El Panal [The Beehive] is a commune in Caracas’ working-class 23 de Enero barrio that has extraordinary political, educational, and economic muscle. The commune was built by the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force, a collective with a long trajectory of grassroots work in the barrio. This three-part series highlights El Panal’s history, its economic operations, and the ways it has worked to overcome the impact of the US blockade.
El Panal Commune’s History
El Panal declared itself a commune in 2006, three years before Chávez began to talk about the communal project. Here the communards tell us about the origins of their project.
Tijuana (Asdrúbal Rondón): 23 de Enero, our barrio, has a long history of struggle. It all began when the people who were living in shanty towns in the east of Caracas occupied these newly-built blocks after the fall of the dictator [Marcos Pérez Jiménez] in 1958. It was a rebellion against the status quo and an exercise in self-managed justice. This residential complex had been built for the military and for those close to Pérez Jiménez’s government – in other words, these blocks were built for privileged people but the pueblo took them.
The combative history of our barrio began in that way. Later, in the 60s and 70s, 23 de Enero became a stronghold for resistance against the regime, the site of many battles against oppression, and a kind of safe haven for the guerrilla.
Of course, this came with much state repression and persecution: many social leaders were killed here in the streets of 23 de Enero, or they died in the chambers of the DISIP [former political intelligence police]. However, that only made people here more committed to overthrowing the government. People would protest and build barricades to keep the police away. In brief, 23 de Enero was a battleground in the 1970s.
The 1980s, however, saw a radical change. Now drug trafficking and consumption took over day-to-day life and the barrio’s combative culture seemed to vanish. Prostitution, theft, and kidnappings became prevalent; the youth stopped fighting oppression to seek their next fix and a pair of brand name shoes by any means necessary.
This didn’t happen spontaneously. We know that it was a part of a plan to eliminate the barrio’s combative spirit. The plan worked for a while and it did a lot of damage, but old habits die hard and the barrio’s combative spirit reemerged with Chávez.
Robert Longa: Our struggle goes back to Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s time when the people organized to overthrow the dictatorship. Later, during the long decades of bipartisan rule, many Left organizations established themselves in the barrio.
Here in the barrio, students took over the streets and joined forces with the guerrilleros: 23 de Enero was a hub of resistance, it was a platform for left movements, and it was on fire. That’s how a new collective consciousness was born here, and its spirit is still with us. El Panal is the result of that trajectory of politicalization and its subsequent encounter with Comandante Chávez. The commune is a living tribute to him and to all the comrades who died fighting for our collective emancipation.
ALEXIS VIVE PATRIOTIC FORCE
Robert Longa: Our origins go back to “Generación 26,” a youth organization that would eventually be called “Travesía” and was part of the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar [a cultural and social movement platform in 23 de Enero that was very vibrant in the 90s].
In 2002, we took on the name “Alexis Vive” [Alexis Lives] after Alexis González Revette, a comrade who was assassinated by the police during the April 11 coup against Hugo Chávez. Our respect for Alexis and a sense of loyalty to him led to the change in the organization’s name. The legacy of his revolutionary vision is still with us.
One year later, we left the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar and built our own grassroots platform here in the neighborhood. We were inspired by the struggles of the past, and we had one key programmatic objective: the people should govern themselves. That is why, when Chávez proposed forming communal councils and communes, we committed ourselves to that project right away.
I should say, however, that we don’t claim to have invented the wheel: it was Karl Marx who determined that the driving force in history is class struggle and that the masses are the ones called to transform society. Alexis Vive adheres to that conception and, as such, interprets its role as that of a vanguard that accompanies the masses in the collective struggle for self-emancipation.
To do this, we engage in an ongoing creative search: we study our reality and we read history and Marxist theory. We are not going to be bound by ready-made schemes, we avoid dogmatism, and we try to construct an intelligible discourse. We do all this, of course, without ever forgetting the central Marxist-Leninist premise: All power to the people!
Anacaona Marin (Bárbara Martínez): This territory and its long history of struggles were what generated Alexis Vive, which later became the driving force behind El Panal Commune. In the early years, when we called ourselves a “collective,” we had to work to even generate conditions so that people could organize. Our community had been penetrated by drug trafficking, and hence a cultural shift was needed. At that time we had no support from any institutions, so we funded our work with raffles. Also, our militants donated a part of their income to the organization. That self-management phase lasted until 2006 more or less.
Then we began to get some support from state institutions. During a visit to the neighborhood, Chávez said, “The Alexis Vive experience must be replicated in all the barrios of Caracas.”
When Chávez died, the US ramped up its siege against the Bolivarian Revolution. There were coup attempts, guarimbas, blackouts and the blockade. Later, we had the pandemic as well. This situation made us realize that we would have to go forward with no support from the state. It was time to manage our affairs autonomously: from our economic projects to the radio station, from the social cafeteria to the public spaces we cared for.
As hard as these years have been, we now have more economic projects in our hands and there are processes of mechanization underway in them. We are expanding, and the commune is in the public eye now.
All this has sparked a new phase of reactivation in the commune from the grassroots. For example, we recently staged a self-organized election process, with huge voter participation, to choose new spokespeople and parliamentarians. The commune is now “buzzing with life,” as any beehive should.
RECLAIMING PUBLIC SPACES
Tijuana: If you come to El Panal Commune these days, you will find a vibrant community, a peaceful territory where people live, work, meet in communal councils, and party… But things were not always so pretty. To get here, the struggle was a long one. It came with blood, sweat and tears.
After a period of brutal state repression in the 1970s, a new technique of social control was introduced in the barrio: drugs. In fact, by the mid-1980s, drug lords controlled the territory.
One of the early objectives of Alexis Vive was to liberate the public spaces controlled by drug trafficking gangs. Needless to say, a community that lives in fear and is harassed by thugs, won’t organize itself. That is why one of our early goals here was to end the rule of gangsters and thereby generate the conditions for communal organization.
To liberate the territory we used the politics-before-violence method. This meant that every action required a prior political analysis and that we would displace the gangs through cultural actions.
We would paint murals, clean the streets, and organize film screenings in public spaces that were contested. We called the movie screenings “Alexis Visión,” and that practice is still going on today. In those spaces where dark forces ruled, Alexis Vive was able to shine a light. Little by little, the light displaced the forces of anarchy. But the struggle also took the lives of some extraordinary comrades. They are our dead, and we will not forget them.
The best way to illustrate our success is with a parable about a beehive. In a hive, all the bees work collectively, and their home is everyone’s making, but there is a parasitic drone that feeds on their work. What will happen to him? Little by little, the bees will displace the drone until he finally leaves. Drones have no place here!
WINNING OVER THE COMMUNITY
Robert Longa: To build a social base in the community in our early days, we promoted social support initiatives. Nonetheless, we were aware that voluntarism and “assistentialism” wouldn’t change the world. If there isn’t a program, a strategy, a method, and a plan, then we are no different from a run-of-the-mill NGO. However, assistentialist initiatives, when carried out with a political objective, may open to new political scenarios and bring more people into the fold. That is what we did in our early years.
Our way of working owes a great deal to a Vietnamese leader who said that every revolution must “conquer the hearts and minds of the people” or, as we often say here, “seducing the pueblo with the revolutionary project.” Who is called on to transform society? Is it a vanguard? Is it the pueblo? The masses are the revolutionary subject, they will transform the world. All that a vanguard organization can do is accompany the masses and generate better conditions for collective self-emancipation. This means that, at the end of the day, the vanguard must merge with the masses.
Now, after many years of work and struggle, Alexis Vive not only has a long trajectory behind it, but it has a political program: the commune. Moreover, we understand that our actions, be they assistentialist or of a more political nature, must be steps toward building a new society.
Robert Longa: The idea of building a commune here, in the heart of 23 de Enero, emerged around 2006, out of our reading of Marx’s text about the Paris Commune. Marx said that the communards created an almost perfect democracy. That is why the first proletarian revolution became a model for us.
However, our interpretation of that historical event is not a mechanical one. When we think about building a commune here, we also think about Chiliying in China and the experiences of popular power in the Soviet Revolution, Red Vietnam, and the Lacandona Jungle in Chiapas [Mexico]. We think about all this in relation to three key factors: the material and social context in the barrio, our own history of struggle, and Chávez’s reflections on the commune.
Chávez was the great strategist of time. When the Berlin Wall came down and “real” socialism collapsed, he built a nationalist movement and developed the concept of participative and protagonic democracy. Then, little by little, he explained that the only way to truly realize participative and protagonic democracy was by building a socialist society.
He called the project “twenty-first-century socialism” to break with the eurocentric premises that were dominant in the main socialist currents of the twentieth century. Yet, while Chávez had a critical interpretation of twentieth-century socialism, he wasn’t opting for a “third way.” He understood that there are only two options, capitalism or socialism, and he opted for the second one. Moreover, while he was critical of prior experiments, Chávez also claimed past revolutions as part of our heritage. Chávez never left behind the basic premises of scientific socialism, but he also looked to history to point to a better future.
Chávez began talking about the commune around 2009, while saying that the communal confederation would bring about the end of the bourgeois state: the pueblo, organized in communal councils and communes, would subjugate the old institutions, thus establishing a truly democratic, socialist society.
The commune represents self-government of the people in the territory. As a vanguard organization, our role is to melt into the masses. However, we cannot dissolve our organization until the last person understands that the commune is the new model that breaks with the logic of capital. The commune comes with control over means of production, and it thus generates new social relations.
Alexis Vive pushes forward toward socialism, but it also retreats at times. We cannot live in a world apart from the people. Our actions must be connected with their desires, so we always keep an ear to the ground.
Anacaona Marín: Chávez synthesized our future with three words: “Commune or Nothing!” But, what does that really mean? It is imperative to build socialism from the grassroots. The alternative is nothing.
Here, in 23 de Enero, the idea of building a commune dates back to 2006, when Robert began to talk about the need to build a powerful discourse and symbology to project a socialist future in our barrio. Of course, socialism – or communism – is our goal, but we had to map the way of getting there, and the commune became a key piece in that map.
We decided to call our commune “El Panal” [The Beehive], because bees work hard, work together, and if one of them is attacked, all the other bees come in its defense. In a beehive, there is a queen bee, which in our way of thinking, the queen is the community itself, the Permanent Communal Assembly [the highest governing body in the commune]. Further, beehives may be inhabited by individualistic and alienated drones. We might think of those people who are permeated by the logic of capital. The drones, however, will eventually be displaced by the working bees.
Around the time we began to discuss the commune, a new archway was built as a symbolic entry point into our community. On that arch, there is a sign that still reads “El Panal Commune 2021, socialist commune under construction.”
That is how it all began, how our history and our struggle led us to the commune. It wasn’t because of a law or a decree.
A few years later, Chávez developed a very rich discourse about communalizing society, and his ideas became a powerful source of inspiration for us. Chávez was on our side, on the side of the pueblo and the commune!
Chávez often said that a commune without its own means of production would fail. Not only does El Panal control and manage an impressive number of dynamic and growing enterprises but the commune works to overcome the logic of capital by planning its economy.
COMMUNAL ECONOMIC DISTRICT
Robert Longa: The Economic District is something that we use to organize and plan the commune’s economy. The idea came out of Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution. That book made clear to us that the issue is not so much having a communal bank or issuing our own currency. Rather, we must plan our economy, if we don’t want to be pulled apart by the centrifugal forces of capitalism.
Anacaona Marín: The Economic District is a programmatic project that grew out of a process of reflection inside our organization. When it comes to building the communal economy, we need to put the capital “P” back into politics. The commune – which cannot be a mere abstraction – must be the driving force behind our economic activity.
This means that planning our economy is very important. Why? We are trying to build a communal society that is antagonistic to the capitalist system; we are moving toward socialism in a world system that puts profit before everything else.
At the end of the day, what is our objective? People must have what they need so the reign of injustice becomes a thing of the past. Plus, all this must be done with a collective, communal logic. This is the driving logic behind the Communal Economic District.
The Economic District has been a successful experiment. It proves that it’s possible to produce outside the social relations that capital imposes. After all, where is the working class in Caracas? In the barrios, in 23 de Enero, in our commune.The Economic District aims to bring the productive forces back to the territory where they came from.
Jorge Quereguan: According to Robert Longa, there is a sphere of the commune’s economy that should be subsidized: we must make sure that the most vulnerable have enough to eat. That is why we have a social cafeteria that feeds more than 120 people every day.
There is also a distribution program that sells food to the community below market prices. We do this in alliance with other communes. It helps us realize Chávez’s proposal of commune-centered distribution: distribution outside of the capitalist market.
The Communal Economic District also allows for participation in the market economy. This generates income to pay workers; it sustains our work with precarious sectors of the community; and it allows us to expand the commune’s means of production. We are not dogmatic. We understand that the commune must accumulate resources to overcome the logic of capitalism.
That is why we say that ours is a mixed economy for now. However, our economy is planned with clear political objectives in mind that have nothing to do with capitalism.
Anacaona Marín: The Economic District is a structure that plans, regulates, and organizes our commune’s finances. We have a variety of enterprises, from social production enterprises, such as the Abejitas del Panal [textile workshop] to the “social work collectives,” which are means of production and services that are directly controlled by Alexis Vive. Some of the “social work collectives” are registered as private businesses, but the surplus that they generate always goes to the commune. Our bakery, restaurant, and other initiatives would fall in the “social work collective” category.
What do we do with the surplus generated by those enterprises? The commune has some 40 workers, from dance teachers to cleaners and medical personnel. The profits from those enterprises pay their salaries. The commune also maintains a cafeteria to feed the most precarious people in the community; another canteen for the commune’s workers; social and recreational spaces; a radio station; and so on.
COMMUNAL BANK AND EL PANAL CURRENCY
Tijuana: When Chávez came here to inaugurate our sugar-packing plant in 2011, he told us that we should think about issuing our own currency inside the commune. Having our own currency would generate a degree of economic and financial autonomy. Years later, when the economic war brought about an epoch of terrible hyperinflation, we began to think about issuing our own currency.
We were growing rice then, so we decided to back our currency, which we called “Panal,” with our first crop of rice. That is when the Communal Bank came about. The bank issued the new currency and it also issued microcredits to small-scale producers in the area. The initiative managed to mitigate the impact of the financial attacks on the bolívar [Venezuela’s currency] at that time.
The Communal Bank does not suck the life out of the working class, like a traditional financial institution. Instead, our bank is an arm of the Economic District, which is the organ that plans the commune’s economy.
MEANS OF PRODUCTION
Tijuana: We have a variety of means of production under our control, and they are all part of our Communal Economic District. Our first enterprises were the bakery (which is technically a private enterprise, but the surplus goes to the commune), the garment workshop, and a sugar-packing plant. The sugar-packing plant is currently being transformed into an animal-feed plant.
We also have livestock and agricultural projects outside Caracas, and we are recovering some vacant lots in the commune for short-cycle crops. On top of that, we have urban pig and fish farms, and a recycling plant.
LAS ABEJITAS DEL PANAL, A COMMUNAL GARMENT WORKSHOP
José Lugo: Las Abejitas del Panal [beehive bees] is a direct communal property enterprise. The original funding came from the local government. We purchased nine industrial sewing machines, took control of some abandoned spaces with Alexis Vive, and outfitted them as a garment workshop. We have since purchased 13 more machines, and our installed yearly production capacity is about 1.8 million pieces per year.
We opened our doors in January 2012, and we haven’t stopped working since then. Here we produce t-shirts, sweatshirts, sports jackets, underwear, backpacks, etc. We also produce school uniforms for kids in the commune and we get contracts to produce uniforms (school or institutional) for the government.
As with any social property enterprise, Las Abejitas del Panal maintains three funds: there is a fund for maintenance and wages, a “rescue fund” in case a worker faces an emergency, and a fund for social investment, which is the most important one. We run the enterprise ourselves. No capitalist comes here to exploit us.
Last year we used our social investment fund to make 180 school uniforms for kids in the commune. Some three years ago, we made hundreds of school backpacks, while, during the pandemic, we produced thousands of facemasks. The social investment fund allows us to produce goods for the community.
Las Abejitas del Panal is a democratically-run enterprise. We take all major decisions together, in a workers’ assembly. Our main objective is to satisfy the needs of the community and to overcome the logic of exploitation that prevails in the capitalist system. That is why we say that everything that we make – be it a backpack or a medical uniform – is produced through “collective and liberated work” [producto del trabajo colectivo liberador].
I remember visiting a private garment workshop years ago. The working conditions were subhuman. The workers were crammed up in tiny spaces that were really, really hot, and they weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom.
Here, by contrast, our dignity as workers comes first: we all have a say in what we produce and for whom, we work in a comfortable environment, we play the music we like, we share a coffee in the morning, we care for each other, and nobody bosses us around!
Tijuana: The tilapia farm was born in the darkest days, when the pandemic and the blockade coincided to make a perfect storm. Those were hard times for us. Until then, to supply the commune with food, we would buy fish from self-organized fishermen’s councils. However, when the government implemented the lockdown we had two choices: we could lock ourselves down and die of starvation, or find an alternative for bringing food to the community. After a collective debate, we modified the “Stay at home!” slogan to make it: “Stay in your commune!”
We had a vacant swimming pool, so we purchased 1200 tilapia minnows. We knew nothing about pisciculture so we began to experiment by reading online. Shortly after, we were able to harvest two tilapia crops of about 200 kilos each. This helped us to supply our cafeteria, which meant that we were able to continue feeding the most vulnerable people in the commune.
The fish-farming project is growing now. We have received some support from state institutions. They have helped us with pisciculture and aquiculture workshops and have facilitated a loan to automate parts of the process. Now we have six industrial pisciculture tanks that maintain 500 tilapias each. This means that we can have monthly yields of 200 kilos.
The pisciculture project will feed the most precarious people in the community and provide fish to kids through the government’s School Alimentation Program. However, we also see it as another step toward the proletarization of the barrios [a term coined by Robert Longa that refers to the long-term aim of re-industrializing 23 de Enero barrio and neighboring zones].
We took our first steps in fish farming using rudimentary methods, but now, two years later, the process is becoming automated, and we hope to advance further in that direction. Soon we will build a small genetic research lab, and we plan to produce our own fish food in our animal feed plant.
PESCADERÍA URBANA DEL SUR, A FISH MARKET
Tijuana: For more than eight years now, we have worked with fishermen’s councils to bring fish to our community. It used to be that people in the barrios could only afford to buy sardines, but now people can buy other fish species at fair prices, from sea bream to red snapper and to tahalí. Also, we will soon be selling the tilapia produced in our pisciculture unit.
Jorge Quereguan: The fish market [Pescadería del Sur] is a new initiative. For years we bought fish for the commune through an agreement with fishermen’s councils, but we had no storefront then. Now, with some support from the Fishing Ministry, we have a storefront that is equipped with a commercial refrigerator to better serve the community.
PORCINERA URBANA DEL SUR, AN URBAN PIG FARM
Jorge Quereguan: Some two years ago, we bought a few live pigs to slaughter them. However, two of the sows gave birth shortly after we brought them here. That is when we began to think about raising pigs here in Caracas. Right now we have 85 pigs, from piglets to adult animals.
The project grew very rapidly. In the beginning, we knew nothing about raising pigs, but little by little we got to be professionals. We have learned about animal health and sanitation; about artificial insemination and caring for pregnant sows and their litters; and about fattening the pigs before taking them to the slaughterhouse. We use a Cuban system for urban pigsties called “deep bedding.” It involves the use of either coffee husk or rice husk to form the bed in the pigsty, which controls the odor.
Developing a full supply chain for the pig feed is also very important. We already produce legumes and cereals in Cojedes state, so we are working so that these crops become the base for the feed that we will be producing in our own plant.
The commune should not stop at the level of primary production. Soon we’ll be making sausages, chorizo, blood pudding, smoked pork chops, etc.
Here, at El Panal, production is not an end in itself. Our means of production must serve the commune, they must satisfy the needs of the people and at the same time generate new social relations.
Tijuana: We produce fruit, cereal, and legumes both in Caracas and on the land that we have in Cojedes and Lara states. In Lara, we have 36 hectares of Type A land, which we purchased with a loan to the commune. There we grow avocados, plantains, and cassava. In Cojedes, we grow cereals and legumes and raise cattle, pigs, and chickens. In those farmsteads, our objectives are both political and productive.
Here, in the barrio, we are reclaiming vacant lots that were used as dumpsters or became hotspots for drug-consumption. One of our main aims with the urban agriculture initiative is to teach. We already have six reclaimed spaces. There, kids from the commune come to learn about the cycle of life and farming, while learning to love nature.
Luis Farías (Guicho): Here, in the city, we grow corn, beans, sugarcane, bananas, plantains, tomatoes, squash, peppers, zucchini, etc. Our production is environmentally-friendly: we don’t use agrochemicals and instead use vermiculture techniques. In other words, we are working to break with our dependency on the agroindustrial complex.
Our urban production is not intensive, but it does the job. Our crops help supply the commune’s cafeterias, and the project serves as part of the commune’s school. It is one of the pillars of our educational program.
Anacaona Marín: To pay the wages of those who work for the commune, and at the same time finance our healthcare initiatives, the commune’s canteens, and our work in the community, the organization needs resources. One of our projects is the “consumption card” [ficha consumo], a kind of database that centralizes information about the kilocalorie needs of every household in the commune.
We get cheese from a commune in Apure state, and meat from our lands in Cojedes state on a regular basis. The distribution is based on the consumption card information. Although we sell these goods below the market price, there is still a profit that helps maintain the commune’s operations.
El Panal was also a pioneer in the Pueblo a Pueblo program, which is a grassroots initiative linking producers in Trujillo state with organized communities in Caracas. Pueblo a Pueblo does away with the intermediary so that the working class can have access to produce at lower prices.
Jorge Quereguan: This is a new unit for the collection and processing of recyclable materials: cardboard, plastic, and metal.
The initiative came out of a conversation between President Nicolás Maduro and Robert Longa. When Longa proposed that the proletariat itself industrialize the barrios, Maduro said: let’s do it. This recycling plant is a result of that conversation.
The recycling plant has three objectives. First, there is the environment, which is a concern of ours and is also one of five goals laid out in Chávez’s Homeland Plan. Then there is the project’s economic objective: we collect, sort, and compact recyclable materials, which are sold to state and private enterprises. The surplus, as always, goes to the commune. Finally, the recycling plant has a social objective: we hire barrio youths that were unemployed. In so doing, the commune is offering them an economically viable alternative to a life of crime.
PRODUCTION AND SOCIALISM
Jorge Quereguan: There is a longstanding Marxist premise: if we want to overcome the despotic, bloody logic of capital, then the means of production must be in the hands of the people. At El Panal Commune we have developed a strategy and we have a planned economy. We are going in the right direction.
Robert Longa: When we say all power to the people, that is about a new way of doing politics, but also generating new social relations. That is why, at this stage, we are focusing on building the commune hand in hand with the people, but we are also working very hard to consolidate and expand our productive projects. A politically advanced initiative without its own economic muscle is destined to fail. It will either be devoured by the capitalist monster or become parasitical on state institutions.
Our wager is with the people, with Chávez, and with socialism.
José Lugo: The means of production should be in the hands of the people. Chávez was adamant about this. If we are able to consolidate the commune’s productive projects, then we will also be strengthening the commune’s autonomy and self-government.
We still have a long way to go on the path to socialism, but the seed for the new society is to be found here: in the streets and apartment blocks of the commune, in the communal council assemblies, and among the workers who run the means of production.
That is precisely why Barack Obama declared Venezuela to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat.” We have no nuclear weapons and we respect the sovereignty of every nation, so why are we a threat? Why do they sanction us? Because if Chávez’s model works – if that which is old finally dies and that which is young comes into the world – then it’s curtains for them.
This interview is part of VA’s ongoing Communal (and Working Class) Resistance Series.