“Las Cinco Fortalezas de la Revolución Bolivariana” – that is the full name of a marvelous commune in eastern Venezuela, in the sugarcane growing Cumanacoa township. Led mainly by women, this commune has had a history of intense struggle. It consolidated around 2016, when a group of the region’s day-laborers seized the land from the original landowner. Six years later, the communards found themselves in a second battle, after a businessman scammed the local producers by taking their crops without payment.
The recent scam – along with the crisis and sanctions – are important hurdles along the way, but the Cinco Fortalezas communards are willing to work hard and fight. With 57 collectivized hectares devoted to growing sugarcane and a powerful commitment to communalizing life, Cinco Fortalezas is set to be a breeding ground for socialism. In Part I of this interview we learn about the commune’s recent history and its various communal production enterprises. In Part II, the communards will tell us about the impact of the crisis and the blockade on their lives, as well as the creative ways in which they are overcoming those obstacles.
Cinco Fortalezas may be a relatively young commune, but the rebelliousness of people in this region has a long history. The commune lies on a beautiful valley long inhabited by the Kari’ña and Chaima peoples, who fiercely resisted the Spanish incursions into the zone since in the early seventeenth century. Centuries later, the zone would form an important rearguard base for the Venezuelan guerrilleros inspired by the Cuban revolution.
Vanessa Pérez: We took the first steps towards building a commune six or seven years ago. At that time we were also struggling to take over the lands of the Rosario Hacienda, which eventually became the epicenter of our commune.
Oswaldo Noguera: The land that is now the seat of the commune once belonged to Asunción Rodríguez. Back then, it was called the Rosario Hacienda. Rodríguez controlled the good lands, while the campesinos could only cultivate in the higher altitude lands, where they had no access to water and were far away from the roads.
Yusmeli Domínguez: I was born here. When I was a child, my parents had no land and they worked for the terrateniente [landowner]. We saw him getting richer and richer, while we had nothing. They gave him their lives, and he gave them nothing in return.
When Chávez’s land reform got started, we began to organize so that those who worked the land wouldn’t be landless. Around 2007, the INTI [Venezuela’s land institute] began to monitor these lands with the idea of recovering them. By that time, production had dropped.
In 2011 a group of ten campesinos settled in some of the abandoned lands. The “company” [a state-owned industrial sugar mill] went against them and destroyed their crops. This caused a great deal of outrage. After all, they were poor people who had no objective other than producing.
Then, in 2016, the sugar mill tried to take over 80 hectares of the land for growing sugarcane, but they were blocked by resistance from the campesino settlers. A few months later we began to work on the land collectively. Around the same time the INTI came to us and told us that the land would be distributed among the township, the state, and the people. That was very unjust, and we let it be known. What about the 500 families who worked and struggled for the land for decades, if not centuries?
Around that time, we went to talk to the landowner. We told him that we were organizing and were going to take over the land… and that is what we did.
The INTI didn’t immediately recognize our use of the land as legitimate. In fact, there was much friction and many conflicts. The INTI even tried to mobilize the people of Cumanacoa against the commune.
In any case, we continued organizing and working. After all, we were motivated by the idea that the land belongs to those who work it. What we were doing was a step towards historical justice and it was inspired by Chávez himself.
Finally, in 2018, we went to Caracas and demanded that the land title [carta agraria] be granted to the commune… We succeeded!
Cinco Fortalezas is blessed with fertile land and a natural spring that irrigates the more than 60 communal hectares of land it has under till. The commune, however, lacks farm machinery for harvesting its sugarcane crop. The harvesting is still being done with machetes and then hefted on the communards’ shoulders. For this reason, mechanization is one of the commune’s main objectives.
Vanessa Pérez: We have two registered social property enterprises [EPSs] belonging to the commune: the sugarcane project and the tilapia farm. We will soon have a sugarcane processing plant [a new EPS], and we are planning to form another EPS to take over commercialization and distribution.
The sugarcane project, which is called “Bloque Productivo La Esperanza,” is in charge of the whole process, from planting to harvesting. The trapiche EPS will process the sugarcane into brown sugar panelas, crystalline sugar, and sugarcane juice. We are moving toward autonomy in our production: we want to go beyond producing raw materials and move to controlling the full production and distribution cycle.
The commune also has two Family Production Units [henceforth UPF], a tilapia UPF and a brick-making UPF.
Oswaldo Noguera: In addition to growing sugar, we also grow short-cycle crops such as corn, pumpkin, black beans, yuca, and other vegetables in our communal land. We have six hectares devoted to such short-cycle crops.
SUGARCANE COMMUNAL ENTERPRISE AND THE STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE
The Central Sucre in Cumanacoa is a state-owned sugar-refining enterprise. In 2020 a contract was signed with an entrepreneur, Juan Ramírez, so that TecnoAgro, Ramírez’s private company, would run the sugar mill.
Vanessa Pérez: The commune’s main enterprise is La Esperanza Productive Bloc. The project involves the collective production of 1700 tons of sugarcane annually in 57 hectares.
La Esperanza is our “PDVSA.” Why? Because the surplus produced by the sugarcane allows us to do work in the territory, from fixing the school or the roads, to public lighting, to getting medicine for those who need it, etc.
This past year, however, the EPS – and the commune as a whole – has been struggling because of a scam carried out at the sugar central [industrial sugar mill].
Carlos Andrade: In 2021 Juan Ramírez scammed all the sugarcane producers in the area: he “bought” our crops but never paid for them. The debt to the producers is around 300 thousand USD.
Yusmeli Domínguez: The Central Sucre belongs to CorpoSucre [regional government entity], but it is now in the hands of TecnoAgro, Juan Ramírez’s enterprise. In 2020 an agreement was reached for the purchase of the sugarcane crop in the area. We did our part, turning over our entire crop in 2021. His unpaid debt with this commune alone is 14,000 dollars.
This has hurt our production and our lives a great deal, but Mr. Ramírez has debts with everyone, including other communes in the area and many family producers. The situation has been devastating for many people in the Cumanacoa area.
On top of that, Mr. Ramírez is remiss in paying the plant’s 80 workers: he hasn’t paid their salaries for five months!
Of course, we didn’t just sit around and do nothing. We went to the seat of the Sucre state government and to the National Assembly to make our voices heard. We also introduced a claim at the Attorney General’s Office. Unfortunately, we haven’t heard anything back.
More recently, we had a meeting with Gilberto Pinto, Sucre’s Governor, along with Juan Ramírez. Most of the producers went to the meeting,and we reached a new agreement. However, we are still waiting for Mr. Ramírez to fulfill the terms.
Carlos Andrade: The consequences of the fraud have been devastating and have had a ripple effect. Some people have died because they couldn’t get their medicines and others have left. Meanwhile, two thousand sugarcane tons have not been harvested this year. We had always sold our crop to the Sucre Central, but now that is not an option. That is why we are holding up the harvest.
Yusmeli Domínguez: Mr. Ramírez is a criminal… and yet, this year, the state extended his contract to run the sugar mill! Why? Unfortunately, as Chávez would remind us, the bureaucratic bourgeois state is alive and well, and that is why it’s on the side of private interests over collective ones.
One of our proposals is that the Central Sucre be transferred to the commune. After all, we are the ones who produce the sugarcane, we are familiar with the process, and some of us have worked in the central. There are people here who have technical preparation to take over the administration of the plant.
Since private capital has proved to be both inefficient and thuggish, it’s time to open the door to popular power. In fact, this is becoming all the more urgent now, because they are adapting the plant to be able refine sugar base brought from Argentina!
I don’t think it’s necessary to explain how absurd this is. After all, the central was nationalized in 2005 by the Venezuelan state to process Venezuelan sugarcane in a sugarcane-producing territory!
THE ALTERNATIVE: A COMMUNAL SUGAR MILL
Jose Luis Gamboa: When Mr. Ramírez scammed us, it became all the more clear that we have to work towards having full control of the sugar production cycle. So we decided to reactivate a trapiche [a small, artisanal sugar mill] that had been abandoned. It’s a very old mill, but it can process 30 tons of sugarcane per day.
We have evaluated the condition of the trapiche, and to get it going we need an investment of some two to three thousand US dollars. As soon as Mr. Ramírez pays what he owes us, we will get the mill operative. In the meantime, we are also seeking institutional support. We are committed to activating the mill one way or another.
Vanessa Pérez: We want to be able to process the sugarcane produced by the commune and by other Cumanacoa producers. Ours would not be the only trapiche in the area, but the other mills around here are significantly smaller. Also, we have the advantage of our location, since the commune is in the flatlands and it’s easy to get here.
We plan to work with the local producers to turn their sugarcane into papelón [brown sugar blocks], crystalline sugar, and sugarcane juice. We will do the same with our own production, and we hope to do barter trade with other communes. The potential here is huge: there are 13 communes in the township [nine that legally registered], and they all produce sugarcane.
Ours is not going to be a capitalist enterprise: the cost to process sugarcane here will be below the market, and the income will be invested in social and productive initiatives.
Vanessa Pérez: There are other smaller productive initiatives in the commune. There is a small brick-making plant, which is active, and there is a fish farm that is rapidly growing. It was financed by SUFONAPP [institution associated with the Ministry of Communes]. We are farming red tilapias, and we are learning a lot from the experience. The main bottleneck is the fish food, which is very expensive.
Wilfredo Enrique: The fish farming initiative began some three years ago with a small credit [about 20 USD] to buy tilapia minnows. We then set up the Red Tilapia Lab, where we care for the minnows and the mothers. When they grow up, we take them to the Amaguto lagoon on our communal land.
Right now, between the lab and the lagoon, we have some 30 thousand tilapias. We think of it as an incubator project: we hope to send minnows to other communes, while some of the harvested tilapia will go for the school lunches and to the popular canteen [which offers free meals to those in need]. In other words, this will not be a capitalist enterprise. We think of it as a new initiative to satisfy the needs of the commune.
Yusmeli Domínguez: Chávez conceived a holistic communal system. Here, at the core of our commune, we have the Bloque Productivo La Esperanza, our PDVSA. But a commune brings together a plurality of initiatives. A commune is like a quilt: it brings us all together.