Learning to Dream Together: A Conversation with Felipe Venegaz

A spokesperson of the Merida-based Che Guevara Commune talks about this flagship revolutionary project.

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Felipe Venegaz, coffee grower and one of the key spokespeople of Che Guevara Commune. (Venezuelanalysis)
Felipe Venegaz, coffee grower and one of the key spokespeople of Che Guevara Commune. (Venezuelanalysis)
By Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis.com
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The Che Guevara Commune lies in the foothills of the Andes, in the township of Mesa Julia. The commune is nestled among lush hills and fields where small farmers cultivate coffee, cocoa, sugarcane, and bananas.

The Che Guevara Commune has an aura of mystique surrounding it: a well-deserved reputation as a revolutionary project. In an effort to learn more about the multi-faceted work of these campesinos, we talked to 24-year-old Felipe Venegaz, who is a coffee grower and one of the commune’s key spokespeople.

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A view of Mesa Julia. (Felipe Venegaz)
A view of Mesa Julia. (Felipe Venegaz)

The Che Guevara Commune is an almost legendary Merida-based project bringing together old lefties from Venezuela and abroad who have put themselves to work realizing Chavez’s dream. Tell us the story of the commune.

The Che Guevara Commune was born out of the need to do local-level organizing. In 2004, when Chavez proposed the cooperative model, some co-ops were founded in Mesa Julia. A couple of years later, people began organizing in communal councils, paving the way for a new kind of democracy at a local level. The main organizational work that would eventually crystallize in the commune began around that time.

However, there was work underway even prior to Chavez’s coming to power. Associations of neighbors were the basic organizational units before the revolution. They were a kind of antecedent to the communal councils, if you will. So our organization didn’t start from scratch. There were experiences and work that made us stronger and helped us to arrive where we are now.

Since we had local-level organization, a collective perspective, our experience, and Chavez guiding us, building the commune was relatively simple. We took the name of “Che Guevara” for our commune...

We were the fourth registered commune in Merida State. That was in 2009. I was 13 years old then – just a kid – so I wasn’t in the center of the process. However, I did become part of the sports committee. My dad, Neftali Venegaz, was directly involved in leading the project along with other compañeros such as the Basque exile Juancho [a.k.a. Txetxu] who had settled down among us.

Of course, the most important thing wasn’t registering the commune (which is a bureaucratic process). The most important thing is organizing self-government and production.

We understood Chavez’s communal idea as marking a rupture with the organization imposed by capitalism – not only in economic terms but also in political terms. This is important because in our society communes will not come into being through people’s goodwill alone. A vanguard – a group committed to constructing new social relations – must build the commune. It should be a vanguard with organic ties to the pueblo and to the territory.

And so, little by little, the Che Guevara Commune became a flagship of sorts.

In the commune, however, there is much work to be done. We have influence in our people, among the 1450 families in the area. However, we are still in the process of becoming hegemonic… For now, we are a just a counter-hegemonic force contesting old (but well installed) political and economic processes.

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Greenhouse for growing seedlings. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)
Greenhouse for growing seedlings. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)

How does the “Che Guevara” Commune organize its production?

As I mentioned before, there are several cooperatives that are part of the commune. They were mostly co-ops that didn’t drift toward EPS [Empresas de Propiedad Social or Social Property Enterprises] as established by the Law of Communes. They were able to do this because the spirit of the communal proposal allows for autonomy in the organization of production.

Because these cooperatives were consolidated and had a social perspective, we decided (since the commune has the right to organize according to its particular circumstances) that they would be part of the commune and would have voices and votes in the communal parliament.

There are three cooperatives and one EPS involved. Together, they are the productive units that were collectivized. All these initiatives focus on agricultural production. They transform raw materials that come to us from small family producers, campesinos organized in communal councils, small-scale producer associations, and, sometimes, private providers. Our objective is to work with small producers and campesinos from our area.

The oldest cooperative is “Colinas del Mirador,” which was formed some sixteen years ago. It is a project that has important productive and political dimensions. The cooperative focuses on coffee. It produces both seeds and young plants in the greenhouses and we also grow coffee on some 120 hectares. The cooperative processes the coffee too, toasting and packing it… As a mid-sized industry, it carries out the entire process, from the seed to the finished product. The co-op can process some 7000 kilos of coffee a month.

By contrast, the Equidad Agroecological Cooperative focuses on cocoa. We buy and sell cocoa, with a small percentage processed for chocolaterie. There is also the Mesa Julia Cooperative, which is the communal bakery.

Finally, there is the EPS Che Guevara 2021, which was formed some six years ago and it has some important midsize industrial infrastructure. This EPS, which does very good political work, is mostly staffed by women. It can process up to 400 kilos of cocoa monthly, from chocolate powder to chocolate in bars and bonbons.

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An assembly at the Che Guevara Commune. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)
An assembly at the Che Guevara Commune. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)

I’m very interested to hear about how communal self-government works in the Che Guevara Commune.

In the commune, the parliament is the highest political authority. The parliament is made up of one spokesperson for each communal council plus spokespeople for the core production enterprises. There are twelve communal council spokespeople plus spokespeople for EPS Che Guevara, the “Colinas del Mirador” Co-op, and the Equidad Cooperative. In other words, the strongest cooperatives have a voice and vote within the parliament.

The most important decisions are taken in the parliament, but the more local and specific decisions are taken by the communal council, cooperative by cooperative, or directly by the EPS’ workers. We have a fluid working process now… Like many other communes, we had a period of assambleism that was rich, but eventually we had to learn the limits of the assembly model.

That is how we came to the conclusion that it is the workers, the men and women at work in the fields, in the greenhouses, in the processing plants who are the ones who must take the day-to-day decisions regarding how to organize work, purchase of raw materials and inputs, and so on.

The parliament takes care of issues relevant to all of us. Political matters are discussed there, but we also set norms in relation to health or security, address issues such as irrigation, the commercialization of our products, and the defense of the territory.

Of course, if there was a surplus, the parliament would debate what to do with it, but right now, there is no surplus… However, the enterprises do have to provide support and transport for communards with political tasks, and produce to exchange with other communes.

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Collecting the cocoa fruit at the Che Guevara Commune. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)
Collecting the cocoa fruit at the Che Guevara Commune. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)

The commune in the foothills of the Andes range, in what is known as the “Sur del Lago.” It's a conflictive region, with small campesinos working in the area, but it is also infiltrated by paramilitary groups and drug traffickers and a new and old landowning class is taking root. The upshot is that defending the land in the “Sur del Lago” has become an important part of the commune’s work.

That is right, we are in a conflictive region, and that means that we have to prepare our defense. However, we do this in a way established by the law.

The Communal Law sets out the parameters for forming defense committees in all communes. In addition to that, Chavez called on self-governed projects to organize their own militias. In our case, we have to fight against mafias on a regular basis. We are coffee and cocoa producers, which are both cash crops. This means that we have to protect our production from the mafias that will, if we aren’t prepared, take our crops by any means.

In addition, we have to fight against the phenomenon of paramilitarism. We are not right on the frontier with Colombia. However, Mesa Julia is in Sur del Lago, an area where paramilitary groups enter, and we have had to defend our commune to keep them from coming into our territory.

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A group of communards opens a new path. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)
A group of communards opens a new path. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)

Let’s talk about Chavez’s footprint in the commune.

Chavez changed this country from the bottom up. To state the obvious, his proposal for forming a communal society shaped our way of thinking and our work. We are committed to making the communal conception of society hegemonic even if that hasn’t happened yet.

Our commune represents a vanguard in the region – it’s a political beacon – but when election times roll around, Chavismo loses at the polls!

The communal vanguard is composed of some 150 or 200 people. That group is made up of people who work in the communal councils, CLAPs [Local Food Production and Provision Committees, which organize the distribution of subsidized food], or the UBCHs [Bolivar-Chavez Battle Units, which are the basic organizational structures of the PSUV at a local level].

We have succeeded in not letting the institutional processes bully us or break up our commune. The party bureaucracy and the institutional powers haven’t succeeded in controlling our organization. The communal parliament decides who is going to assume the different roles, and our autonomy is maintained because the commune is a moral beacon. We enter those spaces [CLAPS, UBCHs, etc.] to coordinate people and maintain a unified popular power front.

Contradictions are unavoidable since we cannot allow institutional powers to divide the pueblo. However, that doesn’t keep us away from our work, which is both political and productive

That brings me to another question. In the face of the US sanctions and other ongoing aggressions, it’s clear that we must close ranks with the government and defend Venezuela. However, it is also true that the government, in general, is not casting its lot with the communes. What do you make of this complex situation?

Our biggest contradictions are with local and regional powers who feel threatened by the commune itself. Their conception is very narrow so they think that we aspire to have elected positions, either at the township or state level. For this reason, they often set up roadblocks to limit the commune’s advance.

There is more cooperation with the national government. Actually, the support we received from it some years ago has been key to our success. Also, the powers in Caracas do not try to sabotage our commune. We have even received some recognition from the national government, even if the communes are not at the center of the government’s strategy now.

However, we believe that communes are the “moral reserve” of the Bolivarian Process. Whatever happens, we will be here, working to make Chavez’s dream come true, defending the land, and, if necessary, defending the nation.

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Felipe Venegaz caring for coffee trees. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)
Felipe Venegaz caring for coffee trees. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)

Earlier you were talking about counter-hegemony and hegemony as it relates to the commune. Can you explain this a bit more?

Townships and governorships – those are institutions that have existed for more than 200 years in Venezuela. They are, of course, institutions that are tailor-made to the interests of the dominating class. There is a longstanding and culturally ingrained respect for those institutions. If you think about it, a minimum of ten generations have grown up with the current institutional order, and that consolidates its hegemony.

Building a new hegemony isn’t easy. It’s not only about convincing people that there could be a new social order that is based on participation and a new distribution of wealth. That alone won’t do it because the new proposal doesn’t come in a bubble. It comes hand in hand with a need for rupture that may seem like stepping into an abyss.

As communards, we are counter-hegemonic, but we aspire to be hegemonic… And we go about this by teaching through the example: by showing that there are other ways to produce.

While it is true that we are a consolidated commune, we cannot honestly say that there are 1450 organized families in our territory. It is not the case. They don’t all believe in the new social order that the commune proposes.

In Mesa Julia, there is an underlying hegemony that we have among some 200 families. We are counter-hegemonic but we aspire to be hegemonic. Will that happen in our generation or in future generations? I don’t know, but I am convinced that it will happen.

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Loading the crop. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)
Loading the crop. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)

The commune is named after Che Guevara. Is that revolutionary leader an important figure for the communards of Mesa Julia?

There is a very Guevarist attitude in our commune. A lot of the population in the territory is of Colombian origin. Actually, some 40 percent of the people in Mesa Julia were displaced [from Colombia] by state violence and drug trafficking. When these people arrived in our towns, they brought with them a Guevarist spirit that was important in the Colombian revolutionary movements… They “planted” Che in our region. That is why our commune is called “Che Guevara.”

At the core of our work is the struggle against the small, petty desires that the capitalist system imposes. We are for the collectivization of life, we are against latifundio [large concentrations of land in a few hands].

The majority of the people in Mesa Julia are small producers – campesinos who own two to ten hectares. That makes for a certain equality amongst us all, and that in itself resonates with Che’s own thinking. There are no large landowners in the area and no large scale entrepreneurs. Social equality is an important value in our community.

Che is part of our life. In economic terms, his ideas regarding planning are important. We work toward implementing a planning system inspired by his proposal, and we have taken important steps, such as the creation of our own currency, the cafeto.

Finally, in political terms, Che’s project of emancipating the individual and the collective shaped us. That, undoubtedly, comes with Che’s disposition to fight and his internationalism, which led him to die in Bolivia, away from his family. Our community’s diverse composition makes it sympathetic to Che’s internationalism.

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Studying is one of the important tasks at the Che Guevara Commune. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)
Studying is one of the important tasks at the Che Guevara Commune. (Sinco/Condiciones Capt. 4)

Venezuela is facing multiple, intersecting crises, and two distinct visions of the country are emerging: a reformist one, on the one hand, and revolutionary one that casts its lot with the people and with the commune, on the other. How can the project of commune-building lead us out of the current crisis?

The commune allows for people to seek solutions for the community. That is a proven fact.

There is a sort of ungovernability in this crisis and that is allowing us to advance quicker. It may seem contradictory but it isn’t. In our country, institutions continue to work under a bourgeois logic so, as the crisis weakens them, consolidated popular power projects can grow stronger.

Lack of governability allows self-government to grow, to become a real option. In some ways, we have become an option for the people when faced with an institutional void.

This situation allows us to get away from the Maduro-Guaido dilemma. Instead, following Che’s and Chavez’s footprints, we can demonstrate real advances and a true alternative. The commune shows that it is possible to do something: that we can be subjects, that we can change the reality around us!

This country has almost one million square kilometers and much of the land is highly fertile… Hence, perhaps in this square kilometer where I am now I can do something, perhaps I can produce and self-govern with my people.

Actually, we see it every day: this crisis allows people to think in different ways… It makes people realize that they too can do things, think and do. It opens the door to a new praxis.

And while it is true that the communes of the Union Comunera cannot sit with the government and say, like them, that we deliver seven million CLAP boxes a month – obviously we don’t control the state, so we don’t have that kind of muscle – we can say (to the government and, more importantly to the people) that the commune model is the only one that can offer a path out of the present crisis… It is a crisis that, if “solved” with capitalistic tools, will only further the pueblo’s suffering.

After all, our logic is not that of a corporation or of a bourgeois state. We believe that the solution is working people, working arm-in-arm, for the common good.

One more thought, and this is important for us: It may be that the situation causes the government to sit with Lorenzo Mendoza [president and owner of Alimentos Polar, Venezuela’s largest food conglomerate], but that must be tactical and short-lived… On the other hand, the government must sit with the communes – that is the strategic heart of the Bolivarian Process.

A new vision of life must (and can) become hegemonic. We do our part by providing an example, but the government must also show its commitment to a revolutionary strategy. What’s needed is a new relationship with nature, a new form of doing politics, a new, just economy, a new emancipated society that will allow human beings to not only satisfy their basic needs, but a society that can also offer art, culture, education, leisure... We work towards all of us having the same conditions, so that we may be able to dream together and to achieve our dreams collectively.

To put it in a few words, we want a better relationship with the environment and peaceful and harmonic relationships among ourselves.

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Che Guevara Commune landscape. (Felipe Venegaz)
Che Guevara Commune landscape. (Felipe Venegaz)