Recently named Vice-minister of Communal Economy, Hernán Vargas is a longstanding activist of the Pobladores movement in defense of the right to housing. In this two-part interview, Vargas reflects on a variety of themes including the tensions that have emerged between the state and the grassroots, the exhaustion of the rentier economic model, and the Communes Ministry’s role in the project of communalizing society.
In Part I of the interview you talked about the Communal Economic Circuits. Can you tell us more about this initiative?
The Communal Economic Circuits are inspired by President Maduro’s 3R.nets, which is itself based on Chávez’s 3 Rs [Revision, Rectification, Relaunching].
Communal Economic Circuits, as a first approximation, involve recognizing that people in both rural areas and the city have been resisting the harsh conditions imposed by the US-led blockade. They have done so by producing food with creativity and ingenuity. We think that this should be visible. These diverse nuclei should be nourished so that they come together and grow. The objective of the project is not so much creating a new legal framework, but rather developing productive chains and linking them together. That is why we are talking about “circuits.”
Additionally, we are thinking about rectifying some policies. The Bolivarian Revolution has financed popular organizations, communal councils, and communes over the past 20 years, and that is very important. In fact, according to a survey, communal textile production has the installed capacity to produce three million pieces of clothing a month.
Something similar could be said about the rural areas. During the first trimester of 2022 we carried out a survey exploring the planting intentions in the communal sphere, and it added up to more than 100 thousand hectares.
With the state’s capacity drastically reduced due to the blockade, what we can and should do is develop public policies so that communal initiatives have the instruments needed to plan, collect data, and systematize it which is important to boosting production. On our end, accompanying communal projects that have a productive base and bringing them together is key.
Overall, we are building circuits where communal councils and communes with a common production base come together, organize, and collectively obtain the inputs and implements they need.
But the Communal Economic Circuits are not just about production. Distribution and commercialization are bottlenecks in the communal sphere. This means that we have to break with the figure of the intermediary.
Recent years have seen growth in communal production, but we haven’t seen the creation of alternative value chains. For example, a communal council may produce school uniforms, but it ends up selling its production to the same old actors in the market.
In short, we want to displace capitalist value chains with communal value chains.
What are the basic organizational principles of the Communal Economic Circuits?
Communal Economic Circuits are organized around three main principles. The first principle is that circuits must be based on the reproduction of life and not the reproduction of capital. The second principle is democracy: everything that is done in the name of the communal economy has to be debated and ratified by the people. The third principle is that the circuits must be viable in productive terms.
This goes hand in hand with three funds each circuit will have, funds to sustain life and not capital. The first fund is to maintain existing production (labor, inputs, maintenance, etc.). The second fund is there to support area producers and to widen communal production. The third fund is for social reinvestment. In other words, Communal Economic Circuits should contribute to transformations in the material conditions of life. This means that they will be used to invest in recuperating roads and services, while they help guarantee access to education, healthcare, and housing.
All this is an exercise that brings together the communal governments with the public powers at the local, regional, and national levels so as to guarantee people’s constitutional rights.
In this complex context you have described, what are the emerging tendencies in Venezuelan communes?
When you visit communes, you realize that in the midst of all the problems that we face as a country, communards are building something. They are facing contradictions and many do have critical positions in the face of that which they consider political deviations, but their focus is to build an alternative model in the political and economic spheres. They are committed to the future and understand that the political-declarative can’t be the center of what they do.
I think that the commune is a place from which the recomposition of Chavismo can take shape. The crisis has generated the conditions: the state has no resources, private capital has never invested in viable economic solutions for the people, and many of those who kept the country going during these hard years are committed to the communal path.
When I visit communes, I also find that much of the leadership is very young. Some are thirty years old. That means that they were ten when the Bolivarian Process began. That is why they aren’t nostalgic for the past. Instead, they concern themselves with the things that must change right now.
These people have the energy needed to struggle in both the political and economic spheres. They grew up in the context of a crisis and know that institutions have limited resources. That is why many of the communes that I have visited work to generate conditions for life on their own. There is great potential in this. Looking at the past with nostalgia is as useless as looking at the past and saying that we got it all wrong.
What are the main challenges that communes face?
The Bolivarian Revolution has enormous potential because communes are at its core. But at the same time, Chavismo faces an important challenge: each commune is extraordinary but the strategic objective must go beyond the individual commune.
In Pobladores [a grassroots organization that struggles for the city] we assume that communalization is about building a horizon for the commons. Rather than building a communal state, we believe in the construction of a communal society with new social relations.
Also, we should not get caught up in false contradictions. There should be no contradiction between the commune, the communal council, the CLAP [food distribution committees], the UBCH [local PSUV structures], and the social movements.
Committing to the communal horizon has to bring us all together. Along the way, we should not get tangled in false dilemmas. However, that is more easily said than done. Right now false dilemmas and contradictions could be winning the battle and thus exhausting some of our creative potential in useless internal disputes. Instead, we should focus on creating the material conditions for life in the commons.
In any case, with all the contradictions within Chavismo – some groups more bureaucratic, others more or less reformist, some looking at the market and others away from it – communes are looking for solutions.
At the Ministry of Communes, we are committed to the communalization of society as a whole, and we think that every project fits so long as it has life (and the commons) at its core.
Chávez’s last political discourse coined the “Commune or Nothing” slogan, but it also questioned the existence of a Ministry of Communes because communes should not be seen as separated from the rest of society. What are your thoughts on this matter?
Chávez’s reflection is something that we take very seriously. If the communal project continues to be assumed as an issue pertaining exclusively to one sector of society or as one public policy realm among others, then it’s curtains for that project. Like Chávez, we believe that the communal project should cut across all institutions and all grassroots forces.
To give you an example, I don’t think that the water problem will be solved just by plunging resources into infrastructure alone. Life-centered distribution and consumption will only happen if society is communalized. That is the only real solution to the problems that many people face here and around the world.