Industrias del Orinoco, C.A. (Indorca) is a factory without bosses in Puerto Ordaz in Bolívar state, the home of Venezuela’s basic industries. Indorca’s workers carried out a heroic three-year struggle to gain control of the factory after the former owner brought it to a halt. Since 2015, when Venezuela’s Ministry of Labor extended a mandate giving the workers control over Indorca, the enterprise has been democratically managed by the women and men who produce here day in and day out.
In Part I of this three-part interview, Indorca workers told us about their fight to keep the former bosses from dismantling the factory and regaining control of the plant. In Part II we learned about the obstacles that worker-run factories face in a capitalist society and about Indorcas’ collective education initiatives. Here in Part III the workers tell us about the impact of the US-led sanctions, while explaining their strategies to overcome obstacles.
Impact of the imperialist blockade
US sanctions have devastated the Venezuelan economy, bringing production practically to a halt. The blockade has affected their life and their work in the metallurgic plant.
José Cedeño: The impact of the sanctions has been enormous. Many of our supplies and inputs come from abroad. Specialized saw blades, machine lubricants, and welding implements are all imported from the US. Also, 35 HRC steel [high-grade] and other materials needed for our production are not to be found in Venezuela now.
All these supplies used to be commercialized by Sidor [a state-owned steel plant in Puerto Ordaz]. However, the blockade means that they cannot bring those inputs and many others that are needed by the basic and oil industries. The impact of the blockade can be felt on the Venezuelan industry as a whole.
For example, Indorca repaired Sidor’s heavy-weight carriages for some 20 years. To do this we need special industrial wire and flux, and it is a US company that produces both. We have been able to solve this problem by being creative, but the wear and tear process is going to be quicker.
The other major bottleneck is fuel. Bolívar state has a particularly restrictive policy for gasoline distribution, and it is only available at the international price [50c per liter], so we have to spend some $200 US per week to keep the company bus running.
Eliezer Perdomo: Sidor, our provider, can no longer purchase supplies and inputs. Some of the supplies we need are now available in the market, but they are sold by private distributors at sky-high prices. This means that our production costs are also high, which, in turn, pushes our wages down.
There is another effect of the blockade that impacts production both here at Indorca and in all other enterprises: transportation. Maintaining our vehicles running is very difficult. Changing a tire or getting a part is expensive while getting fuel oil is really difficult. That means that all our vehicles, with the exception of the company bus, which brings the workers to the plant and back, are not working at the moment.
In fact, for more than a year, our bus wasn’t operational either. This was during the pandemic, and our wages were so low that we couldn’t pay bus fares either. So we either had to try to hitch a ride or we came walking. The year 2020 was a very hard one: we lost weight and our health deteriorated. It is only now that we are beginning to recover – we aren’t just skin-and-bones any longer, there is a bit more to us.
Despite the siege and a pandemic, Indorca continues to work, which is not the case with many private and state-run enterprises.
Victor Mujica: Resources are needed to maintain a factory and keep it running, but the situation now makes it very hard to get supplies and inputs such as flux, parts, lubricants, and the fuels that we need. Of course, this didn’t bring us to our knees, but production has come down significantly.
Yaneth Carreño: We are operating at just a fraction of our potential. The sanctions are a key factor in this drop in production, but we should not forget other issues, such as the way the private sector boycotted us after the worker takeover and the “limbo situation” [legal uncertainty] generated by our condition as a worker-managed enterprise.
I should say, however, that the workers’ care for the equipment and their vast knowledge means that this plant could be running at 100% of installed capacity tomorrow, if we had the inputs we need.
Eukaris Velásquez: Enterprises such as Indorca are important in overcoming the impact of the blockade: that is the bottom line for us. The impact of the sanctions has been enormous, but we can’t just focus on that. We have to jumpstart what there is, and Indorca can offer solutions to many of the problems that the basic industries are facing today.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
José Cedeño: There is no hiding it: the sanctions have hit us very hard. I’m 57 years old and some of the workers here are even older. This means that we cannot just go with the flow: some of us may need medicines and we all want to care for our loved ones, but our wages are very low. This is a huge concern. In fact, it comes up in the workers’ assembly month after month.
Sergio Requena: The blockade affects the working class as a whole: it affects our families and our bodies, and it has a devastating impact on production.
The US sanctions are driven by a basic Napoleonic premise: “An army marches on its stomach.” When you cannot afford to get the food you need, when your work shoes are old and your uniform is worn out, that has a negative impact on your morale… And it is all the more demoralizing when the gap between those on top and the working class grows, as is happening now.
However there is a history of struggle and an esprit de corps that keeps us going. We also take pride in what we do and have a commitment to the Bolivarian revolution. All that has kept us going in circumstances that, in truth, are nothing short of dramatic.
Cruz González: The impact of the crisis on our families is brutal. Just two weeks ago my brother left the country. He sold his house, he sold the furniture, and he took off! That is painful, very painful.
For my part I’m planning to stay. In fact, we Indorca workers are committed: we aren’t going to jump ship.
DEFEATING THE ENEMY
Sergio Requena: There is a brutal blockade against Venezuela. With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves: How can we defeat a powerful enemy that is determined to finish us off?
Everybody knows this: The US is an imperial power and the most powerful one at that. It operates with a capitalist and neo-colonial rationale. This means that when we look at the options, we have to bypass the sanctions, but we shouldn’t be thinking about capitalist solutions. Why? Because Venezuela cannot defeat them on their own terrain!
A capitalist shock treatment isn’t going to solve the problems of the people. That is why we argue for a heroic and holistic solution instead.
Indorca confirms my hypothesis: there are no capitalist relations in the factory and the enterprise is run democratically… And it is still standing! Why? Because the workers are committed to the project, because Indorca is theirs!
That is why we think that the solution [to Venezuela’s problems] is more socialism. This is not going to happen overnight, but in my opinion productive initiatives that are outside of the logic of capital should be emulated.
When someone tells us that Venezuela is under siege, that we are blocked, I often say: Yes we are, we are blocked by US imperialism, but we are also blocked by capitalist rationality.
Let me give you an example: when a machine breaks down or when a component must be replaced, the bosses will often look to purchase the input or the piece abroad. This keeps us within the technological dependency loop.
What is the solution that we propose? Let’s actually produce what we can in Venezuela. That would be the heroic solution, the socialist solution. Will it be easy? No, but our own experience with the production of wellheads [see below] shows us that it is not only possible, but also more efficient.
Let’s think about our own history here at Indorca, Equipetrol, and Calderys [two other worker-run factories in Puerto Ordaz]. When the workers were finally able to take control of the plants, they found that the power cables feeding the machinery were gone and important components had been stolen. How was this solved? The workers themselves found the solution through cooperation. In just one week, the plants were operational!
Of course, collaboration is lightyears away from capitalist rationality. Add to that the sanctions and the dependent, parasitic character of Venezuelan capitalism, and we will find ourselves lost in a labyrinth. Let’s tear down the labyrinth! It’s possible.
Indorca workers have developed a range of creative responses to difficulties as they emerge, demonstrating that the working class can provide non-capitalist solutions to the crisis.
Victor Mujica: We don’t have all the inputs and supplies that we need, and this slows down production, but we have engineered mechanisms to keep the plant running. In fact, I would say that every day we find new solutions to the problems we are facing.
Our situation isn’t ideal, but now we can do things that we couldn’t do five years ago. We have learned a great deal. We Indorca workers have hundreds of years of accumulated experience among us, and a lot of commitment. Our shoes may be worn out, but we are creative and resilient… we are not about to throw in the towel!
José Cedeño: If sanctions are thought of as an economic siege, then Indorca has been “sanctioned” since 2015, when we took control of the factory. That created a situation in which the former clients did all they could to take the oxygen out of Indorca because of their links and class affinity with the former boss. Then came the US blockade that is attempting to asphyxiate the Venezuelan economy as a whole. It is all the same thing, but the scale is different.
When we took over in 2015, we saw that the power lines were gone. Yet we didn’t just sit around and mope. Instead, we organized to solve the problem. This meant that later, when the US imposed its blockade on Venezuela, we had some experience with that kind of situation. We had already honed our ingenuity.
CASE STUDY: WELLHEAD FOR THE OIL INDUSTRY
José Cedeño: The effects of the crisis and the economic war were already being felt in 2016. Around that time, PDVSA had to replace a number of its wellheads due to wear and tear. They came to us to see if we could fabricate a copy of a Rutherford model.
A PDVSA team sent us a sample wellhead and nothing else. We had to disarm it, test the hardness of every component, and make a blueprint for every part. We worked non-stop for a month and we were able to produce two wellheads from scratch. This was quite a feat – PDVSA had given us six months to make a prototype.
I should add that we went beyond reverse engineering: we also improved on the original. PDVSA workers informed us that there was a leak on the edge that shortened the life of a Rutherford wellhead. We were able to find a solution for that glitch and for other planned obsolescence problems. As it turned out, our wellheads last longer than Weatherford’s… from six months to two years!
We worked on this project with Equipetrol, another factory under worker control. It was a beautiful experience with a sour ending: PDVSA did not proceed with the contract, and we were only paid two years later.
Sergio Requena: The “socialist grafting” [injerto socialista] team had commissioned the wellhead from us. That was a Chávez-inspired initiative that looked for viable, worker-centered solutions to Venezuela’s problems in PDVSA and other state enterprises.
Indorca and Equipetrol workers demonstrated that they could produce better wellheads. As an engineer, I can tell you that our work on that project was nothing short of heroic. However, there is also a lesson to be learned: we can, if we set our hearts and minds to it, bypass the barriers imposed by the blockade. Venezuela has the human capacity and resources to do it.
ALTERNATIVES: ANIMAL REARING AND SMALL FARMING
Sergio Requena: In the past few years, in addition to exploring creative ways to keep the plant going, we began to look for alternative solutions to feed the staff.
Some of the workers have a vegetable garden near the plant, and Indorca has an animal rearing initiative with pigs and sheep. We built a stall to care for the pigs and we feed them food scraps that the workers bring back from home. By contrast, the sheep roam freely; all they need is fresh water.
These are hard times but we aren’t going to give in, we need to supplement our income and this is a good option. It’s also a pedagogic exercise: we have to break with the chains of dependency and that requires thinking outside of the box.
Productive Workers’ Army
The Productive Workers’ Army [henceforth EPO for its initials in Spanish] is an autonomous worker initiative that has its roots in Chávez’s plan to build a sovereign nation.
Sergio Requena: The EPO is a non-conventional army for a non-conventional war, and it comes out of the epic that brought Indorca, Equipetrol, and Carlderys workers together to recuperate the plants after the owners’ sabotage.
José Cedeño: When we took control of Indorca, we found that 80% of the high-power cables feeding the machines were gone. The bosses had also stolen tools and destroyed as much as they could. It was a coordinated act of sabotage. But we were not alone: Calderys and Equipetrol were in the same situation, so we decided to cooperate in reactivating the three factories.
Word got out about our work among the industrial working class, and a union representative from La Gaviota – a state-owned fish processing plant in Sucre state – requested that we deploy a group of workers to help them reactivate their factory’s industrial oven.
In February 2016, after a reconnaissance visit, we sent a group of metal mechanics, welders, and even highly trained builders to La Gaviota. We were able to activate their industrial oven in just five days! The 200 women who work at La Gaviota were elated: the oven – made to produce tons of animal feed with the sardine “waste” products [fish heads, tales, inners] – had been out of order for five years.
La Gaviota workers were remoralized: they were going to produce a good that is much needed in the country. Moreover, the income generated by sales would be enough to cover wages. La Gaviota’s workers were empowered once again!
Since then we have carried out sixteen “productive battles.” We have activated food-processing factories and recovered gas-cylinder filling plants, and we even worked a wing of the Amuay Oil Refinery in Falcón state. We also carried out productive battles in two communes: El Maizal and Che Guevara.
All this is voluntary work. When we go on these brigades, we work long hours and we sleep in the plant. We also carry out educational workshops and remoralize the workers by example.
Sergio Requena: The EPO has two main goals: reactivating Venezuela’s productive apparatus and remoralizing the working class.
The EPO’s practice goes against the grain: capitalism commodifies everything, but the work we do is voluntary. Capitalism fragments everything, but our objective is to build a sovereign nation.
Chávez would often say that the Bolivarian Revolution was “peaceful but armed,” meaning that we, as a pueblo, are ready to fight if needed. But who is going to feed the pueblo if we are not producing?
We are under siege, but we are not helpless.
Eliezer Perdomo: The productive battles bring us together with workers from different states: mechanics, metallurgic workers, welders, electricians, etc. – we all come together to reactivate a factory or a plant, or to address the technical bottlenecks that a commune may have.
The EPO’s philosophy, however, is sometimes hard to grasp. It is often the case that, when we go to a factory, the plant’s workers will ask us how much we are getting paid. When we tell them that our work is voluntary work, they are really surprised. Little by little, we break the ice!
We also find structural resistance to the project: the old practices of contracting work out still persist, so sometimes doors won’t open for us. However, that doesn’t keep us from moving forward. If we have to, we’ll hitch a ride. If we have to sleep on the floor, we will do so.
We are Chavistas, and Chavistas never give up! We have a commitment to Venezuela, with its people, and we know that our skills are all the more important now that the nation is going through hard times.
Sergio Requena: The blockade is criminal but I would dare to say that the main problem that Venezuela faces when it comes to the industrial apparatus is that we don’t have a centralized plan to activate our productive forces. Although it’s true that the workers in many plants are working hard, we need to operate in a coordinated way and we must make use of the tools that we have. State enterprises have to break with the archipelago logic.
Indorca, Calderys, and Equipetrol show that it is possible to activate production with experience, creativity, and class solidarity. That experience was then translated into the EPO: the working class’ potential is enormous! There are thousands of volunteers ready to go to a productive battle. Here, in the worker-run factories in Puerto Ordaz, there is enough experience to trigger a seachange!