Venezuela: Activists, gov't push for 'communal state'

Sunday, June 1, 2014
A representative from the India Caribay commune in Merida state holds up the commune’s new land title during a commune assembly at the town of Mesa Bolivar held on May 24 and 25. Three communes were transferred lands that day, which is part of a policy to transfer land to community organisations. Photo by Ewan Robertson/Venezuela Analysis.

The Venezuelan government and the commune movement are taking steps to move towards the creation of what is referred to as a “communal state”, which involves community groups assuming collective control of local production and decision making.

Communes in Venezuela are formed out of groups of community councils, which are small neighbourhood groups representing 250 to 400 families. In communal councils, local residents organise to develop their local community and run community affairs. They can also receive public funds to undertake social projects in their area.

Communes are created when an election of local residents is held to select spokespeople from each community council to form a “communal parliament”. These have different subcommittees and cover community affairs over a larger territorial zone.

The commune can then take on larger tasks and responsibilities than individual community councils. They can also register with the Ministry of Communes, which makes them eligible to apply for public funding for productive, educational, cultural, infrastructure or other development projects.

There are now about 40,000 communal councils and 600 communes registered in the country, with more communes in the process of formation.

Over the past year-and-a-half, the Bolivarian government has stepped up efforts to encourage citizens to organise themselves into communes. This coincided with a speech that late former president Hugo Chavez made in October 2012, when he criticised the lack of progress in establishing communes.

Also, Reinaldo Iturriza was appointed minister of communes by President Nicolas Maduro in April last year.

Some of the main ideas behind the creation of communes are for local communities to take on local decision-making and administration.

Last month, Maduro created a Presidential Council of Communal Governance to act as a direct link between the government and communes, and to receive proposals from communes on how government policy can better support communal development.

Maduro said to 10,000 communards (commune members) in Caracas: “You make the proposals, I’ll articulate them with policies, and you send me the criticisms about the shortcomings of the Bolivarian government.

“Long live grassroots criticism, let’s learn to grow from criticism, let’s not fear the truth, that’s Hugo Chavez’s method.”

Maduro announced that authorities would distribute 980 cargo trucks to communes to support their productive and agricultural activities. This will help local farmers transport their goods to markets without expensive private sector intermediaries charging speculative rates for the service, which drives up food prices and cuts farmers’ income.

Maduro agreed to a meeting with communards to examine difficulties for communal enterprises in issues such as investments and sales, and to resolve these issues with presidential law-making powers.

Meanwhile, communards have been meeting around the country on an independent basis to better organise their movement and present the government with their proposals for development.

In the Andean town of Mesa Bolivar, Merida state, about 600 communards representing more than 50 communes in the region gathered in May to discuss how communes can combat the ongoing “economic war” against the country’s Bolivarian revolution.

Alonso Rua, a member of the Communard Council of Merida, told “The aim of this meeting is to reflect, debate and design actions against the economic war, in the areas of supply and revolutionary auditing [of distribution and sales], and in the area of production and socio economic projects.”

The activists, from a range of ages and backgrounds, many of them rural workers, met for an open air assembly in the town centre. They held working groups on security, the economy, communication, and political education. Youth activists met in a separate meeting to discuss issues specific to them.

The general aim of the meeting, the seventh of its kind over the past year, was to tighten links between commune activists and strengthen the organisation of their movement toward goals of local self-management and production.

Luis Pimental, a high school teacher and member of a commune near Lake Maracaibo, told “What do we want with all this? First, self government, so that we are our own governors. That is to say, truly realise what the constitution says, which is a true democracy.

“When talk began about communes, I was sceptical, and I asked myself, 'Are we really prepared for this?' Yet with what I’ve seen, I’ve realised that yes, there are a lot of people [in the commune movement] with a lot of knowledge, who have been making a valuable contribution.”

However, some communards warn that beyond the presidency and ministry of communes, many public institutions and figures have been resistant to recognising the growth and potential of the country’s commune movement.

Betty Vargas, from a commune in the city of Merida, said: “We continue coming up against a bureaucracy that is present within state institutions, that on many occasions doesn’t allow the community’s proposals to be attended to.”

Her commune is currently planning to establish a new community-run higher education centre in a semi-rural zone near the city.

Nonetheless, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) governor of Merida state, two local mayors, and representatives of the national government and state institutions were present at the meeting in Mesa Bolivar.

During the open air assembly, the National Land Institute handed over to three communes new land titles as part of a policy of transfering land to communal groups to develop productive and agricultural projects.

One of the communes, India Caribay, plans to plant crops, fruit, and build a fruit processing plant with public financing.

Liskeila Gonzalez, a youth member of the commune, told of the importance of such projects for the community: “I want the commune to achieve the creation of the farm and fruit processor.

“In the commune we all take part in decision-making. There aren’t bosses, a president, anything like that. We’re all equal and we all work the same.”

[Abridged from Venezuela Analysis. See a series of images of the gathering of cummune activists here]

From GLW issue 1011