The Che Guevara Commune lies on the fertile hillsides that rise up from the shores of Lake Maracaibo in western Venezuela. Historically this has been a cocoa-growing region but in more recent years coffee, sugar cane, and pineapple have also become important cash crops. It is a region of much domestic and international migration, and many of the communards have roots in neighboring Colombia, belonging to families that fled political persecution or simply sought a better life in Venezuela.
Through hard work, focused on two productive activities – a lowland cocoa-processing plant (the Che Guevara EPS) and a highland coffee cooperative called Colinas del Mirador (Colimir) – these communards have built a sociopolitical project that has survived all kinds of adversity.
A short flight to Merida’s El Vigia airport and a two-hour drive along the Pan-American Highway brought us to this well-kept commune centered in the village of Mesa Julia (Tucaní township). Our main interest was to see how this commune, with a far-reaching reputation worthy of the revolutionary name it bears, has dealt with the US sanctions and the overall crisis that Venezuela is facing. However, we also wanted to know about their approach to communal construction in general and the longstanding project of a socialist transition in the besieged country.
Part I of this three-part series looked at the Che Guevara Commune’s creative responses to US sanctions while Part II addressed the democratic organization of labor at the commune’s two main production centers. In this third and final part, we look at the commune’s efforts to provide social assistance to the community at a time when the sanctions are interfering with educational and health services in the country.
Caring for the community
The sanctions and the crisis have had a devastating impact on the lives of working-class Venezuelans and many grassroots organizations have taken on responsibilities that were previously assigned to the state. The Che Guevara Commune is no exception.
Yeini Urdaneta: Due to the sanctions and crisis, the government found itself unable to address the health, educational, and other social needs of people here, so the responsibility often falls on the shoulders of grassroots organizations.
That is why we often have to look for solutions to different problems in the community, for example, when someone dies, a woman is about to give birth, or a person has a high blood pressure crisis. In such cases, we offer support in whatever way we can: a loan, a donation, or maybe offering transport to the nearest hospital.
Of course, this is not easy for us: doctors may charge between 100 and 150 dollars to deliver a baby, while funerals are much more expensive. If we don’t have the resources to arrange a grandparent’s funeral, then we have to appeal to institutions and attempt to make inroads there.
This is a very complex social situation, so we are now in the process of designing a fund exclusively for social care. In addition, we are sending a colleague from the cooperative to study nursing. For the community, having a person who is qualified in the area of healthcare will be very good.
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: People here know that if they have a problem, they can count on Colimir. If you have a medical emergency, the co-op will not leave you out in the cold. We also keep the school open, which is important for parents. That is why the price of land in the area is going up. People know that they can rely on us. In fact, we are a sort of state within the state, a dual power if you will.
Ernesto Cruz: As an EPS [social property enterprise], we are governed by the Communal Economy Law. The law states that a socially-owned enterprise must allot 6 to 10 percent of its profits to social attention.
In these times, our revenue doesn’t always cover the basic costs of the EPS itself. However, we always attend to the community in different ways, from delivering chocolate to schools to helping a sick person get to a medical center. In addition, when there is a surplus, the first thing we do is allocate funds for things such as rehabilitating a clinic or a school or promoting another productive project in the commune.
Zulay Montilla: The EPS also supports the commune’s health committee. For example, if someone needs medication, we help them locate it. Or if someone else needs immediate medical attention, we give the family 10, 20, or 30 liters of gasoline, so they can reach the hospital. This is really important when fuel is so hard to get. We also support the medical staff at the Mesa Julia health center with transportation.
There are many needs in the commune, and we would be lying if we said that we are able to address all the requests that come in. Nonetheless, we always do everything we can.
Ernesto Cruz: Transportation is another area where we make an important contribution to the community. During the crisis years of 2018 and 2019, public transportation came to a halt in Mesa Julia. It was a major problem because this is a rural area and many here were left with no way to get to the market or doctor or school. So we started to provide a transportation service. Colimir and our chocolate-producing EPS put our trucks to work at it. Our first priority was to get teachers and students to school.
However, our trucks aren’t suited to transporting people. A colleague told us that a municipal bus had been idle for about ten years in the town hall’s parking lot, so we requested that the vehicle be transferred to the commune, finally reaching an agreement. However, the administrative process to proceed with the transfer was taking way too long. In the end, Felipe [Vanegaz] proposed that we collectively recover the bus for the commune, and that is what we did.
After fixing the bus, we established a transportation service for the whole commune. The bus is now a communal asset and is managed collectively by the commune’s parliament. The routes, schedules, and fares are defined collectively, and the revenue goes back to a fund for maintaining the bus.
A school for the new society
The women and men of the Che Guevara Commune believe that education, both political and technical, is key to the project’s success. Colimir has developed a plan so that children at the nearby Rio Bonito School are able to continue studying.
Neftalí Vanegaz: Education is very important to us. A project cannot advance in political terms without a school, and production won’t increase without technical training. That is why we consider education to be one of the main pillars of the cooperative.
With Chávez, we advanced a great deal in terms of political formation, but that’s not enough. People here are very young and they need to learn about the world. That learning does not grow on trees. Furthermore, the country has neglected technical training for many years, and now we are paying the price for that. That is why we are promoting both political and technical education.
Luis Miguel Guerrero: When the situation got really rough, we realized that education was very important. We needed to understand how we got into this situation, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we needed to look for solutions to the very serious problems that we are facing.
We also realized that it was urgent to think about the situation of the community’s children. Even before the pandemic, the school was seldom open and children were dropping out. For that reason, we began to look for solutions so that our kids would not grow up illiterate.
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: We need cadres with both political and technical preparation because we don’t want to lag behind. It’s necessary to improve production so that people can have a better life, and that requires industrialization and prepared cadres.
Chávez sent thousands of people to Cuba where they received political education. That is wonderful, but now those people aspire to be mayors, deputies, or ministers. They learned about politics but not about production.
That is one of the reasons many state enterprises failed. It is not that state industries or socialized production are destined to collapse. The real problem is that those who run the enterprises don’t understand industrial processes or supply chains, and know nothing about accounting.
When it comes to small producers like us, we also need to get training. Over the years, we have just learned how to administer poverty so that we don’t die of starvation! In fact, we need to overcome poverty and build a better society!
A COMMUNITY SCHOOL FOR CHILDREN
Yeini Urdaneta: Even before the pandemic, teachers’ wages were so low that they couldn’t make it to the school on a regular basis. When we became aware of the problem, we developed a plan to supply teachers with an extra income.
The plan is as follows: Colimir made a 10-year agreement with the communal council to rent a communal plot of land. The funds derived from the rent are allocated to social assistance in the community.
Additionally, the coffee that Colimir grows on that land becomes part of the teachers’ salaries. Before the pandemic, we paid the teachers 7 kg of coffee per month, which is a lot more than the teacher’s monthly wage currently. The end result was that the co-op was delivering 21 kg of coffee a month to keep the school open. This system functioned until the lockdown began
Unfortunately, reactivating the school after the intense period of the pandemic has been difficult. We began to observe that children in the area were not learning to read and write. This caused us great concern. That is when we decided to initiate a small school of our own to complement formal schooling in the area.
We did this in cooperation with the communal council, which had a vacant building that was a former Mercal [subsidized supermarket chain]. Colimir allocated funds to fix the roof and the bathrooms, paint the school inside and out, build furniture, and so on. We fixed the building with sessions of voluntary work and using the co-op’s resources. The school has been up and running since late October.
Three of Colimir’s associated producers run the school. The lead teacher is an educator by training, whereas her two colleagues – one who studies nursing and the other administration – are there in a supporting role.
Needless to say, this is a wonderful project, but it comes with big responsibilities for Colimir.
Luis Miguel Guerrero: The Mercal building where the school is now housed needed a fair amount of work, from fixing the roof and the bathrooms to building furniture. Now the school is a beautiful space for children to learn: we painted it colorfully, with numbers and letters on the wall, and we built nice furniture for the children.
Now we are also preparing another classroom for the youngest children.
All the work has been voluntary and collective: while some cleaned, others painted and others prepared food so that we could all continue working. Even the older children helped to get the spaces ready!
We are also preparing an educational plan that incorporates classroom learning with practical activities, and we are going to discuss this plan with the community council and the formal school teachers so that the two educational projects go hand in hand.
Yeini Urdaneta: We are designing the new curriculum with advice from some comrades from the MST [Landless Workers Movement, Brazil]. The MST has developed schools in its settlements, using a teaching method that is grounded in local reality: their schools teach reading, writing, and math, but they also teach about agriculture, art, music, etc.
Since this is a campesino community, children can learn about coffee growing outside the classrooms. In other words, they are getting first-hand practice that will be useful, in a tangible way, in the future.
This is a holistic educational process. We do not want students to be formed only for the labor market. Instead, they should come out as young people with the capacity to interpret their reality critically: people prepared to work the land with technical skills but with a view of the big picture.
Arianny Tomas: With the pandemic, remote learning became the norm, but that method does not work in rural areas. People here have neither the equipment nor the internet connections to be able to participate in online classes.
This meant that we began to see children who did not know how to read or do basic math. When distance learning shifted to semi-presential classes in recent months, we observed that teachers are coming to the school at best two or three days every two weeks. That is not enough, so our school is there to reinforce what the kids learn from the official school.
At the Colimir school, our curriculum integrates academics with games and practical activities. To do this, we have had advice from the comrades of the MST.
For now, we offer education from kindergarten up to sixth grade. First, we have each kid take a diagnostic test to see if they know how to write and have some basic mathematical knowledge. Then we develop a plan that fits his or her level and needs.
A POLITICAL AND TECHNICAL SCHOOL FOR ADULTS
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: We developed the José Carlos Mariátegui School with the help of comrades from Patria Grande [Argentinian political organization]. They came to Venezuela five years ago and gave workshops all over the country.
They organized a 15-day workshop at our commune. The idea of having our own school for political education grew out of that experience. At first, we held only three or four workshops a year, but things picked up speed little by little. Now there are sessions for associate producers every 22 days, and the topics that these workshops address range from political education to coffee production.
The school also does workshops for the community as a whole and for the Communard Union. Further, we organized a workshop for 50 PSUV youths one month ago. The party provided the food and we organized the workshop itself. This was good because it is a way to get closer to young people who come from different backgrounds. Education is one of the mainstays of our project.
Luis Miguel Guerrero: I studied in an agro-technical school and then came to Colimir as an intern. I came here because I felt an affinity with the project’s social orientation, but I arrived with no political education. It was here, between the collective work we do and the debate that happens in our assemblies, that I began to get my political bearings.
The Mariátegui School has been important for me. Colimir was able to build an auditorium and two dormitories that allow us to invite people from outside: comrades from different organizations can visit us here because we have a space suitable for study and debate. This helps us understand the world beyond Mesa Julia.
The school does workshops focused on history, economy, the importance of cooperation, and so on.
The last workshop we did was with the PSUV’s youth. Thinking about the audience, we designed an introductory workshop about the history of Venezuela, Bolívar, and the emancipation struggle. Our goal was to give a historical perspective on our struggles today.
Arianny Tomas: The Mariátegui School also provides technical training. We arrange workshops for the associated producers on the technical aspects of production – for example, about how to care for coffee seedlings – while also teaching about electrical circuitry and alternatives to chemical pesticides.
Furthermore, the political education we get here is not limited to what we learn in the classroom: collective work Mondays also contribute. There we learn from each other, overcome contradictions, and develop together.
Promoting Chavez’s revolutionary project
Beyond its immediate locality, the Che Guevara commune works for a broad reorganization of Venezuela society. For this reason, they have become enthusiastic members of the Communard Union.
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: We are part of the Communard Union, a space where communal initiatives around the country are coming together in a nationwide movement committed to Chávez’s communal socialism.
However, the Communard Union is still under construction and there are diverse interpretations inside the movement. Among comrades in the Union, there are different understandings of the organization’s raison d’etre. Some may have a romantic conception, dreaming of building a powerful network of communes, whereas others have a more pragmatic conception of the project. In short, today the Communard Union comprises different experiences, different needs, and different approaches, but that is also one of its strengths. For us, the Communard Union is an important project.
Ernesto Cruz: Chávez said that the way to overcome capitalism is through the commune. Today, however, it often seems as if the state has lost sight of the communal project. This is a real problem, but we should also be self-critical: those of us within the Bolivarian process sometimes thought that this revolution would have access to oil resources forever. That was a miscalculation, and we are now trying to find our feet.
This doesn’t mean that Chávez’s communal proposal was mistaken. Quite the contrary: we have to generate conditions to develop and diversify, and past experience shows that the commune is actually the way to do it. Of course, just as capitalist enterprises get support from banks and public institutions, communal initiatives also need support to thrive. From our side, we need to focus on technical training and plan strategically.
When we think about the role of the commune in constructing a new hegemony, it is important that we have been able to be self-sufficient to a large extent. Our EPS is producing chocolate and Colimir is producing coffee – all that helps people not become demoralized.
From below, we need to promote the communal project through our example, but the government should truly support communal initiatives and must promote the communal path to socialism as something viable. Communes are not marginal initiatives, they are projects with the potential to transform society!
Felipe Vanegaz Quintero: We have a double strategy: to industrialize coffee production and to promote Chávez’s revolutionary project in the Mesa Julia area and beyond. In other words, we want to industrialize and socialize production. It is not only about distributing wealth but also generating it. Poverty is well-distributed in the world, and that’s not what we want to promote!