On May 31st, Venezuelanalysis interviewed Angel Prado, a key organizer of El Maizal Commune. The conversation followed hard on the heels of an attempt to jail him and two other local organizers. The conversation sheds light on the current Chavista campesino struggle in Venezuela.
Most Venezuelanalysis readers know about El Maizal, both as an expression of communal popular power and because we covered the conflict in December surrounding your election as mayor of Simon Planas township (position that was subsequently given to another candidate by governmental decree). Nevertheless, it would be good to open with a brief synthesis of the communal project that you are involved in.
El Maizal is a productive commune in rural Venezuela, nested between two states in the center of the country: Lara and Portuguesa. Our commune’s land, given to self-organized campesinos by President Chavez, is high-grade. Year after year, we have been harvesting to meet the needs of our community and the people of Venezuela. We believe that, in a global context that is marked by a profound economic crisis, we can help mitigate the impact of that crisis. We do this in (and for) our own communities, and we hope to do so beyond as well. We also have a work ethic and a deep commitment to the land. The craft of agriculture – to plant and to harvest – is our human condition by birth. It is the world that we were born into.
In the last few months we faced a turbulent situation in Venezuela with deep internal and external contradictions. Then, after the May 20 electoral victory, came Nicolas Maduro’s call upon the people to become active subjects in the structural transformations that our country requires. We, who have always taken seriously our roles as subjects of transformation – as Chavista campesinos and as working people – took the president’s words seriously and decided to do our part.
So we turned the page and moved forward with an economic, territorial and organizational plan. However, in doing so, we have had clashes with powerful bureaucrats who administer the state’s resources and funding. In these interactions, we have witnessed time and again the conflict between the old bourgeois state and the emerging future communal and socialist state. This clash has become tangible and material again in the last few weeks.
About a week ago, on May 26, the National Guard’s National Anti-Kidnapping and Extortion Command (CONAS) arrived at the Maizal Commune. Their objective wasn’t to support or encourage the collective project. Could you tell us what happened and, more importantly, why it happened?
The CONAS arrived at our commune supposedly following the trail of a group of illegal traffickers who sell, outside of the regular channels, supplies of Agropatria (which is the government-owned and operated supplier of seeds and other agricultural inputs).
But to understand what happened on that day, we have to go back in time...
On April 28, we received state financing directly from the hands of President Nicolas Maduro in Carora, near the Maizal Commune. This funding was granted so that we could go ahead with the sowing of corn in May.
Most of the month of May went by and still we were unable to purchase the seed and inputs that we need through the regular channels. Why? Because Agropatria does not respond to the needs of small and midsize producers. Thus, we were obliged to purchase inputs outside of the regular channels, as most small producers have had to do. In effect, this is because the government is not solving the problem of the illegal trafficking of these inputs.
In any case, as campesinos we have no option but to produce. So towards the end of May, as the planting season was coming to a close, we were forced to purchase seed from unofficial sellers: some 300 sacks of corn seed (in fact, what we actually need is 1500 sacks for the 1300 hectares of our land that are usually dedicated to growing corn).
The CONAS came to El Maizal on May 26. We were already “guilty” in their eyes, having committed the “crime” of purchasing inputs for the seasonal planting. This national police force came into the commune in their typical bullying style. They confiscated our phones. We were held for some six hours and taken to a National Guard jail in Portuguesa state. Eventually, we were released.
Would you say that the CONAS (and therefore the state) is criminalizing small and medium campesinos, instead of going after those who traffic with state-financed inputs?
Yes. Let me illustrate this by way of an example. Yesterday we learned that a campesino from Sanare in Lara, a coffee grower, bought ten sacks of fertilizer outside of the regular channels. When he was going back home, he was detained by a CONAS team. They presented charges against him in court, and he remains jailed [he is still behind bars at the time of publication]. His car was retained, and his mugshot appeared in the local press... It seems as if the objective is to morally destroy those who are trying to produce.
But the problem with the CONAS is not a new one. When we presented an alternative Chavista candidate for mayor in our township last December [Angel Prado himself was the candidate], this state security force persecuted us for a whole day and threatened the people who were working with me, my campaign team, and myself.
In fact, we believe that there is a systematic pattern of threats and harassment against our communal project. We have denounced this, and many social movements and public figures have expressed their solidarity. Of course, the security forces will continue harassing us.
Agropatria was created by President Chavez in 2010 to replace the nationalized Agroisleña, a private corporation that sold agricultural inputs for profit. But there is more to this story. Could you give us some background so that our readers, who are not necessarily in Venezuela, understand the problems with this public company?
Agropatria is in charge of all the state’s importing and distribution of seeds and agricultural inputs. When the company was nationalized by Chavez, he charged it with servicing all agricultural production, from the small to the large producer. But the internal logic of Agropatria makes it almost impossible for the small and medium producer to acquire the seeds and other inputs.
There were always problems, but now the situation has gotten worse. We hear people, government spokespeople, claiming that the problem is the lack of resources or other external factors. That is the explanation they give when asked why the Agropatria stores are empty. But, at the same time, we see illegal traffickers of agricultural material coming through our towns with gigantic trucks loaded with seed and inputs that actually come from Agropatria... and they sell those supplies for a hundred times the official price!
So the question is: who channels the seed and inputs to the illegal market? We want to go to the root of the problem, and we are not afraid of making our accusations public.
The communal project has contradictions with the CONAS and Agropatria, but the problem that you are facing is deeper and more complex.
Right, the problems with the CONAS and Agropatria are not the main issue. Obviously, we will always denounce the CONAS' harassment and the deep corruption that runs through Agropatria. But the problem goes beyond that.
The many politicians who don’t work for the people is what affects us most. Unfortunately, they are politicians associated with the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela]. Right now, many of our representatives and functionaries are in fact doing the work of the right: installing the logic of corruption, bureaucracy and clientelism (which are all the same thing in the end). Thus, we daily witness moral and material degradation in the governmental sphere. A reformist logic seems to dominate that landscape.
So we have taken up a twofold task. On the one hand, we are denouncing the corrupt and anti-popular logic of the states’ agricultural institutions (not just Agropatria). On the other hand, we are also making an open call – to communards, the common people, and barrio dwellers – to collectively analyze the situation. Most importantly, we want these groups to make specific proposals about how to save our people in the profound economic crisis that faces us.
We believe that, together, we can produce a methodology and a roadmap, collectively developing a plan. We are convinced that there must be a process of collective reflection and ask ourselves about the role the people should play now. In effect, we must become active so that our government isn’t taken over by right-wingers disguised in red [the color associated with Chavismo], by the bloc that has usurped the state’s resources. Recovering these resources and redirecting them – in part, towards the agriculture and the communes – would be a logical objective.
What you are pointing to is very important. It seems that, faced with the state’s inefficiencies, there are power groups in the government that are hedging their bets on privatization. We have seen this occur before with some of the communally-held land and with public sector companies.
The inefficiency of state undertakings should not make the government turn to the usual capitalist solution, which is privatization. President Maduro should remember that the people who are maintaining this political process are the six million voters who, last May 20, collectively said that we will not disappear as a political current and as a project. It’s not the private sector that keeps this boat afloat!
There is also, in certain government sectors, an idea that state undertakings are always inefficient, and also that small and medium producers (or communes) are ineffective and destined to fail. But, in fact, we are the ones who work and produce in our small plots of land. We are the ones who work on the oligarchy’s land, and at the end of the day we are the ones who know how to milk a cow, drive a tractor, and heft a sack of fertilizer!
It is urgent to maintain the country’s production. As the people who produce, we need to have access to seed, fertilizers, insecticides, etc. These inputs must reach the campesinos, but if they get to us only through unofficial and illegal channels, that is going to impact production dramatically. Whoever allows this to happen is participating in the chaos that has set up shop in this country.
Popular, participative democracy is an aspect of Chavez’s legacy, but for most city dwellers this practice seems to have become history. On the other hand, I understand the agrarian communes to be an expression of direct democracy, the beginnings of the future reorganization of society. Can you tell us a bit about communal democracy as it works in El Maizal?
Chavez always said that the popular movement should not be an appendix of any institution or current, that we must be autonomous. I think it's necessary that popular organizations understand this now. We must have our own voice. Chavez always respected and encouraged our autonomy. The idea, of course, is not to be rebels without a cause. We are not anarchists. What we must do is be politically coherent and understand our role in history.
We have a legal structure that was fostered by Chavez and the people: the Laws of Popular Power. They establish a framework that is (to be somewhat redundant) popular and thus are an expression of grassroots democracy.
In the commune, the Citizens’ Assembly is the highest space for decision-making, the space where the whole community participates. Then comes the Communal Parliament, a body in which there is deliberation. The Communal Councils delegate their practical decision-making to the Communal Parliament. Again, these practical decisions follow the guidelines of the Citizens’ Assembly.
Some people understand democracy as the way to get access to positions of privilege. By contrast, our participative democracy is based on an assembly that saddles you with responsibilities, and if you do as collectively decided, then you have fulfilled your role as one part of the whole.
Our democracy is the democracy of the people, and that means that, when one is elected, one must separate oneself from any personal interests.
In a nutshell, in our commune the most important decisions are taken by the Citizens’ Assembly, whereas the Communal Parliament plans and executes. Operational decisions are taken at the level of the productive unit. In other words, we don’t call assemblies to solve operational problems. Then, of course, one must render accounts to the Assembly.
This is democracy as it plays out in El Maizal, with its particular mechanisms. But what I can say in general is that in the new democracy that is emerging, sectarian attitudes must disappear, personal power plays must be eliminated, and no one person can impose him or herself in the decision-making process.
The spirit of full participatory democracy lives in the commune.
You mentioned earlier that El Maizal is calling people to participate in a debate that will assess the national situation and, more importantly, make specific proposals about how to overcome the crisis. How do you expect this debate to take shape? Also, is it going to be an exclusively campesino initiative?
There is a saying in my country: the campesino must fight for the land. Sometimes I take issue with this way of putting it, since it is not only the campesinos who need to fight for the land. The people from the city must also fight for the land. After all, what we produce in the rural areas is consumed in the city.
Sometimes, we campesinos wonder why people from the city do not fight with us, since they, too, struggle with bureaucracy. It is true that we have some level of support and solidarity that comes from the large cities, but we need more of it. Sometimes, as campesinos, we feel alone.
In the face of the many obstacles to production, the persecution, and the impositions, we are calling for an assembly not only of campesinos, but also involving the sectors that don’t produce. We must develop proposals together. We want to debate with people from the popular barrios of Caracas, Valencia, and Barquesimento. We want to bring out the communes from the city and the countryside, and we want to debate with cooperatives. This kind of self-organized space is urgently needed. The class struggle that pits organized workers, on the one hand, against the bourgeoisie, the oligarchy and the corrupt functionaries and reformists in our government, on the other, requires the participation of all humble people from all walks of life.
We believe that Chavismo is alive. Moreover, if genuine Chavismo organizes and goes out to the streets, if those of us who really believe in Chavez’s legacy meet, fight, and struggle, if we develop a plan, then, whatever the obstacles, we'll be able to reestablish the dignified life that we had with Chavez.
In upcoming days, we are going to issue a call to the nation for debate. If the people respond to that call, which I think they will, then we will go forward together. No matter what, El Maizal is going to continue in this fight for the common good, for the communal project, for socialism. We are those of the Comuna o Nada (Commune or Nothing) of Chavez. We will defend our land (and our production) by any means necessary. For that reason, this season’s harvest, by decree of our Communal Assembly, is not going to any silo, private or public. We are going to place what we produce directly in the hands of the organized communities.
We are detaching ourselves from the state’s institutional mechanisms and the those of the private sector. We believe that the commune has to produce for the common people, because they are the ones who need it, and because the institutions have broken the commitments they made with us. We have done our part, and from now on we are going to circumnavigate bureaucracies and the speculative market and work with the people.
 El Maizal Commune is made up of 22 communal councils across Portuguesa and Lara states. Communes are the conglomeration of communal councils, and they are at the core of Chavez’s proposal for a radical and democratic reorganization of society. One of the most successful communes in the country, El Maizal harvested some 4,000 tons of corn last year, and also produces beef, pork, cheese at the same time as it manages gas distribution.
 Angel Prado was denied the electoral victory of December 2017.Receiving half the number of votes as Prado, Jean Ortiz of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV), obtained the mayor’s seat.
 One day after the interview with Angel Prado, campesinos from around the country occupied a number of Agropatria stores with the aim of denouncing the problems that have emerged in the past few months. Members of El Maizal, including Angel Prado, participated in these occupations.