Venezuela:communes Providing Hope, Solidarity and Participation
August 28th 2009,
by Kiraz Janicke
Inspired by the ideas of 18th century Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, led by President Hugo Chavez, has been shaking up Latin America and the world over the past decade in its struggle for independence from United States imperialism and for an alternative to rapacious neo-liberal capitalism.
In 2005, Chavez declared the aim of the revolution was to build socialism of the 21st century. This new kind of socialism, he said, would be a "humane socialism'' and emphasise democratic participation.
Direct democracy and popular participation has certainly flourished in Venezuela, expressed in a range of organising forms including urban land committees, health committees, grassroots assemblies, workers' councils and communal councils. However, many of these developing bodies remain localised or disconnected from each other, and often come into conflict with the traditional structures of the capitalist state. A new but developing initiative that aims to connect and extend popular participation in the struggle towards a new political and economic system is the formation of "socialist communes." Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network member Kiraz Janicke, who is currently living in Venezuela, spoke to Daniel Sanchez, a leader of the Rebirth of the South Commune in the city of Valencia, about how the development of "people's power'' is transforming Venezuela.
The idea of the commune
The formation of the communes in Venezuela comes from a proposal by President Chavez, Sanchez explained. "We know that the idea of the commune is not new; communes have existed in the past and exist in various countries today," he added, pointing to examples such as the Paris Commune in 1871 and forms of organising by indigenous communities in Latin America.
"But in Venezuela, we are not copying other models. Our model is constructed by ourselves, by the people themselves, by the grassroots organisations themselves, in the specific geographic territories where the commune experience is being developed." The emphasis on experimentation is a key feature of the Bolivarian revolution, perhaps best encapsulated in an often quoted phrase by Bolivar's teacher Simon Rodriguez: "We invent, or we err." Sanchez explained that there is no blueprint for building the communes: "Up until now we have been experimenting."
"We are part of a national network of communes that we have been developing over the past two years in collaboration with the Ministry of Participation and Social Development. Now, a new Ministry of Communes has been created and together with both ministries we are developing a network of 17 communes nationally."
Commenting on the relationship between the communes and the traditional state structures, Sanchez said, "There is a direct relationship with the national executive, but we are working at the grassroots level to make sure that this relationship is not one of imposition and control, and that there is a harmonious relationship of working together."
The Countryside Poses Different Challenges
A key aspect of this relationship between the popular and communal organisations and the government, he said, is to facilitate the search for solutions to community issues, such as housing, transport, crime, poverty and other social problems.
Communes in urban zones present different challenges to those being built in the countryside, Sanchez explained. "Most of the experiences [of communes] are in the countryside. I work in an urban zone, in Valencia, the state of Carabobo, one of the most important cities in the country, and in one of the poorest parishes in the country, Miguel Pena parish."
One of the most important challenges in the debate about how to build the communes "is to make sure the people are incorporated - the popular organisations, the cultural organisations, and the revolutionary organisations and parties," he said.
There is no exact number of communal councils or organisations that form a commune. Rather, Sanchez said, an ongoing discussion is needed about the "best mechanisms to integrate all the different organisations in the same geographical area, and the best structure for the people to govern themselves in a commune. The structure of the communes is fundamentally a socio-political question, which, of course, has to do with empowering the social bases."
Another important aspect of the communes, Sanchez said, is "to achieve the equitable distribution of resources. As President Chavez explained, the ownership of the means of production has to be in the hands of the commune." "We want to show the world what this socialism we are talking about really is," Sanchez declared. "We are putting it into practice, designing our own forms of communal government, advancing in our own project so that everyone can participate in transforming the current reality."
But in addition to transforming people's material reality, Sanchez argued, it is also necessary to transform human consciousness in order to achieve socialism.
Human consciousness on solidarity"We don't want to transform Venezuela just on a material level; we don't believe the communes should simply be directed at resolving the material problems of the communities, such as housing, schools, transport, work, etc. All this is very important, but what is also important is the transformation of the human being, the development of human potential."
Therefore, "the type of structures we create logically have to correspond to the type of socialism we want to build; that is, a humanistic socialism. We are building structures based on a social sensibility, a human sensibility, that promotes solidarity and participation."
Sanchez believes that "the biggest challenge we face in building a new society has to do with the construction of the new human being. We need to leave behind individualism, egoism and consumerism - all the 'isms' of capitalism."
When asked what Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution represents for the world today, Sanchez replied with one word, "Hope."
"Hope that a better world is possible," he added.