making a shift towards a mixed, center-left project, where economic stakeholders have their privileges guaranteed, even coexist with [the state] and [the state] gives them participation. You see Ricardo Sanchez[vii] now handling the question of [Venezuela’s new cryptocurrency] the Petro, and this is a bourgeois businessman, a little rich boy. I reckon that the topic of the commune is difficult, if we don’t push it then it is true that Chavez’s effort was in vain. And we are going to push as long as we are conscious of that.
The people of Lara, where Falcon was governor for eight years, says that the worst thing that could have happened to Lara was Falcon. He is a traitor, a liar, a manipulator. People say, the few that one finds who will vote, that they prefer to vote for Maduro.
For Maduro! We don't have another option.
I believe that what's coming is a resistance of pure Chavismo to not give in to the intention by some people in our government to roll back the project of Chavez. I see the construction of the communal state as further down the road because it has to come from a commitment of the people; I don’t think that it can be pushed in from the government.
I think there's a clearly an opportunity if it comes from the people. There is a crisis, right? People expect the government to solve the crisis, but the government has not been able to do so. I think that that could motivate the people to organize accordingly to solve at least part [of the crisis]. To organize, to produce, distribute, and thus underscore [the necessity for] popular organization, insofar as the people understand that the solution to the crisis is not in the government and is not even in oil. For all of our lives we’ve had the solution in our hands: we organize as communities and we devote ourselves to produce and acquire a certain political level that allows us to understand that the solution to most of our problems is in our own hands and that to the extent that your building power, if you don't watch your back politically, someone is going is come and snatch it from you. Here we can enter an interesting discussion about what the communal state is. When you do not have possibility to participate in a mayorship, as we don’t, how can we govern? Well, from the commune, the communal council, but for these to work, they must also have economic muscle, and this won't be achieved with the Petro nor selling oil, but with producing food.
I don't think it is the only option and I do not think that it will be very successful because in the end corruption tends to damage everything. In the end it is a small group that benefits from these policies and the people will not be touched directly.
Have the strategies implemented by the government to solve the food issue, like the Clap[viii], been successful?
I think that the government has designed policies that might be good, insofar as they are genuinely applied. What you can’t do is pretend to be doing one thing but really be doing something else. I think that we come from a perfect system of food distribution with Chavez through Mercal and PDVAL[ix]. Now what happened, we switched to the CLAP to make a call for people to produce, but ultimately we are not generating conditions, and it is not that they have not given financing, it is that if we give financing there is no follow-up or accompaniment. We're betting that if people receive a resource today they will fail, so that tomorrow we can say that the people didn’t achieve anything. That allows us to allocate the few assets that the State has such as foreign currency to make imports. That is, they want to keep the port economy.
As I said, we have a project that is to create the communal city, I believe that this is a debt to Chavez. We are dead set on this idea, and then we want to go to a federation of communes, which is the union of several communal cities and thus build the communal state. Our main aspiration is to promote this project and this has to do with economic and productive issues. This will allow us as a self-government to fund the solutions to many problems of our communities, and especially to solve a major problem which is the food of our people.
The government will not eliminate mayors, we have seen this. We are going to construct an instance of power that makes it possible that you feel what it is like to have a government of the people, our government.
We will be in permanent conflict until the time comes that the mayor's office is an institution that is not needed. When we build an economy based on food production and can supply the area, we can produce a surplus of 60-70% and put that in the cities and therefore bring surplus value to our territories, that will be invested in health, education, culture, recreation, sport. We see ourselves in the medium-term being part of a great collective leadership that assumes the responsibility of taking the reins of the communal city. That includes our own fight against crime, an entire industrial, productive system, a university. We have a project to free our land. It is not about being independent. It is what is in the [2013-2019] Homeland Plan and what Chavez explained in theoretical Alo President[x]. Step 1: build self-government in a territory, and if the mayorship is an organism that represents a barrier, that does not allow you to move forward in one or another way, well it is better to take control of it.
Translated and edited by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.com.
[i] Alo Presidente was President Chavez’s weekly television program.
[ii] The El Maizal Commune is made up of 22 communal councils across Portuguesa and Lara states. Communes are the conglomeration of localised communal council organisations which according to Chavez’s vision are tasked with supplanting the existing bourgeois petro-state with territorialized direct political and economic democracy, known as the “communal state”. One of the most successful communal initiatives in the country, El Maizal produces around 4,000 tons of corn annually and has communal enterprises producing beef, pork, cheese as well as managing gas distribution.
[iii] Elections to Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly in July 2017 were using non-party electoral tickets in contrast to normal electoral processes. Candidates had to collect signatures to qualify their postulations rather than seek the backing of political parties. This allowed a greater civic participation outside the boundaries of political parties.
[iv] “Guarimba” is the term for the violent anti-government protests of 2014 and 2017 that saw opposition militants erect barricades of burning garbage and other rubble across key Venezuelan roads, highways and thoroughfares as part of a campaign led by the main opposition parties demanding the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro. Dozens were killed indirectly as a result of accidents caused by these tactics as well as directly by opposition political violence directed at those attempting to dismantle the barricades or anyone perceived to “look Chavista”.
[v] After Prado was denied the electoral victory of December 2017, his competitor, Jean Ortiz, who had the backing of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) was named mayor.
[vi] In one of his last major public addresses, Chavez delivered his famous “Strike at the Helm” speech on October 20, 2012 in which shortly following his re-election victory he called for a rectification of errors in the Bolivarian Revolution, critiquing his own ministers for failing to prioritize the building of the commune, which he summarized in the now legendary slogan, “Commune or nothing.”
[vii] Ricardo Sanchez was elected as the substitute member of the National Assembly for hard-right Maria Corina Machado in 2010. He belonged to right-wing party A New Era (Un Nuevo Tiempo) party before declaring his realignment with Chavismo in 2015.
[viii] CLAP is social program launched by the Maduro government in 2016 that distributes subsidised food products directly to communities organized in communal councils. It stands for Local Production and Supply Committees.
[ix] Mercal and PDVAL were highly successful subsidized food distribution programs to poor communities under the Chavez government, but unlike the CLAP, they did not operate on a direct, house-to-house basis.