And the Campesinos Won! The Hugo Chávez Commune

The struggle for the land and the impact of the US blockade.

The town of Urachiche in Yaracuy state is an agrarian center that is known for its combative past. Its Hugo Chávez Commune, which includes both urban and rural terrain, benefits from flatlands suitable for crops and cattle raising, all of it bathed in cool breezes that descend from the Araya mountains.

In the following article, campesinos and town dwellers tell us about their commune, its recent history of land struggle, its productive potential, and the impact of the US-led sanctions on people’s lives.

[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 commune in context

Founded in 2013, the Hugo Chávez Commune is located in an urban-rural territory and is home to more than 22 thousand people.

Germán Prado: This commune was founded the year that Chávez passed away [2013], and it takes his name because Chávez left his imprint on us. The struggle for the land here goes way back, from the Indigenous people who resisted the colonizers to General Ezequiel Zamora [1817-60], who swept the people of Urachiche up in an all-out war against the land-grabbing oligarchy, but it was Chávez’s Land Law [2001] that opened the path toward re-collectivizating of the land.

That is why, while this is an urban and rural commune, the communal spirit is more powerful in the collectivized campesino farmsteads. Within the commune’s territory, there are five “Fundos Zamoranos” [Zamorano Farmsteads] where production is not dictated by the landowning oligarchy but by the campesinos themselves who work the land, and they are vital to the commune. These farmsteads are organized under the legal framework of cooperatives, but they are part of our communal system and represented in our communal parliament.

In short, the Hugo Chávez Commune brings together 26 communal councils. Of those, 21 are urban – they are the patchwork that we call Urachiche – and five are rural. In total the commune is home to more than 22 thousand people.

Macario Colmenarez: In this territory, the Bolivarian Revolution encountered campesinos who come from a long line of “red” [communist] struggle. But things haven’t been easy for us of late: the blockade and the crisis have made the path forward very difficult, and some of the internal contradictions in the process haven’t helped either.

The enemy, however, hasn’t deprived us of our dreams. One of the keys to keeping our dreams alive is to understand what a commune is about, and to link the communal project with our reality here, both current and historical.

When we talk about a commune, we are talking about the commons. There is nothing new in that for us: our ancestral roots are linked to the collective tenure of the land. Also, our ancestors’ practices were community-based and combined the economic, the political, and the spiritual.

Here ancestral practices permeate our way of life in the commune. This means that convening and debating is part of the commune’s modus operandi. In fact, commune-making is a constant process of reflecting on the past and present… for a better future!


One struggle for the land: San Simón-Cujizal

“Fundo Zamorano” is the name given to the farmsteads that, with Chávez’s land reform, went back to the hands of the campesinos. Within the Hugo Chávez Commune, there are five such farmsteads, and they are the result of a history of struggle against the oligarchical landowners who expropriated the land from those who work it. Here we focus on the Fundo Zamorano San Simón-Cujizal, a combative farmstead where 20 associate producers work 280 hectares of land and raise cattle.

Germán Prado: The struggle for the control of this farmstead is in the “DNA” of this commune. There was a decade-long war that began in the 90s leading to an all-out battle in 2002… And in the end, the campesinos won!

Blood, sweat, and tears — that’s what it took to get this land back to its rightful owners. And that is why, no matter how hard things may be, this farmstead is going to remain in our hands.

José Galíndez: I began working here when I was 16. The conditions were deplorable: the word “exploitation” falls short as a description of what happened here. For example, working accidents were very common, and when you were out of commission due to an accident, the bosses took no responsibility and would send you packing. But while working conditions were terrible, there was little else to do for the landless campesinos of Urachiche. Those were hard years.

The farmstead, where sugarcane was the main cash crop, was run by [counterrevolutionary] Batista Cubans who left the island after the revolution. You get the picture.

Tirsio Suárez: I’m 72 years old, and I was born here in San Simón. Back then, the farm was called “La Comercial de Yaracuy,” and most of the folks in Urachiche worked here in terrible conditions.

Joel Galíndez: It was in 2002 that we had our final battle. When the Spanish colonizers arrived [1539], that was the beginning of a long period of regression, but they met with the resistance of the Jirajara people. Later, the Independence War [1810-23] and Zamora’s death [1860] were followed by dispossession of the campesinos. One could say that a curse descended on us. However, a wave of rebellion emerged in the 60s with the guerrilla, and also in the 90s.

In our story, the 90s are important. Around that time there was a struggle to recover land in Los Cañizos-Paloquemao, a farmstead in the east of Yaracuy. The Paloquemao campesinos got a great deal of solidarity from the left, particularly from university students, and their struggle became known around the country. They also inspired many campesino struggles, including our own.

When Chávez came out of prison [1994], one of the first towns he visited was Urachiche, because the Zamorana flag was flying high here. We had an immediate rapport with Chávez and we turned out to be right in supporting him. His commitment to the campesino cause led to the promotion of the Land Law [2001] and to the beginning of the end of a long struggle against the terratenientes.

Around that time our struggle re-intensified. Chávez was a “Zamorano,” he was one of us, so it was time to do away with the despotic practices of the landowning class.

Campesinos and comrades like Felipe Rojas [a former guerrillero] entrenched themselves here in San Simón-Cujizal. We would organize in small groups to carry out a sort of guerra de guerrillas [guerrilla warfare] so that we could face the repression organized by then Yaracuy governor Eduardo Lapi. Lapi was at the service of the land-grabbing oligarchy, and he mobilized the police apparatus, the “pantaneros,” against us.

The final battle in June 2002 was an all-out military struggle. However, before that, there were many episodes of police beating people who defended the land. In fact, the pantaneros applied intense psycho-terror campaigns: they would come with skull masks in the middle of the night and they would kidnap compañeros: they would disappear them for a few hours and torture them.

Of course, we were scared, but we weren’t about to give up!

Jonny Gudiño: The final battle for popular control of the land took place in June 2002. We had been struggling for years, but had reached a stalemate. We went to the highway so that our situation would be visible, and the people from Camunare Rojo [a nearby village] came to support us en masse.

That was when the pantaneros came with all their force against us: there were many people who were wounded, and I remember that they even shot a Virgin Mary statue in a chapel nearby.

Joel Galíndez: After the battle, we were able to live and work the land in peace (more or less), and later we came to understand that that battle marked our overall victory. That was 2002… but it was nine years later, in 2011, that we got the Carta Agraria [collective land title]. There were many hurdles, but in the end, Chávez always sided with the poor.


Production at the Hugo Chávez Commune

The Hugo Chávez Commune is an urban-rural initiative in the Urachiche township. As with most communes operating in urban areas, this commune’s impact is limited in the urban economy of Urachiche. However, its five Zamorano Farmsteads do represent an important part of the municipality’s agrarian production. Here we examine the communal production in town, and we learn about productive activities today at the commune’s San Simón-Cujizal Farmstead.


Rafael Colmenarez: In 2017, twelve communards created this Communal Social Property Enterprise. Here, in this urban context, we produce, distribute and commercialize cleaning and personal hygiene products.

The enterprise was created with one objective: promoting communal economy. We produce some 120 liters per week of cleaning products, from dish soap to bar soap, from chlorine and disinfectant to detergent. We distribute the products to the community, and we place them in nearby stores.

The enterprise is democratically run: all the workers participate in collective decision-making; and, after covering wages and raw materials purchase, the surplus goes to social initiatives by way of cleaning product donations to healthcare and educational facilities in town.

The Socialist Action Enterprise is an important exercise to promote our communal economy, but it is marginal in relation to Urachiche’s economy as a whole. That is something that concerns us: communal enterprises have to become something widely recognized, a real alternative – that is our objective!

Nonetheless, this communal enterprise shows that communal production in an urban setting is viable. Also, many of the 23 registered Family Production Units [small enterprises run by a family but associated with a commune], are viable enterprises. Still, what they are able to return to the commune is limited. That must change.


Joel Galíndez: San Simón-Cujizal is a co-op but it identifies itself as one of the commune’s productive projects. In fact, San Simón contributes economically to the Hugo Chávez Commune.

This farmstead has 288 hectares of type 1 land – the best kind! It is run by 20 people who live and work together. The mainstay of the farmstead is sugarcane. Potentially, we can produce up to 100 thousand kilos of black beans and 1.5 million kilos of corn per year. Before the crisis and the blockade – when agricultural inputs and seeds were available – we reached the goal of producing 1.5 million kilos of corn. We also produce bell pepper, red pepper, and watermelon.

The crisis and the blockade have forced us to reinvent and diversify our production. We have 96 dual-purpose heads of cattle [raised for milk and meat]. We got started with 30 heads in 2019, so the initiative is advancing. We have, however, much work to do here: we need to improve the genetics of our cattle, but we are on the right path. We are also going to continue producing corn, beans, and sugarcane, and we will be reinvesting some of the surplus generated by the cattle to reactivate those crops.

In any case, for now we have found the formula to keep San Simón-Cujizal active. In fact, 100% of our land is productive, and this is no small deed in these times of blockade!

I’m one of the oldest folks here, and I always tell my compañeros: things are rough, but we have to keep at it! Our people struggled for this land for decades, if not for centuries, so it’s sacred to us. Here, at San Simón, we have kept production going even in the harshest conditions, when everything came to a standstill.

We will need help to fully reactivate the farm, but we are sure that we’ll succeed. In any case, we are not asking for giveaways. Instead, we are looking to reinvest our surplus and to open channels so that we can get access to the same inputs and seeds that agribusiness has.

Germán Prado: The most consolidated Zamorano farmsteads in Urachiche are Aracal and San Simón. Their contributions are crucial for the Hugo Chávez Commune. They help us finance communal initiatives and, in the case of San Simón, the yield from three hectares goes directly to the commune’s social fund.


Germán Prado: The corridor is inside the commune’s perimeter, but the enterprises in it are considered Indirect Social Property. In other words, they are technically managed by the Venezuelan state.

The idea of building an industrial corridor here was conceived by Chávez himself. Construction began in 2007 and it was up and running by 2010. The project is a strategic one: the land here is highly productive and it is very well connected, because of the highway that traverses the Urachiche municipality.

The key enterprises in the corridor are Bravo Cacique Yaracuy, a corn flour plant; Leguminosas del Alba, a legume processing factory; the Prudencio Vázquez bean-packing plant; the Pedro Camejo Enterprise for the mechanization of agrarian production; and Avícolas del Alba, an industrial chicken farm. Additionally, there was an INCES [state-run vocational training program] center for technical education, but it was dismantled years ago.

The blockade and the crisis brought the industrial corridor to a standstill. In fact, when things got ugly around 2016, some of the enterprises were dismantled. Unfortunately, we have seen no investment in the corridor since then, and now a questionable symbiosis between the government and the private sector seems to be emerging.

However, these privatizations don’t seem to be working either. For example, about two years ago Leguminosas del Alba was transferred to a private agroindustrial entrepreneur, but the plant is still idle, there hasn’t been any investment.

As the commune that hosts the corridor, it is troubling to us that the agroindustrial plants are practically idle. The corridor is a mere shadow of what it once was. It’s clear that the state’s administration was problematic, but it’s even more obvious that private control of the enterprises isn’t working either.

That is why our proposal is that communal administration should be explored as an alternative. The farmsteads here are collectivized and, while things haven’t been easy, they are productive. Let’s reactivate what there is hand-in-hand with the people!


The impact of sanctions

The impact of the US blockade goes from the personal to the collective. Here, Hugo Chávez communards tell us about its effects on the people of Urachiche.

Yolimar Gutiérrez: The blockade took many lives. In the township of Urachiche, we counted at least 80 untimely deaths, because access to medicines and health care is very limited. Then there is the brain drain: many of the youngest and healthiest left the country, although little-by-little some are coming back. Migration is very hard on families, and it doesn’t help the local economy.

Pedro Juárez: The blockade is a well-orchestrated US plan to destroy the revolutionary content of the Bolivarian Process. Why do I say so? First, when things get really, really hard, people tend to focus on solving their individual problems.

Nonetheless, this is not a one-way street. Little by little, people begin to see that individual solutions are very imperfect, like a bandaid put on a big dog bite. As this happens, people begin to turn towards the commune.

Yolimar Gutiérrez: The blockade helped me understand why socialism is necessary. Socialism is about putting what we have in common, and it grows out of brotherhood among the people. Socialism is also about the political and economic autonomy for the pueblo. I think we are moving in that direction, although in this transition I would like us [people involved in popular power projects] to get the same level of support that some private initiatives are getting.

Gustavo Rojas: When it comes to agricultural production, our two main bottlenecks are diesel fuel and agricultural inputs. Of course, it is also hard to keep our farm machinery working because replacement parts are exorbitantly expensive. Fortunately, two of our four tractors are working now, but their condition is precarious. Our goal is to have our machinery 100% operative, but it isn’t easy.

I think the best way to measure the impact of the sanctions is by looking at our corn production. In our best years, we were able to produce 1.5 million kilos of corn at San Simón-Cujizal. Tragically, during the worst of the crisis, that number dropped to zero.

To overcome this situation, we are diversifying our production through cattle rearing, which has worked well, and we shifted some of our energy to conuco [sustenance] production. Our next step is advancing in cheese production. We are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel!

Pedro Juárez: Ten years ago, the Agroindustrial Corridor was one of the most important sources of employment here, but little by little the enterprises closed shop. Now some of them are empty shells, while others are run by private enterprises, but they are not an important source of employment.

Seeing the corridor in its current state of abandonment is painful for us: we think that there should be a coordinated effort from the state to reactivate it, and we know that we could help in the process. The private sector doesn’t seem to be able to do it, and since the corridor’s legal framework is indirect social property, reactivating it with popular forces would be fitting.

Germán Prado: In the context of the blockade, the Hugo Chávez commune has been able to offer some solutions for people, although there is still a lot more to do. For example, when things got really difficult, and it was hard to feed ourselves because of the intensified blockade and the lockdown, the corn flour supplied by El Maizal [a commune about two hours away] became very important because it was sold here at a solidarious price.

Then there is the issue of direct care of people in the community. A few days ago, a woman came by and she was in urgent need of some money to save her son’s life. The commune was able to help her. Additionally, the “Socialist Action Enterprise” [communal enterprise mentioned before] provides cleaning products free of charge to schools and medical centers here in Urachiche.


The commune and coming together

Communes are about putting productive forces at the service of the working people, and under their democratic control Here, Hugo Chávez communards reflect about the communal project.

Germán Prado: We have a historical and moral commitment to Chávez’s project. We know that the commune is the only way to transcend the liberal bourgeois state. That is why we must advance toward collectivizing our activities, toward occupying and recovering means of production (especially when they are idle), and toward the exchange of ideas among our peers and with other communes. We must create conditions for substantive equality, we must advance toward realizing the Marxist principle: “From each according to his/her ability; to each according to his/her need.”

Germán Prado: It is much harder to build a commune in isolation. The truth is that we need to advance both politically and economically, and we cannot do that alone. That is why the Communard Union is so important to us. Chávez talked about the communal state, but how can it be built if actually-existing communes don’t link up among each other? Communes cannot be islands! We must act as one force!