El Maizal Commune lies in the fertile lands between the Lara and Portuguesa states in western Venezuela. Founded in 2009, this rural commune has since become an important political and economic force in both the region and the country. It not only produces huge amounts of corn every year, but also raises cattle and pigs, along with a growing number of additional side enterprises. Most importantly, El Maizal Commune forges new social relations and new human beings: people committed to the socialist project that Chávez promoted during his lifetime.
This summer, we took the challenge to leave Caracas – where a pragmatic capitalist restoration is generally seen as the best way to respond to the economic crisis and sanctions – with a view to discovering how Venezuela’s most successful commune confronts the current multi-crisis. We embarked on the difficult journey (gasoline shortages have turned what should be a five-hour trip into a day-long odyssey) to talk to El Maizal’s seasoned communards about how they see the country's situation, the solutions they have learned through experience, and the future they project for the besieged country.
In the first of this three-part series, we listen to El Maizal’s communards explain the principal effects of the sanctions and the ways in which this flagship organization works to maintain Chávez’s communal path towards socialism.
The Impact of Sanctions on El Maizal Commune
The US-imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela in 2017 and a 2019 oil embargo had a devastating impact on Venezuelan society. A group of communards from El Maizal laid out the effects of this blockade on their production.
Ángel Prado: Back around 2015 and 2016, when resources became scarce and speculation with food and currency devaluation began, we were concerned that our project could disappear because the psychological impact on people was huge. It was felt not only in the city but also in the rural areas. Public banks used to finance farm projects in Venezuela to buy inputs. Those years were very difficult, even demoralizing!
The sanctions have severely affected the commune’s production and also the life of the pueblo. Imperialism finished off Iraq and Libya, and they are trying to do the same with us. Sanctions amount to a declaration of war.
In desperation, some people here gave up the struggle. Some went to work in the private sector, while others sold all they had and simply left the country. The crisis and the sanctions were a harsh blow, which struck deeply into people’s subjectivity, into their very spirit.
But Chávez taught us about dignity, about popular participation and popular power, along with participation in elections. Here in El Maizal we were able to maintain our project. We did so with an active and combative spirit, despite the disappearance of things necessary for our production processes, including diesel, gasoline, spare parts, and seeds.
The blockade and the sanctions have affected Venezuela’s rural areas in a powerful way. Here the problem is not so much about lack of food, but rather machinery and agricultural inputs. (After all, there is not a single person in these villages who does not have a tomato plant in their garden.) However, the lack of inputs affects us a great deal.
People here understood that if they did not produce food, they were going to die of starvation. Yet the lack of inputs generated widespread concern and many problems. Nevertheless, the dynamism of this community, of this commune, meant that the population here did not just spend its days looking at social media and complaining about how the blockade would kill us, how there were no seeds, etc.
To avoid demoralization, we encouraged participation in different areas: occupying land; election processes; productive, cultural, and educational work; establishing links with other communes; and so on.
All of this helped us avoid demoralization, which is what was experienced by those people who don't even want to be in their country, who do not even want to struggle. I think that one of the things our enemy most wants is to demoralize people and take away their desire to struggle. Our attitude, our willingness to struggle – rather than wait around for a miracle to occur – led us to hook up with many other people, and in turn, people began to pay attention to us.
In short, the sanctions have affected El Maizal Commune’s production a great deal, and also the life of the pueblo here. We have had big losses in production, together with human losses. For example, if a person has kidney problems or cancer, they may not be able to get chemotherapy or radiotherapy and someone will have to go to Colombia to get it. Perhaps they will have to sell their home, and when they get back, the family member might well have died. These are not just material losses, but also human ones.
Yohander Pineda: Regarding the communes, Chávez said that building them would not be easy, and we would find many barriers and roadblocks. Chávez, who was indeed a visionary, said that communes required a lot of hard work and would face contradictions. Yet he claimed that the commune was our path towards socialism. Hard work and commitment would open the path toward socialism for us.
These have been hard times. The crisis, the sanctions, the pandemic, and other factors have made it difficult to get anything: from seeds to gasoline and diesel fuel to replacement parts for tractors to medical attention for communards and the community.
For example, we are now planting our fields. Finding fuel for the tractors has been a real ordeal. All this slows down the process. If we need to repair our farm machinery, purchasing a spare part is extraordinarily expensive. That will affect things downstream, when harvesting comes around.
When El Maizal was born, the government had many resources and was clearly committed to the communes. Now things are different. Still, our commitment to Chávez’s project hasn’t dwindled. Rather it is stronger than ever. That is why we work hard day in and day out. In so doing, we produce food for the people suffering the worst consequences of the sanctions. We also demonstrate that communal production is not only possible but also can be efficient.
So, yes, the sanctions have had a huge impact, but the challenge has forced us to be more creative. In fact, I think that we have grown as revolutionaries in this situation, and our communal project has taken hold in the people.
Prado: As part of his anti-imperialist discourse, Chávez warned us about the need to study the enemy that we are facing. He used the example of Cuba for how to confront an external enemy. That country has endured a 60-year blockade, but its population dies very old, wins Olympic medals, carries out scientific research, and benefits from technology and advanced health care. All of this in a poor country that is under siege, but which resists and struggles in a revolutionary way!
Well, Chávez warned us about possible scenarios like this that could come about because of our country’s anti-imperialist stance and also because we are an oil-producing nation, along with other raw materials that superpowers want to control and appropriate. A leftist government was sure to enter into many contradictions with the US, and this was going to affect the popular classes.
Hence in 2009, when El Maizal was founded, we began to build a whole agricultural infrastructure, struggling to take over means of production. A commune can't be just a slogan, it can’t be mere rhetoric. We tried to develop a new form of organizing through collective work, by caring about the project of the commune, by teaching through example, and by being careful about our leadership – to not let people down, to not lose legitimacy. We began to work with social initiatives like the Housing Mission and Mercal [state-owned supermarket chain], but we simultaneously developed a productive apparatus.
In the end, the situation turned out to be the dire one that Chávez predicted! However, when the crisis arrived, our hard work allowed us to resist because of the economic resources that by then belonged to the commune and our acquired experience with productive work. We were able to confront the crisis because we were both economically and ideologically strong.
Creativity and innovation in the face of the sanctions
Far from being passive during the crisis, El Maizal Commune has generated a range of creative responses to difficulties as they emerge, demonstrating that the communes are robust spaces for constructing a popular, sovereign alternative.
Prado: Around 2017 we began calling on people to participate more actively in the commune. We designed a distribution system to combat the prevalent market speculation and hoarding. Around then we also started a small industrial plant for roasting coffee and for making cornflour and animal feed. Further, we got a freezer room for meat storage. We also designed mobile stores to sell our products directly, without intermediaries, and at lower prices, while developing a barter system to exchange production with other communes.
Here at El Maizal we work in a coherent way… and it’s hard work! We face many problems every day, but usually when one door closes, another opens up. We have some allies in the government, and their support has been helpful. However, the most important thing is our own resourcefulness, together with the alliances that we have built with the MST [Brazil’s landless workers’ movement], the Che Guevara Commune in Mérida state, and so on
For example, we face serious problems with animal feed at El Maizal’s Porcinos pig farm. We have had to be creative and invest a lot of resources in dealing with it. Managing the pig farm has been very difficult, and we have had to make many sacrifices. Still, with ingenuity and hard work, we have been able to keep the means of production in the hands of the commune and at the service of the pueblo. We have maintained the means of production, thereby avoiding the danger of privatization processes [that have occurred elsewhere in the country]. We won't let ourselves be demoralized!
Fortunately, El Maizal is not the only organization that has been reinventing itself in these times. The difficult economic situation has led some communes to reorganize, to care better for what they have, to stay honest, to be more sincere with work, to develop a greater sense of belonging. We are not alone in this struggle, and the fledgling Communard Union is proof of that.
Our survival in this situation has to do with both our work and our awareness. I think the government is making a big effort to maintain political power, but if the people are not organized, if we don’t struggle, then the government may end up yielding to the enemy. That is why we need to struggle to keep Chávez’s project alive, and it takes hard work.
Pineda: For many years, the surplus we generated through corn production here was spent on social needs. However, in recent times, we have been diversifying: we have important holdings of cattle (more than 600 heads) both for meat and dairy production in the Argimiro Gabaldón Communal Production Unit.
We also diversified our crops, and for the last three years, we have been developing what is for now a small agroindustrial branch. This is the Camilo Torres Communal Production Unit, which processes cornflour, coffee, and animal feed. In fact, this facility is very important, it’s kind of a dream come true. Chávez always talked about the need to build whole production chains outside of the capitalist market, and we are taking important steps in that direction.
The commune also has the Armando Bonilla Distribution Center and a network of stores where we are able to sell our production without intermediaries at lower prices.
The commune’s parliament made the collective decision to diversify around 2015 and 2016, when the crisis was beginning to hit hard. We decided then that an important part of our surplus should be reinvested in the commune’s productive units.
Until then, we had been able to direct it to social purposes: the commune built schools, houses for the poorest families, extended electrification to many households, paved roads, etc. Now the commune continues to invest socially, especially to help resolve medical problems in the community, but most of the surplus goes back to strengthening our productive capabilities. This has allowed us to continue producing for the people.
Jennifer Lemus: Diversifying is important to us. I am the head of the Ezequiel Zamora Communal Production Unit, which we consider to be El Maizal’s “PDVSA” [a reference to Venezuela’s state oil company, the centerpiece of the country’s economy for decades]. We have been hit hard in this productive unit: in 2017 we planted 1000 hectares of corn, but in 2018 we only planted 300. That was a huge drop!
Little by little, we realized that we should not be so dependent on our “PDVSA,” that we need to plan and diversify. I can confirm that we have done it. The change has come with big sacrifices on our part, but now our production is more diversified.
Also, we took Chávez’s insistence that communes should be able to complete the production circuit seriously. That is why some four years ago we began to think about developing an agroindustrial branch. The Camilo Torres Communal Production Unit was born that way, and it allows us to turn corn into cornmeal and animal feed, and to roast and grind coffee.
All this makes us very happy. It used to be that we would produce a tremendous amount of corn, but we would most likely never eat an arepa made with that corn. Now that has changed!
We are building whole productive circuits. Now we don’t depend on the state silos or the private intermediaries: we produce the seed, sow, harvest, process the corn, and even sell our production in the commune’s stores at below market prices. We also exchange our production with other communes such as the Che Guevara Commune in Mérida state. With them, we have exchanged cornmeal for chocolate and coffee.
There are some bottlenecks that we still have to resolve. There have been problems getting enough feed to the pig farm because it is extremely expensive. Now, we have the machinery to process it, and we are even planting sorghum, mung beans and soy, which can be used to produce balanced animal feed. However, we are missing some components. Even so, we are advancing towards communal productive sovereignty.
Despite diversifying our production and completing productive cycles, we have a ways to go and must still address some obstacles. In this sense, we have recognized that technology and innovation is important for us. That is why we are thinking about the need to have our own center for research and innovation.
We have also been advancing with the production of seeds and fertilizers. The comrades from the MST have helped us a great deal with this. We are now producing and storing part of the seeds that we use on our crops, and we are producing natural fertilizers. This frees us from the capitalist market, giving us a greater degree of autonomy. It is also healthier for us and for those who eat our produce!
Windely Matos: For many years, El Maizal was focused on large-scale corn production. However, in recent years, getting all the agricultural inputs needed for growing corn has become really difficult. That is why we came to the conclusion that we had to diversify our production.
We began to raise cattle in larger numbers, but we also started to plant what we call “war crops” such as pigeon peas, yucca, and other grains and vegetables that we didn’t produce before. Corn had been our “petroleum,” it sustained the commune and with the surplus from selling our corn crop, we were able to build schools and houses.
Then the crisis and the sanctions impacted our reality, so we had to diversify. It hasn’t been easy and we made mistakes along the way, but El Maizal Commune is alive and well, and we are ever more committed to Chávez’s dream of communal socialism every day.
This is a self-governed, productive territory. The people from El Maizal work hard day in and day out: the [US’] coercive measures are not going to disturb our productive and political rhythms. We are here to stay!
Antony Suárez: At the Camilo Torres Communal Productive Unit, we can now process 3000 kilos of cornflour daily. We are focusing on developing our agroindustrial muscle here: we need to be self-sufficient when it comes to production, and we need to be more efficient every day.
The machines that you see here have all been modified so that we can speed up the process… Although we are not engineers, we have been able to solve complex problems and look for solutions. The crisis and the sanctions have sparked our ingenuity: if we want to produce for the people, then we have to look for ways to solve the problems we are facing.
Bernadino Freites: With the crisis, we have become expert technicians and engineers. Getting pieces for our machinery in the market is very expensive, so we are now making them, and we are even making the large-scale plows that attach to the tractors. We are also constructing a hydraulic press. All this raises our spirits, it makes us proud, it remoralizes us.
Of course, the sanctions and other problems are greatly limiting our access to gasoline and diesel fuel. For this reason, we are forced to plan with precision, particularly now, in the planting season. We have to care for all that we have, we have to maintain it, and when a problem comes up, we must solve it with creativity.
It used to be that when a tractor or a truck had a problem, we would just purchase the replacement piece. Now we look for other solutions, and we do it as a team. We have an extraordinary team here at the commune’s mechanization unit!
Isabel González: At the Che Guevara Communal Productive Unit we have 13 industrial-scale greenhouses, although only seven are active now. Here we produce cilantro, tomatoes, bell peppers, spring onion, and other vegetables.
Our main bottleneck is that we don’t have a functioning tractor for the greenhouse. Although repairing the one we have would be relatively simple, we don’t have the resources to do so. As a result, we are doing all the work by hand, which is much less efficient. Nonetheless, we provide vegetables for El Maizal’s communal canteen, and when we have a surplus, we sell it locally at prices below the market. In fact, people are quite keen to buy our produce because they know it’s of high quality.
At the Che Guevara unit we use almost no toxic agrochemicals. In fact, one of our main lines of work is making earthworm humus, a natural fertilizer that has two base components: cow dung and earthworms. This fertilizer is used in the greenhouses, but it also for El Maizal’s large-scale crops. The earthworm hummus is not only healthier than being exposed to chemicals, it is also much cheaper and it doesn’t deplete the earth of its natural nutrients.
Lemus: The crisis and the sanctions have hit us very hard. We have lost people, and have had losses in production. Yet that doesn't keep us from doing what we should do: producing for the people while maintaining Chávez’s legacy alive!
The commune is the people’s government in the territory, popular power in action, and that comes with an enormous responsibility. We have to be very efficient! We cannot fall into the trap of explaining all failures and problems with the same two words: “sanctions,” “blockade.” Although the impact of the crisis is huge, we are living proof that producing food and building a commune is possible and necessary under these circumstances.
That is why we are designing a productive plan that will guarantee our project’s sustainability and the wellbeing of the pueblo. Efficiency, good planification, hard work – these are a must in the middle of the storm caused by the sanctions and by those factions that don’t support the communal project. As it is, ours is not only an economic challenge, it’s a historical one!
[Photo credits: Christian Ferrer and Cira Pascual Marquina]