On Thursday, June 17, 2010, we made our way to the Caracas barrio of Chapellín. The barrio is a large, impoverished area developed through illegal land settlements over decades. It’s situated precariously in a ravine, surrounded on all sides by resentful middle-class Caraqueños, living in condos and high-rise apartment complexes. Armed private security guards, electric fences, and razor wire line the properties of the rich, cutting off their gated communities from the realities of Chapellín next door. We arrived at the Comuna of the barrio, a house taken over from drug dealers by local community activists, using finances from the Chávez government. We toured the Comuna, meeting the participants of a bread-making class in progress, customers in the mercal (subsidized fruit and vegetable market), and the kids taking part in cello and violin lessons. The Comuna, run overwhelmingly by black and mestizo barrio women, was lively during the visit, as kids played soccer in the yard, people tended to the tomatoes growing in the garden, and lunch was prepared in the kitchen. Rosa María González, a leading activist in the Comuna, and spokesperson for Habitat and Land program in the barrio, took time out of her schedule to speak with us outside the house of the Comuna.
What is your political formation? How did you get involved in the comuna?
We are the children of the “junta de mejora” (the improvement council) of the barrio, the descendents of poor people who came to this zone because they did not have anywhere else to live. My mother came here in 1958. They were among the people who fought for the well-being that our families now have, including housing.
The land in this barrio was supposedly private property, but the government has a project, outlined in presidential decree 1666, to recognize our rights to our houses. We are still waiting for the approval of the Urban Land Reform law, which is a law that the Chávez government has proposed. We are still waiting for the National Assembly to approve this law, to give us right to this land.
I got involved when the president started the revolutionary process because it woke us up. Before that we were sleeping, during forty years of dictatorship—although they called it a democracy. In 1992 [when Chávez attempted a failed coup d’état against neoliberal President Carlos Andrés Pérez], we started to wake up. We could see the doors opening towards what could be the liberation of people, to achieve equality.
How does the comuna work in your barrio?
We are encouraging people to participate. In this neighbourhood, historically anyone who was active politically was a member of the traditional COPEI party. People got used to receiving petty handouts, not producing.
Right now, under Chávez, people are learning to produce. We have various workshops where people learn to make bread, do office work, and learn other critical skills. Also, we have the Mission Robinson where people learn to read and write.
The people in the neighbourhood were very happy when we took over this house, because the vandalism stopped. We created a space for everybody. There are a lot of children learning how to play instruments. We have a mercal (subsidized grocery store) every month. We want to create a permanent one because food is very expensive.
What is the role of the comuna is raising consciousness?
In terms of consciousness-raising, there is still a long way to go in terms of understanding the idea that we are a collective. Again, people in this zone were very unaccustomed to doing things for each other; they would not even do something for their neighbour who lives next door. Now we see that if we do not all participate, we will not achieve anything. We have an opportunity with this government, because this government is for the people. The government gives the people the chance to participate in community councils, for example, which organize projects for the collective good, and for planning and development.
What are the basic needs of this community?
We live in a high risk zone in the ravine. Our houses are always at risk of falling down the mountain when there is a lot of rain. We are thinking of implementing a re-ordering plan, as has been accomplished elsewhere in Caracas. One of the other demands is for security, to make sure that our youth do not become delinquents and end up in jail. In jail, young boys just become worse. In jail you also have to pay. For this reason we have created a women’s committee to support the youth who are in jail. We are also working to raise the self-esteem of the youth, to give them a vocation, so that they can teach others, too. I think that this is what the president wants, that we treat each other like a big family.
The police in the barrio used to harass the young men, so we decided to take over the police station and convert it into a health clinic, to create a popular pharmacy for those who do not have enough money to buy medicine.
Has the process created new opportunities for women?
Yes, we have participated in many workshops, learning new skills. We are learning how to develop and plan. On the 26th of September we are also going to support our candidates because when we strengthen the National Assembly we strengthen ourselves, the people.
What is the role of the comuna in the transition to socialism? What is missing to push forward the process towards socialism?
We have to eliminate capitalism. Right now the people around Chávez are in love with money. He is very isolated. We put him in power; he came here to save us. The comuna is about local government. We are going to govern ourselves and develop plans to produce for ourselves. The president has given a map, but we also need to come up with our own criteria. They say that he was a man born to fight for the world. I am also in the militia [the popular, non-professional militias created by the government to defend the Bolivarian process in the event of counter-revolutionary coup attempts or imperial aggression]. We are learning to protect the country, defend our territory, to grow; but not to kill.
Susan Spronk teaches in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. She is a research associate with Municipal Services Project and has published several articles on class formation and water politics in Bolivia.
Jeffery R. Webber teaches politics at the University of Regina. He is the author of Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Brill, 2010), and Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation and the Politics of Evo Morales (Haymarket, 2011).