It’s Not About Houses, It’s About Building a New City: A Conversation with Iraida Morocoima and Juan Carlos Rodríguez (Part I)

A powerful Chavista organization struggles for a new city centered on people and not capital.

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Iraida Morocoima (Venezuelanlysis)
Iraida Morocoima (Venezuelanlysis)
By Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis.com
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Iraida Morocoima and Juan Carlos Rodríguez are spokespeople for the Campamentos de Pioneros [henceforth Pioneros], an autonomous Chavista initiative dedicated to self-organized housing construction, but whose struggle goes beyond individual housing solutions. Pioneros is part of the larger Movimiento de Pobladoras y Pobladores [Settlers' Movement, henceforth Pobladoras], a platform bringing together several organizations fighting against the logic of capital in the urban environments. In Part One of this interview, Morocoima and Rodríguez talk about grassroots democracy’s importance in making a city for people and not for capital.

The aim of Pobladoras is to transform the urban environment in favor of the people. It is not limited to a struggle for the “right to the city.” Instead, it works toward a profound urban revolution. Tell me about the political motives that inspire the movement.

Rodríguez: Ten years ago we presented the “Manifesto for the Urban Revolution.” Its core idea, which remains our driving force, is to reclaim the city for the majorities. Modern urbanization processes have excluded the majorities from being able to make and plan the city, and even live in it. What we have today is an exclusive city that follows the capitalist model.

The Manifesto goes beyond the struggle for the right to the city, which is essentially about socialization and access to the city that exists: the modern city. For us, the objective is to have the excluded people think and plan the city, produce it in a new way, and thus produce a new city and a new way of life.

In the Manifesto we also propose struggling against three central actors in the urban development logic that was implemented in Venezuela in the 20th century, along with the model of accumulation based on appropriating the oil rent. The three sectors are financial speculators (banking), construction capitalists, and urban landowners. In concrete terms, these are the main economic actors linked to the production of urban space. In this way, the project of the urban revolution sets objectives and it lays out how those who are historically excluded, the urban poor, can reclaim the city to produce another way of life.

On January 8, 2011, we had a historic meeting with Chávez. Ten years have gone by, and in spite of the contradictions that have emerged along the way, we have made huge progress. Evaluating the past ten years, we can proudly point to laws that guarantee access to urban land. Eleven years ago, this was not on the revolution’s political agenda.

A lot of land has been reclaimed for working-class housing, and this is the result of the Pobladoras’ struggle. We broke with the earlier paradigm: we made progress in the struggle against the urban latifundio, and there were important victories against real estate and rent speculation. In the struggle against banking, however, we have not made as much progress.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will be able to do so in the current context. What we have to do now is a struggle to avoid setbacks. As we speak, the real estate sector is stagnated, but if that sector were formally opened to dollarization, it would open up a field of speculation that would surely mean setbacks for us.

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Upper left and lower right: Marches of the Movimiento de Pobladores. Upper right: Pobladores militants hold a sign reading “Self-management for life.” Lower left: Pobladores assembly. (Movimiento de Pobladores)
Upper left and lower right: Marches of the Movimiento de Pobladores. Upper right: Pobladores militants hold a sign reading “Self-management for life.” Lower left: Pobladores assembly. (Movimiento de Pobladores)

Participative and protagonist democracy is at the core of the Bolivarian Process. For Pobladoras, this goes hand in hand with grassroots democracy [the Spanish word is autogestión, literally self-management]. Let’s talk about Pobladoras and its concept of organization.

Morocoima: Grassroots democracy is fundamental to our movement. We understand grassroots democracy to be at the center of any true revolution: people governing themselves and producing their own life among equals. That is also how the Campamentos de Pioneros work.

In the campamentos [literally “encampments,” the reclaimed spaces where Pioneros self-build housing and communities], people self-organize, think about housing collectively, plan, and build. However, as a revolutionary organization, our objectives go beyond reclaiming the land and constructing of housing units. Our aim is building a new society.

When we cast our lot with grassroots democracy, we are opting for the construction of real popular power. Thus, Pioneros is not really about self-management in the production of housing units, which would be equivalent to solving particular problems. Our goal is collective grassroots democracy as a concrete step in the construction of power, as a new way of doing politics and a new way of organizing.

When our organizations came into being, they were self-created [i.e. not created by decree, from above]. The Comités de Tierra Urbana [Urban Land Committees] that preceded Pobladoras emerged from below and not from above. Thus, we conceive emancipatory politics as emerging from below and as a permanent movement towards popular power.

In our campamentos, this perspective means that people are dreaming and producing the city collectively, among equals, and in a self-managed fashion. Self-government becomes a daily exercise: we organize ourselves in assemblies where we propose, debate, settle our differences, and build consensus. This is how the new subject of transformation is born.

Chavez understood our project, but most politicians understand self-management as simply self-construction [of housing]. No! Self-management is grassroots democracy, communal self-government in process and without privileges. When grassroots democracy – or self-management – is practiced, no one is excluded. We all have the same obligations and commitments.

Pioneros is building a new way of urban living. Of course, this doesn’t happen in a bubble: Pioneros is part of the Movimiento de Pobladores, which is itself part of the Bolivarian Process. What is the importance of solidarity in the organization?

Morocoima: Solidarity and mutual support are fundamental in Pobladoras. The Movimiento de Inquilinos [Tenants' Movement], the Movimiento de Trabajadoras Residenciales [Residential Workers' Movement], the Movimiento de Ocupantes [Squatters' Movement], the Campamentos de Pioneros are all struggles that are interrelated. If emancipation and grassroots control is one’s goal, you can’t go the road alone. It’s a collective process.

In our more than ten years of struggle, we have witnessed a transformation. Ten years ago, when we occupied a piece of urban vacant land, most forces were against us. The hegemonic conception was that the poor had no right to live in the city. Now things have changed: we have legal instruments for reclaiming land and have rescued many vacant plots. In some of them, we have already built housing for dozens of families, while in others we are working so that the state will provide the necessary inputs for us to build the actual structures.

With regard to principles, beyond our commitment to solidarity and grassroots democracy, Pioneros is also organized by three core Aymara principles that guide community building: we will not steal, we will not be lazy, and we will not lie.

When we talk about theft, it is not just about somebody taking something away from a compañero or compañera. We are also concerned about “stealing” time from the collective. We all make a commitment, and if the assembly agrees that we have to work ten hours a week, we work ten hours a week. Not to do so is to steal time from the group. Everything is collective: recovering the land, participation, decisions, and work.

In the buildings that have been built, people are already living in a different way: individualism steps to the side and solidarious communities emerge. That which is new and good in these communities may be small, but it is real. It is not a distant dream or a vague goal!

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Collective self‐building process in the Campamento de Pioneros Amatina in Caracas (Darwin “Diko” Cañas Betancourt).
Collective self‐building process in the Campamento de Pioneros Amatina in Caracas (Darwin “Diko” Cañas Betancourt).

Can you explain to us, step by step, how the organization of a Pioneros encampment works?

Morocoima: What brings people together is the need for housing. We have a location where people with housing needs can go. Every Tuesday up to 200 families come by. They are families without a home who are willing to build their own. First we explain the process and the core values of Pioneros. If they continue to be interested, we see if there is a campamento already set up near where they live.

Right now we have 11 active campamentos in greater Caracas. If the conditions are right, interested families will become part of an existing encampment. But there is also an inventory of vacant lots, and when there is a group of committed and prepared folks who are willing to go the distance, we do a popular “rescue” of the land. To do so, people need to be highly organized and ready to defend the takeover from those who oppose the settling of poor people in the city.

After a takeover, territorial control is established. This comes along with making political bonds with the communal councils in the area.Then we attempt a collective construction of the project – not as mere housing units, but rather as communities for life. The final stages in the process are earthmoving, the dispute for access to building materials from the state, and the self-construction of communities.

Right now the timing for each stage is slower because the state is less forthcoming with building materials. Naturally, the crisis of the economy’s rentier model and the sanctions have reduced the state’s resources making building materials less available. However, the overall support to self-managed initiatives has also practically dropped to zero.

Nevertheless, in spite of the processes being long-drawn, people in the encampments cooperate and are educated in the assemblies and shaped by the struggle. Of course, some tire out and leave, while new people join the struggle.

Rodríguez: The process of reclaiming urban space is very important for us. It is a direct struggle against capital.

When we met with Chávez in 2011, the need for a new understanding of the city came up. A few months later, Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela was launched, and this gave us legal instruments for reclaiming [vacant] urban land.

However, our conception is different from the institutional conception. In the latter, the state intervenes with the security agencies. By contrast, in our project, we are the ones who reclaim the land. Also, the state intervenes to merely create housing solutions, whereas we aspire to build communalized spaces for a new society. As we said before, our ultimate goal is collective emancipation.

An organizational model that breaks with capitalist logic is sure to run into many challenges. What are some of the challenges that you encounter in the processes of self-organization?

Rodríguez: Indeed, grassroots democracy and self-management present challenges from day one: a key challenge is to overcome individual needs and turn them into collective strength, into a collective project, into collective action, into collective work. That is a permanent challenge in all the Pioneros encampments.

After all, the prevailing logic in society leads towards individualization and isolation. Everyone aspires to solve their own personal problems. Pioneros works the opposite direction, in the direction of collectivization. We are going against the current, and that presents challenges. However, nobody ever said that building an alternative societal model would be easy!

Morocoima: Indeed, social conditioning and the existing structures in society go against our proposal’s logic. However, if you go to a Pioneros encampment, you will see that people are politically educated, and this happens through struggle and debate. Living in this city is not easy, and neither is maintaining a Pioneros encampment. It takes organization and a high level of awareness.

That is why participation is key. From participation comes mutual recognition and community. And that is where the logic of the capitalist city – where people don’t know their neighbors – breaks down and communalization happens.