The Struggle to Keep Chávez’s Legacy Alive: Stories of Resistance from El Maizal Commune (Part III)

Third and final part in a series that examines the impact of the sanctions on a Venezuelan commune.
Mesias El Maizal

El Maizal Commune lies in the fertile lands between the Lara and Portuguesa states in western Venezuela. Founded in 2009, this rural commune has 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 former President Hugo 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 – to investigate 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 talked to El Maizal communards about the impact of the sanctions and the creative solutions they have employed during the blockade. Part two examined the commune’s new production strategies and the role of political formation in the project. Here, in part three, the communards talk about the Bolivarian Process’s internal contradictions and the importance of building alliances among revolutionary organizations to keep Chávez’s socialist project alive.

Internal contradictions: reformism vs. popular power

El Maizal’s communards have had to confront reformist tendencies within the Bolivarian Process and the government that resists the emergence of popular power.

Jennifer Lemus El Maizal

Jennifer Lemus: If it were necessary, we would lay down our lives for Chávez’s project, for the commune. There are many obstacles to building the commune. The sanctions are an important impediment, but the state can also be one. For us, “commune” is not an empty word or something just to be talked about between four walls. The commune is built with real work. The commune happens when we get our hands dirty and organize… but some people seem to not understand that!

For the communal project to grow, we have to build alliances, which is what we are doing with the Communard Union. We have to reach out to every corner of the country and work with the potential of each commune. We have to develop a political, economic, and social force, so that nothing can bring down the communal project.

We will not let anybody take our dream away from us… That commitment comes with many sacrifices.

Johander Pineda El Maizal

Yohander Pineda: We sometimes clash with sectors of the state and the government. For instance, when we took over Porcinos del Alba, the minister of agriculture wasn’t happy at all. Why? Because his plan was to privatize the pig farm and turn it over to El Tunal [a private agroindustrial conglomerate]. But we were committed to having Porcinos produce for the people.

There has been some fallout as a result of that takeover, including a sharp decline in our access to seeds and other inputs needed for the commune’s annual corn production. In fact, our corn crop area has dropped from 1000 to 300 hectares in recent years.

The institutions’ intransigence forced us to turn to the black market to get fertilizer… and Ángel [Prado] and others were briefly locked up for it in 2018! That was really shocking, because all we wanted to do was to continue producing, and the black market was the only way.

Matos Mesias El Maizal

Windely Matos: 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, not just obstacles, sometimes it’s plain sabotage.

Many years ago, Chávez foresaw that there would be resistance to change. Now there is a struggle within Simón Planas [the municipality of El Maizal]. The communards have participated in different electoral contests and we’ve always won, but some of our victories were snatched away from us.

Although representation in local government is not our main objective, we now have a candidate for the position of mayor because we think that having our person in the town hall can help us promote the communal city… We take the communal city very seriously, since Chávez talked time and again about the need to break with the logic of capital through an association of communes.

The contradictions between the commune and governmental institutions are not only local ones. The blockade and the sanctions struck a great blow, but corruption and reformism hurt us too, and such practices clash with the communal project at all levels.

Nonetheless, our morale is very high. El Maizal shows that the commune is not some kind of unattainable utopia that Chávez dreamed up, that it is possible to build a working commune. The way out of the crisis is through the communes.

Angel Prado El Maizal

Ángel Prado: We think that the government represents a contested terrain right now. It will either be controlled by the bourgeoisie and the bankers – who claim to be the country’s saviors – or we, the Chavista people, will put our agenda forward. That’s the only way we can keep the government from turning irreversibly to the private sector. If that were to happen, it would come with massive privatizations and would spell the end to Chávez’s politics of sovereignty. That is why we will defend the communal project with our lives if necessary.

We have to join together to stop the reformist sectors, those who deny the potential of Chávez’s commune, from setting the agenda. We have to struggle and fight so that the commune remains central to the national project. That is why a common program of struggle is necessary, and it’s where the Communard Union comes into the picture.

At the end of the day, it’s the same old question: do we want to reform the system or do we want to really change things? If you really want to change things, you have to hand power over to the people. In other words, when socialism is the objective, the issue is not taking power away from one group and giving it to another. No, power must be in the hands of the pueblo. That has both political and economic implications.

In fact, one of Chávez’s major achievements is that he didn’t retain power. Instead, he decentralized it. A government might look very good: it might deliver food bags to people, paint their houses, pave their streets… and keep the people passive. Chávez gave all that kind of support, but at the same time he said that it wasn’t enough. He said that popular organization was needed to overcome an unjust system. Hence, Chávez wasn’t reformist!

Alliances for survival and building hegemony

The communards at El Maizal believe that communal projects should not be isolated, like socialist islands in a capitalist ocean. That is why they pursue diverse alliances and are building the Communard Union, a nationwide association of communal initiatives.

Prado: Alliances are very important for us. They include those with the government and with sister communes, our Basque and Argentinian comrades, and other organizations like the Landless Workers Movement – a [Brazilian campesino] organization that has taught us a great deal.

There are beautiful rows of corn growing in the commune’s fields. How did we do it? Did we make a pact with a drug dealer or with the devil? No, it was an alliance that we made with the government. We were able to plant some 300 hectares, which is less than in previous years, but it’s still important.

Nonetheless, the real forces behind the corn crop are the tractor operators, the people who cook the meals for the workers, those who do security, those who care for the inputs and manage the communal bank. This year’s corn crop is thriving because we have learned about natural fertilizers from our MST friends. Producing corn in the midst of a blockade takes many people and much effort, and building alliances has become more and more important.

But El Maizal doesn’t just invest its resources internally. It is also committed to helping other communes. Only two weeks ago a truck of ours delivered 70 sacks of seeds – seeds produced here, in our lab – to ten communes in eastern Venezuela. And we didn’t just share the seeds, we also shared technical skills.

We have shared our resources with many other organizations: some of our pigs have gone to El Panal Commune in 23 de Enero [Caracas]. We delivered cornflour to the Altos de Lídice Commune too. They, in turn, supplied us with t-shirts. We have likewise exchanged cornflour for chocolate and coffee with the Che Guevara Commune in Merida.

Practices of solidarity are on the rise in the context of the crisis…. We have learned many things in this difficult situation, including the importance of sharing our resources with others. We do so with the aim of bringing more people into the communal project.

People here are very religious and might contend that the practice of solidarity is God’s gift, but it is also something that we learned from Chávez. With him we came to understand that, when faced with capitalism and imperialist pillage, building solidarious relations is very important. For that reason, even on a small scale – seventy seed sacks at a time – we are sending a “Chavista message” for communal life, for hope, from El Maizal. US imperialism cannot extinguish the beacon of our solidarity.

Our efforts to build the Communard Union have much to do with the realization that it is not possible to go it alone… but only with a lot of solidarity and mutual support and recognition.

Matos: The Communard Union is becoming an important project. It has helped stabilize our situation here. The Union was born to bring together communes with real work, communes that are building alternatives all around the country.

Before the Communard Union existed we used to feel alone… We would sometimes ask ourselves: are we the only ones who believe in Chávez’s dream of a communal society? Now, we can see that we are not alone. All around the country, there are people that are just as committed to building communes.

Chávez often talked about the need for a unified system of communes, an association or federation of communes. With the Communard Union, which is a political and social project, a communal horizon is taking shape on a national level.

Prado: The Communard Union is an organization that brings together communes and communal projects from around the country. We have been working on it for the past two years, and today it involves 40 or 50 communal projects from various regions of the country – from the plains region to the Andes, from central Venezuela to the east of the country. Some of these projects are more advanced than others. Some are well established and others just beginning, but all are committed to realizing Chávez’s dream.

Now the Communard Union has a provisional group of spokespeople with a great deal of moral authority. It has also formed work brigades of young people – some focused on the struggle for land, others on educational projects or legal issues. These voluntary brigades travel around the country to assist communal projects associated with the Union.

The Communard Union has a roadmap for how to advance and some well-defined political guidelines. We have discussed the character that communes participating in the Union should have, the kind of leadership they need, and the importance of developing their productive capabilities.

Every commune linked to the Union needs to have efficient production processes, and it must promote the political and ideological formation of its members so that the leadership doesn’t become consumed by power.

In the Communard Union, we value the willingness to struggle. We are convinced that the communal project will not move forward without struggling, and we know that thinking about the state in a paternalistic way is contrary to the communal project. Struggle is ongoing and iterative: for things to change, the pueblo must work, organize, and make itself heard. Then the cycle begins again: working, organizing, and making ourselves heard.

A strong, non-sectarian Communard Union is important because we don’t want the bankers to be the ones who decide the country’s economic policy. We believe the Venezuelan people – and not the bankers – should define the country’s destiny… But that will only happen if we come together, organize, and work hard.

Chávez’s dream of the commune 

The late president saw the commune as a project with national projection and key to the socialist transition. Although his vision seems to have lost ground in Venezuelan state politics, El Maizal’s communards are struggling to keep it alive.

Matos: El Maizal is the living proof that Chávez wasn’t mistaken in wagering on the commune. Consider this: if there were 3000 active communes in Venezuela, with each commune possessing, like us, some 600 cattle heads, a number of pigs, and 300 corn hectares along with some beans and coffee, then the sanctions would not really limit our food supply. That is why we are casting our lot with the Communard Union: only the organized pueblo can solve its problems.

If we organize, produce, teach and learn, that will bring Chávez’s dream closer to fruition. I think El Maizal shows that it’s possible to do so, and that the commune is the only way to really satisfy the needs of the pueblo and build socialism. Unfortunately, there are some political currents here that work to destroy the commune, because they know it would undermine the old, bourgeois state. For us, Chávez’s project is alive, and we will defend and honor it with our lives.

Prado: At the entrance of El Maizal Commune you’ll see a big billboard with two presidents on it. Chavez is on horseback. It will be there for 500 years!

We perceive Chavismo as something very much ours. There are different Chavista tendencies, all struggling to appropriate the historical figure, but Chávez belongs to everybody. This may be a bit like Argentina where there is a first, second, and third Perón. The Chávez of El Maizal is the Commune-or-Nothing Chavez. We defend the commune and give it pride of place in our praxis. That is the raison d’etre of the Communard Union.

We believe the commune is the main tool that Chávez left behind. It’s a tool for the masses to do politics and to participate. If the commune didn’t make any sense, then people would not have seized hold of it as something that is theirs, and they would not be struggling to be its spokespeople. Moreover, the vice-president of the PSUV [Diosdado Cabello] would not be visiting us, as he did a month ago.

The commune is something that allows us to participate, it’s an instrument for struggle. The commune is a project that people construct with their own effort. People feel that it’s something new that they have made.

The Venezuelan people will not let this government or any other stand in the way of the idea that the people can have their own institutions, their communes, and their spaces that offer wellbeing, where their creativity can be expressed. In that sense, El Maizal has become a small example to follow, it has become somewhat of a beacon.

Josue El Maizal

Josué Silva: Chávez taught us the importance of sovereignty… However, perhaps we didn’t learn the full lesson. The blockade has hit us hard, very hard, but if we had focused on food sovereignty as Chávez wanted us to, the country would not be where it is. I feel proud to be part of El Maizal, to be part of a project that takes Chávez’s legacy seriously. That is why we say, time and again, ¡Commune or Nothing!

Prado: If we go back 200 years in our history, we can see that many people didn’t understand Bolívar and opposed him. I think the same is happening with Chávez: when he said that the historical subject was the communards, and that the commune was the main building block for socialism. Many people from the left here failed to understand this. However, just as history proved Bolívar to be right, I think that it will likewise show Chávez to have been right.

Chávez’s thinking evolved over time. He began with the cooperatives, but then realized that cooperatives 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.

The communal project is about what we call “territorialization.” The idea is to bring politics to the community. The politics that involves positions in the government is transient, but the barrio and the village will continue to exist. So the commune is about the politicization of those territories.

If El Maizal were simply a cooperative, the surplus would go back into the production units here or it would be distributed amongst 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. That is why we think that the commune is the key to building socialism: it is down to earth, involves the social bases, and is about self-government.

A commune should not be an island. If you look at Chiapas [in Mexico], it is a marvelous project for sovereignty, self-government, and self-defense. We really admire the Zapatistas, but they are unfortunately too insular. By contrast, Chávez conceived the commune as having a national projection.

That is why our focus is not only internal: we also build spaces of unity such as the Communard Union. We forge alliances and participate in electoral processes so that we can take control of existing spaces of power. All this, of course, would mean absolutely nothing if self-government and social production were not at the core of our project.

[Photo credits: Christian Ferrer and Cira Pascual Marquina]