The 23 de Enero in Caracas is synonymous with rebellion. This barrio, a sort of “bogeyman” in the Venezuelan opposition discourse, has historically been a stronghold of chavismo. During a visit to the socialist commune El Panal 2021, located in the 23 de Enero, we got to know the productive experiences currently being developed and talked to Jefferson González, known by everyone as “Cucaracho”, about a number of issues. Cucaracho is one of the commune’s spokespeople and a member of the Fuerza Patriótica Alexis Vive, the driving force of the commune. In this article we examine the productive activities undertaken in the current context of crisis, we reflect on the contradictions that arise during the construction of popular power, and we look at some of the challenges that lay ahead.
The El Panal 2021 commune was born in 2008, although it had been in the works since 2006. It is currently constituted by some 3,600 families (around 10,000 people) in an area of 10 hectares, and it was the first commune officially registered. Patriotic assemblies take place at least once every three months – spaces where the community decides, in a participatory and direct fashion, about all issues of concern.
Cucaracho explains that the name “panal” (“honeycomb” or “hive”) is a reference to bees, with their worker character, stressing that the important thing is to defend the honeycomb that is built for the queen-bee, which in this case is the community itself. And 2021 is a reference to a quote by Chávez, in which he said he would be around until 2021… and then the communes would take over.
The construction of the commune has gone through three different stages. The first one enjoyed the support of the state, which set up means of production such as the sugar-packaging plant. This was followed by a co-management stage, in which state support continued but the commune did their part, strengthening their political, cultural and social work. The current stage is one of transition from co-management to self-government, in particular by assuming the responsibility of generating resources for projects in order not to depend on the state.
Cucaracho boils it down in the following terms:
“Our main challenge is to get the community involved, so that people go from being residents to being communal citizens, and that each one contributes what they can. Besides that, it is essential to have the means of production in the hands of the community, and not a small group that can easily become a petty bourgeoisie”.
Today the commune is running several productive activities. The sugar-packaging plant, with a capacity of packaging 30 tons a day, has its operation planned to supply the needs of the community. There are also bakeries, and recently products such as yuca and plantains have started to be sown in the commune. Additionally, there are plans to develop fish farming which will allow, for example, for the production of animal feed based on fishmeal.
Nevertheless, the productive activities extend far beyond the barrio’s borders. El Panal also has a presence in the countryside, producing food in several states throughout Venezuela. The commune, with two country-wide brigades, is pushing the “Pueblo a Pueblo” initiative, which articulates urban communities and organized producers in the countryside in order to distribute food directly, thus eliminating the intermediaries (and speculators) from the productive chain. In the commune there have been 243 communal food distribution fairs in the past three years. In these fairs people can buy meat, chicken, cheese, vegetables, etc., at prices much lower than those found through the traditional channels of the capitalist market.
Likewise, the construction of the “Panalitos por la Patria” has also been launched, to establish productive and political relationships with communes or communal councils in the barrios of Caracas, including popular sectors such as Cotiza, Los Frailes or la Pastora. Beyond Caracas communes have been constructed in the states of Valencia and Lara, also bearing the name El Panal 2021. These initiatives are steps towards building a communal axis. In addition El Panal also enjoys close relationships with other communes such as El Maizal, and with grassroots organizations such as the Corriente Revolucionaria Bolívar y Zamora.
Another productive project that is worth mentioning is the textile factory Las Abejitas del Panal (“little bees of the honeycomb/hive”). In an abandoned retail space, Chávez decided that a productive project should be created (mostly) for the women of the community. This factory produces clothing and school uniforms, backpacks and reusable diapers, at affordable prices and with no exploitation. However, the need to acquire raw materials from private suppliers means that the factory is vulnerable to the runaway inflation. This is a common problem for communes, the difficulty in constructing an alternative model while being immersed in a capitalist market.
Finally we should say a word about the communal bank, BanPanal, where the surpluses are deposited. The community assembly will then decide how these are reinvested. Recently the bank launched a communal currency, called Panal, which can be used in all businesses in the commune as well as the food fairs, with an exchange rate with respect to the Venezuelan Bolívar set by the bank. How can we be sure that this currency will not be affected by speculation and smuggling? Cucaracho replies that it is backed by the work of the commune, as well as reserves in foreign and crypto-currencies. He also points out that it exists to solve a specific problem, which is the shortage of cash, and also serves the people without bank accounts. It is thus in the community’s own interest that the currency circulates.
“The state needs to switch the ‘P’ of Populism for the ‘P’ of Production”.
That is how Cucaracho puts it. Amidst a terrible economic crisis, which Cucaracho insists on clarifying that “never mind an economic war, this is class warfare!”, the government has reacted by raising wages and handing out bonuses directly to the people, but these have proven insufficient as they cannot keep pace with hyperinflation.
Moreover, despite talk of a “new beginning”, with total emphasis on production and reiterating the transition towards socialism, the truth is that contradictions persist. For one there are the constant appeals, always followed by material incentives, for the private sector to produce or import. On the other hand there is a trend in the official discourse that does not recognize the organized people as a protagonist, which should take control of its own destiny. For them the people are simply a target of attention, that needs to be protected. We will return to this point below.
In this sense, spaces like El Panal look to bring production inside their communities, where there is more control and less room for speculation and smuggling. One common suggestion from popular organizations is to have food storage centers in the barrios, so as to decentralize and increase the transparency and efficiency of programs such as the CLAP (1).
El Panal is also looking to overcome all dependence on the state. Currently, the sugar packaged in the plant and the flour for the bakeries are supplied by the state. Nevertheless, the commune is currently in the process of growing sugar cane in the central state of Cojedes, and exploring the possibility of growing wheat in Mérida, where the climate allows for that. Additionally there are links being built beyond the Venezuelan borders, for example with productive social movements in countries like Argentina.
Cucaracho assures us that in a few months the commune expects, between their own production and the direct distribution networks with producers, to satisfy all the kilo-calorie needs of the community. In a moment when access to food is the absolute priority for the large majority of the population, the success of communes and other popular organizations hinges on their ability to satisfy these needs. This affirmation is currently at the center of chavismo’s political project as self-government from the territory.
If to all of this we add the plans to form, alongside the other communes in the 23 de Enero, a communal city, it is clear that El Panal and Alexis Vive are an engine driving the construction of popular power in Caracas. However, Cucaracho warns that,
“Even though Alexis Vive has assumed this vanguard role in the communal movement, we do not believe in “vanguardism”. It is the community that needs to get involved”.
Fighting for the hegemony of chavismo
“In every process, there is a social subject of change. The barrios are the insurgent subject, one that is borne out of the territory. Here we are rebels, we believe in constant rebellion. We don’t want representatives, we want power!”
This reflection by Cucaracho is a good summary of the contradictions inside chavismo. These rebellious barrios, what Reinaldo Iturriza (2) calls (with a deliberately controversial intention) “savage chavismo” (“chavismo salvaje”), are the historical actors that burst on to the scene to irrevocably change Venezuela’s political landscape. It is the protagonism of millions who use to be invisible, and which generates in the Venezuelan elites a reaction that is somewhere between hatred and incomprehension.
However, for an ever more crystallized officialism, this rebel spirit of the barrios is not seen as something to encourage but rather as something to contain and pacify, notwithstanding the fact that several high-ranking officials are originally from the barrios. But once at the helm of a giant, sclerotic state, their tendency is to move politics from the streets to legislative chambers and negotiating tables, while attempting to tame the rebellion of the barrios with assistentialist, or clientelist, welfare policies. The goal is to secure a passive support for the official direction, with political participation practically reduced to the act of voting.
Referencing Iturriza again, what we witness is a chavista crisis of polarization, in which the mechanisms through which the chavista bases can question the government/party break down, something which gets much worse after the death of Chávez.
One of the effects of this crisis is the lack of tolerance for criticism. In the words of Cucaracho:
“Chávez, more than a president, was a leader. He taught us to be constructive and to criticize. Not only that, he listened, he was critical and self-critical, he insisted that this was the only way to strengthen the process. Nowadays there is no room for criticism in the official media, and people who criticize are very quickly labelled as being traitors or right-wing. In any case here we are critical, but we do it with our praxis, day after day. In this time of crisis the communes need to show what they are made of.”
But if officialism looks towards the rebellious barrios with unease, conversely the relation between the barrios and the state has also been of permanent distrust. Chávez was the exception. Chávez was seen, correctly, as an infiltrator, who worked constantly to tear down the barriers of the bourgeois state, opening up possibilities which had historically been denied to the people and moving towards the construction of popular power.
This progress in the construction of popular power by forming a communal city in the 23 de Enero will bring about a confrontation with the state. Because if the goal is self-government, this implies not only control over the means of production but also taking over the management of public services (water, electricity, gas, public transportation, etc.), which means challenging the competencies of the municipal government (3).
It is undeniable that Venezuela is facing an imperialist attack on all fronts. The more advanced sectors of chavismo, such as the communes, perfectly understand the implications of a return to power of the right-wing, through constitutional means or otherwise. But the unity in the face of this imperialist enemy and its local allies does not imply an uncritical approval of the direction of the process. Concessions, if they need to be made, should be openly debated, not approved behind closed doors while demanding unity outside.
On the internal front there is a tremendous battle for the hegemony (or the soul) of chavismo. Without going into the issues of corruption or personal interests, the truth is that there are sectors whose plan is to restore the ideal conditions for capitalism, with the idea (or the illusion) of regulating it. Thus, from this perspective, the only path is to offer more and more concessions to capitalists, ensuring ever more favorable conditions for their investments.
On the other side, the organized pueblo demand more power for the organizations of popular power, starting with communes, including a bigger and true worker control over state companies, alongside a transparent planning at the national level to ensure the production and distribution of essential goods. This does not deny that there are important decisions to be taken at a central level (for example regarding the exchange rate), but at the same time it is not a minor issue. In other words, the communes are not a marginal issue to which we can return once the crisis is solved. The embrace or abandonment of the communal project, the course chosen at this juncture, is what will determine how the crisis will be solved.
Finally, it is important to stress that this is not a dispute between the institutions and those on the outside. A commune can be co-opted by an institution, while there are institutions that can be allies in this struggle, strengthening popular power and subverting the prevailing logic. It is a relationship of constant cooperation and conflict (4), a class struggle that is waged in different spaces and which will ultimately determine the shape of chavismo moving forward. And in this struggle Alexis Vive, El Panal 2021 and the 23 the Enero are sure to be on the front lines.
(1) The CLAP (Local Committees of Supply and Production) are a government initiative to distribute some essential foodstuffs (cornflour, black beans, rice, cooking oil, etc.) directly to the people, at a subsidized cost. It is an initiative that has mitigated the effects on the crisis, especially on the poorest sectors. However the CLAP are to a large degree top-down structures.
(2) Reinaldo Iturriza is a chavista sociologist and writer. He was minister of communes between 2013-2014, and minister of culture between 2014-2016. We are referring to his book “El Chavismo Salvaje”, published in 2017.
(3) Furthermore this was a subject that Chávez emphasized in his “Aló Presidente Teórico #1” broadcast, dedicated to the construction of the commune. By coincidence, the person sitting next to him during that broadcast was Erika Farías, who was minister of communes at the time and is currently mayor of the Libertador municipality of Caracas (where the 23 de Enero is located).
(4) Expression used by Dario Azzellini in the book Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela.
Special thanks to Cira Pascual Marquina for her comments and suggestions on the article.