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Myths and Legends of the Llanos: The Pancha Vásquez Commune (Part III)

Hugo Chavez and his socialist legacy have entered the region’s folklore.

The latest installment in the Communal Resistance Series takes us to the Pancha Vásquez commune in Apure State in the Venezuelan plains region [Llanos]. The Venezuelan Llanos are legendary for their rich cultural heritage and spectacular landscapes, but they are also rife with political and social contradictions. These include issues relating to land ownership, Indigenous rights and dispossession, and spillover from neighboring Colombia’s internal conflict. 

Located on the outskirts of Elorza, in the southwest of the state, Pancha Vásquez is a huge commune in terms of territory. The commune comprises fourteen communal councils, three of which focus on agriculture, while eleven are dedicated to cattle rearing. The lands in this vast territory are mostly in the hands of small to mid-sized producers who take pride not only in their equestrian traditions and folklore but also in the special role that Elorza played in Hugo Chávez’s trajectory. That is because, as a young officer, Chávez was stationed in Elorza from 1985 to 1988 and sharpened his political vision there. 

Part I of this three-part series dealt with the history and productive activities of the Pancha Vásquez Commune. In Part II, we learned about communal resistance to the US blockade. Here, in Part III, we learn about the legends that form part of the region’s culture including the stories about Chávez during the time he spent in Elorza.

Carmelo Ramón Barrios is a Pancha Vásquez parliamentarian and small rancher | Edgar Esté is a Pancha Vásquez parliamentarian | Hugo Calzadilla is the local historian and a member of the Pancha Vásquez Commune | Juan Fernández is a Pancha Vásquez parliamentarian and one of the commune’s founders | Petra Cedeño is a Pancha Vásquez parliamentarian and cattle rancher | Yubranis Fernández is a 14-year-old communard (Rome Arrieche)

“ESPANTOS”

Petra Cedeño: The “espíritus de la sabana” [specters of the flatlands, also known as “espantos”] are woven into our culture and music and are part of our landscape. I saw the “Bola de Fuego” [fireball] once, but it was all very fast. When you see the fireball, you have to insult it to keep it at bay. 

The stories of the espantos are deeply connected with our relationship with nature in the Llanos of Apure. We know that when the carrao [bird] sings, it’s going to rain, and if the guacharaca [bird] sings, someone will die.

Carmelo Ramón Barrios: Chávez would often talk about the “espíritus de la sabana.” He mentioned the “Silbón” [a specter that chases people with a long pole], comparing it to imperialism. He also spoke of the “Patrullero” [patroller], an enormous caimán [crocodile]. Chávez himself ran into the Patrullero when he was posted in Elorza. The story goes as follows: one day at sunset, he stepped into a boat and suddenly he heard a huge racket… he was standing on top of the Patrullero!

Then there’s “La Sayona.” She is particularly dangerous, seducing and harming men who have been partying too much. Nowadays, the espantos only appear around the marshes of the Capanaparo [not far from Elorza]. 

If you want to learn about the “espíritus de la sabana,” you can do so from Chávez, who often talked about them in his Aló Presidente broadcast. Also, our music often tells of encounters with espantos. 

Joropo is a rich musical tradition originating in the Llanos. (Rome Arrieche)

CHÁVEZ AND THE COMMUNAL FUTURE

Edgard Esté: I was only a child when Chávez was deployed in Elorza, but I remember him vividly. Chávez always wanted a local musician called “Pataruco Esplumao” to play at festivities. I was a singer back then, often accompanying the ensemble. I remember that Chávez would join in and sing. He particularly liked “Poesía, copla y sabana” [Poetry, Couplets and, Plains], a melancholic song about the Llanos.

Juan Fernández: Chávez was the commander of the Escamoto, an army battalion with its headquarters in the outskirts of Elorza [1985-88]. I was only a child, so I never met him, but I know he was loved by the locals for his charisma, for congeniality, and his efforts to improve life in Elorza. He also loved our culture and he even sang some joropo. That, of course, brought him closer to the people. 

During his 2012 campaign, Chávez said he dreamed of returning to Elorza, lying in a chinchorro [hammock], and contemplating the vast plains at sunset. Then, on March 5, 2013, he passed away. That was a huge blow for me. However, though Chávez is no longer with us, his ideas continue to inspire us.

Chávez was a thinker for the future. When I talk with the commune’s youth, I always tell them: He was here [pointing the landscape] but he is still here [pointing at his heart]. 

Hugo Calzadilla: There are two periods in Chávez’s life: the man of flesh and bones who was born in Sabaneta [Barinas state]; then there was the visionary born in Elorza.

It was Gonzalo de Jesús, a revolutionary priest who came to Elorza from Spain in the 1950s, who accompanied Chávez through that transformation. Here Chávez learned about the injustices that the Indigenous peoples suffered and about the culture of the deep Llanos.

Chávez confided in Father Gonzalo about his plans for an insurrection he would eventually lead on February 4, 1992. Upon hearing about the plan, the priest told him: If it is for the wellbeing of the “patria” [homeland], then do it, but there should be as little bloodshed as possible. 

Yubranis Fernández: I am 14 years old, so I never saw Chávez, but to me, he is alive just like Che is alive [pointing to her t-shirt with an image of Che Guevara]. My father [Juan Fernández] passed along his love of Chávez to me.

We face many problems, from the blockade to the adecos [affliiates of the Acción Democrática right-wing party], from bureaucracy to the long dry summers, but I am convinced that the commune is the only path for the pueblo

That’s what I always tell my friends. While not all of them believe in the commune, the project is alive and kicking.

Elorza River (Rome Arrieche)