Anacaona Marin is one of the key spokespeople of El Panal – a commune with some 13,000 people in the 23 de Enero barrio in Caracas – and a member of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force. A year ago we interviewed her about communal organization and Chavez’s legacy. Now, in the era of coronavirus lockdown, we talked candidly about the harsh conditions that working-class people are facing today and grassroots responses to the crisis.
What is your interpretation of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the Venezuelan pueblo?
These are times that call for reflection but also for action. As part of the popular movement, we cannot be merely passive spectators when we face a pandemic or, for that matter, when the pueblo faces any crisis… Che said: “We must act as we think.”
When faced with situations such as pandemics, invasions, or natural disasters, all subjects seem to coincide: Anybody can become a victim. However, you just have to scratch the surface to see something else: Although the virus itself is blind to social class, the social distancing measures have hugely different effects for the rich and for the poor.
It’s urgent that social leaders, organizations, and the government recognize this. We must acknowledge that there are economic and historical features of this crisis. We must understand how it affects the working class, people from the barrios – all those folks who have no savings, who live from one day to the next.
It is necessary to incorporate a class perspective into the reading of the current situation and to understand the current pandemic not just as a biological phenomenon: The root of it all is in a model that we must overcome.
Beyond the issue of how to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our society, and beyond containing the pandemic, we have to understand certain structural issues: How do poor people experience the lockdown and why?
We have nothing against artists, singers or public figures who make videos sharing their lockdown tips. And we respect good-hearted recommendations on what to read or what movie to watch on Netflix while at home. However, let’s visualize this: A poor man in his barrio home turns on his small TV and sees the Oreja de Van Gogh song or the image of a “normal” person opening the freezer at home and choosing her favorite ice cream flavor. Meanwhile, in the rancho [a poor, self-built barrio house], the kids are saying, “Dad, I’m hungry!” With an empty refrigerator and out of work, how is this person supposed to carry out social distancing? Can he really stay at home? Why is the lockdown always represented in the media as something experienced by privileged people?
Reflecting on this world that is divided into classes is an urgent task for the popular movement right now. We have to think about how people are really living this crisis depending on their social class, particular conditions, and their locality. The debate about how the current situation affects the poor must be brought to the forefront. We have to reflect on how we live in our collective conditions.
We applaud the government’s initiative to keep school canteens open as soup kitchens for those in need. We also celebrate the participation of communal councils and communes in this process. Here, in our barrio, we have a social map of the community and we are able to determine who is most vulnerable and what are the families at greatest risk.
However, this is not going to get people out of poverty. To contain the virus, new mechanisms that allow for real physical distancing must be generated, and we also have to make sure that people won’t be poorer at the end of the lockdown.
Social distancing and stay-at-home policies can have a classist bias. Technically, they are policies that protect all, but the truth is that the working class can’t necessarily carry them out. Poor people, under normal circumstances, face difficulties and even death every day. Since they don’t have enough to eat, lack the medicines they need and have security problems, they are understandably willing to take risks now. Why isn’t this ever discussed in the public sphere?
We are in favor of the national government’s policies for containment in general. It acted quickly and that is good. However, as an organization that takes our share of responsibility for what happens here, we have a big question hanging over our heads: If people aren’t able to go out and work, how are they going to eat? At the risk of repeating myself, a public debate regarding this facet of the crisis has to happen, and it has to happen now.
It is hard to tell your kids – and I am a mother, so I have some experience – “No, today there is nothing to eat because we cannot go out.” It is our obligation as revolutionaries and participants in the Bolivarian Process to make people’s real situation visible.
We shouldn't just echo the romantic attitude toward the lockdown. It is also very important that this reflection goes beyond the idealistic representation of the pueblo. The television shows them making facemasks and coordinating access to soup kitchens… all that is good, but the reality has many other elements.
There are so many ways that communities are organizing, and the media should represent that too! To give you a few examples: we attempt to locate the most vulnerable people in our community; our organization has developed local protection protocols; there is grassroots supervision of commerce to limit speculation; and we organize producer-to-consumer pueblo a pueblo food markets, thus providing low-cost produce to people. As part of the pueblo, we are active subjects and should be represented as such.
The pueblo is not passive… ¡Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo! [Only the people can save the people!].
Communal production is one of El Panel’s strategic goals. In the current situation, how is production holding up?
In our organization, studying is very important, and we are now going back to reading People’s War, People’s Army by Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap. There he talks about the importance of continuing production in the midst of the war. One of his main concerns was how to make sure that rice production continued under war conditions.
For us, it is a real challenge to maintain our plans for strategic production while we are in pandemic prevention mode, but we are doing it. The situation is like a war in many ways: Most roads are blocked and there is a huge gasoline shortage, but we are very committed to maintaining our production. In our bakery we are facing an additional problem: We are not receiving flour through the regular state channels, as many other bakeries do. However, our textile factory, our periurban projects and our work in the campo are all going forward. This includes raising goats right here in 23 de Enero...
It is not easy, but we are determined to continue producing.
Can you explain something about the soup kitchens and the textile factory here in the El Panal commune?
In the El Panal Commune, there are five soup kitchens that provide lunch in addition to the self-managed meal projects in the afternoon. Some one-thousand people benefit daily from these meals, which are delivered door-to-door.
The preparation and cooking happen not only with the participation of the madres procesadoras [mothers who prepare food], who are paid by the Ministry of Education, but also with the help of our volunteers. After the food has been prepared, the volunteers deliver the meals house-to-house. In that way, the community participates in bringing food to the most vulnerable families.
We also have a textile factory called Abejitas del Panal, where we have shifted to producing facemasks. More than 1200 have been freely provided to the most vulnerable people, but also to CDIs [Integral Diagnostics Centers, part of Mision Barrio Adentro], and sister organizations that have requested them.
Community supervision is one of the features of all communes, and El Panal has stood out in this sense. Some years ago the commune appropriated an idle state food packing plant and put it to work for the community. Additionally, just a few days back the organization took charge of an institutional soup kitchen in the neighborhood. Why did you take this step?
It happened just over two weeks ago, in the early days of the pandemic crisis. We observed some irregularities and decided to do a popular inspection. When we went in, we found more than a ton of rice and more than a ton of cornflower lying around. Obviously, we couldn’t allow that food to go bad or get lost in the midst of this crisis, so we took control.
Now we, as El Panal Commune, manage the soup kitchen. We supply some of the produce while the Ministry of Education continues to deliver the staple ingredients. Even though we took control of this soup kitchen, the relationship with the institution has been very cordial – we have good coordination, communication and a spirit of cooperation.
Earlier you suggested there the usual way of depicting the organized communities as mere receptors of food or places where people make handmade facemasks was highly problematic. In fact, a true portrait of the pueblo now should be different: more about empowerment and politics.
As a militant of this revolution, I view the public media’s depiction of popular initiatives with some concern. The normal way of representing popular power these days is limited to showing that some grassroots organizations are hard at work making facemasks or distributing food.
While many organizations are doing this, and it’s good to make it visible, communal councils, communes, and grassroots organizations are doing so much more! There are projects in the areas of production, distribution, self-defense, and also there are important processes of debate and reflection.
In our organization, we are quite committed to reflection. We have to think about how to come out of this with our people’s physical integrity intact. To do so, we also have to raise our voices to express their urgent needs.
Working-class Venezuelans were already suffering from the effects of the crisis and the US sanctions before COVID-19 hit us… And I’m not talking about the coronavirus patients, I’m talking about the millions of barrio dwellers that survive from one day to the next and are now basically without resources. Those people may be grateful that they received a facemask or a meal from the soup kitchen, but the real question here is how can people survive without working? As I said earlier, we commend the government for acting rapidly when the first coronavirus cases appeared in Venezuela, but the situation of the pueblo has to be addressed.
Again, we are asking for an analysis of the people’s situation from a perspective that is not picturesque. What we want is a class-based understanding of that situation.
A crisis could help us break the back of the capitalist system – it’s the system that caused this pandemic. Let’s not be spectators in the face of the pandemic. Let’s deal with it as revolutionaries, as working-class subjects, and as active subjects!
US imperialism is going full force now against the Venezuelan government, and therefore against the Venezuelan people. The White House seems to be beating the war drums much more than normal these days. How is El Panel preparing, should there be an invasion?
The defense of the Patria is one of the key tasks of any revolutionary organization.
We believe that there are a variety of scenarios on the table. One would be the Panama scenario. Then there is the paramilitary scenario with surgical strikes – in fact, for a while now, the popular movement has been losing leaders at the hands of paramilitaries (and those murders reflect a coordinated plan).
Because the threat is imminent, we need more organization and preparation. Getting information about the territory we work in is one of the keys to defense: We must know how many people we are: who’s who and how each person can be deployed; who really has the capacity and the will to struggle. We have to think about how to protect the commune and defend the country.
We have a true commitment with the Patria: The blood of patriots runs in our veins and the memory of those who liberated this continent is in our collective being, but we cannot stay put and pretend that discourse alone will protect us. We have to know our capacities and our abilities. And we are working on that right now.
We are preparing for a people’s war on the model of Vietnam. War would be an invasion, and whatever form it might take, it would be all-encompassing. We understand that the enemy has a far greater military capacity, but we also know – and I don’t say this with romantic idealism – that with organization and preparation, and with the accumulated experience of a pueblo that has been living in war-like conditions for a few years now, we would be able to overcome the enemy.
Of course, defending the Patria would also involve the civic-military union, wouldn’t it?
Yes, the civic-military union is paramount. That is the Chavista formula, and it plays a very important role in all invasion scenarios. With this in mind, we hope that a more consolidated cooperation with the military would take shape should the invasion scenario become a reality.
In any case, our organization is ready to defend the Patria.