Nested in the mountains of Yaracuy, the Alí Primera Commune was born shortly after Hugo Chávez began to promote communes. However, its roots date from some 500 years ago, in the resistance that Indigenous peoples mounted against Spanish colonists. Later, in the 1960s, the mountains became home to communist-inspired guerrilla movements.
The Alí Primera Commune is solidly organized, with a fraternal spirit and solidarious attitude among its militants. However, this rural commune faces many challenges. Accessible only by walking or motorbike, a part of the community lives in very humble adobe homes where they cook on the open fires. Moreover, the US blockade has adversely impacted local production. The challenges these campesinos face are many, but their resilience and commitment to Chávez’s communal project is the stuff myths are made of.
[This piece, part of the Communal Resistance Series, was preceded by “The ‘Old-Yet-New’: Past and Present Intermingle at the Hugo Chávez and Alí Primera Communes.”]
The making of a commune
Here we learn about the Alí Primera Commune, a rural, mountainous commune located in a territory of almost 12 thousand hectares and home to more than 4000 families.
Carolina Parada: The long history of struggle is essential to this commune. Our roots reach deep into the past. That is why, when we began organizing in 2006, our collective took on the name of Argimiro Gabaldón, the guerrillero commander. The year 2006 was when the communal councils were formed. Some of us would go from community to community, from valley to mountain top, helping to organize about 12 campesino settlements.
We would have to walk two, three, and even five hours to reach the most distant communities. Those 12 communities became 12 communal councils. Later – when the faraway San Antonio de Los Morros community came into the fold – we became a commune composed of 13 communal councils.
Arturo Cordero: The Alí Primera Commune dates back to October 31, 2009. That was the year when Chávez began talking about the communes. It was Wladimir, a compañero from Maimire, who proposed that this territory should bear Alí Primera’s name.
Our commune’s name is not an accident: Alí Primera’s music accompanies every one of our struggles. In fact, some claim that the term “Bolivarian Revolution” was coined, avant la lettre, by Alí. In Alí’s lyrics militant Christianity, Marxism, and the independence struggle come together.
TREKKING FOR HOURS TO BUILD A COMMUNE
Marlene Escorche: Fifteen years ago we began to form communal councils and then a commune. We had one single objective: knitting a campesino community based on the commons. In the early days, people would call us “los locos” [the crazies]. Little by little, the idea of the commune began to pique the interest of our rural communities.
Now we can say that our commune is like a family and, as an organization, we have a shared horizon: keeping Chávez’s dream alive and taking the idea from the realm of the discourse into something concrete.
On his deathbed, our comrade and teacher Felipe Rojas said to us: “Do not abandon the struggle, keep at it no matter what.” His words are engraved in our hearts.
Wulliam Galíndez: This is a mountainous commune and the communities are far from each other. The closest community is two hours away on foot, and some of them are not accessible by car. In fact, nowadays, with fuel shortages and deteriorated road conditions, our legs are often our only viable means of transportation.
But that doesn’t stop this commune! We organize our parliament meetings in a central location that all can get to on foot. At times like these when the rains are too intense, some of us take it upon ourselves to visit each community and act as a transmission belt.
Germán Prado: Building a commune in these mountains is a magical experience. Granted, the work is hard and the challenges are many, but the “Territorial Platform” [a group of cadres formerly known as the Argimiro Gabaldón Collective] has the privilege of working in a commune amid an extraordinary natural landscape and extraordinary people.
Are our shoes worn out? You bet, but what we get back in return is a lot more: solidarity, care, love, and commitment to the commune wherever we go.
Recently, we had to walk six hours with the folks from Fundacomunal [the government institution that maintains a registry of communal councils and communes] to accompany an election at El Vagón. The trek left us exhausted, but we were received with a piping hot coffee and the dignity of a self-organized community. The conditions aren’t easy: there is structural poverty and the criminal blockade makes things even harder. However, these people are the grandchildren of hand-working campesinos and brave guerrilleros – they aren’t about to give up!
Wulliam Galíndez: It’s a challenge to build a commune in the mountains, but it is also true that people in these communities are accustomed to working together. How did campesinos solve their problems in the past? Most often they would meet in what we today would call an assembly and they would take important decisions together.
Now it’s the same. We meet, we debate, and we decide. The only difference is that today we do this with Chávez in our hearts and socialism on the horizon.
EDUCATION AND HOUSING
Carolina Parada: This commune has two Social Mission Bases and one Farmapatria [state-run pharmacy] high up in Maimire. We also have eight schools, although there is a shortage of teachers that must be addressed. The commune has worked hard so that all kids in the commune have schooling.
One of our battles was to incorporate the community of San Antonio de Los Morros into the perimeter of the commune. The hurdle was that, as a very small community, Fundacomunal wasn’t keen on its incorporation, but finally we succeeded. This allowed us to demand that the San Antonio kids be schooled. There isn’t a school building there, but they are using a church as the classroom.
Mariela Principal: There’s been an ongoing effort to bring political education to this commune and that, too, is one of our strengths. The guerrilleros would patiently explain why things are as they are and the historical roots of injustice. Later, with Chávez, we inaugurated the School for the Popular Empowerment, led by Cuban teachers.
Carolina Parada: Now the Communard Union is also bringing workshops to our communities. Even as we speak, there is a popular education workshop going on. There, people from the community are learning how to interpret the news and how to produce social media content to have our voices heard.
Mariela Principal: Communal organization has done a lot for us. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it! I live in dignified housing thanks to the revolution. In fact, many of the houses in La Vega were built by us, but we couldn’t have done it without Chávez’s help.
Production and life in three communities
The Alí Primera Commune’s main cash crops are coffee, avocado, bananas, pineapple, and beans. However, in these mountains plantains, ocumo, tomatoes, and bell peppers are also produced for internal consumption. This is mainly done in small plots that Venezuelans call conucos, which have helped rural communities to survive during the blockade.
To understand the productive potential of the Alí Primera Commune, we visited three of its thirteen communities. These are their stories.
COFFEE GROWING IN MAIMIRE
Ana Morales: There are 155 families in Maimire, and most of us are coffee producers.
This territory has a long history of coffee production. Our grandparents were practically the serfs of the Giménez family that dominated the region until the 60s. In fact, the townships here – from Maimire to Buenos Aires – bear the names of their estates. Now, this land is ours, and it is owned by the families who actually grow the coffee.
Carolina Parada: Coffee is the main cash crop in this commune. In fact, we have more than one thousand registered coffee producers. However, some have left due to the crisis and, in general, coffee production has gone down due to the blockade and the lockdown. That is why we had to diversify our production.
With help from the Communard Union, we built a nursery for growing coffee seedlings. Right now we have 17 thousand plants, and they are growing strong. This is very important because we are working toward increasing production in the territory by replacing old, low-yeald coffee trees with new ones.
Ana Morales: The coffee seeds for our communal nursery came from El Maizal. Their solidarity reached this remote mountain region. They supplied us with enough seeds to grow 25 thousand coffee trees. As Carolina said, we now have 17 thousand seedlings; we lost a few thousand due to the rains and because getting inputs such as pesticides and fertilizer is practically impossible. The prices are exorbitant!
Our nursery is a tribute to solidarity among communes and, at the same time, a case study on the real impact of the sanctions on agricultural production.
There were 150 coffee producers in Maimire. Now 28 additional families are joining us. The nursery and the commune are allowing us to increase production.
Mariela Principal: One of the bottlenecks when it comes to coffee production is that its commercialization is controlled by capitalists. We have no coffee processor in the territory and the roads are in bad shape, so the middlemen take advantage of our situation. That is why interlinking among communes is so important. Our objective is to distribute in collaboration with the Communard Union, thereby building a network of coffee producers.
Ana Morales: This land here is fertile. In addition to coffee, we cultivate papaya, celery, bananas, ocumo, blackberries, strawberries, bell peppers, and beans… everything grows here!
One of our struggles in this community is against deforestation. When things got difficult, clearing land became common, so we had to organize to put a halt to deforestation. Why? Because when trees are cut down, our water sources dwindle and that has a devastating impact on production and life. That struggle was successful and no trees have been felled for the last three years.
THE STRUGGLE TO PRODUCE: “EL REIMPULSO” CO-OP
Gonzalo Castillo: El Reimpulso cooperative has 160 hectares. Of those, 150 are potentially productive. Here we have some 100 head of cattle, mostly dairy cattle. We also have 20 chickens, 15 sheep, and a few horses, plus 10 hectares that are devoted to growing beans.
We grow tomatoes, bell peppers, and other food crops, although the blockade has had a devastating impact on production, mostly because getting agricultural inputs is so difficult.
Wulliam Galíndez: The story of this co-op is as follows: there had been a cooperative here, but unfortunately the land wasn’t cared for. In fact, there was a process of actually dismantling things that was underway.
That is when we said: Chávez’s land reform had one objective, to give the land to those who produce, so it’s our duty to recover it!
We organized in 2011 with the commune, and two years later we got control of the land.
Hilario Parra: The folks who were occupying this land simply sold off the tools and roofs that protected the infrastructure. In fact, they were very efficient at that, but they didn’t produce one single tomato!
As soon as we recovered this land with the help of the commune, we got to work. It wasn’t easy, and we are living in this humble bahareque [mud hut], but we are producing 100 liters of milk daily now, and we know how to continue increasing our production.
However, we are facing an important barrier: there is no access road to El Reimpulso, so we have to go along the riverbed to get here. That limits our capacity to get our products to market, particularly when the river swells during the rainy season.
In any case, the story of El Reimpulso is also the story of the commune, which has been our main support. We wouldn’t be here without the commune, we would be landless and the land would be idle!
SELF-MANAGED CONSTRUCTION AT LA VEGA-LIMONCITO
José Escalona: This is a campesino settlement with fertile ground and a community with a long tradition of cooperation. That is why, when Chávez promoted the Communal Council Law, we were one of the first in the country to organize.
Our first project took place under the aegis of Chávez’s “Seed Plan.” We got 30 million bolívares to build a small cinder block plant that would serve the needs of the community. We self-built it: the construction workers were all from here, and we purchased the materials directly, without intermediaries.
I remember that around that time a private construction company was renovating the school, and they asked us: How did you succeed at building the plant with so little money? As it turns out, if we had contracted the project out, it would have cost 200 million!
Sometime later, Chávez financed the construction of twenty houses, and we worked the same way as we did with the cinder block plant: we organized the bricklayer brigades and we purchased the materials. We also made the blocks in our plant. In the end, we were able to build 26 houses with the government’s financing and relying on our own work.
However, the Urachiche town hall didn’t take a liking to this: they wanted us to contract a private construction company. However, we were committed to administering the project and building homes ourselves. In retaliation, the town hall denied us the building permits.
Still, that wasn’t going to keep us from building the houses with the resources that Chávez gave us. In the end, the governor of Yaracuy heard about our situation and granted us the permits, thus bypassing the local government.
Why did the town hall try to sabotage the process? Did someone have interests in a construction company? Didn’t they trust us? We really don’t know, but at the end of the day, 26 homes were built, and 26 families have dignified homes, while we learned about administration and construction. That is popular power in action!
Finally, in 2010 and 2012, we got help to pave streets in town. The funding was for 240 meters of pavement, but we did more. In fact, we paved about 80% of La Vega-Limoncito. Once again, we carried out the project as a self-managed initiative.
There have been other projects since, such as an electrification one. There, since we didn’t know all the ins and outs, we decided to go to Caracas to get trained, but again we did most of the work ourselves.
Our experience goes to show that self-organization – communal administration of resources, and self-organized construction – are the way to go.