Postcards from Popular Power in Venezuela

“Socialism still stands as a strategic horizon” – this was one of the conclusions of a recent conference on popular power and economic policy held in Caracas.

panal_textil.jpg

Ivan Tamariz showcases the textile production from El Panal 2021 Commune in Caracas (@OrlenysOV)
Ivan Tamariz showcases the textile production from El Panal 2021 Commune in Caracas (@OrlenysOV)
By Ricardo Vaz – Venezuelanalysis.com
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The barrio of San Agustín in Caracas hosted a day-long conference titled “Popular Power and Economic Policy: Proposals for a Socialist Transformation of the Economic War/Crisis.” Below we take a look at some of the interventions from the event, as different expressions of popular power in Venezuela step forward to defend the legacy of Hugo Chávez and propose paths to overcome the current crisis.

[For more information on the different communes/organisations/speakers, follow the hyperlinks or the related articles at the bottom. Full length videos [in Spanish] have been uploaded by Unidos San Agustín Convive to their YouTube channel.]

Official discourse and economic policy

Alongside the of testimonies spokespeople from popular power organisations, on which we will focus most of our attention, there was a rich debate on economic policy and the problems that Venezuela is facing. Of course, these two issues, popular power and economic policy, are not independent.

Luis Salas, from the Venezuelan outlet 15 y Último, examined some of the historical imbalances of the Venezuelan economy, especially during chavismo. He argued that towards the end of his life, Chávez put more emphasis on making changes irreversible, and that the current moment is one ridden with ambiguities.

Salas argued that while the “economic war” is ever present in the official discourse, there is a gap between this diagnosis and the policies that have been put in place. He later added that any economic policy needs to deal with the tensions it generates.

Salas also warned about a problematic diagnosis that is becoming more and more prevalent, namely that the main problem in Venezuela is rentier capitalism (“rentismo”), with the implication that Venezuela needs capitalism of the good, productive variety. The inevitable corollary then is that someone needs to build this proper capitalism. That someone is the mythical “revolutionary bourgeoisie” that Agriculture Minister Wilmar Castro Soteldo called for on his show and which generated an intense but healthy debate inside chavismo. (1)

It is hard to disagree with Salas’ assessment. While Maduro has often threatened action against the agents that sabotage economic recovery, the government has gone out of its way to offer better and better conditions to businessmen in the vain hope of getting them to produce, import and respect fixed prices. But with the dissuasive presence of sanctions, the natural hostility of the bourgeoisie (discarding those that have emerged or aligned themselves close to powerful figures), and the existence of more lucrative speculative activities, this has not worked.

The lack of a plan B has meant that the only course has been to offer ever more favourable conditions: joint oil ventures, tax exemptions on imports, access to credit, incentives for exporters, and a privatising tendency that concerns many chavistas. By contrast, different manifestations of popular power, including the ones described below, have proven to be much more creative and effective in finding solutions to the crisis on a local level.

“Strike at the Helm”: political beacon and awkward memory

Gerardo Rojas from the Ataroa Commune in Barquisimeto is one of the go-to references when it comes to a political analysis of communes in Venezuela. In his most recent writings he has sought to contrast the government’s economic policies with Chávez’s blueprint for the construction of socialism.

Rojas’ presentation was centred in “Golpe de Timón” (Strike at the Helm), Chávez’s final speech and political testament (October 20, 2012).

“Looking back at Golpe de Timón, today more than ever, Chávez remains tremendously subversive. To the point of frightening the government itself! […] October 20 has become an awkward date, because how do you deal with Golpe de Timón? So now the approach is to talk about ‘self-criticism,’ but in abstract, general terms. This actually contradicts Chávez’s reflection of self-criticism in the speech, as something meant to change and correct course.”

Golpe de Timón was the first and only occasion where Chávez declared “¡Comuna o Nada!” (Commune or Nothing!). There are no two ways about it: the commune is the Venezuelan path to socialism in Chávez’s proposal. Nevertheless, contradictions in this process, or what Dario Azzellini calls “relation of conflict and cooperation.” remain latent. Rojas explained this in detail.

For one, there is a tendency, deliberate or not, by institutions and some in the leadership, to paint the communes as just another sector. There are workers, campesinos, businessmen, etc., and then there are the communes. Or gloss over them as something folkloric and destined to remain at the smallest of scales. Rojas lamented that lots of debates surrounding social property or the tensions that emerge between popular power and the state, are “frozen” now. Thus, the main challenge inside chavismo now is to reformulate the construction of hegemony.

Rojas also warned against the danger of a nostalgic memory of Chávez taking hold, one that simply recalls “better times” under Chávez and that is the end of it. Rather, he insists Chávez should be an instrument, and one with tremendous revolutionary potential at that, for popular struggles to influence official policies.

To this we could add a twin danger of a Chávez figure “neutralised” by oficialismo, either by self-proclaimed hereditary rights or by a careful manipulation of Chávez’s figure for particular purposes. This is not to say that Chávez’s thought and his political project were set in stone from the start. They evolved, but they evolved in one direction. The course, borrowing Rojas’ expression, from the “Blue Book” (2) to Golpe de Timón, is one that radicalises (3), and an essential tool in the struggle for hegemony inside chavismo.

Class struggle in the Venezuelan countryside

Despite the conference taking place in a barrio in the capital, there was plenty of input from Venezuelan campesinos as well.

Arbonio Ortega, one of the spokespeople from the Admirable Campesino March, took stock of the current situation in the Venezuelan countryside. He argued that there had been severe setbacks to the advances made under Chávez’s 2001 Land Law, and did not absolve the campesino leadership from responsibility in the matter. He also called for unity in the campesino movement and for greater articulation with movements in the city, so as to counter the economic war mechanisms.

Ortega reiterated the urgent demands that the campesinos brought before Maduro after their Admirable March, as well as their main complaint. While they recognise an ally in Maduro, he lamented that Maduro’s orders are not followed downstream.

Eduardo Viloria, communications coordinator from the Bolívar and Zamora Revolutionary Current (CRBZ), a nationwide organisation rooted in the Venezuelan countryside, went one step further in his analysis. He pointed the finger at the “supremacy” of the ruling PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) over politics and institutions as a serious issue in the current conjuncture.

Viloria emphasised that Chávez’s agrarian legacy was being derailed, and that there is no policy towards democratising the land and means of production nowadays. Nevertheless, he urged popular movements to “echar p’alante” (“move forward”), particularly through the CRBZ’s proposed National Productive Alliance.

It is interesting that the CRBZ has time and again stressed that this alliance should also include “other actors,” midsize producers, that do not necessarily embrace popular power or socialism. Viloria concluded by claiming that an agrarian revolution is essential for a transformation of the economic structures.

Finally, participants heard from El Maizal Commune’s spokesman Ángel Prado. This is one of the most interesting experiences of popular power in Venezuela, and one which has received a well deserved spotlight. Located between Lara and Portuguesa States, this commune has advanced relentlessly both in political and productive terms, and come to an increasingly tense relationship with the state and its institutions.

Prado did not focus so much on the productive activities of El Maizal as on their impact. He stressed the importance of communes engaging in politics and not depending on a given figure or institution. This, he stressed, must be accomplished by striving to be self-sustainable and not dependent on state funding. One clear conclusion that we can draw from all the experiences of popular power that took part in this meeting is that their survival in this crisis has hinged on their ability to address people’s needs.

In the case of El Maizal, their priority has been food production. The next step, Prado explained, is to start installing industrial capacities in their territory, so that primary production can be processed on location, and then engage in exchange with urban communities. On the political front, El Maizal is moving to build a communal city alongside neighbouring communes, a construction that, in Prado’s words, is based on the struggle against latifundio and food production.

El Maizal is one of the most politically advanced experiences in Venezuela, with a clear view of the road ahead and a practice to back it up. In fact, campesino organisations, particularly the Admirable March, have managed to shake chavismo out of its slumber and expose some of the glaring contradictions in the Venezuelan countryside. There is a rough class struggle taking place in rural territories, both inside and outside (or against) the government.

From the countryside to the barrio and back

Another speaker at the event was Ivan Tamariz from the Alexis Vive Patriotic Front and El Panal 2021 Commune, in the 23 de Enero in Caracas. The 23 de Enero barrio holds a special place in Venezuelan politics. The barrio dwellers burst onto the scene with Chávez, determined to shred their invisibility once and for all. And 23 de Enero, fairly or not, is the prototypical barrio in the Venezuelan imaginary.

El Panal 2021 Commune is not the only commune in 23 de Enero, just like Alexis Vive is not the only political force, but it is not too controversial to argue that they are the more politically advanced ones. This means that they are the driving force for a higher level organisation, a communal city in 23 de Enero. This level of political commitment has also made for an increasingly uneasy relation with the state.

Tamariz reported on the plethora of activities that Alexis Vive is carrying out, both in the barrio and beyond. Despite the emphasis on the economic front, all these experiences are political, he added.

El Panal develops several productive activities in its territory, among them a sugar-packaging plant, a textile factory, and several bakeries. Tamariz stressed that it is important that the barrios industrialise, so that they are not just the final link of the production chain. The commune also made headlines recently when it launched a communal currency, called Panal, to be used in food distribution fairs and neighbourhood businesses as a way of countering Venezuela’s cash shortages.

While El Panal has created food distribution networks, it has also expanded its productive footprint beyond the barrio. It has the so-called Panalitos, small productive units that receive support from El Panal and have access to credit from the communal bank. But Alexis Vive has also made an effort to go back and produce in the countryside, either on their own or jointly with local campesinos.

The urban barrios were borne out of migrations from the Venezuelan countryside. Poor landless peasants were rooted in misery after two wars (Independence and Federal) that did not deliver them justice and dignity. A latifundista model of agriculture that offered little prospects to campesinos, coupled with the oil boom, drove these massive migrations to urban centres. It is only fitting that the construction of popular power in the urban barrios also involves going back to the countryside.

Socialism as the strategic horizon

Finally, the local hosts of the Unidos San Agustín Convive cooperative, represented by Yhonammi Rico and Martha Lía Grajales, had their say. They reported on the cooperative’s activities and their political implications.

Rico recalled how the cooperative was born in the most difficult of times, in 2016, to try and organise this popular sector of Caracas in the face of the terrible crisis befalling the country. She insisted that this was a matter of following Chávez’s lead in order to organise and transform the crisis.

The cooperative has succeeded on multiple fronts, bringing together organisers, addressing security concerns, setting up activities for the neighbourhood children, and embarking on a series of projects. Chief among these is the articulation with the Pueblo a Pueblo network, while the cooperative is also advancing in its textile and food production.

Pueblo a Pueblo is a program that connects the organised pueblo in the city with the organised pueblo in the countryside to supply food at fair prices. This process, Rico stresses, contains all the elements we look for when we talk about popular power: self-management, planning, horizontal assemblies, equality, openness and accountability.

Martha Lía Grajales’ intervention captured the political implications of experiences such as these quite beautifully. In her words,

“They would have us believe that what has failed is the socialist model. […] Each of the experiences shared here today demonstrate that socialism still stands as a strategic horizon. It has tremendous potential to build an alternative economic system. Not just something cute and cuddly, but really as a system to transform capitalism.”

Grajales also stressed the importance of having production in urban centres as well as in the countryside, of production being guided by human needs, and of exerting control over the entire production chain. To paraphrase Chávez, implanting the socialist spirit along the whole chain, articulating popular sectors under an alternative logic.

Equally crucial, she stressed, is that popular power organisations be involved in production and not simply in political-administrative structures, lest they become mere conveyor belts for the assignment of resources.

We do not mean to exaggerate the size or reach of the expressions of popular power represented in this meeting, but they, and several others, are the true legacy of Hugo Chávez. There is a critical mass in Venezuela that has embraced socialism as the historic horizon, and multiple expressions throughout the country continue this monumental task in the most difficult circumstances, not just in discourse but in collective practice.

The survival of the Bolivarian Revolution, and in what shape it survives, hinges on them.

Notes

(1) This is an unnecessary detour, but Castro Soteldo’s conclusion that the construction of the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” is the way to go, on his TV show, is based on a biased reading of Orlando Araujo’s “Violent Venezuela.” Araujo’s conclusion is precisely that this sector has failed to emerge in Venezuela, and that it will not given the country’s conditions and history.

(2) The so-called “Blue Book” was written by Chávez when we was in the Yare prison following the failed insurrection of February 4th, 1992. It is considered to have some of the main roots of the Bolivarian project.

(3) Tatuy TV’s Chávez Radical series is an absolute must-see on this aspect. Not only does it trace the (radicalising) evolution of Chávez’s political thought and project, it also offers a timely critique of the current political course of the Bolivarian Revolution.

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