El Sur Existe [The South Exists] is an urban and periurban commune in Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city. Its communards have displayed impressive flexibility and creativity in these times of imperialist blockade. They initially worked to develop an economic foundation that would respond to people’s material needs. Then they worked to strengthen a model of self-government where executive and legislative decisions have to be taken by the community, not by an isolated few. In this two-part piece for the Communal Resistance Series, communards tell us about their commune’s history, and about their productive initiatives.
History and prehistory
Ricardo Camilletti: While this is a commune with a territory that is both urban and peri-urban, the bulk of the population lives in the city. Urban commune-making is, no doubt, a challenge. The logic of capital penetrates life in the city. What does this mean? The idea that we can solve our problems individually is dominant, whereas looking for collective solutions is a foreign concept.
Building a commune in a rural context is easier: solving problems together is part of campesino life. That is why getting campesinos to coalesce in a rural commune – while not easy – doesn’t go against the actually existing flow of life.
This was one of our reflections when we began to think about building a commune here. To break with the existing cultural, social, and political barriers, we decided that we would develop a solution-based strategy: we would work first so that the future commune would be solid, not only as a political structure, but also as an economically-viable alternative. Looking for solutions to people’s daily problems was, and remains, our objective.
That is why we pursued an unconventional path. Instead of building the commune first, we began with a Social Property Enterprise that would offer tangible solutions to the people in the area of what was later to become El Sur Existe Commune. That strategy worked: little by little we were able to win the hearts and minds of the people.
That way of working did away with many of the doubts and misgivings that people have about organizing in an urban center. There was a communal enterprise – a textile workshop in this case — where new social relations were actually taking shape and where school uniforms were made and sold at much lower than market prices. Also, the surplus went back to the community.
This began in 2013, and by 2015 we had won the people over. That is when we became a commune.
Nereo Arcila: Our first territorial work, back when we called ourselves “Colectivo Deportivo Recreativo Sur” [henceforth CDR Sur], was in the hippodrome, which was out of commission. The hippodrome became a social and cultural center. But we knew that that wasn’t enough, and that’s when we got started with our first productive initiative: we had a sizable sheep herd that became our economic mainstay for a while.
We were eventually displaced from the hippodrome, but the experience taught us a great deal. We were already thinking about commune-building around 2013, but experience had taught us that we should build an economic base before trying to make the commune.
We got some resources from Fundacomunal [associated with the Ministry of Communes] and we built a textile workshop in 2013: that was the beginning of El Sur Existe Communal Enterprise, which eventually branched out into a food storefront, a school supply store, and a fumigation enterprise.
We also began a food distribution project that was CLAP avant la lettre. Through agreements with Lácteos Los Andes and Café Madrid [nationalized milk and coffee companies], we would prepare combo bags, containing flour, juice, milk, coffee, etc, and they would be distributed through the communal councils. That was in 2014. Two years later, in 2016, the CLAP became a national policy to mitigate the impact of the economic war.
That’s the prehistory of El Sur Existe: we put the “horses” of the economy before the communal “cart” and we moved forward. By 2015 we had all our ducks in a row, and we officially became a commune.
Ricardo Camilletti: Wherever you look, the origin of a commune can always be traced to pre-existing organizations: communes are never events without a history.
Some of us were active here in the 80s, when the MBR 200 [Chávez’s first political organization] was taking shape. And, in fact, others of us come from even further back. I grew up in Argentina, and in 1976, when the dictatorship was brewing up, I had to go underground for two years. Then, in 1978, I had to exile myself first to Sweden, before coming here and falling in love with Venezuela. This is my home now.
But the stories of many of the founders of this commune are also intertwined with struggles in this area.
In any case, by the early years of the Bolivarian Process, some of us were working in the marginal barrios of Valencia. Around 2008 the epicenter of our work was in the hippodrome, which was basically abandoned. That space became a center for workers’ organization and a social center for the impoverished people that lived nearby.
That experience paved the way to our work in Santa Inés, the working-class barrio that is now the epicenter of El Sur Existe Commune.
Wilmer Solano: There is one way only to develop the working class socially and historically: the commune. That’s why we focus on the control of means of production. Chávez said that a commune that doesn’t produce is not a commune, and Marx pointed to the need to control the means of production in the transition to socialism.
The “Plan de la Patria” [Homeland Plan] speaks clearly to this effect: it states that Venezuela’s economic model should be based on social property enterprises, that they are the seeds of Twenty-first Century Socialism. The plan says that, while there may also be private and state-run enterprises, our model must be focused on social property.
Chávez was right: if popular power doesn’t have control of the means of production, if the communes don’t become hegemonic in economic terms, there is no future. In fact, the experience of living under US sanctions came to ratify this hypothesis.
Jenny Vano: Our first productive exercise was a sheep herd, and we later focused on El Sur Existe Communal Enterprise, which has several branches: a textile factory, a food storefront, a school and office supply store, and a fumigation services enterprise.
Later came the project of El Sur Existe Slaughterhouse, a private-communal partnership, and now we are working on an animal feed plant. That plant will be a small private enterprise that is associated with the commune, and it will be up and running in no more than four months.
Finally, also associated with the commune, are several family production units [UPF, for the initials in Spanish], including three bakeries and a meat-processing center called Cárnicos [Meat Products] El Sur Existe. The “seed capital” for these initiatives came from El Sur Existe Communal Enterprise, and, while each is family-owned, they must contribute to the commune both in economic and political terms.
Wilmer Solano: Communal enterprises must be efficient, but production is not the end-all be-all. After all, we are not capitalists! That is why education, both political and technical, is very important for us.
In fact, this is not particular to our commune. The law establishes that each communal enterprise must have committees for administration, finances, production, comptrolling, and education.
Moreover, in social production enterprises, there are no bosses: everyone is equal and decisions are taken in assemblies. That, in itself, is a school for socialism.
EL SUR EXISTE COMMUNAL ENTERPRISE
Carlos Escalona: Our first communal enterprise was called El Sur Existe, and it was initially a textile workshop. The workshop produced school uniforms and other textile goods. In 2016, its twelve workers produced more than 1000 uniforms per month. Some were for kids in the community and others were sold to government institutions. In total, we have produced some thirty thousand uniforms.
The textile workshop is not operating at the moment, because the blockade has made access to raw materials such as fabric very difficult. Nonetheless, we are working to reactivate the enterprise. We think that it will be up and running again in a matter of months.
El Sur Existe Communal Enterprise also branched out into a store where we sell the clothes and also school materials, which mainly come from Invepal [a state-owned paper-making plant]. There is also an adjacent storefront where we sell meat from the slaughterhouse along with local fruit and vegetables. Finally, there is an associated fumigation enterprise.
Ricardo Camilletti: The hybrid enterprise model here at El Sur Existe represents a solution to a problem that emerged in the context of the crisis. When a commune has no capital and the state has no money, you have to look for resources elsewhere! In our case, we succeeded by establishing hybrid communal-private partnerships that will yield dividends to the commune. The most important project of this kind is the slaughterhouse.
The slaughterhouse emerged out of a partnership with a private enterprise that had come to a halt. We reactivated it jointly, and now it is one of our commune’s main revenue sources. There are also several Family Production Units, and soon there will be an animal feed plant operating under a hybrid model as well.
The most active UPF is Cárnicos El Sur Existe. In that case, El Sur Existe Communal Enterprise provided the funding to purchase the processing equipment. In return, the UPF has to support the commune.
This model has allowed us to reinvest some of the surplus into communal initiatives: we have fixed roofs, bought AC units for the medical center, repaired a sports center, etc.
Still, the commune competes within the capitalist system, and while some UPFs such as Cárnicos El Sur Existe remain committed to the communal project, there have been some cases where small entrepreneurs have associated themselves with the commune as a way to process the paperwork needed to produce and distribute. In other words, they used the commune as a lever, and then they detached themselves. These are real-world problems.
EL SUR EXISTE SLAUGHTERHOUSE
Jenny Vano: Around 2015 we noticed that food was getting too expensive. That’s when we began thinking about self-managed or co-managed means of distributing food. The slaughterhouse has been active since 2016, and has contributed a lot to the commune. In fact, it’s one of the commune’s economic engines.
Alexander Lovera: The partnership began in 2016. Back then, five major ranchers had control over the Valencia slaughterhouse, and smaller cattle producers had nowhere to go.
That’s when we developed a plan with the commune’s Ricardo Camilletti. These facilities, which were not working at the time, would be activated in a partnership between the owners and El Sur Existe Commune. In that way, we would be able to offer a service to smaller producers, while providing meat for communal distribution. Some of the meat would also go to the private sector.
The slaughterhouse has a social outlook. With the economic surplus, we have been able to fix some roads in the community, and we have taken on many other tasks related to the well-being of the commune.
Ricardo Camilletti: El Sur Existe Slaughterhouse is our first hybrid enterprise. It is a private-communal initiative that brings together the Servicio Agropecuario Martínez with El Sur Existe. The commune is there to activate production and channel both meat and the economic surplus toward the community.
Alexander Lovera: Where does the cattle come from? On the one hand, the commune purchases cattle, and the meat is sold at the commune’s storefront. On the other hand, small cattle farmers bring in their cattle for butchering.
Unfortunately, our process is not mechanized. We intend to mechanize some of the processes, but the crisis and the sanctions have made the transition rather difficult so far. However, this enterprise employs twenty people and we have the installed capacity to slaughter some two to three hundred heads of cattle per month.
CÁRNICOS EL SUR EXISTE UPF
Jenny Vano: The Family Production Unit [UPF] is paired with the slaughterhouse project, since the two initiatives began around the same time. There are seven people working here, and we process meat and make hamburgers and sausages. In all, we process some 400 kilos per week.
A great deal of what we produce is distributed in communal fairs, but we also sell some to private clients. Nonetheless, the commune is first and foremost for us. For example, if there is a monthly luncheon for the elderly, we prepare the food. We also provide our support to the commune in other areas; most recently, we purchased an electrocardiograph machine for the Medical Diagnostic Center [CDI].
ANIMAL FEED PLANT
Alexander Lovera: The Animal Feed Plant is a hybrid enterprise that brings together El Sur Existe Communal Enterprise, Cárnicos El Sur Existe, and the private enterprise Servicios Agropecuarios Martínez.
In the short term, our objective is to produce animal feed to supply thirty pig producers. The raw material will come from the slaughterhouse, and it will be mixed with corn or grain flour. We will need to purchase vitamins to complete the final product, but most of the raw materials come from in-house.
We built or adapted most of the equipment, and the only pending piece is a bone grinder. This is a case of ingenuity: we got this going from the ground up, with no resources from the state, and it will be up and running very soon!