The Che Guevara Commune lies on the fertile hillsides that rise up from the shores of Lake Maracaibo in western Venezuela. Historically this has been a cocoa-growing region but in more recent years coffee, sugar cane, and pineapple have also become important cash crops. It is a region of much domestic and international migration, and many of the communards have roots in neighboring Colombia, belonging to families that fled political persecution or simply sought a better life in Venezuela.
Through hard work, focused on two productive activities – a lowland cocoa-processing plant (the Che Guevara EPS) and a highland coffee cooperative called Colinas del Mirador (Colimir) – these communards have built a sociopolitical project that has survived all kinds of adversity.
A short flight to Merida’s El Vigia airport and a two-hour drive along the Panamerican Highway brought us to this well-kept commune centered in the village of Mesa Julia (Tucaní township). Our main interest was to see how this commune, with a far-reaching reputation worthy of the revolutionary name it bears, has dealt with the US sanctions and the overall crisis that Venezuela is facing. However, we also wanted to know about their approach to communal construction in general and the longstanding project of a socialist transition in the besieged country.
In the first of this three-part series, we look at the Che Guevara Commune’s creative responses to the challenges thrown up by the sanctions, which include the application of a new fuel-saving technology and developing their own currency.
History of the Che Guevara Commune
Sited on lower foothills of the Andes, the Che Guevara Commune has become well-known for its resilience and productive capacity. Here two committed communards outline the commune’s history, structure, and its key projects.
Ernesto Cruz: We began to work on building the Che Guevara Commune around 2010-2011. At that time, there were ten communal councils involved. After the death of Comandante Chávez in 2013, we managed to register the commune through Fundacomunal [state institution that administers communes].
My aunt, Olga Veracruz, who was politically formed in the midst of the war in Colombia, was the one who proposed calling the commune “Che Guevara.” She is now rather old, but for many years she was very active here. She promoted the organization of communal councils and later the commune.
Olga was a student of Marxism, arranging study groups with local women, and was the force behind a local newspaper with a leftist vision. She left her mark on this commune, proposing that Che Guevara’s conception of solidarity should be a guiding principle for us. That is why we call ourselves the “Che Guevara” Commune.
When the commune was finally registered, we developed several projects, including housing construction. During those early years, we also began to design the project that would become the Che Guevara EPS [EPS means Social Property Enterprise], which is a cocoa processing plant.
Zulai Montilla: The Che Guevara Commune is located in the highlands of the Tucaní municipality, in the Sur del Lago region [Mérida state]. The area has a farming tradition: coffee and cocoa are the main crops grown here, but people also grow plantain and pineapple.
The commune’s territory is home to 1562 families, distributed among fourteen communal councils. Each council chooses a spokesperson who will participate in the commune’s parliament. The parliament monitors the commune’s initiatives and projects. Above the parliament is the assembly, which is the commune’s highest self-government body and the space for making the most fundamental decisions. Anyone who lives in the commune’s territory can participate in the assembly, with equal voice and vote.
There are two active production units in the commune’s territory: the Che Guevara EPS, where cocoa is processed, and the Colinas del Mirador Cooperative [Colimir], to process coffee. Both units have a spokesperson in the communal parliament.Impact of the imperialist blockade and the crisis of capitalism
The US-imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela (2017) and the oil embargo (2019) have had a devastating impact on Venezuelan society. The workers at the Che Guevara Commune explain the blockade’s effects on their lives and on their productive projects.
Douglas Mendoza: The blockade has been hard on us. Here, in the highlands, access to fuel is fundamental. How can a coffee or cocoa farmer take the crop to market if there is no gasoline or if it costs three dollars a liter? Fuel shortages have hurt campesinos very much.
In the last few years, numerous people migrated to Colombia to find work: many sold everything and left the country. Often the older family members remain here and receive a small remittance from relatives abroad. Some people also travel for seasonal work and then come back.
Ernesto Cruz: In the last few months commerce in Tucaní is recovering a little, but there is still not enough work for everybody. At the moment we are seeing a new wave of migration. People are moving toward Caracas, where the service economy is recovering: young people from the area are going to the capital to work in restaurants or retail.
The migration situation should not be surprising: a small cocoa farmer can earn about $500 from a harvest and that is hardly enough to live on. There are few incentives for young people to stay in the area. This has an impact on the population, which is getting more sparse and older.
Zulai Montilla: The commercialization of chocolate is very difficult these days. Selling our production is not easy, due to the pandemic and the gas shortages. Two years ago we had customers coming from Trujillo and Táchira [neighboring states] to buy chocolate, but the fuel shortages mean this is no longer profitable.
As for supplies, fortunately, we have been able to get what we need: cocoa, powdered milk, and sugar. However, it has been hard to get packaging materials to offer a good presentation of our products. We are now working on that angle, and I’m sure that we will improve little by little.
The main problem we have is power outages, because molded chocolate needs refrigeration. If the temperature rises a bonbon or chocolate bar loses its shine and texture, and we have to restart the process. We have to put the chocolate in a bain-marie, then we take it to the mill, and finally we mold it again.
All this impacts our production. Still, we have not stopped: we go through hell and high water to meet our commitments, but we manage. We are fighting to stay on our feet, and we hope to come out stronger.
Ernesto Cruz: We face many challenges on a daily basis as a result of the blockade, the general economic crisis, and the sanctions. Our main obstacles are blackouts and fuel shortages.
Fuel shortages were a major problem until the beginning of this year. Only smuggled gasoline was available, and it cost as much as four dollars a liter. Then things got a little better, and now we can buy gasoline for 90 cents a liter.
The fuel situation has a strong impact on the Che Guevara EPS: it is very difficult for campesinos to bring their cocoa crops to us and private intermediaries take advantage of this. They go directly to a plot of land and offer the campesino a payment that is below the market value… Between losing the crop altogether and selling it cheaply, the producers go for the second option.
On the other hand, here at the processing unit gas scarcity means that getting orders to their destination is difficult. The truth is that there isn’t one single producer who hasn’t been hurt by the fuel shortages.
Electricity is also a bottleneck. In this area, we sometimes have blackouts lasting three days in a row. When the power goes out, mechanized processing stops. That is a problem for us, but there is an added problem: molded chocolate in the refrigeration chamber loses its shine, and we are forced to restart the process.
While there is no denying that the sanctions have been tough on us, we continue to produce, showing that it’s possible to build an alternative from below.
Douglas Mendoza: Many people here have been forced to sell their jeeps, which they used to bring down their harvests of ten or twenty bushels of coffee. Some people have returned to using mules, or carry coffee or cocoa on their motorcycles, two bushels at a time. Others simply have to pay to have their harvest brought down or are forced to sell to unscrupulous middlemen… Still others have simply left the country!
Just today I had to buy five liters of gasoline – at one dollar per liter – for the brush cutter. That’s expensive, but when things were tougher, fuel went as high as four dollars per liter!
The problem is that we depend so much on fuel, especially for the transportation of the crops. So when fuel prices spike, a campesino can go bankrupt.
The US war against Venezuela is terrible. However, we also see problems with the local government. Here we are authentic Chavistas. We are very loyal and will never vote for the opposition, but that doesn’t mean that we applaud our representatives when they do things badly.
Nonetheless, in spite of the war, the contradictions, and other difficulties, we are committed to staying in this beautiful land, working for the family and in the Colimir cooperative, where we also work for the community as a whole.
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: Fuel shortages are particularly critical here in Sur del Lago. On top of the sanctions, there is a distribution bottleneck. Fuel should come to the area through an underwater pipeline, but the pipeline is clogged due to poor maintenance. That means that fuel comes in tanker trucks from Puerto Cabello or smuggled from Colombia. Of course, that drives prices up.
Marta Botello: One of our problems is that we don’t have access to fertilizers and herbicides, and that makes production yields drop. When the “coffee leaf rust” fungus appears here, we have no way to fight it. Four years ago, we could still buy the chemicals we needed from Agropatria [state distributor of agricultural inputs], but now their store has closed.
In spite of everything, we are still fighting. This land is very fertile, and fortunately my children are still here – they haven’t left.
Creativity and innovation in the face of the blockade
Far from being passive during the crisis, the Che Guevara Commune has developed a range of creative responses to difficulties as they emerge, demonstrating that communes can provide a popular, sovereign solution to the crisis – an alternative to capitalist capitulation.
Johandri Paredes: In the last few months we took an important step to overcome our dependence on diesel fuel in the coffee processing plant. Before we depended exclusively on diesel to run the coffee dryers, but now we burn the coffee chaff itself. That is our fuel! This has been an important leap because it gives us autonomy. In addition, it represents a transition to an environmentally sustainable fuel.
We made the shift to burning coffee chaff with the support of the government’s Federal Council. They helped us purchase the machinery from Colombia.
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: In the last few months we have reduced our dependence on fuel oil considerably. A year ago we needed 12 thousand liters of diesel fuel per month. That was a tremendous problem, and the shortage caused us to stop work on many occasions. Now we only need 1500 liters of diesel fuel a month thanks to the technological transition: we bought new machinery to dry the coffee beans using coffee chaff itself. It works just as well as diesel or even better, though it produces a lot of smoke.
Pastora Ruiz de Macaneo: Agricultural inputs are very hard to find these days, but we have also learned to produce natural fertilizers. We use the cocoa bean hull to make compost and we apply it to our greenhouse soils.
We are also experimenting with mucilage – which is the slimy material surrounding cocoa beans – to make organic fertilizer. This fertilizer will be sprayed directly on the plants. For now, we are still in the research and experimentation phase.
Luis Miguel Guerrero: In recent years, the electrical system has been very unstable in this area and our drying and toasting machinery needs electricity. Diesel is also hard to come by, so when there is a blackout lasting several days, we cannot keep our generator running.
A few months ago we began working on a solar dryer. Basically, the coffee is sun-dried underneath a greenhouse tarp which absorbs the sunlight but isolates and protects the coffee. The tarp forms a small wind tunnel with a fan on one end and a controlled opening on the other. At night we turn on incandescent light bulbs, which also dry the coffee but use little electricity compared to our industrial dryer.
Of course, the process is slower than that of an industrial coffee dryer. It takes 12 hours to dry 800 kilos of coffee in an industrial dryer, whereas this way we can only dry some 300 kilos in ten days.
The solar dryer project came about because we had a three-day blackout a few months ago. Everything stopped working, and we decided that we had to do something about it, so we built the solar dryer. We did it ourselves and we are very happy with it. In fact, we are now preparing to build a second unit.
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: In recent years, we decided to diversify. Sugar cane grows in the area, so we are building a “trapiche” sugar mill and it will be running soon. We also have a carpentry shop and two collective plots of land, where we grow sugarcane and coffee. The idea is to advance slowly and sustainably.
Ernesto Cruz: Here we cannot install a bio-combustible generation plant as in Colimir because cocoa roasting requires control, but we are exploring alternatives. We want to install a biogas plant that recycles the waste we produce at the EPS, including the cocoa hull. This would reduce our dependence on the electrical grid.
VISIT FROM THE PRODUCTIVE WORKERS ARMY [EPO]
Ernesto Cruz: The EPO is an extraordinary initiative of men and women who have a great deal of experience and organize voluntary work brigades. They spent about one week here in the commune back in September.
The first thing they did was a systematic evaluation of our situation. Then they solved some electrical problems we had, and they fixed an AC unit and a cocoa peeling machine. They also did a technical training workshop for all of us here at the EPS.
The EPO generates a sort of teach-in wherever a brigade goes. The workers have experience with large-scale industry and that was very useful for us. During their visit, the EPO brigade also learned from us about communal organization, chocolate production, etc.
We would like to continue our relationship with the EPO. They helped us a great deal at a time when solving technical problems was critical. Before the crisis, we could hire a technician or replace a machine part. Now that is not possible, so initiatives such as the EPO are very important.
THE CAFETO & THE BARTER ECONOMY
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: Around 2018 and 2019, there was an inflationary spiral, and the bolivar lost practically all its value. So we decided to issue our own currency. We called it the “cafeto” [coffee tree] and made it worth one kilo of coffee [dried and roasted]. In other words, each cafeto was backed by a kilo of coffee stored here in Colimir.
The cafeto was born because the bolivar’s devaluation threatened to bankrupt us. If we had sold things in bolivars, then our savings would have shrunk from one day to the next! Spontaneously, and as early as 2016, people started to measure the value of things in coffee. The crisis was hitting hard then. To measure the value of a motorcycle or a car, people were doing it with coffee: 25 kilos, 50 kilos, etc.
So, what we did in 2018 was based on what people were doing spontaneously. Coffee became the universal unit. The cooperative took over what people were already doing and formalized it as a means of payment. We generated a reserve of 17 thousand kilos of coffee, which at that time was worth about 17 thousand dollars, and we issued 17 thousand cafetos.
It was a good idea, but we made a mistake. As it turned out, the Colimir cooperative lent out too much money in cafetos, and there are people who still have an outstanding debt with us. In fact, about 13 thousand cafetos are still owed to Colimir.
People want money that is trustworthy. When we offered people credits in cafetos, the rate was one cafeto for one dollar. Now, when we try to recover the acquired debt, the cafeto is worth 1.5 dollars because the value of coffee has gone up. In other words, people ended up owing more than they initially borrowed, so debt collection became a difficult task. This may seem contradictory because people generally accept that a bitcoin changes value, but they did not apply that logic to our cafeto. However, it shouldn’t surprise us: people in rural areas want something stable. They don’t want to enter a financial market where they can win or lose.
In any case, at that time the cafeto was more reliable than the bolivar, because it maintained its exchange value. Since the dollar did not circulate freely at the time – it was illegal – the cafeto was perfect. Now that the economy is dollarized, the cafeto doesn’t circulate any longer, but our accounts at the cooperative are still maintained in cafetos.
We learned a lot from the cafeto experiment, and it worked well while it lasted. This local currency gave stability to workers’ salaries and allowed us to stabilize our accounting. Unlike many other enterprises, we were not victims of the devaluation. As I said before, we lost money because we lent to people who did not pay back. That was a bad financial decision, but we did not lose money because of inflation.
Yeini Urdaneta: The cafeto circulated in different ways: there were almost 400 digital accounts, and there was an app that allowed for easy payment of goods and services. We also had a paper money. The way it worked is that, when people brought their coffee here, we would deposit the payment digitally into their accounts. There was also a small store where people could buy goods in cafetos.
The overall experience was good, because it allowed us to circumvent hyperinflation.
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: The cafeto was not invented by Colimir – it was an invention of the people. Campesinos in the area “coined it” without calling it cafeto. With hyperinflation, it became impossible to determine costs in bolivars, so people started to measure the value of things in coffee.
Additionally bartering is generally part of peasant culture, especially in remote areas. That is why bartering coffee for other products is really nothing new. The only thing we did was formalize what was already happening in an impromptu way.
However, we must clarify something: bartering is not a socialist measure, nor was the cafeto. Both are simply solutions to real problems of a capitalist society in crisis. Now that the cafeto is no longer circulating, bartering continues. For example, we have made 4 or 5 exchanges of cornflour for coffee and chocolate with El Maizal Commune, and we also exchange coffee for potatoes with Proinpa [potato growing co-op in the Mérida paramo].
Marta Botello: For a long time there was no bottled gas and we had to go back to cooking on hearths, which meant that we had to collect wood, kindle the fire, etc.
Our mothers and grandmothers used to cook with guamo, a bush that grows fast and provides shade for coffee and cocoa, but it is also good for cooking. So we started doing the same thing.
Organization has been very important in finding solutions to the problems we face. On the one hand, the commune is managing the cooking gas distribution now, and is doing it very well. On the other hand, here, in the community, we are looking for solutions to solve our problems.
For example, whenever there is a problem with a power line in a neighborhood, we knock on the door of someone in the community who knows about electrical circuits. Since we all have empty pockets, the neighbors get together to compensate for the labor in kind, with one of us offering a can of sardines, another gives a kilo of rice, another provides beans or coffee…
Regulo Duarte: As the spokesperson for communal gas management, I can tell you that last year was very difficult. However now, in spite of the limited availability of cooking gas, we have been able to ensure a good distribution. Every family in the commune now receives two small gas cylinders every two or three months.
Ernesto Cruz: After the “gas blackout,” which lasted for a year or so, there was an attempt to privatize gas distribution. Fortunately, many people voiced their concerns. Because they denounced the corruption at the PDVSA Gas headquarters and problems at the distribution plants, they managed to halt the privatization.
Right now, the commune is responsible for gas distribution. We divide the territory of the commune into sectors and rotate the distribution so that people get two cylinders every three months. That means people are not cooking with firewood anymore.
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: Around 2017, we began to face another problem: people stealing crops from producers in the area. It was not large-scale organized crime, but small-time criminals lifting crops. They would do it at night or while it was raining, and would take large amounts of coffee or cocoa.
We had to develop a security plan, and we can say now that crop theft is no longer a problem. You can see here the importance of organization. However, in the low altitude zone, which is outside the commune’s territory, organized crime continues to operate: merchants and truck drivers have to pay for “protection” from gangs on a regular basis.
Daniel Zambrano: During the most difficult period of the crisis, we had to strengthen our defense mechanisms. At night people would come and steal coffee or cocoa crops, or they would take our chickens.
That is why we decided to bolster security in the territory. Since then we have strengthened internal communication mechanisms, built ties with the Bolivarian militia, and prepared ourselves to defend the territory.
Fortunately, these defense mechanisms are working well, and there are almost no thefts now in the commune. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems here: sometimes conflicts between neighbors or producers emerge, and the security committee has to intervene there as well!
Neftali Vanegaz: When things were hardest here, around 2018 and 2019, people would come to Mesa Julia to steal crops. That is when we organized our security teams, and now young men safeguard the territory.
The Che Guevara Commune is a sort of oasis. That has to do with several factors: this is an organized community but the geography is also important. There is only one way in or out of the community here.