All posts by Ricardo Vaz

Production and Conflict in El Maizal Commune

Commune or Nothing – Free Men and Free Land,” mural in El Maizal. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

In this article we examine the productive activities of El Maizal Commune, based on our visit in May. We also look at the relation between the commune and state companies, and explore the contradictions that emerge as the communal project moves forward.

*****

El Maizal Commune spreads over the states of Lara and Portuguesa, grouping 22 communal councils (10 in Portuguesa, 12 in Lara) and some 9000 people. Beyond its productive activity, the commune is a reference for its political activity, holding assemblies on a regular basis, having a very efficient communicational policy, and working as a reference for the Venezuelan communal movement, so that even foreign militants such as ourselves are drawn to the experience.

El Maizal has also conquered political space outside its territorial borders; for example, electing a member to the Lara legislative council in the elections of May 20. Nevertheless, the most important recent episode has been the controversial municipal election of December 2017, in which Ángel Prado, commune spokesperson and member of the National Constitutional Assembly, stood as a candidate.1 But the latter controversy has not held back the political project, the next step of which is the constitution of a communal city, alongside neighboring communes2, in the path to consolidating popular power in the territory.

Productive locomotive

The commune’s productive capacity has grown year by year. Out of the 2300 hectares of its territory, 900 are dedicated to its two main activities: 600 for the growth of corn and 300 for cattle raising. The agriculture company, which bears the name of Ezequiel Zamora, the 19th Century campesino revolutionary leader, focuses on growing corn, with production increasing steadily. In 2018 the goal was to sow, alongside small producers in the area, 1300 hectares and to harvest 9000 tonnes of corn.3

The company dedicated to cattle raising is named after communist guerrilla commander Argimiro Gabaldón, and it currently has 800 heads of cattle, some dedicated to the production of meat and the rest to milk and cheese. The levels of production, of course, fluctuate.

In addition to the production of corn, meat and milk we should mention the production of other goods by the commune or by associated campesinos in the area. This includes black beans, quinchoncho, pumpkins and other vegetables.

To top it off, the commune has another company, called Camilo Cienfuegos, that distributes PDVSA natural gas cylinders to 120 communal councils in Lara and Portuguesa. There is also a brick-production plant called Simón Bolívar, which makes bricks that have been put to use in the construction of 400 houses, a school, pavement and much more.

All this allows the population of the commune and those living nearby to acquire all these products at non-speculative prices through communal food fairs. This satisfaction of the population’s most basic needs is what sustains the political project of the commune.

Production of bell peppers in the greenhouses taken over from FONDAS and recovered by the commune. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

After our visit and conversations with several communards, it is no overstatement to claim that El Maizal is nothing short of a locomotive for production in this entire region. Its relation with neighboring small producers, around 80, is a good case in point. The commune has a credit model for production which consists in supplying seeds and supplies, preparing the land with its tractors, sowing and harvesting. The producer is then responsible for taking care of their plot and ensuring that the corn, or other product, grows.

At harvest the small producers keep part of the production for their own consumption, and everything else is gathered by El Maizal, to be sold in bulk, and a small percentage of this sale is kept to pay back the initial credit. Until recently the harvest was sold to the state’s silos, through the company Agropatria, but this will no longer be the case, as we will explain below. Similar credit agreements are in place for other products, for example, with coffee producers in the higher altitude areas.

During our visit we witnessed one of these agreements being hammered out “live.” With an almost hyperactive pace, Ángel Prado went over the peasants’ situation, reminded them of their responsibilities, and redacted the agreement document through which they would receive credit in the form of seeds and supplies. In the end a photo was taken to spread the news on social media, since these peasants are growing corn on land left idle, and the support of El Maizal is important to dissuade those who might consider coming to evict them.

The growth of El Maizal’s productive capacity has reflected itself in a growing conflict with Agropatria. This state company, nationalized by Chávez in 2010, is responsible for the supply of seeds, fertilizers and agrochemicals for agriculture. In the case of El Maizal, the relation with Agropatria meant that the latter would supply seeds and supplies for sowing, and in the end El Maizal would sell the harvest to the state. But it is a relation that has drifted towards conflict in recent times.

On the one hand, the fact that the harvest was handed over to Agropatria, which then goes on to sell it to other state or private companies, represents a contradiction with the communal project. That is because the construction of popular power in the territory involves taking over more means of production, which in this concrete case would mean that the commune itself would begin to process corn to produce cornflour. In the commune’s facilities there is a mill, and recently the building of an artisanal plant to produce pre-cooked flour was approved, with the capacity to process one tonne per day. However, the commune proposal to build an industrial plant to process 30 tonnes daily is still waiting for institutional approval.

It is not hard to see how a bigger productive and political capacity of the commune presents a threat to private interests and to those who defend such interests inside the state. The political coherence of the commune and its merciless attitude towards idle means of production threatens landowners and those that have become lax in their positions. Thus, in recent times, we have witnessed multiple acts of sabotage such as not handing out the necessary supplies for sowing.

These acts of “passive” sabotage go hand in hand with harassment from security bodies. Having not had access to the necessary supplies, and with a limited window of time for sowing, the commune was forced to buy supplies in the black market, where the Agropatria supplies were being sold! To top it all off, a unit from the Anti-extortion and Kidnapping National Command (CONAS) came to investigate and arrest Ángel Prado and two other communards for buying black market supplies! A swift campaign ensured their release. Shortly after, the nearest Agropatria facilities were occupied. This action revealed that seeds and supplies were being hoarded instead of being handed over to peasants, and thus a collective claim for restructuring the company emerged.

As a consequence of the actions of Agropatria, El Maizal is devoting part of its land to seed production, and in an assembly the commune decided that it would not sell this year’s harvest to the state or to private companies. Instead, it will put the harvest directly in the hands of the organized pueblo, through direct distribution initiatives such as Pueblo a Pueblo. In El Maizal, the conflict between constituted and constituent powers is not merely an academic matter, and the communards are not going to back down. This also reveals how fundamental it is to control the entire production chain, from the seed all the way to consumption.
Buffalo in the former UCLA facilities. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

“Ven a mi que tengo flor!”4

We had the chance to visit what was once an unproductive state project, taken over and recovered by the commune: the  greenhouses of Sabana Alta. Originally belonging to FONDAS (Socialist Agrarian Development Fund), only 12 of the 18 planned greenhouses were ever built. The existing structures were in a state of deterioration until the commune took over and had them handed over through a legal process. With much investment from the commune, there are now seven greenhouses functioning, producing cucumbers and bell peppers. These products grow in a matter of weeks and yield several harvests yearly.

The workers told us that this productive unit has the capacity to produce 100 tonnes of bell peppers per year. If we take into account the production of scallions and cilantro in garden beds, the project allows for a significant supply of vegetables to local communities at fair prices. The workers were eager to point out that the productive capacity still has plenty of room to grow, not just by restoring the remaining greenhouses and getting them producing, but also through qualitative advances, for example, by carrying out seed research.

A second case of occupation and rescue took place in the experimental unit of the Center-West Lisandro Alvarado University (UCLA). With an area of almost 100 hectares, the center had a few buffalo and dozens of Carora cows, an advanced genetic breed. When the commune recovered the practically abandoned facilities, the animals were dying and being stolen.

The cattle was recovered and, as we witnessed, there is now daily production of milk and cheese, which is still far from the maximum capacity of the milk-producing plant. We should add that a part of El Maizal’s cattle was taken over to the UCLA facilities after a “mysterious” fire that destroyed 200 hectares of grazing land during Ángel Prado’s electoral campaign in December 2017.

In the UCLA facilities, the communards also found a brand new, unused refrigeration system and laboratories that were never finished. The commune plans to get all this up and running soon. Another possibility being explored is fish farming (mainly of cachama) in the eight UCLA lagoons f, an activity which is now under way. We should point out that the commune has relied on the support of experts, some of them foreign (for example from Argentina) in this process of recovering the productive capacities of the formerly UCLA‐owned facilities.

Newborn piglets in the Argimiro Gabaldón unit, formerly Porcinos del Alba. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

The final and perhaps most significant example of a productive project recovered by El Maizal is the local Porcinos del Alba farm. This state company emerged out of an accord with Cuba, which established several pig-raising farms throughout the country. Nevertheless, in June 2017 the situation was catastrophic. The farm had been reduced to 400 pigs which were starving to death or being stolen, while animal feed was being hijacked before reaching its destination. Together with the project’s workers, the commune took over the farm, creating a company that is called Argimiro Gabaldón (like the above-mentioned cattle project). The animals were seen by vets and an agreement was struck with umbrella project of Porcinos del Alba.

Six months later, at the time of our visit, the situation was completely different. The 400 pigs had become over 3000, to the point where this farm was actually supplying other Porcinos del Alba centers. Nevertheless, these facilities have a still-to-be-reached operational capacity of 10000 animals. When we visited the farm (May 2018), we could see hundreds upon hundreds of healthy animals, including pregnant females and others that had just given birth. This center’s recovery has allowed the communities in the region to acquire animal protein at fair prices, which has been one of the main struggles during the economic war underway in Venezuela.

The main problem, as the communards told us, continues to be the access to animal feed. Based on soy, it is very expensive and there is sometimes a need to sacrifice animals due to the inability to feed them all. The animal feed should be supplied by the state, but the commune has repeatedly denounced that it has not received the agreed-upon quantities. Finally this past June there was a decision to sever ties with Porcinos del Alba and sell or sacrifice the majority of the pigs, keeping only those that can be fed until the commune is able to produce its own animal feed, which will occur after the corn harvest in a few months.

Going forward and confronting contradictions

In summary, we can say that land or productive units left idle in a radius of several miles around El Maizal commune, be it private or state-owned, are under threat of expropriation. To dispel all lingering doubts, we should point out that this is extremely positive! As opposed to the capitalist accumulation processes, nothing is being expropriated for the benefit of private individuals or groups. It is purely, and has been from the very beginning, a conflict between production based on human need and the sacrosanct character of private property.

Nevertheless, the conflicts between El Maizal and state companies (in these cases Agropatria and Porcinos del Alba) are manifestations of fundamental contradictions between the project of constructing socialism and the bourgeois state. It is undeniable that Chávez managed to lead the way, alongside the organized pueblo, in overcoming some of these contradictions, which is why the socialist hope remains alive in the midst of this unprecedented crisis. Nevertheless, other contradictions simmering under the surface, hidden by high oil prices and other causes, were simply postponed until they exploded.

Mural in El Maizal Commune. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

When analyzing the Venezuelan situation, there is a tendency to point towards individual shortcomings: people selling products on the black market, managers that strike deals with big businessmen, and directors that misappropriate funds… All of this is grave, even more so when it becomes generalized, but it is an illusion to believe that the issue is purely a matter of ethics. Put another way, a monopolistic company such as Agropatria would function in an obvious way were it a private company. Yet for it to work as a state company, there is a need not just for careful planning and transparency from above but also for accountability from below. Otherwise, the tendency, which becomes worse in times of crisis, is to go on handing out supplies mainly to large producers and for workers to engage in black market activities.

The bourgeois state, be it in its institutions or companies, has an internal logic, which is for the most part vertical, with well-established hierarchies. This verticality becomes even more pronounced when management is in the hands of the military, which is the case for several state companies in the food and agriculture sector. Hence, there needs to be a constant effort to subvert this logic from the inside, because the structures are not designed for accountability from below, and even less so for the construction of popular power. We only need to recall that, when takeovers and rescues of land occur, the state, especially through the judicial sector and security forces, has been much more agile in acting in defense of the landowners than of peasants.

We do not want to promote the fantasy that one can move towards socialism on the margins of the state, ignoring its existence. But neither can we believe that everything will be solved by changing the management of state companies or providing new political orientations, which is not to say that there is not much that can be done in this regard. Only stronger worker and popular control in these companies (and along the entire productive chain), alongside other revolutionary measures, will allow a reorientation of the Bolivarian Revolution.

This is where the “Commune or Nothing!” slogan comes in. It is not a romantic chant or a childish demand to create a communal state by decree. It is a recognition of Chávez’s legacy and of his proposal for the construction of socialism. But beyond that, this is a rallying cry for all efforts to be put behind the communes and other popular power organizations. Because these are the sectors that have demonstrated, in the most difficult of circumstances, their political capacity and their ability to produce to satisfy the needs of communities near and far. With more resources, support, and power, communes like El Maizal can breathe new life into the revolutionary project.

• Originally published by Venezuelanalysis

• Source: Investig’Action

  1. After overcoming multiple obstacles, the commune managed to propose Ángel Prado as a candidate to the Simón Planas mayorship in the December 2017 elections. But his victory was not recognized and his votes were attributed to the PSUV candidate. There have been appeals filed before the National Electoral Council and the Supreme Court, but up to now there has been no decision. The interview with Ángel Prado (part I and part II) examines this struggle in greater detail.
  2. The issue of the communal city is also discussed in detail in our interview with Ángel Prado (part I and part II).
  3. Cornflour is used to make arepas, the most common food in the Venezuelan diet.
  4. This is an expression from a Venezuelan card game, used by Chávez when referring to expropriations.

Ernesto Che Guevara Medical-Cultural Brigade: In Santos Lugares… looking for Haiti

V Ernesto Che Guevara Brigade Signs Off from Santos Lugares

The fifth Ernesto Che Guevara Medical-Cultural Brigade took place on August 18 and 19, in the village of Santos Lugares, in the province of Santiago del Estero, Argentina. Having been present in the brigade, in this article we report on the activities that took place, both in terms of healthcare and education. During two very intense days, Che’s footprint was present in Northern Argentina.

*****

Santos Lugares is a remote village, with a population of 300 according to the last official census, and the current estimate is of around 7000 people in a 100 km radius. With no telephone lines, the radio is the main source for communication and information, and that was how people were informed about the arrival of this brigade.

The climate is dry and the land is not fertile for agriculture. Locals mostly dedicate themselves to raising cattle (cows, sheep, pigs, chickens) which, in the absence of grazing land, roams around freely looking for food. Another sustenance activity is the production of vegetable charcoal, which has caused a severe deforestation of the area. Nevertheless, the main struggle in this corner is the defense of the land against the expanding agro-business interests. This struggle, which is decades old, has seen the emergence of movements such as the MOCASE (Campesino Movement of Santiago del Estero), with whom the coordination was made to organize this brigade.

The 128-strong brigade arrived on two buses, which made the journey of more than 11 hours from the city of Córdoba. These were joined by other people coming from other places in the province of Santiago del Estero, or from neighboring provinces such as Tucumán. With a large contingent of doctors who studied at Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine, the ELAM, the brigade also brought other healthcare professionals such as dentists, opticians, ophthalmologists, as well as educators from the literacy program Yo Sí Puedo (“Yes I can”), students, culture, recreation and sports professionals, communicators and journalists, and others.

The accommodation was offered by Colegio San Benito, a religious school for boys and girls, in a place where, to no surprise, the church is the main cultural influence. For an outside observer it was an extraordinary sight to see religious images hanging on the walls and then an army of green scarves walk past them.1 But for now the goals were different: to bring medical attention, and more, to these people. It is fair to point out as well that the local pastor has always been very committed to the peasant struggle.

Dry landscape of Santos Lugares (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

The two main axes of the brigade were the literacy program Yo Sí Puedo and healthcare, especially ophthalmology. Most of these operations were set up in Santos Lugares, but 8 small groups, 4 on Saturday and 4 on Sunday, also went to isolated places around Santos Lugares.

Around these two activities there was also room for organizing children’s activities, with sports, educational games and a mobile library. On Sunday everyone participated in the local children’s day activities, and there was also a discussion group concerning gender and women’s rights. It is worth mentioning that Brazilian comrades from the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers, the MST, participated in all of these activities, which allowed for an interesting exchange of experiences.

Rooting out illiteracy from the remotest corners

The members of the Yo Sí Puedo literacy program2, including Cuban advisors and volunteers that coordinate the program in different parts of Argentina, split up in small groups to go door to door in Santos Lugares and in nearby places. In total 148 visits were made, in which 60 potential students for the program were found. On Sunday there were training sessions for 32 facilitators, which will remain in touch with the program coordinators as they move forward.

We had the chance to go along with one of these groups that went door to door. In one case we were warmly welcomed, with mate [note: traditional Argentinian drink] and cookies, by the Juárez Faría family. The mother, Margarita, told us that she has two teenage kids with disabilities, who never learned how to read and write in school. She currently lives with them during the week in Santiago (capital of the province), so that they can attend a special school, and brings them back to Santos Lugares on the weekends. Learning how to read and write will make them much more independent, and Margarita herself will play the role of facilitator.

Beyond the pedagogical method, which is truly revolutionary, the main trump of this program is perhaps its flexibility. Oel Hernández, program coordinator in Argentina, reiterated that the program will only work if it adapts to the needs of the people. The possibility of holding the classes in a nearby place, or in someone’s home, the closeness of the facilitator which comes from the community, is what allows everyone to learn and advance at their own pace. In the end, the feeling of being able to finally write a letter to a grandson is something that no words can describe. No words except those in the letter, of course.

Small team from Yo Sí Puedo going door to door (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

Filling a hospital with doctors

The doctors in the brigade mostly set up in the recently built hospital of Santos Lugares. However, while the infrastructure is new, there are no doctors. Currently only a nun, who is a doctor and is stationed in Santos Lugares, comes to the hospital once a week. With the arrival of the brigade the hospital was suddenly full of doctors and, especially, patients. In total more than 450 consultations took place, between general clinic, pediatrics, neurology, cardiology, gynecology, and others. The brigade also brought a large amount of donated medicines, which were prescribed to some patients and also stocked the hospital’s pharmacy.

Norma Vega, one of the people in the hospital we spoke to, was bringing her granddaughter for a check-up. Besides that, she wanted to talk to a neurologist about her disabled daughter, to get a second a opinion, since the doctors in the capital city of Santiago del Estero want her to have surgery. This is common issue to most medical specialties, like cardiology or neurology, namely, the need for patients to travel 4 or 5 hours to Santiago (capital) to find specialized medical attention. This without mentioning, like Norma explained, the ordeal and costs required to access the necessary drugs.

Hospital of Santos Lugares (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

A second unit, mainly dedicated to ophthalmology, set up in the Casa del Santo Padre. There they did 330 ophthalmological consultations, which included prescribing eyeglasses for 83 patients. There were also 30 patients identified with cataracts or pterygium, and with those the task now is to coordinate so they can come and have surgery at the Ophthalmological Center in Córdoba, where Operación Milagro is based.3 The first patients are due to travel as soon as September.

One of the most noteworthy events took place in the early hours of Sunday, when people came from the town asking for help, as a pregnant woman had gone into labor. Even though the previous night had been, let us put it mildly, of intense conviviality, two ELAM-trained doctors quickly responded and helped with the successful delivery of little Inés.

We could ask ourselves: what is it that drives a doctor to go out of some place in Argentina, get all the way to Córdoba to then embark on an endless bus journey, stay in less than comfortable accommodation, in order to see hundreds of patients in a forsaken village, for free, on a weekend? There will not be any explanations in any Ted Talk, nor in Andrés Oppenheimer’s latest book. Some will point towards an (irrational) sense of duty, which is surely there, but behind all of this are the great feelings of love and commitment that guide true revolutionaries, like Che used to say.

Finally, we need to say a word about Aleida Guevara. If her arrival was announced everywhere, the truth is that Aleida truly came at the head of the brigade. Beyond everything that is demanded of her, in terms of speeches and interviews, she was in the hospital both days, from beginning to end, seeing patients like all the other pediatricians. And while among the people one could hear rumors that “Che’s daughter” was in town, the truth is that most mothers and kids will have left her office simply thinking that a very kind Cuban doctor had just seen them.

Ophthalmological exam (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

Looking for our Haiti

Claudia Camba, president of the UMMEP foundation, which coordinates the Cuban missions and organizes these brigades, told us that, after an outbreak of cholera that followed the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Fidel Castro insisted that the ELAM graduates should be brought to Haiti. Not just because they were sorely needed at the time, but also because contact with these “wretched of the Earth” was also a school, so that doctors never forgot what their mission was. But in the specific case of the Argentinian ELAM graduates, it was not possible to find the funds to send them to Haiti. Nevertheless, a few months later, an idea emerged – “let us look for Haiti in Argentina”.

That is how these brigades were born, and Aleida joined them. On five occasions they have gone to the most remote locations in Argentina4 to bring not only healthcare but also education, culture and sports. It is important to stress, as we said before, that this is not just about bringing an oasis that leaves as quickly as it came. By bringing medical attention to a place where there is none, besides solving any immediate issues people might have, the goal is to orient patients so they can seek the medical care they need. The same holds true for the literacy mission, which, through the door to door research and the training of local facilitators, plants the seeds that will allow the program to develop in the future.

But looking for Haiti can be more than this. Haiti was the stage for the first and only successful slave rebellion. During a few truly revolutionary years, the army of slaves, hell-bent on breaking free of their chains once and for all, managed to militarily defeat the armies of the French, Spanish and British empires. All this took place under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, a former slave that proved too cunning, militarily and diplomatically, for his European enemies.

Therefore looking for Haiti also has this connotation, of fighting for liberation. Fighting for the liberation of peoples who, while no longer under slavery5, are still yearning for their dignity under this system that is not only responsible for their misery and exclusion, but actually feeds off of them. While only for two days, the brigade brought small revolutionary seeds of healthcare and education that will help these people break free of their chains. And their liberation will also be ours, and that of all those who struggle.

• First published in Investig’Action

The Che Guevara brigades, as well as the internationalist education and healthcare missions (Yo Sí Puedo and Operación Milagro), are coordinated in Argentina by the Un Mundo Mejor Es Posible Foundation (UMMEP, “A Better World is Possible”). The missions are sustained by the generosity of the Cuban government and the solidarity of people around the world. Donations can be made following this link.

• Special thanks to Luciana Daffra for her corrections and suggestions.

  1. The green scarf has become the symbol of the struggle for the legalization of abortion in Argentina.
  2. The Yo Sí Puedo (“Yes I Can”) program, designed by Cuban pedagogue Leonela Relys, has allowed over 10 million people, in 130 countries, to learn how to read and write. It is based on 65 lessons, in audiovisual format, and on the presence of a facilitator, who ensures that the students are learning, and works as a liaison with the Cuban advisors of the program.
  3. Operación Milagro is an eye healthcare program to fight preventable blindness, mostly due to cataracts. The mission has gone through several stages before finally opening, in 2015, the Dr. Ernesto Che Guevara Ophthalmological Center in the city of Córdoba.
  4. The four previous brigades went to the provinces of Chubut (in Patagonia), Jujuy, Córdoba and Misiones.
  5. There is a clarification to be made here, which is that, unlike what bourgeois historiography would have us believe, the abolition of slavery, wherever it took place, was not a magnanimous act by whoever was in charge at the time. Simply put, due to the evolution of capitalism and the growing resistance from slaves, from an economic standpoint it made more sense to have serfs/laborers than to have slaves.

Rescuing Food Sovereignty in the Venezuelan Andes

Village of Gavidia in the Venezuelan Andes (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

In the remote village of Gavidia, in the state of Mérida, a very interesting experience is taking place: the rescue of the native potato and other native foodstuffs; something that is fundamental in terms of food sovereignty. In this article we discuss this experience after visiting Gavidia and talking to one of the people involved, Cantalicia Torres.

*****

Cantalicia Torres, commonly known as “Alicia”, is a member of the Vertientes de Agua Viva cooperative. It currently has 12 members, a number that has more or less kept constant, Alicia stresses, despite some people coming in and others leaving. The name has to do with the original idea, which remains a goal, of launching a water bottling project, making use of a natural spring in Gavidia.

This village is at an altitude of over 3500 meters, and is made up of around 70 families. If we add the two other villages in sight, Micarache and Las Piñuelas, the total is of around 600 people. They mostly survive off of what they produce, and usually need to go down 13 steep kilometers to reach Mucuchíes, the municipal capital, to find other foodstuffs such as sugar or – something Cantalicia stresses as very important – coffee, which cannot be grown at this altitude.

Nevertheless, the main activity of the cooperative is rescuing the native potato. As Cantalicia explains:

We started when professor Liccia Romero came to do her thesis in Gavidia, and Bernabé – one of the founders of the cooperative – enjoys being a “rescuer” of old things, so he used to say that we were not going to let this potato disappear. The main difference is that the native potato yields a harvest every 8 months to a year, whereas the commercial potato can yield one as quickly as 5 months. So since it was less profitable the farmers stopped growing the native potato.

The rescue of the native potato is essential in the current context, not just because of general food sovereignty issues, but because, with an economic and commercial blockade, the state has ever fewer resources to import seeds. In the case of the commercial potato (also called granola potato), it comes from countries such as Canada. Additionally, seeds imported by the private sector have unaffordable prices for (small) producers.

There are currently eight potato varieties being grown, although many more exist. The differences with respect to the commercial one are not just the frequency of harvests. Cantalicia points out that, while the commercial potato rots fairly quickly, the native one can last up to a year after being harvested. The same holds true for the seeds, which last a long time without rotting.

Native potato varieties (Photo: EcoFestival de la Papa Nativa)

In addition, the agriculture here is much more friendly towards the land. Although the sowing is manual or with cattle, it is biological, without recourse to agrochemicals. Pests are controlled with traps, or with worm humus, produced locally in garden beds, and the fertilizers are also organic, produced using cattle manure.

But it is not just the native potato being rescued up in the Andes. Cantalicia adds that:

Besides the potato there are other foodstuffs that have being rescued, such as the cuiba, the ruba or the mashua. These are not usually commercialized, but we have them here. They are native foodstuffs of the Andes that practically disappeared from consumption. Nevertheless, they have excellent nutrition properties.

Rubas are small potatoes, also called “smooth potatoes” or “ñucos”. They come in two varieties, one of them yellow or green, and the other one red, Cantalicia tells us. They are a bit juicier than a potato and can be used, for example, to make spicy sauces. Cuibas are similar to carrots, and very nutritious. They can be used in salads, soups, juices or even eaten raw. Mashuas are spicy, and mostly used in sauces, and they are said to be good for those suffering from diabetes. Their leaves can also be used to make tea or infusions.

Cuibas, one of the native foodstuffs being rescued in Gavidia (Photo: EcoFestival de la Papa Nativa)

The isolation of Gavidia, coupled to the fact that the producers do not own a truck that would allow them to take their produce to markets, leaves them at the mercy of middlemen when they need to sell part of their crops. These intermediaries come with their trucks and effectively end up fixing prices that allow for huge profit margins when re-selling later on.

In spite of this, the isolation is being broken little by little. On one hand more and more farmers are becoming aware of this experience and coming over to acquire native potato seeds, thus extending its production. And on the other hand, initiatives of organized distribution and consumption are also springing up, allowing for a bigger protection against intermediaries, for producers and consumers alike.

The “Mano a mano, agroecological exchange” collective, like other initiatives throughout Venezuela, has a component of direct organization of producers, which includes the Vertentes de Agua Viva cooperative, in order to sell produce directly to people at fair prices. More than that, it is a market that looks to boost native foodstuffs that had been forgotten, as well as encouraging producers to switch from conventional agriculture towards agroecology. However, the worsening of the crisis – Cantalicia says – also affects the regularity and reach of this kind of initiatives.

Agroecological market “Mano a Mano” (Photo: “Mano a Mano” facebook page)

When we discuss rescuing native seeds, it is important to point out that (imported) genetically modified seeds have two fundamental problems.1 First of all, there is the fact that it is impossible to reproduce or reuse the seeds, since they have patents, which leaves farmers totally in the hands of multinational corporations such as Monsanto (now Bayer), who acquire monopolistic positions in the market. Secondly, and this is related to the previous issue, the use of genetically modified seeds also requires the use of herbicides such as glyphosate, which carry deadly health and environmental effects.

In this sense, the seed law approved in December 2015, after a process of tremendous mobilization and popular organization, was an important step to lay the bases for a model of ecological agriculture that would allow Venezuela to safeguard its food security and sovereignty.

The experience in Gavidia is, so to speak, a little seed in this journey. It is not a matter of glorifying a model of subsistence farming, or yearning for an idealized and glorious past, but of understanding that food sovereignty, as an essential element in any emancipation project, requires control over the entire production chain, and this naturally starts with seeds23 The challenge is to strengthen and articulate these kinds of experiences, joining a bunch of remote corners in a stream of dignity and popular power.

• Special thanks to Silvana Solano for having come with us to Gavidia and for her comments and suggestions on the article.

• First published at Investig’Action

  1. This without going into the health effects of genetically modified food.
  2. Naturally, there is a previous step that has to do with ownership of the land.
  3. For a detailed analysis of these issues see this article by Ana Felicien, Christina Schiavoni and Liccia Romero.

Tatuy TV: A Revolutionary Munitions Factory

Logo commemorating Tatuy TV’s tenth anniversary

With a trajectory of over 10 years, Tatuy Televisión Comunistaria is a reference in Venezuela and abroad, producing a variety of content which is essential for everyone looking to understand and follow events in Venezuela. In this interview we talked to two of its members, Juan Lenzo and Iris Rodríguez, about the history of Tatuy TV, how it’s organized, how they see the role of community media in the context of the Bolivarian Revolution. We also talked about the series “Chávez the Radical”, one of the more recent projects by Tatuy TV.

*****

Ricardo Vaz:  Tatuy TV recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. How did it all begin?

Tatuy TV:  Tatuy TV was formally created in August 2007. But we had already been working since 2006, out of political motivations. We are a group of young revolutionaries from Mérida trying to make use of communication/media as a tool for political struggle.

Our project started off as a traveling cine-foro (cinema-forum). We would travel to different communities in Mérida, show a film, and then have a discussion with the people. Out of this work, which lasted for months, came the idea of a TV station. So a group of 14 people gathered around this project and became the founding members of Tatuy TV. These people came from social movements, some were journalists, AV producers, revolutionary militants, we had many different backgrounds.

RV: So you go ahead and launch a TV station?

TTV: We kicked off the project for the TV station in 2007. To broadcast on television in Venezuela one has to apply for a permit to broadcast in the radio-electric spectrum, which naturally belongs to the Venezuelan state. We started this process in 2007 but it wasn’t until 2012 that our request was approved and Tatuy TV went on the air as channel 48 in the spectrum.

What did we do between 2007 and 2012? Normally a TV station that’s not on the air doesn’t do much. But we had a lot to do! First of all we had to train ourselves, both in terms of the technical aspects and the conceptual, political/ideological ones. We also went on with the cine-foro activities, interacting with communities, taking part in community and political organization tasks, as well as gearing up for what was coming once the station was up and running.

RV: But were you already producing content?

TTV: Tatuy was born with the interview we did with the singer Manu Chao in 2006. That was the first production out of Tatuy. During these first years we did not produce much because we were still learning, but there was already some audiovisual production that essentially from 2009-2010 started to become more regular. And we also found ways to distribute content on the web, through Youtube and social media, which allowed us to distribute our content before our station went live.

RV: And then the TV channel went live in 2012?

TTV: That’s another story, and a tragic one! We started broadcasting on June 14, 2012, thanks to an endowment from RED TV through the Cuba-Venezuela agreement. But we were on the air for only one and a half to two years, because we had constant, and suspicious, technical problems with transmission.

Our first serious technical problem was before the presidential elections of October 7, 2012, which Chávez won. Tatuy’s signal went down for several days. At the time we managed to organize, solve the technical issues, buy new equipment, and with the help of RED TV, which is a state company that services public and community media, we went back on the air.

Then Chávez died and in the April 2013 elections, when Maduro was running, we suffered another sabotage. We recovered once more, and later during the guarimbas (violent street protests) in 2014 we lost the signal for good. From that point on we could not recover, we could not guarantee the technical stability of the station to go on broadcasting.

RV: Did this force you to rethink Tatuy TV’s mission?

TTV: Yes, at this moment we asked ourselves: what are we going to do? Because we did not have the resources to solve these technical problems. Even though the state has a policy of supporting community media, the support towards Tatuy was never reliable, despite the state having ample resources to ensure that an experiment like this one can go on.

This forced us to think about our vision for Tatuy. We knew that we had to keep producing content, to keep training ourselves, and to continue taking part in social and political struggles. And we understood that Tatuy is not an end in itself but an instrument of struggle. Therefore we started thinking and discussing, that if we conceive of the TV channel as a cannon that fires content, then let us reinvent ourselves and become a munitions factory.

In other words, we create content that is then fired by other cannons. That’s more or less the logic that we’ve followed in recent years now that we are no longer on the air. But this way we’ve had a bigger reach and a bigger impact, which has allowed us to place our content, our ideas, in community media, not just in Venezuela but also throughout Latin America, as well as in Venezuelan public media, where we have a chance of reaching a wider audience.

So in some sense this crisis ended up being a gift. It was a crisis that was enough to put a fledgling community station like Tatuy out of business, and, in fact, this has happened to almost all community media in Venezuela, which are struggling, broken, practically vanished. What allowed us to survive was this understanding of our role. And furthermore we did not want to become a private medium, where there’s an owner calling the shots, paying salaries. Rather this is a militant space.

RV: Let’s talk about the role of the media. It’s easy enough to understand it for private media, and the same can be said for state media. But what’s the role of community media, speaking of Tatuy TV in particular?

TTV: This has been a topic of constant debate, community media and their role. We have to go back to the origins of community media, which appear as expressions of concrete struggles, and not the other way around. At a certain moment the idea of a community medium was flipped on its head and fetishized, so first you created the outlet and then you went out to look for a struggle and a community. This inverted process hollowed out community media and many of them became private companies, with advertising revenues, salaries, titles, hierarchical separation of tasks (e.g. someone responsible for collecting cables, someone dedicated to cleaning, etc). They would also have a director, and quite often a given political backer behind the outlet, like a mayor or an MP.

Chavismo in Venezuela, having protagonist and participatory democracy as a premise, has tried to create many different organizational spaces. There have been lots of efforts, some successful and others not so much. But the goal has always been to strengthen this idea of protagonist and participatory democracy not as the end in itself, but as a stepping stone towards what Chávez proposed as the communal state. Therefore in principle a community medium should be charged with collaborating in this process of jumping from protagonist and participatory democracy to the communal state, to popular power, or what the classicists call the dictatorship of the proletariat.

These are then the tasks that a community outlet should embrace. We at Tatuy are very clear about our role. Tatuy is a weapon of communicational struggle, in the media and outside, with the goal of deepening the revolutionary process and building socialism as an historical project. This is our mission. If Tatuy does not fulfill this, and does not contribute towards this, then it ceases to make sense and we should look for different means of struggle.

Covering the May 20 presidential elections (Photo: Tatuy TV)

RV: How does Tatuy TV operate in terms of resources?

TTV: For us the most important “source” is voluntary work. Many of us work for the state (and right now the salaries are very low!), and the rest of our militant work is dedicated to Tatuy. There is a small group of people that currently work full time at Tatuy, either because they’re studying or looking for work. But that’s the basic principle, voluntary work and militancy. Another source of revenue for Tatuy are the contributions from these members that have jobs, as well as donations from comrades and collaborators.

We have also had projects financed by the state, but always in exchange for something. In other words, we are paid something in exchange for producing a series of contents, or workshops, or a community organizing process, etc. And we’ve produced lots of stuff with resources for example from the social responsibility fund of CONATEL (state telecommunications company), or from the federal government council, or from the Ministry of Communications, but always in exchange for something. Nothing has been gifted to us. But one thing that is very clear to us is that we have never accepted commercial advertising as a source of revenue, because we believe that amounts to surrendering principles. It would mean embracing a logic that would question the nature and political orientation of Tatuy.

Therefore that is how Tatuy has survived, with a militant, consistent and independent editorial line. Many people ask us: who is Tatuy’s “political godfather”? Which minister, or vice-minister, or MP, is behind Tatuy?

RV: In some sense it’s Chávez himself!

TTV: Yes, exactly, it’s Chávez and nobody else! That’s our response. Who is your godfather? Chávez! Everything that has been built, the conditions that allowed for a project like Tatuy, and our vision, they all emanate from Chávez’s legacy and the project of building socialism that he proposed.

RV: In a private outlet, like you said, there’s someone who is the director and someone charged with picking up cables. Is there a rotation of tasks in Tatuy?

TTV: Yes. There’s no boss here, nobody is going to tell you that you need to pick up the equipment or clean up, and, of course, we’re not going to hire someone to do those things. If we are looking to construct a new model, than it has to materialize in our practice, not just remain in speeches. So we started with basic things, rotating tasks like watching over the space, cleaning, putting away equipment, making sure everything is in good condition, ensuring that the spaces are well kept.

But moreover, nowadays in the current crisis situation, a new interesting experiment has emerged. In order for our material needs not to interfere with our work, here everyone needs to know how to cook! Every day someone is responsible for cooking for everybody else, so that the others can focus on work, and this is rotated. The same thing applies to buying food supplies, everyone has their turn.

And the same applies to the tasks that are more specific for a media outlet. There isn’t a single person in charge of taking photos because they are the ones that do it best. Here if someone doesn’t know how to use a camera they have to learn, just like they have to learn how do video editing and motage. Everyone needs to be an integral member, as well as develop politically. So there isn’t a division of labor, certainly not between manual and intellectual labor.

RV: How many members does Tatuy have at the moment?

TTV: We are 14, and 9 are women. That’s also something interesting, the fact that many comrades from revolutionary feminist movements have joined Tatuy, and we have looked to consider and develop awareness on the issue of the “care economy”. In other words, when we assign tasks we always need to be mindful of ensuring our collective well-being. How we take care of ourselves, our physical, intellectual and emotional integrity, so we can commit to our revolutionary work in the best possible conditions.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that we look to distribute work as fairly as possible, without any division of manual and intellectual labor, there are tendencies. There are people that feel more keen and comfortable, for example, doing photographic work, and therefore we also create the conditions so they can become good photographers.

Preparing to interview Venezuelan writer and historian Luis Britto García (Photo: Tatuy TV)

RV: Is there any relation between the work at Tatuy and the other jobs members might have?

TTV: That’s another interesting point. For example, I (Juan) am currently teaching political economy at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. This task, of organizing a syllabus and teaching, was given to me by Tatuy. In other words, part of my responsibility at Tatuy is also to reach these spaces like universities. Similarly another member of Tatuy is in charge of audiovisual coordination at Unearte.

So then Tatuy has an impact on this front, which allows us to define study programs, methods, community programs. We have managed to increase our range of activities as a medium, and reach new spaces of struggle. That is to say that our impact is not just in producing audiovisual content but also in these other spaces, like classrooms, where we can socialize the knowledge and ideas that are being generated at Tatuy.

RV: In practical terms, how do you decide which contents to produce, and how tasks are distributed for each project?

TTV: Every January we shut ourselves here, and sometimes we overdo it. That has been part of our learning curve, sometimes we would be halfway through the year still working on a plan! But in recent years we have been much more disciplined and precise in elaborating a yearly plan. So every January we sit down and discuss. We take stock of the political developments of the previous year and do a prospective analysis: what do we expect from the upcoming year?

Based on that we do a political analysis of the current context, in terms of political relations, popular subjectivity, and from there we start thinking about production lines. And we also evaluate previous productions, what impact they had, which should continue, which should be dropped, which should be picked up again, and as a result of all that we draw the editorial policy for the year. This policy in turn should be adjusted to a document that outlines the editorial framework of Tatuy, the broad strokes of our mission.

RV: We have to ask: how did you come up with the idea of “Chávez the Radical“?

TTV: The starting point is the fact that Tatuy and its militants are political sons and daughters of Chávez. Our militancy, our process of political development, with the exception of a couple of older comrades, happens with Chávez. The thing is that, at first sight, Chávez looks like an ideologically eclectic figure, that one day meets with businessmen and the next day expropriates a company. So apparently he is a contradictory figure.

But we have an assessment, which we explained in an article that outlined our vision of “Chávez the Radical”, that essentially Chávez’s political trend as time went on was towards radicalisation. This doesn’t discard the fact that at certain moments he had to take a step back, make tactical alliances, negotiate in order to avoid conflicts with powerful actors that could not be confronted at the time. Nevertheless Chávez’s political trend was always towards radicalisation.

This radicalizing trajectory is actually the subject of our latest episode. Chávez kicks off his project convinced of the possibility of a “humane capitalism”, third-way politics. But after the coup in 2002, after the attacks from the US empire, Chávez said “I am forced to declare the anti-imperialist character of the revolution”. And following that, faced with the dynamics of class struggle in the Venezuelan political reality, Chávez sees it necessary to define a path, and the closest or more realistic way to guarantee the well-being of the people, was socialism. Therefore it was always a path of radicalisation. If one looks at Chávez’s speeches, right before falling ill, these are the clearest, deepest, most radical and most revolutionary speeches he produced.

RV: What is then the goal of this series?

TTV: Simply put, it’s to rescue and portray Chávez in this process of radicalisation, this radical Chávez, which from our point of view is the authentic Chávez. Chávez’s radicalism is not an attribute, an accessory, it’s immanent, inherent to the figure of Chávez and his political project. That’s how Chávez was. So this is an homage to Chávez, to the radical Chávez, and beyond that it’s a tool for our struggle, because it allows us to take part in the ideological battle inside the Bolivarian Revolution having Chávez’s thought and legacy as the starting point.

RV: In the current context of economic war and imperialist aggression, there’s a debate about the positioning of the media with respect to criticism. How does Tatuy manage this need to remain critical while at the same the tendency is to close ranks?

TTV: For us it’s clear that there are two enemies in every revolution. The direct, obvious enemy, starting with the US empire and the traditional capitalist right-wing forces. The bourgeoisie, as a class, is the historical, classical, open, obvious enemy. But there’s another enemy that’s typical of revolutionary processes and which emerges from within, which Chávez compared with this political figure of the Leopard1 (“gato-pardismo”), which is what we call reformism.

Tatuy believes the Venezuelan revolution has two main enemies, imperialism and the national bourgeoisie on one hand, and reformism on the other. These are two permanent battlefronts, chavismo cannot avoid it. Chavismo fortunately is not a homogeneous, obedient mass. It’s a space of conflict, where multiple visions are expressed; in short, it’s a space of class struggle. Therefore above all we recognize that any revolution in Venezuela from here on out will go through chavismo. That’s one of Chávez’s great achievements, that there is a critical mass that accepted socialism as an historical and emancipatory project. This is no small feat.

So we insert ourselves in that arena of struggle. We are chavistas and we consider that inside chavismo there’s a struggle to be waged. There are reformist sectors, capitalist sectors, popular revolutionary sectors, and the struggle is to conquer hegemony inside chavismo, to conquer the subjectivity of chavismo. And that’s the battle that we embrace. We critically assume the revolutionary political construction, but always, without a doubt, inside chavismo.

• First published in Investig’action

  1. This political term refers to the sentence “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same” said by one of the characters of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s book “The Leopard”, later made into a film. In a revolutionary context this reference is targeted at those that only look to make superficial changes, leaving the existing power structures untouched.

Venezuelan Elections: Chavismo Still in Power, US Still Belligerent, Media Still Dishonest

Voters waiting in line in Catia, a popular neighbourhood in Western Caracas (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

In a climate of dire economic war/crisis and foreign aggression, Venezuelans took to the polls to elect their president and regional legislative councils. Chavismo won big in both contests, with president Maduro securing a second term until 2025. The international reaction from the US and its allies was already pre-scripted, and the dishonest coverage from the mainstream media was also to be expected. We take a look at the election, how the electoral system works, these reactions, and also share some observations after witnessing events on the ground.

*****

Incumbent president Nicolás Maduro won in a landslide, taking nearly 68% of the vote, while his closest rival Henry Falcón could only muster 21%. With all the votes tallied, Maduro totalled a little over 6.2M votes. Amidst a devastating economic crisis and increasing imperialist aggression this is a very significant victory, but it nevertheless falls very short of previous totals in chavista victories, and very short of the 10M votes that Maduro “demanded” during the campaign.1 Falcón had distinguished himself by defying the mainstream opposition’s call for boycotting the elections, only to fall back to the familiar tune of not recognising the results after losing.

Participation in these elections was just 46%. This number was historically low… for Venezuela! In the most recent presidential elections in Chile and Colombia, to name just two examples, participation was respectively of 49 and 48%, and nobody even floated the possibility of questioning their legitimacy. So if the low turnout is going to be mentioned, it should only be because Venezuela is (rightly) held to a higher standard than the regional US allies.

We had the chance to witness the electoral process on the ground as a member of the international accompaniment mission (acompañante electoral), alongside the Venezuelanalysis team. Our observations pretty much mirrored what the results would later show. Popular and working-class neighbourhoods (barrios), such as Catia, El Valle or Petare, had a very decent turnout, starting from the early morning hours. By contrast, voting centres in middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods such as El Paraiso and Chacao, traditional opposition strongholds, had very few people.

Maduro giving his victory speech in Miraflores palace (Photo: Prensa Presidencial)

The electoral system

Given the amount of attention dedicated to Venezuela’s voting system, you would think that the media would be compelled to at least explain how it works, but, of course, that would undermine all the half-truths and outright lies that are published. So, for the umpteenth time, here is how it works:

  • The voter goes into the polling station (each voting centre can have several polling stations (mesas electorales)) and hands their ID to the station president, who enters it into the authentication system. The voter then introduces their fingerprint to verify. Should they be at the wrong voting centre, or have already voted, an error message will appear and they cannot proceed. (Step 1, lower left corner, in the picture below)
  • The next step is the voting booth. The voter will pick their preference on a touchscreen display, and the choice will appear on the voting machine screen. If this is correct, they confirm the vote. The machine then prints a paper receipt with the vote, and if this matches the vote just entered, the voter deposits it in a box. (Steps 2 and 3 in the picture)
  • Finally the voter goes to another member of the polling station who hands them back their ID, and then signs and introduces their fingerprint in the appropriate spot in the electoral roll. (Step 4 in the picture)
  • Once the voting closes the voting machine prints an act (acta) with the final tally of results, to be signed by all members of the polling station and electoral witnesses. The number of voters, for example, can be immediately checked against the number of signatures in the electoral roll or the number of fingerprints registered in the authentication machine. Then 54% of polling stations are randomly chosen for a “hot audit”, which is open to the public and members of the international accompaniment mission (acompañantes electorales), whereby the paper ballots are manually checked against the electronic result. And once all this is done, the data is transmitted to the CNE headquarters.

Depiction of the voting process, called the “electoral horseshoe” in the CNE logistics and production centre in Mariches. See above for a detailed description. Step 5 (indeleble ink) is no longer used since the authentication system prevents multiple voting. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

This is not the whole story, as there are also plenty of audits (14 in this case) done before the elections, with members of all political parties of the international accompaniment mission present, and after the election. But just this short explanation shows you why you cannot just stuff ballots (the vote is electronic), you cannot vote more than once (authentication system will not let you and the electoral roll total will not match), you cannot just enter more votes into the machine remotely (the machines are offline except for the final transmission of results, plus the match against the paper ballots would fail), etc.

More than that, members of the hundreds-strong international accompaniment mission on the ground have praised the Venezuelan electoral process as free and fair. Nicanor Moncoso, president of the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (Ceela), insisted that the results must be recognised because they reflect the will of the people.

Ridiculous claims of fraud and irregularities

The existence of all these checks and audits is the reason why in over 20 elections, with constant cries of fraud whenever the opposition loses, no one has produced a single shred of evidence of fraud2,3, although that has not stopped the media from repeating these claims uncritically over and over. Given that in each of the thousands of voting centres the polling station members are chosen randomly and opposition witnesses are present, and they all sign an act at the end confirming that everything is in order, to claim there was fraud without anything to back it up is to take your supporters/listeners/readers for idiots.

One of the most widespread allegations meant to undermine the legitimacy of the process was that someone from the CNE told Reuters that by 6 PM participation was just 32.3%. This is a pure fabrication, as any of the hundreds of acompañantes who were on the ground could have told any of these outlets if asked. Simply put, the CNE does not publish preliminary data because it does not have access to it. Only when when all the audits (to 54% of voting centres) have been completed and a sizeable number of voting centres have transmitted their numbers, so as to make the results irreversible, are the figures made available.

So this claim might as well have been made by the Queen of England. It is akin to writing a headline “caveman source claims that the Earth is flat” when the Earth’s curvature has been measured. It is giving credence to random allegations about a number that has actually been measured and audited. And going back to what we said before, given such a large discrepancy and the large number of people involved, surely there would be ONE piece of evidence about ONE voting centre where the final tally had supposedly been inflated.

In the absence of hard evidence to back up fraud claims, the discourse is shifted towards other “irregularities”. While this is just small sample hearsay, opposition electoral witnesses did not report any irregularities when talking to us, although they did expect a low turnout from opposition voters. Some did complain that the puntos rojos were closer than the stipulated 200m, but laughed at the notion that voters would change their mind or be turned into zombies by the sight of red canopies. In fact, these puntos rojos have been present in elections for the past 20 years, and used to have their opposition-coloured counterparts across the street.

These places mostly serve as gathering points as people wait for the voting to unfold, and more importantly to track participation from their ranks, to see if further mobilising is necessary or not. The notion that these were a factor in the results, embraced hysterically by Falcón and his team and then echoed by the media, reeks of desperation. Other complaints, such as assisted voting (people helping elderly voters) irregularities were also insignificant in terms of their relevance for the final numbers.

A menacing punto rojo/red point in Petare! (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

International reaction

The international reaction was no surprise because it was already pre-determined before the elections. Such is the absurdity and dishonesty when it comes to Venezuela. And at this point it makes no sense to distinguish the reaction of the US State Department and the ones from its multiple echo chambers, be they spineless allies like the self-appointed Lima Group and the EU or the propaganda outlets of the mainstream media.

After the opposition MUD delegation walked away from the negotiating table with a deal already hammered out (according to former Spanish PM and mediator Zapatero), allegedly under US orders, the US quickly moved to announce that the elections would be fraudulent and illegitimate, its results not recognised, and all the usual suspects followed suit. And that is precisely what happened after Maduro’s victory, with people who claim to be champions of democracy vowing to punish Venezuela for the unforgivable crime of holding elections.

We have dedicated plenty of efforts to deconstructing the mainstream media propaganda surrounding Venezuela, and elections in particular, but it feels more and more like a waste of time. People that truly want to be informed about Venezuela should simply look for sources that do more than repeat the State Department talking points or uncritically echo the allegations of the Venezuelan opposition. FAIR did an excellent job of pointing out how even the MSM headlines have become unanimous, with “amid” their new favourite preposition. It is fair to say that amid so much propaganda, there is very little actual journalism left.

It would serve us well to go back a few months to the Honduran elections. Here there was actually plenty of evidence of fraud, which allowed for an irreversible trend to be reversed in order for the US-backed incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández to secure victory. Despite a few protests and some tame calls for holding new elections, the fraudulent winner was eventually recognised and it is now business as usual. Believe it or not, Honduras is part of this Lima Group that has the nerve to question the legitimacy of the Venezuelan elections.

Had the reaction been just this shameful bombast it would not be much of a problem. But it came followed by the tightening of the economic noose around Venezuela; i.e., new sanctions. The latest round of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration again fell short of an oil embargo, which has been increasingly floated by US officials, but targeted Venezuela’s and PDVSA’s ability to collect and re-finance debt.

After the sanctions and all the meddling, Maduro reacted by expelling the two top US diplomats in Caracas. Nevertheless we can expect the screws to be further tightened as the US and its followers show no signs of backing down from their regime-change crusade, and imposing as much suffering on the Venezuelan people as possible is their way to go. For all the sanctimonious claims that sanctions are only meant to hurt those-corrupt-officials-who-have-hijacked-democracy, we can thank British FM Boris Johnson for his clumsy honesty:

The feeling I get from talking to my counterparts is that they see no alternative to economic pressure – and it’s very sad because obviously the downside of sanctions is that they can affect the population that you don’t want to suffer.

So from an international perspective the elections did not change much, perhaps accelerating the aggression we had been seeing. But on the inside the picture is different. There were very clear signs, whether the loud cries from those who voted or the loud silence from those who did not, that the current economic situation needs to be dealt with, and fast. We already know what the solution would be if the right-wing returned to power, electorally or otherwise. The question is whether amidst this international siege the Bolivarian government has enough resources and political will to radicalise their path.

  1. We hope to go into a more detailed analysis of the political situation and the challenges ahead in an upcoming article.
  2. Perhaps we should clarify that no credible evidence has been produced. After the 2013 elections defeated candidate Capriles produced a dossier of “evidence” that was mercilessly torn to shreds, because none of it held any water.
  3. A possible notable exception was the gubernatorial election in the State of Bolívar this past October. Defeated candidate Andrés Velázquez published alleged acts that differed from the results on the CNE website, but this matter was not pressed further, perhaps because it undermined all the other unproven fraud claims.

“Pueblo a Pueblo”, Building Food Sovereignty

“Feeding Popular Power” (“Alimenta el Poder Popular”) (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

(Investig’Action/Ricardo Vaz in Caracas) – “Pueblo a Pueblo” is an initiative undertaken to fight back against the economic war that has hurt the Venezuelan people in their access to food. The idea is to organise the different links of the chain (production, distribution and consumption) in order to be rid of intermediaries. This way food is taken directly from the “pueblo” in the countryside to the “pueblo” in the city.1 We had the opportunity to talk to Martha Lía Grajales and Ana Graciela Barrios, who are part of the “Unidos San Agustín Convive” cooperative, which is involved in this experience, as well as witness a cooperative assembly and the food consumption event.

San Agustín is a neighbourhood that starts close to the centre of Caracas and then runs up the hills. With an Afro-Venezuelan majority, it is known for its music, artistic talent and cultural riches, and more recently for the cable car that connects San Agustín to the centre of Caracas.

Nevertheless, our visit to San Agustín is due to another “tradition”: popular organisation. In the midst of an economic war that has meant severe difficulties in terms of access to food, the communities of San Agustín, through the Unidos San Agustín Convive cooperative, joined the “Pueblo a Pueblo” program. It is an initiative created by peasants in the west of the country that Martha describes as follows:

The idea is to generate processes of organisation and politicisation with a logic that is an alternative to capitalism. Processes centred on the peasants/farmers, which assume a class-oriented logic, in which the common problems related to production are presented and their solutions found collectively as well.

Some of these problems have to do with the dependence on imported seeds, which becomes harder in times when the government has been forced to cut back on imports. Therefore peasant communities have been developing processes to rescue native seeds, as well as implementing agricultural practices that are less harmful to the land, with less agro-chemicals. Especially important, Martha sustains, is planning the harvests, so that producers are not as vulnerable to the fluctuations of the market.

San Agustín cable-car (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

Beyond the organisation at the level of production, it is also necessary to do it at the level of distribution and consumption, in order to be rid of the intermediaries, as Martha explains:

What we have been doing is organising the final link of the production chain, which is consumption, framing it as practical exercise of socialism. As such we can see an emphasis on democratic processes, horizontal assemblies, an equal distribution of food, public processes of accountability after each food consumption event, and if there is any surplus left it is re-invested in the cooperative.

Martha also points out that the challenge is not just to consume in an organised fashion, but also to produce. It is impossible to grow food in San Agustín, but the cooperative is moving forward to raise egg-laying hens. And a small group has been producing clothing, for now underwear for children (girls), which will be exchanged in the opposite direction with the “Pueblo a Pueblo” peasants, in a friendly manner and with a transparent cost structure.

It is worth noting that, in one of the most violent neighbourhoods of the Libertador municipality, this initiative has succeeded in mobilising people from different sectors, something they might have avoided doing in the past. In fact, the consumption events that take place every two weeks rotate between three places: Hornos de Cal, El Manguito and Terrazas del Alba. The initiative started one-and-a-half years ago, and the number of families participating has risen to about 150 in each of the three locations.

San Agustín seen from the cable-car (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

In times of economic war, with food prices constantly rising, this is an important initiative, as Ana describes:

The access to vegetables allows families to complement their diet, with natural products that have little use of chemicals. Not only that, they are much cheaper than what one would pay on the street. Alongside the CLAP bag2, which contains processed products that are important in the Venezuelan diet. This is an important contribution.

It also helps to reduce the dependency on the CLAP deliveries, which do not always happen on a regular basis, sometimes due to the financial blockade being imposed against Venezuela. As for the consequences of the crisis and inflation on the program itself, Ana points out that prices have gone up. This is in part due to rising production costs, but also because the peasants that take part also see their living costs rise. This produces difficulties on the consumption side, because even though the vegetables are sold much cheaper than outside, it still takes a reasonable amount of money to buy a large amount of vegetables at once.

Nevertheless, Ana assures us that the continuity of the process is not in question, because besides its organisational and political potential, in concrete terms it offers a solution in terms of access to food.”

The Cooperative Assembly

The assembly, to prepare the consumption event, is masterfully chaired by Martha, who strikes a seemingly impossible balance, on one hand allowing everyone to intervene and feel comfortable, and on the other moving forward with the schedule so that the meeting does not last for hours. Amongst the 35 participants only 4 are men, and Martha addresses the group calling them “muchachas” or “compañeras” with nobody flinching.

The first point on the agenda are the reports from the multiple work-groups of the cooperative. The process to raise laying hens has been moving forward, the hen houses have been built, and now it is a matter of choosing where to place them. The group of textile workers talks about the production of underwear for children, the difficulties due to skyrocketing raw material costs, and the assembly decides that the most recently produced batch should be taken to Spain by the member who is going to receive a prize.3

Cooperative assembly (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

The following work-group announces, to everyone’s delight, that the process of legally registering the cooperative is almost completed. This will open up new possibilities, for instance, to request that the municipality award them space to build a storage facility. On the matter of production there is also talk of what comes after the hens, namely, raising rabbits and sheep. Equally welcomed are the news that there has been progress in the process of requesting a truck from the Interior Ministry (see below). The only work-group that has yet to start moving is the processing one, which has as a first task the processing of 7 kg of corn supplied by the El Maizal commune. The spokesperson for the group assumes her responsibility which is mitigated due to having brought coffee!

Then comes the time to register volunteers for the different tasks of the consumption event: registration, unloading, logistics and accounting. People volunteer, sometimes complaining of other difficulties, to which Yamile Anderson, one of the participants, replies reminding everyone that “here everything is done with love”.

The Consumption Event

Finally the day of the consumption event arrives. The truck arrives early in the morning with the vegetables, which are then unloaded, weighed and divided in equal parts, in this case 100. In this parking lot under the cable car station, 100 bags are placed on a grid, and the different foods are also placed in grids. The vegetables being distributed today are potatoes, onions, carrots, scallions, yams, cassava, pumpkins, cabbages, cilantro and garlic.

Distributing food into bags (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

What happens next could, for a second, be mistaken for a fordist assembly line. A group of people lines up in a row, each with a blue bag in front of them. A second group lines up from this first one towards the particular vegetable being distributed. And a third one gathers the small empty bags from the first group in order to fill them up and hand them over to the second one. Once a row of bags is filled, the first group takes a step forward, and so on and so forth.

Of course, this is a process that has nothing fordist about it. From the blaring salsa music that infects everyone to the rounds of applause that follow whenever the distribution of a given vegetable has been completed, it is impossible not to recall the words of Yamile – everything is truly done with love. The final result is 100 bags with 10 kg of vegetables, to be sold around 70% cheaper than through the conventional market. When this is done, the people who registered for the consumption are called, one by one, to gather their bag, weigh it, and pay for it.

Vegetable bags at the end of the process (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

While all of this is going on, a group of women prepares the mandatory sancocho (a hearty soup). With some ingredients from the consumption event and others that people brought, the giant pot over the fire symbolises a process that is almost synonymous with the construction of a communal spirit.

Preparing the sancocho (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

A truck for San Agustin

The Unidos San Agustín Convive cooperative is currently in a crowdfunding campaign to buy a (used) truck. The main motivation, as Martha and Ana explain, is to connect to producers, most of them women, in Carayaca (Vargas state). This is a very isolated region, only accessible with a 4×4 car, which makes producers more vulnerable to intermediaries. This is not meant to be a separate project but a new axis of the Pueblo a Pueblo platform.

The cooperative has also asked that the Interior Ministry assign them a truck out of the ones apprehended for drug trafficking or contraband. Although there have been positive developments in this regard, the question is far from settled. And even if it does work, the truck will surely need a sizeable expenditure to get back up and running, especially with the growing costs of tires, batteries and other car parts. So the campaign funds would thus be destined for this purpose.

It is a tremendous mistake that leftist people and organisations limit themselves to analysing Venezuela through the prism of (supposedly more evolved) western democracy. Especially because they end up, directly or indirectly, lending more strength to the imperialist aggression that Venezuela is facing. On the other hand, experiences such as this one, of people organising in a logic that is alternative to capitalism, should be worthy of interest and support from all those who consider themselves leftists. Not only that, they are essential to understand what is truly revolutionary about the Bolivarian Revolution. In the end, Martha sums it up better than anyone:

Despite all the difficulties and contradictions of this process, there is a pueblo that has decided to be free, and it is out there fighting.

• First published in Investigat’Action

  1. We are deliberately keeping the word “pueblo” in Spanish, because it is not just used with the meaning of “people” (“gente”) but with the connotation of community or organised people.
  2. The CLAP (Local Committees for Supply and Production) are a government initiative that delivers boxes/bags at subsidised prices containing some of the main staples of the Venezuelan diet: cornflour, pasta, rice, black beans, cooking oil, and more. These are delivered door to door through local community organisations.
  3. The Unidos San Agustín Convive cooperative and the Colectivo Surgentes were awarded a prize by the Bienal Internacional de Educación en Arquitectura para la Infancia y Juventud for its project with local children to turn (paint) a stairwell into a river.

Amidst Threats and Defiance, Venezuelans head to the Polls

Closing rally of the Maduro campaign (Photo: Presidential Press)

May 17 marked the end of the political campaign for the upcoming presidential and legislative council elections that will take place on Sunday May 20. In Caracas, in the traditional rally-holding place in Avenida Bolívar, Nicolás Maduro gave his closing campaign speech, surrounded by a large crowd that had mobilised in the early hours of the morning and converged from multiple locations in Caracas.

In his speech, Maduro reiterated some of the main tenets of his campaign: the promise to take on the economic “mafias” and to bring forth an “economic revolution”1, the rejection of foreign interference in Venezuelan affairs, and a call for participation in the upcoming elections. He also renewed a call for dialogue addressed to all sectors of Venezuelan society.

This final rally brought the curtain on a campaign that saw Maduro all over the country, supported by what has become an impressive electoral machine, with a big ability to mobilise people. Multiple sectors inside the heterogeneous chavismo also voiced their support for Maduro. Even groups that have kept a critical line with regard to government policy in recent times have it clear that only a Maduro victory can guarantee the continuity of the Bolivarian Revolution and the possibility to continue the struggle for socialism.

Maduro delivering his final campaign speech (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

The two main opposition candidates on 20M are Henri Falcón and Javier Bertucci (out of the other two initially running, Reinaldo Quijada is expected to have a very small showing and Luis Ratti joined Falcón). For a while the possibility of a unified front with a single candidate hung in the air, but did not materialise in the end, which makes Maduro the favourite for the upcoming vote.

Henry Falcón “disobeyed” instructions and threats from the US and the main opposition parties of the MUD, stepping forward as a candidate. His main proposal is to dollarise the economy, as well as appeal to instances such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for support. However, with the main anti-chavista figures and parties insisting in their non-recognition of the elections and calling on people to stay away, he will find it hard to mobilise the middle class, which historically has been the core anti-chavista vote.

While Falcón focused mainly on holding meetings and press events, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci made use of his experience and mobilising capacity to hold a few massive events on the streets. Bertucci refused to step out of the race in favour of Falcón, believing (or having us believe) that he is in a better position than his rival. In any case, his arrival on the political scene is surely with a view beyond these elections, looking to capitalise on the disastrous decisions of the opposition in the recent past to present himself as a political alternative in the future, in a similar fashion to what has been seen with evangelical movements in other Latin American countries.

Main opposition candidates Henri Falcón (left) and Javier Bertucci (right) (Photos from respective twitter accounts)

These elections arrive with Venezuela suffering from a deep crisis and growing economic war. Prices have skyrocketed in recent months, and the government response through salary increases and bonuses has failed to keep up with inflation, resulting in a very difficult reality for ordinary Venezuelans. There is also an important international dimension to this. The US empire, and its loyal allies, have been ramping up the attacks against Venezuela, for example, barring all access to credit or making it more difficult to pay for imports.

Along these lines, the US and its echo chamber, the Lima Group, have railed against these elections, arrogantly demanding they be suspended and announcing, months in advance, that they would not be legitimate and that they would not recognise the results2,3 This is simply a consequence of the fact that an anti-chavista victory was far from certain. After a growing wave of violence in the first half of 2017, chavismo responded with remarkable strength, achieving peace with the Constituent Assembly elections and then going on to win regional and municipal elections. In light of all this, the decision was to abandon the electoral route and look for a different “regime change” avenue.

Giant Chávez puppet during the closing Maduro rally (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

Taking all of this into account, the 20M elections are a key moment in the history of Venezuela and Latin America. A chavista defeat would imply a massive setback for the left in Latin America, and it would bring about a merciless onslaught against poor and working-class Venezuelans. But at the same time a Maduro victory will be greeted with even greater imperialist hostility, with further sanctions and an eventual oil embargo on the horizon.

All of this does not discard that there are important choices and changes to be made in terms of government policy, especially in what concerns the repeated appeals, always followed by preferential dollars or credit, to private businessmen, so that they will produce or import. At the end of the day the strength and creativity of the pueblo are the only resource that really matters, and the mobilisation in defence of the revolution, even in the difficult current circumstances, show that the political conscience that was built is perhaps the most important achievement of the past 20 years. And it shows that there is no way forward except to radicalise the revolution. There is a tough battle coming up on May 20, and then another one the following day.

  1. With plenty of goodwill we can grant that a strong electoral showing will give Maduro some backing to implement tough measures, but on the other one cannot help but wonder why these tough measures were not put into place in recent months and years.
  2. Trying to out-Trump his master, Colombian president Santos announced that he was aware of a months-long evil plan by the Venezuelan “regime” to register and transport hundreds of thousands of Colombians and have them vote!
  3. Here we also have to wonder what the “recognition” from the US and its followers is actually worth. We only have to go back a few months to the Honduran elections, where there was a blatant display of fraud, and nevertheless results were “recognised”.

Rebellion and Production in the 23 de Enero

Studios of Radio Arsenal, the Community Radio of Panal 2021

Ricardo Vaz (Investig’Action correspondent in Venezuela) The 23 de Enero is a neighbourhood (barrio) of Caracas with a rebellious tradition. It was in the eye of the storm during the Caracazo in 1989, the failed military coup led by Chávez in 1992 started there, and the people came down from there to defeat the coup against Chávez in 2002. Nowadays, even with chavismo in power, the people from the 23 de Enero, and the Alexis Vive Foundation in particular, embrace this spirit of rebellion as the engine behind popular organisation. It was in this barrio that the Panal 2021 commune1 was created, and it was the first commune to be officially registered in Venezuela. The commune is currently developing a host of activities in the spirit of self-government and of building socialism from the communes.

*****

The very name “El Panal” (“Honeycomb” or “Hive”) is no coincidence. The members of the commune drew inspiration from the organisation of bees, which are all workers willing to defend their queen, which in this case is the community, and to protect the hive. There are several socially owned enterprises working in the Panal 2021 commune: bakeries, a sugar packaging plant, a textile factory, a communal bank, television and radio stations. The community has also started to grow food.

Sugar packaging plant at Panal 2021 (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

One of the first enterprises set up in the commune was the sugar packaging plant. With a capacity to process up to 30 tons of sugar a day, its operation is planned such as to supply the necessary sugar for the 3,600 families living in the community. Next to this plant an operation to produce animal feed is being set up. This will be destined towards domestic pets as well as chickens and cattle, and it will also be supplied to producers that collaborate with the commune.

1, 5, and 10 Panal Banknotes (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

At a time when there is a tremendous shortage of cash, because of inflation and of a massive operation that is extracting bills to Colombia, the Panal 2021 commune, through its communal bank, has issued a currency called “Panal”, which can be used in all businesses in the community. This includes the 243 consecutive communal food markets. These allow people to have access to meat, chicken, cheese, vegetables and much more, at fair prices. Through a platform called “Pueblo a Pueblo” (“people to people”), the commune established direct relations with producing communities throughout the country, thus avoiding intermediaries and the food distribution monopolies.

Another experience currently being developed in the commune is the textile factory “Las Abejitas del Panal” (“little/busy bees”). In a space abandoned by successive businesses, Chávez proposed that a textile factory be set up, as a way to reinforce the role of women in the Bolivarian Revolution.

“It’s not Puma, it’s the original Panal” – backpack produced by the “Abejitas del Panal” (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

The factory produces clothing, school uniforms, backpacks, re-usable diapers and many other things. Despite not being a capitalist venture which is driven by accumulation, it still suffers the consequences of the economic war, since raw materials need to be bought from private market suppliers. Nevertheless, the “Abejitas del Panal” are determined to provide products that contain 0% exploitation and, as the photo shows, 100% pride.

Faced with the inevitable question about the upcoming May 20 elections, the answers from the many people we talked to were not uniform. They stressed that recent times have been tough and that the Venezuelan people have been hit very hard, which may cause disillusionment when the time to vote comes. However, they argue that socialism is the only model that can provide human rights and a decent life for all Venezuelans. Little by little, this reality is being built by the comuneros of Panal 2021.

• First published at Investig’Action

  1. Besides Panal 2021 there are other communes in the 23 de Enero.

Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela

“Nobody surrenders here! Commune or nothing!” – a mural depicting Chávez and the commitment to building the commune (Photo: Venezuelanalysis)

“The communes should be the space in which we are going to give birth to socialism.” – these were the words of Hugo Chávez in one of his famous presidential broadcasts. To discuss the Venezuelan communes and the new forms of participation, as well as its successes, difficulties and contradictions, we have interviewed Dario Azzellini*. He has investigated and documented theses issues throughout the Bolivarian Revolution. His book Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela has recently been released in paperback by Haymarket Books.

*****

Ricardo Vaz: In your book you talk about a “two-track process” in Venezuela, from above and from below. Can you explain this?

Dario Azzellini: Traditionally, some people have a vision that change is coming from above, so you have to take over state power and the government and then you change everything from above. Others disagree and defend that you have to do everything from the bottom-up and the grassroots, and overcome the state.

I think Venezuela shows that the state is there, whether you want it or not. It does not go away if you ignore it. On the other hand, we also have the experience that if you try to change something from above without having the self-organised structures in society to sustain it, then the conscience of people is not really changed and everything can fall apart like a house of cards a few seconds after you lose state power.

A characteristic feature of a few recent processes in Latin America, and in Venezuela especially, with all their difficulties and contradictions, has been the combination between certain kinds of changes and reforms from above with a strong self-organisation on the ground. Also if we look at it, especially in Venezuela, many of the proposals that were successful, from the recuperated workplaces to the local self-administrations of communal councils and communes, were things that were created by the people, at the bottom, and then picked up by Chávez and turned into government policies.

Chávez visiting the El Maizal commune in 2009 (Photo: Minci)

The “two-track” approach means that you have at the same time these efforts for change from above and from below. From a logic standpoint, you can have a bottom-up logic in some state institutions as you can also have a hierarchical top-down conception in some of the grassroots movements. So it is more complicated than it seems.

RV: What are the contradictions that emerge?

DA: There are strong contradictions.  It still is a constant relationship of cooperation and conflict. Because these are two completely contradictory logics, even if they declare to pursue the same objectives.

The logic of an institution is always to measure everything with statistics, whereas the social logic is often not measurable in statistics. When I was working in Venezuela with communal councils, you could have the communities, for instance, starting to meet once a week to watch a film together and then discuss. Or they could start cooperating with the adjacent community council on some common issues, maybe solving some conflict that had long existed between the communities (and nobody remembers why!).

At the same time, from an institutional standpoint, a government body or a ministry that is responsible for the construction of these communal councils, has to prove its worth to the next institutional level, it has to measure something. Watching a film or cooperating with the neighbouring community cannot be fit into any statistic. But if this community builds 2 kms of a new asphalt road, then it is great! We can report the 2 kms of road, the cubic meters of asphalt needed, and the money spent, to show they have been doing something. However, from a social and political logic, it is much more valuable to watch a film or cooperate with the other community.

The logic of the institution is always a logic of representation and it is always questioning any non-representational body even if they formally agree with it. Someone sitting in an institution, who has to explain to his boss and institution what he has been doing, is weary of letting the people decide. What if the people decide wrong!? Thus he may feel inclined to decide himself what is best. You have these contradictory logics all the time.

Moreover, there is the contradiction of a power asymmetry. The institutions control the finances and have privileged access to media and other institutional levels. Therefore this power asymmetry has to be taken into account.

The hillside barrios surrounding Caracas have a long tradition of popular organisation (Photo: Ryan Mallett-Outtrim/Venezuelanalysis)

RV: What about situations in which the state was (at least in principle) on one side, like struggles for workers’ control?

DA: You still find these contradictions at play in cases like workplace occupations. For instance, workers would occupy a given company, and an institution that was very eager to support them would come in immediately, and after two weeks expropriate the workplace. But the workers did not have the time to form a collective, to grow in the struggle, to really figure out what they want.

This expropriated workplace would then hardly ever make it into a self-organised, worker-controlled workplace, because it could not grow organically. At the same time the institution that intervened or the new administration might have no interest in surrendering control to the workers, or even actively sabotage and hinder workers’ control. And once the workers’ councils were introduced, they tried to undermine them, co-opt them, or reduce them to consulting bodies without any real power, while workers fought and still fight for workers’ participation and control.

So that is why I say it is a constant logic of conflict and cooperation between these two: between the constituent power (workers, grassroots movements, etc.) and the constituted power (state institutions). And that is the motor of history.

Therefore with all the problems that have plagued recent Latin American processes, due to pressures from the outside, from the right, from the inside, from mistakes that were made, etc., what happened over the past 20 years has the imprint of both the constituent and constituted power. And it is based on the friction between these two powers.

RV: It is interesting that we are used to seeing class struggle for the state or outside the state, but here it is somehow brought into the institutions…

DA: It is both inside and outside. We could say it is “inside, outside, with, against and beyond” the state and the institutions! Which is really complicated and contradictory. We have to keep in mind that these are (at best) bourgeois institutions, so their tendency is to assimilate and co-opt everything, not to build socialism or participation, obviously. Therefore it is a very complicated and contradictory struggle, which has been an important element in countries like Venezuela.

In countries that are built around very few extractive industries, oil in the Venezuelan case, class struggle has not been direct but mostly about access to the state, which was the big distributor of the oil rent. This was true even before Chávez. You had private capitalists trying to get as much money as possible, while workers also directed their demands to the state. After 1998, with the election of Chávez, this struggle was moved also inside the state and it is still there.

Meeting of the national network of communes in 2011 (Photo: Red Nacional de Comuneros)

Unfortunately I think that huge pressure from the outside is silencing too many contradictions and struggles. In a moment when the threat from the outside is so strong many of the movements who would have critiques to voice have to close ranks. Because obviously if the opposition takes back power, or if the US intervenes militarily, directly or using Colombia as a proxy (which I think is more probable), then there is not even a chance to have these discussions because everything in the Bolivarian Revolution would be eliminated.

RV: Let us make a little detour. Whenever Venezuela is discussed in the media, or even within leftist circles, the focus is never on these struggles, or the new models of participation that we will get to, but always on the supposed shortcomings from the perspective of “liberal democracy.” But in the book you argue that this is not the proper, or the more relevant, “yardstick”. Why is that?

DA: The Bolivarian Revolution is a result of the failure of liberal democracy. This is not specific to Venezuela, liberal democracy has been a failure everywhere. We have seen in the recent past millions of people out on the streets because they think that liberal democracy is not democratic. All the new movements, progressive or leftist, that we have seen emerging, are a result of the non-democratic nature and the failures of liberal democracy. And the same is true for the right-wing populist movements we see in Europe, or in the US with Trump.

Even the term “liberal democracy” is a contradiction in itself, because we should remember that liberalism and democracy were two opposites. They had been fighting each other for hundreds of years. Liberal democracy came to be when the liberals managed to exclude from the democratic process the economic and social spheres, thus reducing participation to the political sphere through the act of voting for representation. Therefore liberal democracy has, in fact, very little to do with democracy.

The starting point for Venezuela and most of the movements in Latin America is the failure of liberal democracy, the failure of allowing for social advances, the failure of improving people’s lives, the failure of being democratic, the failure of making people feel that they have a say. If this is the starting point, we cannot be criticising or measuring what is happening with liberal democracy as the yardstick. Liberal democracy is what has to be overcome.

Chávez speaking at the closing of the 2012 presidential campaign (Photo: AVN)

RV: From the very start of the Bolivarian Revolution, and with the 1999 Constitution, there is a new emphasis on participation and protagonist democracy and there are several experiments, some successful, others not so much, until you arrive at the communal councils. Why were the communal councils the first ones to really succeed?

DA: From the very early 2000s the Bolivarian government was already thinking about mechanisms of popular participation in institutional decisions. The first examples mirrored experiments that existed in other places, like the participatory budgets. Then they started with experiments of creating bodies to bring together institutional (e.g. the municipalities) and grassroots representatives. And these failed, because those were still largely representative bodies with a very clear power inequality or asymmetry, like I described before. This made it impossible to have any kind of grassroots autonomy or decision-making.

These difficulties were not exclusive to opposition mayors or municipalities, they also happened with chavista ones. The communal councils were the first attempt to separate these structures as much as possible.1  A communal council is the assembly of a self-chosen territory. In urban areas it comprises 150-200 families or living units, in rural areas 20-30 and in indigenous areas, that are even less densely populated, 10-20, and they decide themselves what is the territory of the community. The communal council is the assembly of all people of the community that decides on all matters.

The communal councils form workgroups for different issues, depending on their needs: infrastructure, water, sports, culture, etc., and these workgroups elaborate proposals that are then voted by the community assembly to establish what is more important. Then they get the projects financed through public institutions. The financing structure that was created was no longer attached to the representative institutions at a local level, which would have brought them into this direct, unequal competition I had mentioned. Instead it was situated at a national or at least regional levels. And this created a possibility to have a more community-centred, more independent, projecting and decision-making.

Forming a communal council in the El Manicomio neighbourhood of Caracas (Photo: Rachael Boothroyd-Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)

RV: How many communal councils are there in Venezuela? And how do we get to the communes?

DA: Nowadays there are formally 47.000 communal councils. Obviously that is a huge number and I do not sincerely think that all of them work as democratic popular assemblies. There will be many of them that probably do not really work, especially with the economic crisis. Others will be driven by a few activists that have the support but not the active participation of the community, while many others are really working as community assemblies.

The next step was the creation of communes, which again started by self-deciding on the territory. They do not have to correspond to the official territorial divisions. They can stretch across different municipalities or even states. For example, in the outskirts of Caracas you have communities that formally belong to the state of Vargas on the coast, but because of the cordillera they do not even have a road connecting them to Vargas. Their infrastructure and cultural links are with the city of Caracas, so they form communes together with communities that are officially part of Caracas.

Communes in urban areas are usually made up of 25-40 communal councils, and in rural areas between 6-10 or 15. It depends. And also have the participation not only of the different community councils but also of other organisations existing in the territory. These may be peasant organisations, or the community radio, or organisations like the Corriente Revolucionaria Bolívar y Zamora. All organisations existing in the territory take part in the assemblies of the commune.

RV: How do the communes function?

DA: The commune is again only a place to coordinate proposals and take them further. The basic decisions are still taken in the communal councils. And the next step beyond that would be a communal city, which would not necessarily be structured as a city, but rather it is made up of different communes. There are a few communal cities, even if there is still no law about them!

This is a familiar pattern. The communal councils started being built from below, with different names, some even had institutional backing, and no law regulating them. Then Chávez saw these assemblies and named them communal councils, and by the time the law was drafted in 2006 there were already some 5000 of these councils running. The same thing happened with the communes. They started to be built exist because the communities needed a bigger structure to decide on bigger projects, and by the time the law of communes was passed there were already hundreds of them in existence.

And they had to pressure the institutions to recognise them and register them officially as communes, because during the first years the institutions were declaring all communes as “communes under construction”. From an institutional logic, it is in their interest to declare as many communes as possible as needing their support. Once a commune is declared as functioning that is no longer the case. So in the end the communes needed to force the institutions to register them.

Schematic depiction of the communes (Photo: Ministry of Communes)

RV: And how many communes exist nowadays?

DA: Now there are around 1600 registered communes. Again, as with the communal councils, I would say they fall into three groups. Some are not really functioning after state support disappeared because of the crisis, others keep on functioning because of some well-organised activists that do the heavy lifting, with the support of the communities but without the assemblies meeting regularly, and other ones that are still functioning well.

One thing that I would definitely say is that the communes that are working are the structures that are being more successful in confronting problems that people are facing. There are interesting experiments with huge community controlled production facilities, or closed-down workplaces that were taken over by the community and the workers to set up all kinds of production. During this very difficult crisis, that strains social networks by pushing people to more individualism. These things are very relevant.

RV: What has been the role of women in these participatory bodies?

DA: Women have been the driving force. In the community councils, especially in urban areas, I would say over 70% of the people taking responsibility and pushing the struggle are women. There are many reasons for this. On one hand the rentier model of Venezuela has generated lots of speculative and informal activities that do not always supply regular work, and this naturally becomes worse in times of economic difficulties. But while this affects men mostly, women retain the experience of regular work because of all the other responsibilities (children, domestic work, etc.).

Therefore women are very much the centre of the household, and the centre of community life. This also has historical roots. If you read anthropological literature, in Caribbean societies like Venezuela, the trans-Atlantic slave trade implied that men were sold more often, and thus women were the more stable part of slave society. This is some kind of late consequence of that, reinforced by the long-standing economic model.

RV: One of the features that you mentioned is that the communal councils and the communes emerged from the bottom-up and then there was legislation to follow. This contrasts a bit with the (media-pushed) perception that somehow everything was happening via a Chávez decree…

DA: I think that one of Chávez’s extraordinary capacities was that he was able to pick up what the people were doing, and what was working, and then function as a kind of loudspeaker! He would propagate these things that he saw as being successful, something that political scientists might call “good practices”, and make them widely known. And obviously because he was so charismatic and people trusted him, he was able to make them immediately discussed and propagated, so they would expand.

So contrary to the general perception like you say, most initiatives that Chávez launched and were successful, succeeded because they were practices that the people were doing already. He broadened them, made them better known and helped them expand, and at a certain point gave them a legal standing. This, of course, is not exclusive to Venezuela. For example, the workers of Rimaflow in Italy2 used to discuss how every law favouring workers in Italy came into being after the practice already existed, after different struggles and strikes had already forced them into place. So even in what can be considered as a favourable context like Venezuela, these “good practices” are often implemented first and later made legal.

Corn harvest in El Maizal (Photo: Prensa El Maizal)

RV: On the larger issue of the communes, Chávez stressed very often that communes were the “Venezuelan way to socialism”. How do communes help us reach socialism?

DA: Well, according to Marx, the commune is the finally discovered political form to emancipate labour.3 It is a step of decentralisation, of local self-government, that is connected to workers’ and community control, which is very important as a step towards socialism. It makes it possible to create different values, to create a different consciousness from the bottom-up, to create a self-organisation oriented towards the collective advancement of people in communities beyond capitalism.

The communes allow for a tendential overcoming of the separation between political, economic and social spheres, turning more resources into commons, to be managed by the community. (I say tendential because this is still a parallel structure amidst still existing representative, institutional structures, and capitalism in general.) This is what socialism was in the imagination of Karl Marx and many others.

RV: Can we see these advances of these participatory forms of democracy in a more global context, connected to the failure of liberal democracy that we discussed before?

DA: Indeed. The last huge uproar of council socialism were the workers’ councils in the early 20th century. After that the model of representation also took grip of the left and the communist movements, imposing itself as the hegemonic model even for socialist transformations.

So these currents become a minority while the Fordist model of production also reflected itself in an imagination of socialism as a representative, top-down paradigm. Now that Fordism is exhausted as a production model, liberal democracy as the political model serving Fordism is also at its limits. We should remember that the rights gained were not because of liberal democracy. They were forced on liberal democracy, they were won in struggle. For a while it was possible to push and advance progressive struggles within the framework of liberal democracy, but now it is clearly no longer the case.

This is the reason why we are witnessing a resurgence of socialist/communist/anarchist ideas, whatever you want to call them, models of self-administration, of council democracy, of self-organised socialism. The first internationally visible case was the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, we saw it in Venezuela like we have been discussing, but also in places like Argentina, Bolivia or even Kurdistan, always in different forms. We saw it in the workplace recuperations that occurred worldwide, we saw it in Occupy Wall Street and 15M, in Gezi and Tahrir, as well as plenty of other cases that we barely heard about, for example in Africa.

In summary I would definitely say that there is a resurgence of these concepts and ideas of socialism based on direct, council democracy, on self-management, on self-organisation – on this long history of people themselves organising their lives.

President Maduro meeting with comuneros in 2015 (Photo: Prensa Presidencial)

RV: Going back to the Venezuelan communes, one of the discussions/debates within this spirit of conflict and cooperation with the state is that once you create a Ministry for Communes, there is a risk that they start being seen as just a sector of society, and not as something that is supposed to replace the state in the long run…

DA: That is exactly one of the problems. Chávez was very clear about the idea of the council democracy replacing the institutional framework, and he coined this term of the “communal state“. Which is a bit of an oxymoron, because if it is communal it is not a state anymore! But this is a long-standing confusion in the whole socialist and communist movement. For example, Marx insisted that the Paris Commune was not a state at all, but a government, while the council communists of the early 20th century were mainly arguing that council democracy is not government (some of them later called it a proletarian state).

Chávez insisted and was adamant that the communes should at some point overcome the bourgeois state. It is not that clear whether the same view is held among government officials and institutional actors in the rest of Venezuela, there are many that see the communes as a kind of permanent parallel structure to the representative bodies.

RV: And at the local level there are often conflicts with the communes, which may be seen as a threat…

DA: Yes, definitely. Local and regional administrations are very often in conflict with the communes because they see them as a direct threat, and they are a direct threat! That is the point of the whole thing! They are representing structures that have to be overcome by the communal system. Of course politically they are supposed support it and not fight it, but this goes back to the clash between the participatory/communal and representational logics that I talked about before.

RV: Let us talk about workers’ control, which is a subject that you discuss in great detail in the book. How did this logic of conflict and cooperation affect the struggles for workers’ control, for example, in the basic industries in the state of Bolívar?

DA: It affected them in a very problematic way. The whole workers’ control struggle in Bolívar, in the heavy industries (aluminium, iron, steel), did not advance at all. Through the years there were a lot of efforts, but eventually they stalled, while at the same time the production also did not really advance. Corruption and sabotage involving local power structures, institutional resistance, and contradictions within the workers’ movement doomed the struggle to failure. The basic industries are in a really troubling situation today.

In other cases, like state-owned Lácteos Los Andes (a big milk, yoghurt and juice producer) and in Aceites Diana (the biggest margarine and oil producer) there were strong workers’ struggles in 2013, and as a result the government agreed that the gradual workers’ control would be introduced, but still the question did not advance. There have been successes on a smaller scale, for example, production facilities that have been taken over by workers together with communes. There is Proletarios Uníos, which used to be the Brazilian Brahma Beer producer. They are now bottling drinking water from a deep well. They have also set up animal food production, all in cooperation with the surrounding communes, for example, exchanging with another worker-controlled facility that raises chickens.

Workers’ assembly at Alcasa aluminium plant (Photo: Prensa CVG Alcasa)

RV: To conclude, there is a very clear economic crisis and economic war in Venezuela today. Where does that leave the model of communes and workers’ control? Is it still the way forward?

DA: I would say yes. With all the problems and contradictions that exist, the “new Venezuela” of the people, the new idea of socialism, of collectivism, is being developed in the communes and the communal councils and the recuperated workplaces. And this is not just an academic debate. We should remember, for example, that during the oil sabotage or lockout of 2002-03, the heavy industries and the oil industry were saved by workers taking control. The organised workers and communities have always offered the staunchest defence of the Bolivarian Revolution.

But obviously with the economic crisis and the death of Chávez the current context is not favourable for the communes and for workers’ control. A few years ago there might have been an expectation that the government would solve everything, but nowadays most grassroots organisations, movements and communes are convinced that they are the ones that will have to build socialism. They support the government in avoiding a military intervention, fighting against the financial blockade and economic war, they understand that they need to close ranks otherwise even the possibility of discussing more structural changes will disappear. But they do not expect any significant steps towards socialism to be taken from above. Rather, they hope to be afforded the space to keep building socialism from below.

* Dario Azzellini is a sociologist, political scientist, author and documentary filmmaker. He has worked and written extensively on the issue of workers’ control and self-government. Together with Oliver Ressler he has produced two documentaries about Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela from below and Commune under construction. His latest book on Venezuela, Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela. Building 21st Century Socialism from Below, has recently been released in paperback. More information on his work can be found on his website.

• First published in Investig’Action

  1. On this matter Chávez said “[…] a grave error was committed, the communal councils cannot be converted into extensions of the mayoralties […]. That would be to kill them […] before they were born.” (Aló Presidente 246).
  2. A former manufacturer of air-conditioning pipes for BMW in Milan, Rimaflow was taken over by the workers when abandoned by the owner and now engages in a number of activities, from recycling industrial pallets to producing artisanal liquor. For more, see our previous interview with Dario Azzellini, or the documentary “Occupy, Resist, Produce” (by Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler).
  3. Karl Marx described the Paris Commune in these terms: “It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.

Challenging Capitalism through Workers’ Control

Workers’ assembly at Officine Zero, a former night train repair facility, in Rome (Photo: Officine Zero)

A common feature in every crisis situation, from the upheavals of the early 20th century to the neo-liberal re-structurings of the late 20th century, is the emergence of workers’ control – workers organising to take over their workplaces in order to defend their jobs and their communities. We interviewed Dario Azzellini* to talk about this issue in depth: the emergence of new values and social relations not just in the recuperated workplaces but also in the communities, the need to re-orient production, the overcoming of the separation between political, economic and social spheres, and the role of workers’ control in the larger struggle against capitalism.

*****

Ricardo Vaz: Why is workers’ control an important issue?

Dario Azzellino: It is an important issue because if we look at what is socialism, what Karl Marx described, the living example for him is the Paris Commune. It is the people taking matters into their own hands, and the state as such disappears because power is no longer delegated.

But I would say that workers’ control is one first step on a path to socialism, in the sense that control over production and workplace should not be only on behalf of the workers but also of the communities, the self-organised people in general. And even that is still not the last step, because as Marx says, the commune is the finally discovered political form, so it is still a political form. Socialism, or communism, is about going beyond politics, achieving the self-organisation of life.

So these are all intermediary steps, and even the commune would not be the final form, but we cannot even imagine the final form, because we are trapped in the imagination of what we know and what has been done. What has to be developed is probably beyond our imagination now.

RV: Nevertheless it is important also in the immediate context…

DA: Yes, because if workers take charge of their workplaces and decide on production, the labour processes, the values, everything changes. We have seen that in worker-controlled places. Security and health questions become central, and they are far from it in capitalist workplaces. For example, many worker-controlled workplaces start working with organic, or less toxic, production, because they are exposed to it.

Workers’ Control Poster

So once workers can decide, these questions become central. The struggle is no longer only about wage raises, which is the only struggle more or less allowed in the framework of capitalist society. Instead workers’ control is automatically challenging capitalism. We have a central field of conflict, and obviously all the other fronts, like gender, race, etc., are equally important. But labour and production are not only fundamental for society but also a field we all have in common and that is absolutely fundamental for our survival and to the structuring of the whole society. In this field all other contradictions obviously have to be tackled too.

We should not forget that the predominant way in which the economy and production are organised reflects on the rest of society. For example, as long as the dominant form of production was Fordism, the rest of society (universities, schools, bureaucracy) was organised in a Fordist way. So there is some kind of leverage if we are talking about labour and workers’ control.

RV:  In both books you have edited you describe lots of historical scenarios where workers’ control comes into play. What was the purpose of bringing together all these different experiments?

DA: We try to show, with the books and the research, how workers’ control is an important and recurring question, and we have to dig and make it known, because nobody is really interested in making it known. Unions have no interest in showing that workers can organise by themselves. Parties, which are based on the principle of representation, are also bypassed if the workers organise themselves. And, of course, capitalists would have even less interest.

But it is interesting that workers’ control comes to the fore in every kind of crisis, political, economical, in anti-colonial struggles, during the revolutions of the early 20th century, after WW2 or other wars, when capitalism is not able to develop because capitalists will invest into speculation and commerce and not into production. It happened during the neoliberal re-structurings of the early 80s, etc. So it happened always, not because the workers knew of previous experiments, but because it was something anthropologically present in the workers – get together, self-organise in a democratic way and try keep up the production, benefiting themselves and the people around them.

RV: What are the common features among all these different workers’ control attempts?

DA: This is the first common aspect, that in any situation of crisis, there are always workers that take responsibility for their jobs, for their workplaces, and for the people, for society. The second thing is that they choose democratic structures that are based on equality. They do not simply elect a new boss. Hierarchies disappear. It does not really matter what position was previously held in the production chain. That does not determine what one is able to do in a crisis.

For example, there is the Junin clinic that is now under workers control in Córdoba, Argentina. I visited it and the head of the cooperative now is the former janitor and technician, because he was the person who was most able to organise the struggle.  So he was elected as the formal head of a cooperative, which is still deciding everything in assemblies on a democratic base. This shows that the skills or capacities that are seemingly important in a capitalist hierarchy are not the same ones in a democratic and workers’ assembly-based structure.

Rally in support of the Junin Clinic which was taken over by the workers in Córdoba, Argentina (Photo: Junin Clinic)

Another common feature is that the workplace switches from a hierarchically organised workplace where the central aim is to produce as much surplus value as possible, to a place where the well-being of the workers and the purpose of production, what you produce and for whom, become the central question. So the social relations in the factory change, especially if these places go through a process of struggle or occupation, against former bosses, or political struggles. There is a trust that is built during these struggles which inevitably forces a change in the social relations.

One example of this is that it becomes less rigid that people have to fulfill the same amount of work. Or if people are sick or cannot come to work because their kids are sick, it is not a problem. It is understood by the other workers because of this relation of trust that I mentioned. This naturally contrasts with workplaces with a boss. But also in many traditional cooperatives, which do not have to go through this trust-building struggle, there is also more of a tendency to demand that everyone has to fulfill the same amount of work, there are conflicts about work hours, internal conflicts, etc.

RV: So recuperated factories/companies do not just go back to reproducing the old logic…

DA: Precisely. Especially if they have had a length of struggle, they do not go back, they do not re-install the hierarchies they got rid of. It is a bit different in places that did not have a long struggle. There was a bit of contradictory phenomenon, for example, in Venezuela1, where you had a government that was (supposedly) in favour of workers’ control. Workers would occupy a workplace and after two weeks the government would step in, expropriate the workplace and put in some provisional administration to then supposedly pass it over to the workers. At first glance this sounds great, but at the same time the workers did not have the time to form a collective, to build this conscience.

So very often you end up having conflicts among the workers, or you would never get to workers’ control because the administration was reluctant to do so. I say it is contradictory because you do not wish that people have to struggle for years without an income for their workplace, but on the other hand it is what then makes these worker-controlled companies really democratic and successful.

Ford Motor Company assembly line (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

RV: You mentioned cooperatives, and this is an important point to discuss. Most of these worker-controlled or worker-recuperated companies register legally as cooperatives. But as you have said, they are not like usual cooperatives. What are the main differences?

DA: The first main difference is that traditional cooperatives usually mean that people that already have similar ideas and values come together to build the cooperative. A workplace recuperation is very different, because everyone is involved. Everyone that is working there is also potentially there when the recuperation takes place. It is something that Gramsci describes when referring to the workers’ councils. He says that they are the real class organisation, because the whole class is there, not just political tendencies.

Another very important difference is that traditional cooperatives tend very much to base the right to decide on property, on being an owner of the cooperative. And that is problematic because it is the same logic as capitalism. Recuperated workplaces have democracy on the shop floor, and their starting point is to question private property of the means of production, so capitalism is immediately questioned. At the same time, almost none of these recuperated workplaces have models based on individual shares, or unequal shares, or even outside investors, or employ wage labour, features that are common for cooperatives.

So you have all these differences. Most of the time it is still more pleasant to work in a cooperative than in a pure capitalist private company, but what I stress is that cooperatives as such are only a democratisation within the framework of capitalism. Many cooperatives are driven by entrepreneurial or ownership logic, and by doing that they lead workers into what I call a “class limbo”. Workers no longer know that they are workers. This is especially strong in the US, where cooperatives are presented as an alternative business model, and not as an alternative model for society, or communities, or part of the workers’ struggle, which is what cooperativism historically meant. But given the way they live, the way they work, they are not entrepreneurs. They are workers!

This is in high contrast with the recuperated workplaces, where workers, having gone through these struggles, see themselves of part of the workers’ movement. There are a lot of recuperated companies in Argentina, for example, that have the rule that one day of the month they go and support other workers’ struggles, and it is part of their work. In Uruguay when companies in a given sector go on strike, workers in recuperated companies of the same sector go on strike as well so as to not undermine the struggle of the other workers.

Assembly in the recuperated Cerámica Zanon company in Argentina (Photo: La Izquierda Diario)

In a nutshell, cooperatives wage a struggle for survival in a capitalist system. Recuperated workplaces wage a struggle against the bourgeois law, often manifested in state repression, against the capitalist owners and private property. So workers are reinforced in their subjectivity as struggling workers, and as workers without a boss, and that is a fundamental difference.

RV: How would you characterise the relationship between recuperated workplaces and labour unions?

DA: It varies a lot.  It depends on how the unions work. There have been examples of unions that have supported worker takeovers, and this is very good because they can reach out to a broader public. But most of the times the unions either ignore or intervene in a negative way in these struggles, unfortunately.

In any case we should not see trade unionism and workers’ control as antagonistic projects, They are simply two different things, two different fronts of the struggle. One thing is a self-organisation in the workplace that allows for struggles that would not be possible with unions. Unions have their formal recognition and are interested in sticking to rules and laws to keep up this status of a “reliable partner”, so they will not do certain things, like wildcat strikes or occupations. They are not as flexible and not as fast in their decisions as the workers’ assemblies obviously are.

Rimaflow plant in Milan. Formerly a manufacturer of air-conditioning pipes for BMW, its activities under workers’ control now range from recycling of household appliances to producing artisanal liquor (Photo: still from “Occupy, Resist, Produce”)

RV: You mentioned how new social relations are produced in the workplace, but recuperated companies also create new social relations with their communities. Can you talk about that?

DA: Yes, the relation with the community and with other social movements is fundamental. In fact, we can put it the other way around. Of the examples of recuperated workplaces (factories, restaurants, print shops, hospitals, etc.) it is usually the ones that have a strong relationship with communities and other social movements that tend to be successful. The ones that tend to be isolated and do not have these strong relationships, often with time either turn into more or less traditional workplaces or cooperatives, withdrawing from the larger struggle, or they simply fail, because they did not have the necessary support.

And there is one question that is central to that. In the capitalist system closing down a workplace is simply a legal question. It is not a social question. It is not a political question. The law of the land is a bourgeois law that is based on property. Within these boundaries the chances of achieving something are minimal. So the main challenge for all these workers is to turn a legal question into a political question, and for that you need as much support as possible. You need the support of the communities, of other movements, of unions, maybe even of institutions and political instances. And with that you can win everything.

One example is the Republic Doors and Windows, the factory now called New Era Windows in Chicago, which is producing eco-friendly windows. When it was closed down and occupied for the second time, together with Occupy Chicago in 2010-11, the occupation got the workers the possibility to be at the negotiating table about the future of the factory, which they later agreed to buy. And the workers did that by forcing the banks that had taken over the bankrupted factory to pay them 1.5 million dollars for lost wages. Usually if there is money left (e.g. from selling machinery) it goes to the creditors. But the workers managed to do a political campaign that generated so much public support that the banks saw themselves forced to pay the workers 1.5 million dollars, even if legally they were not obligated to do that.

Workers of New Era Windows (Photo: workerscontrol.net)

RV: So they managed to turn a legal question into a political one…

DA: Exactly, and once you do that you can win everything, even things that seem completely impossible or that are not in the existing legal framework. That is one of the big reasons why it is important to have bonds with other movements and communities. The second one is that you create new values. Factory work is usually not fun, not even in a recovered factory. What keeps you working in capitalism is money, but in a recovered workplace the workers find new values, and one of the values is to be useful for society, not just for capitalism.

Many of these workplaces, if we are talking about industrial workplaces, are usually situated in poor communities. There are no factories in Beverly Hills! One usual feature of these poor communities is that they lack space. They lack space for social, collective activities. In Argentina, for example, where there are more than 400 recuperated workplaces, more than 60% give permanent space to community activities, from bachilleratos populares; i.e., the possibility for adults to re-do their school, to community radio stations, libraries, even just community festivities. So they become an important focus of community life, and the spaces in a certain way become commons, because they are used for other activities which are not immediately linked to production.

RV: Can you talk about the need for recuperated factories to re-orient production? Because if these factories are closed because they are not profitable any more, workers cannot just go back to what they were producing before.

DA: Indeed, often it is simply not possible to continue the production that existed before. One example is Officine Zero 2, a former night train repair facility in Rome. Night trains are almost gone in Europe. There is only one facility left which is enough for the few night trains that still run. Most of the trains are fast-track trains now, so you cannot continue planning to produce or repair night trains. The workers that took over the factory now engage in a number of activities, such as recycling domestic appliances or furniture, and have continued the workshops they had – upholstery, carpentry, iron works and others.

Another example is Rimaflow in Milan3 which was producing air-conditioning pipes mainly for BMW cars. The owner took out the machines, but even if he had not, BMW was not going to buy air-conditioning pipes from an occupied factory! So you have to re-invent yourself. But that is good, because then the workers start thinking about useful production. Rimaflow started with a mix of activities, for example, upcycling and recycling of household electric appliances and computers.

Later they raised money for an air-conditioning system and set up a hall to recycle industrial pallets. So they collect industrial pallets from all kinds of factories, put them back together and sell them back. They also started an artisanal food and liquor production, cooperating with organic cooperatives. They produce Rimoncello, which is a lemon liquor (originally Limoncello), together with cooperatives from Southern Italy which pay fair wages to immigrant seasonal workers, and they produce Amaro Partigiano (a digestive liquor) together with the Italian Institute for Partisan Studies.

A traditional economist might call this “patchwork”. But I would disagree. This does make sense. We have to transform our society in every sense, so these successful examples of industrial conversion make sense, because naturally we are not occupying the workplaces to simply go on with the same capitalist production we had before. We do not want to take over everything and then keep producing military helicopters!

RV: Along these lines: in capitalist societies, in liberal democracies, there is a separation between economic, social and political spheres. How do worker recuperated companies, by themselves and through their relations with communities, challenge this separation?

DA: Yes, I think that is a central aspect of what we can call “council democracy” as a model for communes, worker-controlled workplaces, etc. Capitalism, and bourgeois society, is always based on the division of spheres. The first step is the division between the political and social spheres, which is never justified. It is there to be accepted a priori. Because there is no reason why some people should be governing and others should be governed.

The second separation is that the economic sphere is supposed to be separate, autonomous, often likened to living organism that society has to keep feeding. We get to this point where it sounds mythological, like the market is this kind of dragon that needs to be fed all the time otherwise it will get angry and destroy everyone! Which is also totally absurd, because the economy should be serving society, it should be serving the people, not the other way around.

The recuperated workplaces are obviously an overcoming of that. First of all because usually there is no representation, there are only spokespeople. The decisions are taken by the people concerned with the issues and not delegated, which is the foundation of the separate political sphere. Secondly, the economic decisions are also taken directly by those involved in the production process, and subject to their political decisions and social needs. So this separation of spheres is tendentially overcome.

Officine Zero in Rome. A former night train repair facility, it is now under workers’ control, and its activities range from recycling appliances and furniture to holding workshops (Photo: still from “Occupy, Resist, Produce”)

There is a second division of spheres which is characteristic to capitalism and bourgeois society that is also tendentially overcome, namely, the division between intellectual and manual work. The person that is unloading the pallets from the truck has as much to say in the assemblies as the engineer that is adjusting the computer-led production process, for example. It is also quite common to have much more job rotation, people learning new tasks and developing new ideas; therefore there is much less of the traditional division of labour and particularly between intellectual and manual work.

Also when we talk about overcoming the division between political, social and economic spheres, we should always stress that this is a “tendency towards…”. Because as long as we are in a capitalist system it would be an illusion to think that we can be totally move beyond that.

RV: You cannot just create an island…

DA: You cannot create a happy island in the capitalist system. You can work towards overcoming the system, which means you have to expand. One of the things they always stressed in Rimaflow was that they needed to build a new economy because the economy of the bosses is not working anymore, and we can be successful if examples such as Rimaflow occur 100, 1000 times. A happy little island will not survive. The system will crush it.

Many cooperatives had a lot of idealism concerning this issue, and their ideals faded away with the age of the members and immersion in capitalism, or the cooperatives got big and got bought up. That is why I am always speaking of a tendency towards building a new economy, overcoming the separation of spheres, etc.

RV: With globalisation and the evolution of capitalism, there is a fragmentation or an atomisation of the production chain. Does this present new challenges for workers’ control, or make this question more urgent?

DA: Yes, it presents new challenges but also new opportunities. For example, the necessity of building local and regional economies is growing. Because of the ongoing globalisation, capital is concentrating more and more in ever fewer metropolitan spaces. So the necessity to build local and regional economic systems, and to keep wealth where it is produced, is becoming more urgent. This represents a chance for workers’ control and more localised production and distribution.

The fragmentation of the production chain is itself a very contradictory issue. For example, in the US, there is a tendency of insourcing again. Car manufacturers in the US are insourcing again a lot of production steps that they had outsourced before. This proves that the outsourcing was never about saving money or being more efficient, it was simply about the destruction of the workers’ power. So now that they have destroyed the unions in the car sector, that used to be some of the few strong unions in the US, they are insourcing again all these production steps.

Artistic rendering of the Fiat Factory in Longotto, Turin (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But the fragmentation, which is not only a fragmentation of the production chain but also inside the workplace itself, makes it a much more subjective act to be collective and to struggle than it was before. You had companies like Fiat, which had 70 or 80 thousand workers which were automatically organised because 95% of them had the same contract and the same work conditions. You look now at the same Fiat factory, It has 12 thousand workers that have probably 40 different kinds of contracts, from part-time contracts, to sub-contracted labourers, to insourced work, or seasonal labour, and at the same time you have another 70,000 workers in the greater region of Turin which are working in different outsourced, independent companies, or even as independent workers.

So in Fordism the factory was the entity doing the workers’ movement a “favour” by homogenising the workers, in some sense creating the class and class conflict (the class constitutes itself as conflict, it does not exist as such or derive from a certain position in the production process). Now work is fragmenting and differentiating people. That makes it much more difficult to create a collective vision and struggle, to avoid turning against each other. Because capitalism will then point to a group and tell them they cannot earn more because of the privileges of the other group over there…

RV: It becomes a race to the bottom…

DA: Exactly, it becomes a race to the bottom, in the form of part-time contracts, or temporary work, and with all these divisions among workers. It is creating a very problematic situation, also from the point of view of production, and that is why I think it is very important to take over as many workplaces as possible, and to use these workplaces, as well cooperatives that place themselves into a political/labour/class struggle logic, to build production chains.

For example, in Argentina, a study of about 80 recuperated factories showed that over 16% of the commercial activity, sales or buying resources and parts, was done with other recuperated workplaces, and almost 2% was with the solidarity economy or other kinds of cooperatives.4 This means that almost 20% of what they are doing is in a cycle that, while not being complete out of capitalism, does not strictly follow the rules of capitalism. You are supporting different labour relations and social relations by having these economic relationships. Therefore I think it is important that we have as many worker-controlled workplaces as possible and that we also start thinking about creating production chains.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Rimaflow launched “Amaro Partigiano” in 2017 (Photo: Rimaflow)

RV: To finish, do you want to tell us about the website workerscontrol.net that you helped found?

DA: What we are trying to do is to create a virtual archive with workers’ control experiences from all kinds of epochs and different languages. We have functioning Spanish, Italian, French, English, German, Portuguese and Greek. The idea was to build a network of researchers and activists from recuperated workplaces, to make available as many experiences as possible. Because up to now there was nothing like that. You only had websites or sources dedicated to specific authors or to specific recuperated workplaces.

We founded it also as a decentralised network. There is no central group reviewing what can be on the website or not, so all the nodes are autonomous and free to publish whatever they think is useful in the framework of workers’ control. It is an interesting network of collaboration between people with different political orientations, people that consider themselves council communists, or more anarcho-syndicalists, others Luxemburgian or Gramscian, others Trotskyist, others might be more workerist/operaist, others more traditional Marxists.

What we all have in common is that we support workers’ control and want to create access to as much information as possible. We are now in a process of redesigning the website, which will be relaunched in a few months with a new design and more visibility.

• First published in Investig’Action

*Dario Azzellini is a sociologist, political scientist, author and documentary filmmaker. He has worked and written extensively on the issue of workers’ control, including two recently edited books, Ours to master and to own. Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present (with Immanuel Ness) and An Alternative Labor History: Worker Control and Workplace Democracy. He has also produced a series of documentaries on this issue called “Occupy, Resist, Produce” (with Oliver Ressler). More information about his work can be found on his website.

  1. A second interview with Dario Azzellini on the issue of communes and workers’ control in Venezuela will be published shortly.
  2. The documentary “Occupy, Resist, Produce” dedicated to Officine Zero is available here.
  3. The documentary “Occupy, Resist, Produce” dedicated to Rimaflow is available here
  4. Information from this report, pages 35-36.