El Panal [The Beehive] is a commune in Caracas’ working-class 23 de Enero barrio that has advanced far in political, educational, and economic terms. 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, based on numerous interviews, highlights El Panal’s history, its economic operations, and the ways it has worked to overcome the impact of the US blockade. If Part I focused on the commune’s history and its economic projects, and Part II dealt with the impact of the sanctions and the communal solutions to the crisis, then this third and final section focuses on education and other social services that the commune promotes.
Care for the community
Life trumps capital – that is the commune in a nutshell. At El Panal Commune caring for the lives of its approximately 13,000 residents is central to the project and it is done with an approach that is worlds apart from the “charitable” care that NGOs and religious institutions offer.
Anacaona Marín: For us, care for the community is key to our political work and it doesn’t follow a clientelistic logic. We work to ensure that nobody goes hungry and that there is medical attention for all who require it. Even when organizing sporting events and chess tournaments, we are fertilizing the ground so that the community will become stronger and more combative.
Caring for the community also involves maintaining peace, so it can mean taking over a space if it is penetrated by drug trafficking, as we are doing now around the baseball field. In fact, sporting and cultural events are pivotal to displacing problematic activities in our community.
Finally, this commune has a special commitment to education. Later we will talk more about the Pluriversidad Patria Grande, but for now I will tell you that we recently activated the BRICOMIL, which is a cooperation initiative between the government, the armed forces, and organized communities to revamp schools. We just finished renovating the Gabriela Mistral School [in the center of the commune] a few days ago, completing the project in time for the beginning of the new school year.
Anacaona Marín: In addition to helping vulnerable people get the medicines they need, Alexis Vive pays the wages of a nurse who does house-to-house work in the community.
Judit Guerra: Caring for the community is one of our passions. A community that doesn’t know who needs help, who is sick or who is pregnant cannot truly call itself a commune. For me, commune-building is about life itself.
Here we maintain a thorough a census of our community and its needs. When a critical situation emerges, we work non-stop until we find a solution. We also promote vaccination campaigns. The result is that all kids in the barrio are up to date with their vaccines, and most people in our community are on their third and even fourth Covid-19 shot.
We also have a senior citizens’ club called “Club de Abuelos,” which is a self-managed initiative that combines recreational and social activities with medical attention.
Adriana Quintana: The Christopher Hernández Canteen has been feeding over 120 of the most vulnerable people in the commune for more than eight years.
Over there [pointing to a plot of yuca plants] we grow some of the food that supplies the canteen, and compañeras from the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force cook the meals there. This is an autonomous, self-run initiative that has become all the more important during the blockade. It’s a virtuous circle!
We also run the José Arévalo Workers’ Canteen, a recent initiative that offers a hearty lunch to the forty-five workers employed in the commune, whether in the porcine unit, the recycling unit, or the radio.
Jorge Quereguan: Christopher Hernández was an Alexis Vive cadre who was killed years ago. He was really committed to the community, so that is why our social canteen bears his name. We honor the commune’s dead!
The workers’ canteen bears the name of José Arévalo, a beloved comrade who worked for the community for more than fifty years. Fortunately, he is still with us, but Robert Longa proposed that the canteen bear his name, recalling that song by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico that says, If you are going to give me something, give it to me while I’m alive.
The capitalist pays you a wage because he has to, but he doesn’t care if you eat. Here, we have to build solidarious spaces where the regime of capital is done away with, spaces where new social relations emerge. Sitting around a table and sharing a meal – all that points in the right direction.
SPORTS AND RECREATION
Adriana Quintana: Here, in the heart of the community, is a multi-use court which is an epicenter of communal and recreational life.
The commune promotes both sports and culture. If you come here on Saturday you will see free bailoterapia sessions, but youths also play sports here every day and we sometimes hold sports competitions. Additionally, we have a growing dance group that works to preserve Venezuelan traditions.
Further, we hold chess teach-ins and chess tournaments. Chess is an important part of our work: it improves logical and critical thinking abilities and helps with concentration.
Finally, there is Radio Arsenal, a long-running broadcast initiative that reaches much of Caracas. Its programming combines salsa music with news and analysis, but we also talk there about what is going on in the commune. If we are organizing a chess tournament, you will hear about it there. If a patriotic assembly is coming up, the radio will let people know.
Judith Guerra: There is a long tradition of screening movies for kids here in the community. We call these screenings “Alexis Visión,” and they happen on Fridays. Alexis Visión is a way to tighten our links with the community. We bring out the projector and a sound system into the street and project the children’s movies that are currently on the theater marquees.
Alexis Vive and the Commune
The Alexis Vive Patriotic Force is a vanguard organization that was built according to a Leninist model. Unlike many such vanguards, however, Alexis Vive understands the importance of fostering popular power and self-organization outside of its ranks, which is why it ended up promoting El Panal Commune.
Anacaona Marín: In 2006 Chávez began to talk about socialism, and we were elated. The year 2006 was when Chávez began to promote communal councils as the instrument to give power to the people and to rekindle participative and protagonic democracy. It was also the year that Alexis Vive launched El Panal Commune and Robert declared the communalization of the territory.
There were several sources of inspiration for the project. On the one hand, we found Chávez and his reflections about self-government thrilling, but we were also reading about the Mérida Communards [a popular uprising in the 18th century], about the experience of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation [EZLN], about the Paris Commune, and about the Soviets.
The bottom line was that communalization is, in essence, antagonistic to the capitalist system. That is why the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force committed itself to the commune as early as 2006.
Now, the big question here, and one that we reflect on every day, is what is the correct relationship between Alexis Vive, which is a vanguard organization, and a commune? Briefly, I would say that we are a motor that helps push the commune forward, but the real subject is the community.
Jorge Quereguan: Alexis Vive works to bring capitalism to an end, and the commune is our path for reaching that goal. The commune as an objective determines our tactical and strategic actions. There is one single aim that is behind our care for the community, the economic, cultural, and social initiatives that we pursue: winning over the people and committing them to the communal model.
The capitalist mode of production separates workers from production and citizens from real decision-making processes. By contrast, the commune, the project that Alexis Vive pursues, must be self-governed and production here must break with the capitalist logic of exploitation.
Anacaona Marín: When Chávez criticized the old political parties, he did so because parties such as Democratic Action [AD] had the practice of co-opting the people. He wasn’t talking about Leninist parties: Leninist parties are vanguard organizations that work for and with the people. In that sense, Alexis Vive is close to a Leninist party, but with one difference: at the end of the day we must fuse with the people.
How does this play out? As you know, we had communal council elections in July. We live here in the commune, and because of our work and the number of people we can mobilize, we could use it to win most of the elected posts. But we didn’t do that, we wanted everyone to participate. That’s because we are bound by Chávez’s idea of participative and protagonic democracy. Leninism plus grassroots democracy, that is what we at Alexis Vive are all about!
Robert Longa: We didn’t invent the wheel. We come out of an insurgent tradition that commits to popular power above all else. Day-to-day practice is our great teacher, but we are also indebted to the past and we study theory with passion. Our praxis comes out of all that historical, theoretical, and on-the-ground work.
Anacaona Marín: Chávez promoted self-government, but we aren’t there yet. Although it’s true that El Panal Commune and Alexis Vive are the key political players here, we have a long way to go before our commune is fully self-governed.
El Panal is currently advancing, but we are not self-sustainable. The support from the government is important as we continue to build our productive muscle and a social base that is committed to the commune.
We still have a long way to go. As the commune matures, we must beyond the confines of El Panal and think about Chávez’s idea of forming a confederation of communes. El Panal is located in the urban hillsides in 23 de Enero. As such, it has its own history and its own geography. All this means that, while there is room to do a lot more, there are also real limits to the work we cand do here. That is where the confederation of communes comes in.
Panalitos and communal councils
According to the existing legal framework, communal councils are supposed to be the base of the communes. However, at El Panal Commune, there is an alternative organizational format that is also very important: the “Panalitos” [small beehives]. Panalitos are self-organized, territorial or sectorial cells that El Panal developed to sidestep some of the bureaucratic hurdles to community council formation that emerged over the years.
Orly Ortiz: The Panalitos are built into the DNA of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force. They are spaces for direct participation in the territory. Right now, since the massive communal council elections in July, the Panalitos work hand-in-hand with the communal councils. However, when the Panalitos emerged as a project, some communal councils had become closed in on themselves, bureaucratized, or simply inactive. That is the reason why the Panalitos were born.
Judit Guerra: The Panalitos are territorial and sectorial organizations that are committed to building El Panal Commune with the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force. The Panalitos are not constrained by external legislation: they are the true expression of grassroots organization, and their work is political, social, and cultural. The Panalitos are the basic cells that make up the body of the commune.
Orly Ortiz: A commune is built by everyone who lives in the territory. Some people will commit their whole life, others will commit two afternoons every week, and others will have a lighter engagement – but everyone is important. We are a vanguard organization at Alexis Vive, and we work hard so that the commune is healthy, lively, and strong. But a commune built by a few cadres would be a contradiction in terms.
That is why the recent communal council elections were so important for us. Participation was massive in the elections and it continues. Now, if you go to apartment block 25, you may find a communal council assembly, or if you go to Santa Rosa, there could be a meeting taking place to deal with medical attention in the community.
PANALITO SANTA ROSA: A CASE STUDY
Judit Guerra: Around 2008, the Santa Rosa neighborhood [now part of El Panal Commune] had fallen victim to crime, so our community decided to knock on the door of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force to ask for their help. The organization worked with us to displace the elements that were damaging the community. Alexis Vive painted murals on the streets, and we organized cultural events together. Little by little, the criminal groups left town, and our community came back to life. In fact, as soon as the dealers went away, we conceived our neighborhood in new terms!
Around 2011 we organized ourselves and got support from the local government to rebuild both the plumbing system and the rainwater gutters in Santa Rosa. We got technical advice from the municipal offices, but we rebuilt the plumbing mains and paved the streets ourselves. We also replaced 90% of the roofs with the help of Misión Barrio Nuevo Tricolor. Finally, some families were living in rundown shacks, so we built five small residential blocks with 42 apartments in total.
We were able to do all this with institutional support. However, the key to opening the doors was Alexis Vive and the participation of the community. Now, when you come to Santa Rosa, you will find a beautiful and clean neighborhood where grandmothers enjoy the evening breeze right outside their homes and children play football in the afternoons. Santa Rosa is an example of what a community can achieve, if we all work together and if we follow in Chávez’s footsteps.
“Proletarianization” of the barrios
One of the more ambitious projects at El Panal Commune is called the “proletarianization of the barrios.” They use this term to refer to reactivating the productive forces (or re-industrialization) carried out in a context of new social relations.
Asdrubal Rondón (Tijuana): In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a planned de-industrialization of our barrio. It went hand in hand with the penetration of drug trafficking into the area and the political demobilization of the working class. The role of 23 de Enero became that of a reproducer of the workforce, but goods were not being produced here.
To turn around this situation, we have our eyes set on the vacant workshops and warehouses in Los Flores [barrio adjacent to El Panal]. Why? We think that to end our reliance on the capitalist market for access to work and goods, there should be a “proletarianization” of the west of Caracas.
In doing so, El Panal will not only be putting distribution and education under communal relations, but also attempt to develop large-scale communal production that could be a springboard into the future. That is what Robert proposed to Nicolás Maduro when the president visited us earlier this year.
Robert Longa: The “proletarianization” project comes out of the not-so-new idea that the working class must be empowered. In fact, the idea goes beyond El Panal and beyond the west of Caracas. Proletarianization is a concept and practice that could well expand throughout the Venezuelan territory and beyond. All power to the people, all power to the working class, this is a universal idea!
We are now focused on the proletarianization of the west of Caracas, because all you hear about, when it comes to our side of the city, is the criminal groups. Nobody talks about the new production models that are beginning to emerge! Public opinion focuses only on the dark forces operating here.
We have developed a class-based counter-proposal: let’s displace the mafias with a project that can actually offer an alternative for the working class. Let’s promote the creation of new means of production in the hands of the people, in the spaces that capital has abandoned!
In the proletarianization project, the insurgent subject becomes a subject of social transformation. However, for this to happen, there has to be a political and ideological project. That project must also be equipped with the tools to satisfy people’s needs. In other words, we have to build a productive model that breaks with both the formal and informal logics of capital.
The west of Caracas was industrialized not so long ago. If you look down the hill you will see empty plants and storehouses in Los Flores. The infrastructure is there, so let’s reactivate it outside of the prevailing capitalist logic.
A kind of war between the new and old forces of capitalism may be brewing. Before that happens, we must agree upon a new economic model that will put the productive forces in the hands of the organized communities. That is what we call the “Exclusive Communal Zones” [ZEC], another proposal of ours.
I should highlight, however, that the ZEC proposal is not driven by an economicist logic: the objective is political. We have to overcome the existing paradigm, and we have to develop the tools – both political and economic – to do so. Proletarianization and the ZECs are part of the toolbox that we need.
Finally, the proletarianization proposal is not an end in itself. It’s a starting point for moving forward into new dimensions of communal construction.
Here we learn about the Pluriversidad [Pluriversity], El Panal’s formal but non-traditional learning initiative. The Pluriversidad combines political education workshops with university-level studies and vocational classes.
Robert Longa: Political education, and education in general, has always been one of the pillars of our organization. I studied sociology at Venezuela’s Central University for three semesters and found it useful. One can criticize its prescriptive model, but those spaces offer a method, they can provide you with tools that help organize your research.
Nonetheless, the university we most believe in is the “university of life.” We learn by doing, by reading, and by debating. We soak up as much information as we can from many sources, and we try to build a coherent interpretative model along the way.
Here, at El Panal, we are working so that there will be a new generation of leaders. Why? Because a political project should not depend on one particular individual forever. The masses are called to become the new subject of transformation, but for that to happen they must be empowered with critical thinking tools. The Pluriversidad is part of that effort.
In a debate about material and moral stimuli with the Political Bureau of the Revolution, Che Guevara said: If consciousness isn’t transformed, we are never going to succeed in building socialism. To translate Che’s idea to the present: If the people don’t believe in the commune, if they aren’t convinced that socialism is the aim, or if a commune is just a sum of murals, t-shirts, and means of production, is it really a commune?
A commune is about people taking control of their own lives and, for that to happen, we need a revolutionary example and consciousness.
Iván Tamariz: El Panal has gone through multiple iterations of its political education project. Around 2017, for example, we carried out intense processes of collective self-study in the Panalitos. We read and debated about historical experiences related to grassroots construction. We read about the Paris Commune, the Chinese communes, and Chiapas (Mexico).
Around 2020, the Alexis Vive cadres also went through an intense study period that was part of the “Year Zero reset” we were attempting to achieve. The Pluriversidad was born out of these and other educational initiatives. It also grows out of Fidel Castro’s premise, which is still true today: A revolutionary without political education is destined to fail or betray the project.
The Pluriversidad is an Alexis Vive initiative open to El Panal Commune as a whole. In fact, this is a school that is open to anyone who wants to study. The inauguration took place around a bonfire on January 23, 2022, and it has evolved a great deal since then.
Now, when you come to the Gabriela Mistral School [a school located in the middle of the commune, which is headquarters of the Pluriversidad], you can find classrooms where communal council spokespeople and organization cadres study political economy or debate the concept of ethics in Enrique Dussel. You may also hear people talking about the insurgent history of 23 de Enero or about Chávez’s “Strike at the Helm” speech.
Beyond that, the Pluriversidad also opened three university-level tracks under the aegis of Misión Sucre just a few weeks ago: agroecology, IT, and education. Imagine that, a commune developing its own university-level education!
Under the auspices of the Pluriversidad, we are promoting a vocational school hand-in-hand with the INCES [state-run vocational program] and soon we will open the doors of Misión Ribas, high-school level education for those who never graduated.
Ours is not a project for the elites. Like Chávez, we are committed to massifying education at all levels. With the Pluriversidad we are being loyal to Chavez’s legacy.
As the commune’s learning project, the Pluriversidad is not here just to interpret the world, but rather to transform it, and it aims to do so from a materialist perspective. That is our driving idea. Here that Marxist premise joins hands with the methodology of Simón Rodríguez [Simón Bolívar’s mentor] and Paulo Freire. In fact, if you ask us about our methodological framework, we will tell you to read Friere’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
At the Pluriversidad we also take a cue from Kléber Ramírez [leftist university professor who influenced Chávez]. Kléber said the path to the communal state involved food, science, and dignity. If we are able to produce all three at El Panal Commune, then we will have done our job!
This interview is part of VA’s ongoing Communal (and Working Class) Resistance Series.