Building the New With the Old Still Standing: A Conversation with Lana Vielma

A young Venezuelan communard talks about El Maizal Commune’s present and future. 
Lana Vielma, a 21-year-old cadre who “discovered” El Maizal Commune when she was 15. (Venezuelanalysis)

Lana Vielma is a young cadre at the flagship El Maizal Commune on the border of Lara and Portuguesa states. The daughter of a school teacher from the nearby town La Miel, Vielma began to work with El Maizal at the age of 15. Today, six years later, she serves as the communications director of the Simón Planas municipality, which comprises El Maizal and 12 other communes. Beyond her official role, Vielma is also an artist and filmmaker.

At age 21, you’ve already spent six years with El Maizal Commune. Could you share the story of how you became involved in the project and what drew you to this commune?

If it were not for the commune, I would have locked myself in at home and grown more and more frustrated with society… I think I would actually be angry! The world’s challenges are many, and more so for my generation, which yearns for freedom but is met with so many systemic injustices.

The commune touched me like a magic wand. It offered me a new worldview and gave me a life purpose – and that’s nothing short of magic. In the commune we learn from each other and solve problems collectively; we support one another because we have a common vision of the world. In short we create a space in the commune that places human beings in the center. 

As a young woman, the commune became my lifeline and changed me forever. The allure of flashy but most often unattainable perks that capitalism puts before young people doesn’t really point to a fulfilling life. That’s why the Communard Youth is so important: the commune is the only way for young people to have a meaningful existence and, at the same time, the commune needs young people.

Could you elaborate on the Communard Youth initiative?

Although we live in a territory that is home to the powerful El Maizal Commune, and people look up to it, the social media “magnet” projects the good life as based exclusively on having certain material things and leaves no room for the community. While we acknowledge the necessity to address material needs, we firmly believe that the spiritual and political dimensions of life must be reintegrated into the lives of our youth.

Compounding this, substance abuse is also a problem among some of the youth in Simón Planas, often contributing to family problems and crime. Some may be surprised when they hear this; they may think that in a rural context, substance abuse would not be a problem, but it is. Hence, it becomes imperative for the commune to present a viable and appealing model that addresses the needs of everyone, especially the youth.

The Communard Youth project stems from the need to draw the younger generations closer to the communal project. The commune is a platform like no other for political education, cultural activity, and debate. 

El Maizal Commune. (@ComunaElMaizal)

You have a dual role as both a communard and a member of the local government. How do you navigate this contested terrain?

Navigating this duality is complex. While the commune is our strategic objective, we believe that building resilient communes requires a creative approach. Ángel [Prado] became mayor of Simón Planas with one goal: fortifying the communes. But how to do this? As a communard, he must demonstrate that his administration is not only efficient but also centered on the day-to-day wellbeing of the people, all this while promoting communal organization.

However, there are many challenges. The bureaucratic system is designed to reproduce itself while often neglecting people’s genuine needs. For us, stepping into the local government meant disrupting its inertia, a task that has proven very challenging. However, we have taken steps toward what we call “communal government,” fostering direct participation of the people in decision-making processes.

Little by little we are transforming the institutions and we have been able to solve many problems, from water access to healthcare. Still, institutions are not ends in themselves but means to ends. We still have many challenges, from the persistent bureaucratic logic to our own limitations, but we are carrying forward Chávez’s project (the commune) and his method (working with the people). 

We hope to continue opening communal pathways wherever we may be. 

El Maizal Commune is in the Simón Planas Municipality. (Google Maps)

El Maizal is currently undergoing a transformation process, looking for ways to increase production and improve living conditions for the people who work here. How do you envision the commune’s future, and what are the means of getting there?

Creating real, tangible conditions for a thriving society means creating economic conditions to support the everyday life of the communards, while projecting a light into the future. Now, you might ask, is this really possible? Yes, we believe that it is! Humanity needs an alternative that will bring dignity and peace, but the transition has to happen with some comfort, even a touch of magnificence… In material terms, this means that people must have good conditions to work, study, and enjoy their leisure time.

At the same time, we must nurture political engagement at local, regional, national, and even global levels, which is what we know how to do best. But to do this well, we have to have tangible arguments and real-life experiences; we have to be able to prove that our project works both politically and economically; we have to become a compelling example for others to follow. 

You’ve used the metaphor of rebuilding a house to discuss the future of El Maizal Commune. Could you elaborate on this idea?

There is a philosophical idea that is very dear to me. If we live in a house but want a better one, we can’t just tear it down and be left to the elements while we build a new one. That would be a bad idea. Our current dwelling, like it or not, is capitalist. That being so, we will have to build the new house from the inside and around the old house… until nothing is left of the old house!

What does this really mean? We have to build the new model gradually, forging a truly viable alternative, while we remain connected – for now – to the existing system. Then, once the new system is consolidated, we will tear down the old one. 

In practical terms, what does this imply?

Here, in Simón Planas, a communal leader [Ángel Prado] is at the helm of the local administration. That being so, we may be tempted to focus solely on local politics, organizing an efficient administration from the Mayor’s Office. However, this would fall short of our aspirations; it would be akin to “improving” the old capitalist structure with a new paint job. 

Our idea extends far beyond creating a group of top administrators associated with the mayor’s office and the commune who incrementally improve living conditions in Simón Planas. To consolidate the commune’s hegemony, our project must present a substantive alternative, encompassing both political and economic dimensions that will truly attract and convince people.

Turning our attention to El Maizal, we are actively exploring new approaches to organize production so that we can satisfy the needs of the communards that give their lives, day in and day out, to the project. The dual purpose is clear: offer a good life to the communards while enhancing the viability of our model.

We know that this is a work in progress, but how do you envision the changes in El Maizal’s economy?

Commercialization has always been a bottleneck for us, so we have to plan better. We must find mechanisms so that our production reaches the market without the obstacles put up by capitalist intermediaries. That is not easy, but it’s a must. 

We might create a new commercialization EPS [social production enterprise linked to the commune], and it is possible that we may be able to build a distribution and commercialization network with the Communard Union or in contact with the Ministry of Communes’ Economic Circuits. However, one thing is evident: we need to plan better and must break the dependence on intermediaries. 

Additionally, as I said before, we are thinking that the new economic model must generate conditions so that the most committed communards can have more direct participation… All these considerations are crucial in building a new communal hegemony. If the commune doesn’t yield tangible economic benefits, something has to give. Failing is not an option for us! 

El Maizal’s Yordanis Rodríguez “El Pelao” Communication School. (@ComunaElMaizal)

In all of this, communication is also important. Can you tell us about the work you do to report and produce content about El Maizal Commune and the Simón Planas Municipal government? 

At El Maizal we are politically robust: people in Simón Planas township look up to Ángel Prado and El Maizal Commune. Nevertheless, it is crucial to recognize that not everyone perceives the commune as the ultimate solution or as a viable alternative.

Our capacity to communicate has grown over the years and now we can document every assembly in the territory of Simón Planas. We are also able to let people know that – from the mayor’s office – we are doing many things, from repairing public lighting and roads to addressing health concerns and water problems to building houses and promoting sports and cultural events. However, while these efforts give us political cache, they fall short in relation to the communal project because they don’t transform society as a whole.

That’s why three years ago we inaugurated El Maizal’s Yordanis Rodríguez “El Pelao” Communication School. Our objective is to connect young people to organizational processes and empower them so that communication is no longer the prerogative of reporters who will always favor “click-worthy” content. 

It is imperative to highlight the significance of community-driven organization, which should be reported by its actors. In this project, the role of youth is pivotal.