In 2018, gruesome images of people stoning cattle began to circulate through Venezuela’s social networks. The videos came from the countryside and showed people, driven by hunger and destitute, desperately solving their predicament by killing cattle and butchering them in the fields. Venezuela’s city dwellers were struck with horror, but they also understood the situation. The crisis and the sanctions were bearing down hard on everyone. The average Venezuelan had lost twenty pounds, clothes hung loose on most, and medicines were in short supply. It was hardly surprising, then, that the country’s poorest were not going to sit around and starve, but rather chose to take matters into their own hands. At least they would be less hungry for a few nights.
At about the same time, in the center-west of the country, a group of seasoned militants from El Maizal Commune began to take stock of the situation in the crisis-ridden country. They were determined to act neither in terms of individual solutions nor to remain passive in the face of the challenge. As their main asset, these militants ran a midsized communal farm inaugurated shortly after president Hugo Chávez sent out the call to form communes. The farm had once been in private hands, but the tables were now turned and it currently served some eight thousand people from twenty consejos comunales. The commune’s charismatic leader, Ángel Prado, had once worked as a security guard on the land when it was private property.
With so many mouths to feed, El Maizal Commune’s leaders knew that they had to strike out in a new direction. “We evaluated the situation,” Prado explains to a group of us visiting from Caracas, “and opted to go on the offensive.” They were inspired by Cuban ingenuity and resistance in the face of its sixty-year blockade, especially the island’s ability to maintain its population thriving despite sanctions and threats. “We thought, let’s apply Fidel’s formula. Let’s go on the offensive.… If having a means of production—say a herd of cattle, a corn field, or some other productive project—could provide us with the economic resources needed to overcome the crisis, then we’ll take it!”
The following year, the communards quickly moved to occupy a neighboring pig farm that had once been in the state’s hands but had fallen into disuse. They also took over a nearby abandoned university campus. It was all done with careful preparation, mobilizing workers from both locations and working with the neighbors. The newly acquired land and facilities were put under El Maizal’s scheme of social property: sharing with the community, internal democracy, and leadership that is answerable to the people. The commune’s new assets were immediately set working to produce meat, cheese, and farmed fish. That is how El Maizal grew and thrived during the worst of times in Venezuela, becoming a symbol of resistance and a socialist vanguard in a country where for most people the only task is to survive.
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This summer, we traveled to Simón Planas township, where El Maizal commune is located. Venezuela’s vast rural hinterland these days evokes a forgotten episode in a magical realist novel. Because of the crisis and the gas shortages, adults move around on children’s bicycles that the government gave away as Christmas gifts a few years ago. The roadways are full of big human forms hunched over those tiny-wheeled contraptions. They pedal hastily and recall circus clowns. All of this may appear amusing to an outsider, but these people’s aims are dead serious: to get to work, see the doctor, or carry out some other necessary errand.
The land here is green and, at this time of year, luxuriant. Nearby mountains collect water that drains into a large valley opening up on the threshold of Venezuela’s giant plains region. Important aquifers lie beneath the soil. Just to the north are the mysterious lands of Yaracuy that were much valued by Indigenous people for their year-round fertility. The main highway here leads in forty minutes to Barquisimeto, Venezuela’s musical center. However, the melodies of that city, which are strummed out on small guitars, give way in this valley to the sounds of llanero music, played on harps and full of improvised social content. The lyrics speak of the harsh realities of campesino life and often rail against landlords and the rich.
Because of its fertility and proximity to Venezuela’s highly populated central region, this land was long sought after and fought over. After violently expropriating the territory from Indigenous people, a rural oligarchy set up shop, immortalizing themselves in the town and township names. By contrast, ordinary people in Simón Planas led scratch existences as peons on the haciendas of the rich. Until the Bolivarian Revolution, they spent their barely visible lives huddled into villages on the margins of thriving cattle and corn businesses. The contrast was and is shocking. Even now, Simón Planas is home to one of the biggest, most lucrative private slaughterhouses in South America. Just next to it is a huge rum-making complex that exports luxury drinks to Europe.
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One of the clown-cyclists is battling his way into the commune. We follow in our van as he turns into the driveway. At the entrance of El Maizal is a large billboard announcing the commune. It reads “Commune or Nothing!” and shows Chávez and Nicolás Maduro on horseback, with the former out in front and the latter hustling to catch up. Soon we arrive to the main cluster of farm buildings. This is no hippie commune: a heavy machinery shed lies off to one side on the right; a noisy corn flour processing unit rises up not far from it; a big cattle-tending complex, with spaces for feeding, washing, and veterinary work, stretches out to the left. All the buildings bear names from the heroic Latin American revolutionary tradition: Camilo Torres (Colombian priest turned guerrillero), Argimiro Gabaldón (Venezuelan revolutionary leader), and Camilo Cienfuegos (martyred Cuban rebel). Tractors are constantly refilling with fertilizer and heading out to the fields, which extend in all directions from the busy rural headquarters.
We are met by Windely Matos, a veteran communard and Prado’s right-hand man. With typical Venezuelan no-holds-barred humor, he is usually referred to here as the “Messiah,” because of his ability to solve all kinds of problems. As we listen to him explain how things work in El Maizal, we begin to realize how much this commune is like a time machine. The words that once circulated in the Chavista movement’s heyday—terms like solidarity, sovereignty, and even socialism—but have since become mostly rhetoric in the official discourse in the cities, are fully meaningful in this rural commune combining production with social experiment.
“El Maizal is living proof that Chávez wasn’t mistaken in wagering on the commune,” Matos tells us. As if to explain what we have before our eyes, he goes on: “El Maizal shows that the commune is the only way to really satisfy the needs of the pueblo and build socialism.… For us, Chávez’s project is alive, and we will defend and honor it with our lives.” Here, among farm machinery, noisome chemicals, and the loud drone of grain processing machines, his words are credible because they connect with a transformed reality. Far away from well-dressed and overfed bureaucrats, this communard’s hopefulness also recalls the spirited attitude of the early Chavista mobilizations.
Matos is keenly aware of the practical problem-solving required to keep a real movement alive. This is his strong suit. The U.S. sanctions are one of the main obstacles to the commune’s progress (to say nothing of the well-being of the rest of Venezuelans). Cruel and pointless measures that restrict commerce in everything from fuel to medicine, these sanctions have struck hard against both rural and urban life in Venezuela. One of the commune’s survival strategies has been to diversify its economy by incorporating the area’s small producers into its network. The commune gives them credits and material support. They, in turn, cultivate what Matos calls “war crops”: native beans, yucca, and sorghum. The small producers will later repay the commune with a part of their harvest.
Another huge problem is the local bourgeoisie who harass the commune, while regional bureaucrats too often side with them. The Messiah, however, is unfazed by the opposition put up by regional authorities. “It’s well known that here, in this territory, there are two poles of Chavismo. There is a Chavista tendency in the local government that throws up all kinds of obstacles to communal development. Actually, it is not just obstacles,” he acknowledges, “sometimes it’s plain sabotage.” Matos takes heart because he believes that Chávez foresaw such resistance to his plans. Moreover, he tells us how El Maizal has hatched a new strategy in their ongoing battle against the reformist bureaucracy. They will send their main spokesperson, Ángel Prado, to compete for the position of mayor in the upcoming regional elections. Musing about this scenario, I can’t suppress the thought that the “Messiah” in this commune—inverting biblical tradition—is announcing the plans of the Angel.
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A few years ago, a revealing tragicomedy took place in Venezuela’s plains region. The drama began when a handful of humble campesinos in the state of Barinas responded enthusiastically to Chávez’s call to make communes. These were the truest of Chavista true believers. They set up their own commune and called it Eje Socialista (Socialist Axis). Ingenuous to the core, the Eje Socialista communards decided to completely disobey the state. For them, the commune was the new authority, and the only one. They believed this totally and stuck to it until the end. After all, Chávez, though dead, was on their side! These humble communards were bold and honest. Nevertheless, after a few clashes with state authorities, all of them wound up in prison.
The communards at El Maizal are not so extreme as those of Eje Socialista, nor so ingenuous. Yet, their dance with state authorities involves some of the same moves. It is true that they make a cult out of Chávez—who is painted, sculpted, and inscribed all over their commune—but, like most cults, El Maizal’s way of paying homage to the dead leader can be highly subversive. It is always heretical to communicate directly with the maximum authority, without any mediation of high priests. However, for El Maizal, loyalty to the former president also implies that they do not have to obey anyone else! So, the commune carries out its interpretation of Chávez’s legacy, and that can mean anything from disregarding private property to defying government officials.
We are assembled in a thatched-roof bohío, not far from El Maizal’s stern-looking bronze bust of Chávez, who seems to keep vigil over our meeting. Communard Jenifer Lamus is with us explaining her work as an organizer of corn and cattle production. She is a good example of this commune’s radical independence in the name of authority. “For my part,” Lamus states, “I always say that El Maizal got where it is because of the rebelliousness of the army of women and men who make this whole project possible.” It is working people who are at the center of this communal farm. They make the decisions but do so with a mandate that is beyond question. “When Chávez said, ‘Commune or Nothing!’ that order was carried out here, and it became our horizon. And we always say that we are willing to give up our lives for it.… If there is an obstacle, then we’ll overcome it. Nothing should stand in the way of Chávez’s dream.”
Now the meaning of the grim face on El Maizal’s Chávez bust is becoming clearer to me (I am warming up to it!). These people are seriously unwilling to back down before capitalist roaders in the government or among their land-owning neighbors. Lamus points out how the government hindering access to basic farm inputs can impede the commune’s development, as happened two years ago, when El Maizal was facing the prospect of having no corn crop that season because the state institution AgroPatria refused to sell them seeds. Desperate, Prado and others decided to get the seeds by hook or by crook and bought them on the black market. The police soon arrived to put him and a few of his fellows in jail. Even so, the commune was undaunted. Had not Chávez himself spent a great deal of time behind bars? A flurry of phone calls later to sympathetic lawyers and Chavista politicians in Caracas and they were all set free.
To overcome problems such as this, El Maizal is trying to join forces with other communes around the country. With this in mind, they have recently launched the Communard Union, an association of communes on a national level, which works to link up and strengthen those organizations committed to communal socialism in the country. The participating communes are already exchanging work brigades and supplying products to each other outside of the capitalist market. Lamus explains: “We are convinced that Chávez’s idea does not have to be a dream.… The Communard Union shows that many more people are joining forces with the communal project. That is how we can advance with this marvelous idea.”
Despite their occasional clashes with the government, everyone at El Maizal has internalized a keen political sense that keeps them from romanticizing the commune’s autonomy or from thinking of the Venezuelan state in unidimensional terms. These are lessons learned from Chavismo’s trajectory over the past two decades. This experience showed that popular power—grassroots control over the political and economic dimensions of a community—can grow much more solidly if it exists in a dialectical relation with the state. State support for autonomous projects might be anything from material assistance to a legal framework that defends popular power. The upshot of twenty years of Chavista experimentation, registered in the minds of millions of Venezuelans, is that state institutions, when sympathetic, can allow popular power to flourish locally and even project itself nationally and internationally.
The communal movement’s complex way of relating to the state is part of Venezuela’s special history, which includes its key role in founding the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Over the last one hundred years, people here have internalized the idea that the country’s oil and mineral resources belong to them collectively and should be used for popular welfare and grassroots development. They reason: the economic muscle of the state might not always be in the service of the common people, but it should be! Perhaps a fitting picture of this dialectical relation, this push and pull between sometimes sympathetic state institutions and defiant grassroots independence, is the image of this young communard seated near the figure of Chávez. She is appealing to the bronze president’s authority, but doing so to defy the state in the name of a higher power!
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Sometimes an idea can bounce around in history, before it finds a place where it can really take root. Chavismo first emerged among Venezuela’s urban masses and then, as is well known, broke into state circles and even came to hegemonize the region’s geopolitics. Soon, however, Chavismo began to be rolled back. It had a hard time weathering the economic crisis of 2008 and the falling oil prices that came later. A carefully executed coup d’état in Honduras—hitting at what was clearly the weak link in the chain of emancipated countries—was one of the first imperialist victories against Chavista internationalism. Bureaucratization, stagnation, the leader’s poor health, and finally his death came next. Problems with succession and infighting were almost inevitable.
To many, it looked like Chavismo might completely disappear along with its leader, or that it would be deformed unrecognizably by the sanctions. Yet, all that was on the surface, far from the invisible movements of history that are often the most important ones. A not so well-known (but crucially important) development was that this mostly urban revolutionary movement had also made deep inroads into the rural regions. There, ordinary people, who were somewhat removed from the vicissitudes of official politics and the global economy, had also heard Chávez’s discourse, and they hearkened especially to his call to organize themselves and build communes. That is to say, Chavismo had quietly taken root in places that were not so visible: in the interstices of Venezuelan society and particularly in rural redoubts.
The biography of Prado, El Maizal’s main spokesperson, reflects the tortuous urban-rural trajectory of Chavista ideology. When young, Prado had been a coffee farmer in the area. However, he sold his farm and went to the city, becoming involved in politics. Along with thousands of other Venezuelan youths, Prado traveled to Cuba as part of the Frente Francisco de Miranda and, after returning, militated in that Chavista youth organization. Still, this lasted only until his support for a Communist Party candidate in regional elections got him expelled. Cast outside of the political sphere, Prado went back to his hometown, but without land, he ended up having to work security on a local farm complex. This farm later became El Maizal Commune. When a local group started to make moves to occupy the land he was guarding, Prado told his boss not to count on him and joined their ranks.
Prado’s life has been marked by many such odd twists and turns, most of them very fortunate. In 2009, he was lucky enough to be in the audience of the historic television program Aló Presidente Teórico I when Chávez laid out the theoretical basis of the commune, explaining the role of social property (while joking that many had interpreted socialism as a mere verbal baptism). From the crowd, Prado spoke up and told Chávez about the land they had just occupied in Simón Planas township and their plans to manage it collectively. That year, Chávez visited El Maizal twice, leaving a permanent mark on the community and seeming to presage its extraordinary future.
Now, Prado is seated in the commune’s tiny office telling us how Chávez’s thinking about productive relations developed along with the practical experience of the Venezuelan masses: “Chávez’s theory evolved over time. He began with the cooperatives, but then realized that cooperatives only maintained the logic of private property. So, Chávez began to seek a form based on social property, and that is how the commune came about.” Prado’s assertion that cooperatives repeat the logic of private property might sound surprising. But these are lessons the Chavista movement learned both through its own concrete experience and by studying Yugoslavia’s socialist history. As these past experiences show, a cooperatively run enterprise can have many owners—even completely equal ones—but still not serve the whole society, as should be the aim of social property.
El Maizal takes these lessons to heart. To comply with the social property model, the commune is not only democratically run (it has an internal parliament that decides what it will produce and how), but is also very careful about what happens with its surpluses. In explaining the difference between cooperative private property and social property, Prado offers us an example: “If El Maizal were simply a cooperative, the surplus would go back into the production units here or it would be distributed among the cooperative’s members. But that is not the case. Instead, because El Maizal is a commune, we redistribute the surplus through various social channels, and it can even be used to promote production in other communes.”
Prado is always thinking about how to spread the communal model, since improving the whole society’s well-being is the movement’s strategic goal. He and his colleagues reach out to other communities to pursue this aim, offering them both moral and material support. Just now, Prado is bubbling with enthusiasm about a newly founded commune in one of the poorest neighborhoods nearby. That community is mostly made up of women and children living in mud-hut ranchos. Respiratory problems are common among the group, which has also been hit hard by COVID. When the women started the commune, their main project was to acquire a nebulización (asthma treatment) center for their neighborhood, which they did by putting posters of Chávez and Che Guevara on a small hut and insisting that the state provide the medical equipment. They christened their project Negra Hipólita, after Simón Bolívar’s wet nurse.
Prado is passionate about this new initiative. It seems to prove his point that ordinary people, by organizing, can advance their goals even in a context of crisis, sanctions, and widespread political backpedaling. He believes that one can expand the grassroots basis of socialism—democratic control of resources—despite many external threats and high levels of internal defeatism. “The commune is a struggle of the pueblo. And the pueblo doesn’t just produce, participate, and defend the project. We also aspire to have popular control and self-government in the whole territory.… The Chavista struggle for justice in these rural areas won’t stop.”
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Over the past two decades, the government’s agrarian policy has tended to swing between voluntarism and pragmatism. The mainstays of the Bolivarian process may have been essentially urban and military, but the government still had to determine what its rural policy would be. The 2001 Land Law, which allowed for the occupation of unused land, was indeed very radical, and in fact became a precipitating factor for the 2002 coup d’état. Likewise, Chávez’s longstanding agricultural minister Elías Jaua and successor Juan Carlos Loyo were both generally left leaning, a high point in their tenures being the sweeping land expropriations of 2006–09. Unfortunately, many of the ministry’s more radical projects at the time failed to connect with organic movements in the rural areas, and ministry officials were willing to hypocritically inaugurate projects that barely existed.
In 2009 and 2010, Chávez began to promote the commune, which was clearly a revolutionary option for rural Venezuela. Yet, after Chávez died and Maduro took over, the fledgling agriculture minister Yván Gil adopted a more pragmatic approach, including pacts with the rural bourgeoisie, the so-called “producers.” When current agricultural minister Wilmar Castro Soteldo came on the scene a few years later, that pragmatism became outright class collaboration, with the rural bourgeoisie being declared “revolutionary.” In a surprising move, Castro Soteldo went on television and delivered long, eclectic discourses—even quoting Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the Mexican poet-nun—to explain how Venezuela’s bourgeoisie could be revolutionary. At least you could not blame the minister for playing his cards too close to his chest!
The communards at El Maizal oppose Castro Soteldo’s capitalist-roader tendency, which they call reformism. (Perhaps more than reformist, the minister should be called antipopular. As Prado says: “If you really want to change things, you have to give power over to the people,” which he seems unwilling to do.) To combat this kind of institutional backsliding and leverage the government, El Maizal’s communards are employing a number of tactics in what they see as a battle to force president Maduro and his cabinet over to their side. Part of this struggle is a huge drive for political education of people in the region, to raise levels of ideological formation. Another part of their plan is the Communard Union: reaching out to other communes and preaching by the example of solidarity. Finally, and much more controversially, they have a newly hatched project to make Prado into the local mayor. By obtaining the post, the commune’s main spokesperson is supposed to achieve practical solutions for the community (solving their garbage disposal and seed problems, for example) and also speak up for socialism inside the government apparatus.
Some of the commune’s most trusted sympathizers are skeptical about this latest move. Will an official position distract Prado from grassroots work? Could holding power in the township’s government corrupt El Maizal’s leaders? Whatever one’s doubts about this new effort—and I share them—it is impressive to see the campaign the commune is carrying out in the week of our visit. Elections involving massive mobilization are a Venezuelan specialty. It is a terrain they navigate with great skill—evidence of the unique Chavista experience of repurposing elections for revolutionary ends. This summer, the tasks of going house to house, and of rallying people with enthusiasm and “mystique” have consumed many of the commune’s militants. The social networks that El Maizal employs have also become torrents of information related to the campaign, along with images of marches, neighborhood cookouts, and other gatherings.
Inadvertently, I make a contribution to Prado’s campaign imagery. It happens because I was invited to join El Maizal’s WhatsApp group and many of the group’s users reached out to me with hearty welcomes. Not knowing how to respond, being out of my element in social networks, I sent a smiley face and then hunted down the red flag emoticon to accompany it. The little red flag turned out to be a huge hit in the midst of the election campaign. El Maizal’s communards began to tag most of the photos of marches, rallies, and meetings related to the campaign with one or more waving flags (often coupled with flexed biceps and raised fists).
Why was the red flag icon so popular at El Maizal? It might be because Chávez had used “socialist red” in his campaigns, whereas the current government’s commitment to that project (and color!) seems to be fading. Alternatively, it could be simply that socialist references reach deeply into Venezuela’s history, having been lodged there by the communist-affiliated movements that rose up and dominated the country’s left from the 1960s through the ’80s. Whatever the reasons, El Maizal’s flag-waving communards are rapidly breaking down my skepticism about the Prado election campaign, for it is undeniable that they are among the reddest elements in the so-called Pink Tide.