Nested in the working-class El Valle barrio in Caracas, the 5 de Marzo Commune is a project that explores new ways to empower an urban community. With a group of young people at the helm, including many university students, this commune has developed a feminist discourse that is often missing in other communal spaces. Here, two spokespeople tell us about the challenges of commune-building in a large city.
Can you explain the history of the 5 de Marzo Commune?
Anaís Márquez: The 5 de Marzo “Comandante Eterno” Commune brings together seven communal councils which began meeting around 2011 or 2012. All had very similar characteristics, and we began to consider the idea of building a commune. It was only in 2018, however, that our commune-building effort became legally sanctioned, that is, it was then recognized by Fundacomunal [a government institution that validates communes].
We took 5 de Marzo “Commandante Eterno” as our commune’s name because, on March 5, 2013, Comandante Chávez left this plane of existence and became a forever in our lives.
There are 2270 families in this commune. Those of us who live here share a culture and in economic terms, we are working-class people. Most are waged workers or stay-at-home caretakers.
Finally, regarding the barrio’s economic horizon, the potential to produce goods here is very limited. This means that commerce and services are at the core of the territory’s economic options.
What are the political elements that come together in this commune?
Márquez: There are several political factors. There is the United Socialist Party, PSUV, the social movements in the sphere of the PSUV, and the Left Cultural Front [henceforth FCI for its initials in Spanish], a Chavista organization that began as a student movement. All these elements come together in the commune, but perhaps the most active force is the FCI.
We are in a former Mercal [state subsidized supermarket chain] space that is run by 5 de Marzo communards. Taking control of it didn’t happen overnight. How did the commune gain control of this space?
Andy Hernández: As Anaís said before, this is a highly-populated barrio, which means that economic activity here depends on the selling and distribution of goods and services. That is why, in working toward building a new communal hegemony, the commune’s participation in the distribution of goods is important.
We have been working with different organizations since 2017, including Pueblo a Pueblo, and we demonstrated our capacity to deliver goods to the commune. Pueblo a Pueblo is a campesino organization that works to bring produce to working-class communities without intermediaries, thus lowering the price of their goods. We became Pueblo a Pueblo’s contacts here in El Valle, and we were able to distribute about one ton of produce every month. This happened at a time when inflation was rampant, so the fact that produce was sold at lower prices here was critical.
This brings us back to the Mercal, which was abandoned years ago. Around 2019 we began to organize so that the commune could take control of the infrastructure with one objective: self-managed distribution of goods, mostly food, for the working people of the barrio. In the beginning, because some people PSUV considered us a “subversive” commune, we were not able to use the space. In fact, it was given to another commune that was unable to maintain it.
About a year ago we went back to the struggle for the Mercal. We developed a distribution plan and, with the Communard Union, we were able to gain control of it in March 2022. The Ministry of Alimentation transferred it to us. We also had support from the Ministry of Communes.
We call this space Somos Karive [we are Caribe], after the rebellious people inhabiting this territory when the colonizers arrived. They fought hard and were able to maintain autonomy for a long time. Also, they never bent the knee!
What do you distribute or sell here at Somos Karive?
Hernández: We sell “Feria Conuquera” produce. The Feria Conuquera brings together organized communities from Caracas and surrounding areas that engage in small-scale, organic, self-sustainable production. We also sell panelas [semi-processed sugar presented in blocks] from the 5 Fortalezas Commune in Cumanacoa [Sucre state] and soon we will be bringing coffee from the Che Guevara Commune in Tucaní [Mérida state]. We also hope to work with El Sur Existe Commune in Valencia and from communes in Los Llanos [center plains region].
For us, the bottleneck is getting the goods from the communes around the country into Caracas. That is precisely where we are concentrating our energy at the moment.
Finally, at Somos Karive, we also distribute goods that we purchase in bulk at the wholesale market. We sell them with a small markup or at cost.
After much experimentation, communes such as Luisa Cáceres in Barcelona have discovered that managing services may be a viable option to “communalize” the economy in an urban context. I understand that you have taken steps in this direction as well. Tell us about it.
Hernández: Many of the services in the country are provided by the Venezuelan state. There is, however, a tendency to decentralize (and even privatize) some of these services. When this happens, a contested terrain opens up: should it be the private sector that manages these services or should it be the communes? It is our opinion that, if a private enterprise can run services such as cooking gas distribution, the organized communities can do it just as well. In fact, I know that we can do it better because profit is not our goal.
Here, at the 5 de Marzo, we participated in a struggle for self-managed gas distribution, and we succeeded at keeping the service from being privatized. However, for the moment, the distribution is not in the commune’s hands. Our objective is communal distribution, and that is why we are now fighting to run the service through a direct social property enterprise that should be in the hands of the 5 de Marzo Commune and neighboring communes in El Valle.
What are the key sources of income that keep the commune running?
Hernández: The commune has three key sources of revenue. The first one is Somos Karive, the former Mercal. The profit there is not large, but it helps us promote some events and activities. Then there is a voluntary contribution from some folks in the commune, and those funds also help promote communal work. Finally, when we distribute of the CLAP bags, there is a small surcharge that helps feed the commune’s initiatives.
The FCI, one of the forces promoting territorial organization, also helps fund communal life. That organization seeks support from governmental institutions and NGOs for social initiatives or community-based research. These funds are not appropriated individually, but go back to the community in some way or another. In fact, we purchased two houses in the barrio with those funds. One of them is called La Morada, our center for communal feminism, and the other is a space to “conspire” and receive folks when they visit Caracas and the commune.
As I understand it, you are taking first steps toward thinking about feminism in a communal context. What is communal feminism?
Márquez: We have to break with the chains of both the capitalist and the patriarchal system. However, the feminist project that we are committed to does not toe the line of liberal feminism; it doesn’t pit men against women. Our experience tells us that we all have to work together toward the communalization of society.
Communal feminism is about accompanying women so that they have the tools to be leaders in the community, so that they are recognized, and so that they can defend their rights.
One of the problems that women committed to communal work in Venezuela often face is what some may call “triple exploitation.” They sell their workforce in the capitalist market, they assume the tasks of social reproduction at home, and they care for the community in the territory. Some celebrate this phenomenon as empowerment. What are your reflections on this matter?
Márquez: Political, anti-patriarchal education is one of our lines of work, and from the FCI, we organize to turn the situation of triple exploitation around, although it won’t happen overnight.
We are also committed to collective care. At the FCI one comrade has kids who are treated as everyone’s children, so we care collectively for these kids. This is important because it helps us free time for that comrade’s work in the community.
Additionally, when it comes to communal feminism, one of our lines of work is making it known that gender-based violence is absolutely unacceptable in the commune, and we have workshops so that victims will have the tools to denounce gender-based violence.
Tell us a bit more about this collective care initiative.
Márquez: We have it as a goal that, when we hold an assembly or a parliament meeting, we should make sure that child care is offered. Why? Caregivers, who are an important part of our community, need to be free to participate. That is why our aspiration is to organize parallel spaces that are not just about keeping the kids safe; in those spaces, we also develop a new pedagogy where we promote a violence-free society. We are still developing those spaces, but we consider them very important.
Your practice of communal feminism comes with “Flower Routes” embodying three lines of work. Can you explain these routes to us?
Márquez: Indeed. We have three Flower Routes to promote communal feminism at the 5 de Marzo Commune. Our first route is the Cayenas Route. At the core of this route are a group of compañeras who address sexual and reproductive health issues in the community. They offer educational workshops and organize movie nights.
There is a second route that offers support to women who are victims of machista violence. This route, which bears the name of the bromeliad flower, gets support from NGOs. Part of the funds that we received went to purchase a house that we call “La Morada.” We offer psychological and legal support to the victims of gender-based violence out of that house, but we also organize workshops, debates, and movie nights in the streets and the stairs that go up to the barrio.
This Bromeliad Route has offered affectionate support to 300 to 400 women over the past two years.
Our third route takes the name of the coqueta, a flower that the women of the 5 Fortalezas Commune made their own. The 5 Fortalezas women are sugarcane growers, true warriors, and we have learned a lot from them. The Coquetas Route focuses on communal economy and giving women viable economic alternatives.
You receive funding from NGOs, which generally comes with external dictates. How do you negotiate autonomy in these cooperation contexts?
Hernández: Obviously NGOs are not neutral and they try to co-opt grassroots work. We are aware of this situation. In fact, we often ask ourselves: what are all these NGOs doing in Venezuela?
In any case, when we seek funding, whether from an NGO or from the government, our objective is to promote communal organization. The projects that have gotten the most funding are the flower routes.
When we get funding, which is generally channeled through the FCI, we always meet the administrative requirements of the agreement. However, the bulk of the funding goes towards collective initiatives.
In other words, when we get funding we earmark part of it for the communal project. These sources of funding are a tool to go on building political and economic autonomy in a country where the means of production continue to be in very few hands.
The 5 de Marzo Commune is part of the Communard Union. Tell us more about your work with the Union.
Hernández: As we mentioned before, the potential to develop productive spaces in the city is very limited. Our first link with El Maizal Commune, which is one of the key promoters of the Communard Union, was through a cornflour distribution initiative. Later, we worked with the Simón Bolívar Commune in Mucuchies [Mérida state], which provides potatoes for Pueblo a Pueblo.
It was through those relations that we were able to resist the impact of the crisis and the blockade. We also knew that building a commune requires making connections, and that is why we committed to the Communard Union.
The Communard Union is an organization that brings together communes from around the country. We have given our everything to strengthen the Union here, in the central region, which is the most densely populated part of the country.
Is it difficult to build a commune in an urban center? Yes! Is it impossible? No, but it requires a lot of connecting and working with others.
Márquez: The Communard Union is organized in five regions, and we are in the center region, which is the most urban one.
The Union helps us to learn from other communal experiences. El Maizal is a reference in Venezuela and around the world, and having been there, I can tell you that what we have learned from them is truly extraordinary. The same goes for some of the communes in the east of the country and in Mérida. As part of the Communard Union, we have visited them all and our work is fueled by their experience and knowledge.
The most important thing right now is to build an economic network that will allow exchange and barter between communes. We work towards this goal with Chávez’s Commune or Nothing as the strategic horizon. This means that, as we transition towards socialism, we also have to become more autonomous, more independent, and we have to build a true government of and by the people.