Commune Cultivate Land and Spirit

The Communes are the Antidote to Venezuela’s Economic Problems
by Tamara Pearson

After five regional commune conferences held through August and September, the first National Conference of Comuneros and Comuneras was held in Caracas on 16 and 17 November. While forums and cultural events were put on in various main plazas of the city, the two main components of the conference were a communal economy fair to display and sell what hundreds of communes around the country produce on the Saturday, and working group discussions on the Sunday.

The journey started outside the supermarket on one of the main roads of Merida, where I watched the sun set as I waited for the bus that would take us to Caracas. The Merida Ministry of Communes guy messaged me every five minutes or so to assure me that the bus was nearby, and when it arrived and I got on, introduced me to the other communers as “the journalist”.

I sat down, and as it got dark, people constantly came up to me to tell me their commune story, their ideas and proposals. One man, from the Valle del Chama commune, an old and energetic retired teacher, told me how people are encouraged by Maduro’s latest measures with the economy. He said his son, who is as “opposition as you can get” was even positive, saying that he had confidence in Maduro now. Others emphasised strongly - and it became clear they were on to something at the Communal Economy Fair the next day - that the communes are about production, development, and being less dependent on imports and transnationals.

Around me others debated, then as it got late people settled down. One man got up and sang a song called Batalla de Carabobo, about Maduro and building the communes, and people clapped along. Then the retired teacher got up and told some fairly adult political jokes... ”Why did Capriles break up with his last girlfriend?” “Because in bed she would yell out, más duro, más duro!” (Harder, harder – but mas duro in a Venezuelan accent sounds like Maduro).

We struggled to get to sleep sitting upright in our bus seats, with the driver blaring music on full volume all night, then at around 8 a.m. we pulled into Caracas. A woman, Irene Carrizo from the Apartaderos Commune El Paso de Bolivar 1913, recited and acted out a story about Bolivar. A retired teacher proposed that the Merida communes organise a cultural event, and a woman agreed, saying “Yes, because communes don’t just cultivate land, but also the spirit”.

Saturday: Communal Economy Fair
The bus driver dropped us off at the National Communal Economy Fair, where communes sold a sample of their produce; from vegetables, to bread and sweets, coffee, handicrafts, metal pots, and clothing. For VA’s image gallery of the fair and to see the range of communes and their produce, click here. The display was impressive, especially given that each commune represents around 8-15 communal councils, and each communal council up to a thousand or so adults over 15. Also, not all communes were present. The commune ministry in each state had been in charge of providing transport to get to Caracas, but clearly there were some communes that weren’t able to attend for various logistical reasons. The Apartaderos commune on my bus for example, sent three representatives, but weren’t able to bring their organic produce because they couldn’t organise a truck for it. They brought a small sample of organic butter and other things though.

The fair was absolutely packed, both with comuner@s selling their produce, as well as locals buying it. The queues for each section (manufacturing, produce, handicrafts etc) were a good 100 people or so deep, all day. It showed that communally produced products are seen as just as legitimate as commercially produced items. Unfortunately though, it was hard to have long conversations with anyone, as the plaza was so packed, and a stage at one end blasted out speeches and communal cultural events all day.

However, Lorena Gracia of the El Valle del Chama commune reflected on the fair, telling me, “It’s lovely, because there is a lot of integration, you can see the work that is being done, and the organisation. The people are enthusiastic about building the communes... the fair shows what communes can do, that we’re capable of countering this economic sabotage ”.

The Minister for Communes, Reinaldo Iturriza, arrived at the fair at around 10 a.m. People at the stalls chatted with him, while others beside them kept selling and talking to customers. As he moved on, the fruit sellers continued to yell to customers “Come here, come here, we are the comuneros, working for the people!”

At around 2:30 p.m. Iturriza also addressed the public and the press. I thought it was notable, but unsurprising, that only public press and alternative media were present, with the odd exception of Cadena Capriles. The work of the communes is completely silenced by private media, especially the international private media. And, while public media journalists are often harassed and even kicked out of opposition events, the Cadena Capriles journalist stood right next to the minister and was treated well, like the rest of us.

As Iturriza tried to speak, people yelled out the names of their communes, wrote the names down on pieces of paper and passed them to him, and they cheered as he repeated the names or read them out. Their pride in their commune was clear. Iturriza's hands were eventually full of pieces of papers, and as someone from the VTV crew put a microphone on him, to go live, he was relaxed, happy, and came across as being very down to earth. “We’re going on air” one cameraman yelled out, and another argued with him about the timing. Iturriza laughed. VTV and Radiomundial went live, and the crowd chanted “Poder popular!” (Grassroots power!) and “Commune or nothing” over and over, barely letting Iturriza speak.

Afterwards, I walked around the stalls again. It was sweet, the number of communes called Hugo Chavez. It was also inspiring to see the incredible range of talent that people have, not just in the cultural events the communes put on (dance, stilts, rap, storytelling, singing, and more) but in terms of the creative and colourful handicrafts, clothing, and sweet food, and in terms of people’s technical knowledge. It was important that the products were sold directly to customers, without intermediaries- who are often the ones who jack up prices, and who make the production-consumption process more alienating.

There were a lot of agro-ecological products and products made from recycled materials. The environmental awareness of the comuner@s impressed me, and I felt it contrasted somewhat with the awareness of some people in the commune ministry. The ministry in Caracas was in charge of the logistics of the fair, including the lunch for the participants, and that arrived in foil containers with polystyrene lids, cans, plastic bottles and so on. Unfortunately that sort of thing is common in most mass events in Venezuela (and to be fair, most other countries too). The ministry in Merida had told me though to bring my own cutlery and plate, as they had the idea of eating cooked food and not producing so much rubbish, but I guess the ministry in Caracas had a different idea. One person from the Merida ministry told me that the ministry in Caracas had organised everything, and the other state ministries knew little about what was going on.

On the other hand, it was useful that the comuner@s and the ministry workers travelled together in the bus, it broke down what little barriers there might have been between the two groups. While ministry workers in other countries wouldn’t travel overnight on uncomfortable buses with ordinary people, the one with us read out quotes from the Blue Book by Chavez and gave us a detailed lesson on Middle Eastern politics. Later though, he told me was concerned, because the communes are “meant to be an antidote to bureaucracy and corruption”, yet he saw a few of the communer@s replicating institutional ways and being individualist. I argued though that such behaviour, for people who have grown up under capitalism, is inevitable when a project is just starting off.

We spent the night in a worker run factory called Social Property Company (EPS) Confecciones La Veguita, in the Macarao Commune. The factory has been making bags, school uniforms, and baby clothes for four years now, and another carpentry factory was under construction next door. The commune also has a bookshop, its own transport and blacksmiths, and has substituted shanties in the community for dignified housing.

Written on the wall of the main sowing area was, “In socialism, the economy is at the service of human beings, and it is a key instrument for creating equality” – Hugo Chavez, Alo Presidente 455.

As around 60 communers from Merida found places in the factory for their mattresses, sheets, and pillows (previously used for victims of the 2010 floods), workers and members of the Macarao factory and commune served us some spaghetti Bolognese they had prepared for dinner.

That night a few communers per commune were able to meet with Maduro and Iturriza, in a live televised discussion. Those from Merida who participated later reported back to us that at the meeting Maduro emphasised four main things. The first was the importance of the “movement for peace” and the communes’ role in combating violence. The second was the Barrio Tricolor mission, which he said should become a mission of the communes, where rather than focusing on building and repairing houses and buildings, the focus should be on “building community”. Thirdly, and “most importantly”, was the role of the communes in transforming the economic structure. “Without that, we’ll never arrive at socialism,” the reporting comunero said. Communal based production should be interconnected, rather than isolated, he emphasised. Finally, Maduro talked about combating the “economic war”, through increased production and with the state supporting small and medium business. He suggested the communes organise censuses of such businesses in their area.

“You all are the vanguard, without you there wouldn’t be a new Venezuela. The communes are the epicentre for a truly human life, for a socialist life,” Maduro said at the meeting.

Sunday – Discussion groups

Sunday was discussion day; it was held at the Bolivarian University, and consisted of working group discussions and proposal making in classrooms. The four areas of discussion were: national networks of grassroots communication, networks of production and consumption against speculation and hoarding, consolidation of the national commune congress, and education schools for comuner@s. I joined the Andean region on the third floor, and the communication discussion. It was facilitated by people from the School of Socialist Education, and began with a string activity for people to get to know each other and their different communes. Then there was an all in general discussion, followed by breaking into four even smaller groups to formulate concrete proposals, which people then wrote up on large pieces of paper and were also typed up on a computer in each classroom.
Discussion (Tamara Pearson /

People argued for the importance of making the commune movement more visible in national media, and also criticised the lack of internal communication for the organisation of the national conference. Apart from the lack of information regarding the logistics of the event, people criticised that no one had the proposals that came out of the regional conferences, and we couldn’t develop on those proposals, as was the aim. Few people were aware that there is a plan for a national congress, and that Sunday’s discussion was to contribute to the organising of that. On the other hand, most people told me that they felt that the discussions gave them lots of ideas to take back and implement in their commune. Nevertheless, it was frustrating that there was no all in wrap up of the discussions and proposals coming out of each discussion area.

“It was important that we exchanged information between different communes from different states, we exchanged phone numbers, and that will help us develop grassroots markets in our district,” Gracia told me.
To close the conference, there were more cultural performances by various communes, and an open mike for comuner@s to speak on, followed by some closing remarks by Iturriza.

“The conference has been very good, communes should be part of the government, they should be felt and lived, we’re part of the battle against speculation,” said one comunera on the open mike.

“We’re here, we need to continue working together,” said a comunero from Trujillo state.
“This is one more experience for us, so that we can fulfil the dream that Chavez planted. We feel proud to be part of the giant commune family,” said a comunero from Lara.

For Iturriza, the conference was “an absolute success, it surpassed our expectations in terms of the amount of food sold and in terms of participation. This is a people who are very motivated... our hope for the future is that this important commune movement... starts to have more and more weight in national politics”.
Interview: the commune movement is slowly growing

“I want to build my commune because it’s a totally different form of life. I dream about this, about building something with different values. I don’t think ‘commune’ is just a word, just another meeting, it’s a lot deeper than that. Many of us still aren’t clear about what a commune is, it’s not an event, it’s a new state of things, where there’s no exploitation, there’s equality, love, simpleness, wellbeing for all, not just for me and my pocket... that’s why I fight for it,” Antonio Portillo of the El Valle del Chama Commune, Merida, told me after the conference was over.

“When Chavez died, at first there was pain, anguish, sadness, crying... it was a beating to the soul, but it didn’t stop us going on, and the proof in that is that Maduro won the elections. True, there was a slump in motivation, but we’ve climbed back up, and I think slowly we’re getting there. I’m confident that we’ll win the municipal elections, and that will help with stability,” Portillo said.

I asked him then if being involved in a commune had changed him, “Yes I think it has, we have more friendships in our community, it’s enabled me to meet more people, and not just in my community, but in the whole municipality. This gathering shows how we’ve changed, we’re sharing experiences”.

“There are still difficulties. Sometimes we call a general meeting and only 40% of the community attend, it’s a lot of effort to get that many people, normally we just get 15%. There are people in my community who have a negative influence on the process, they tell people that the commune and the communal councils are useless, and the people have to listen to this every single day, and some of them start to believe it. So we have to talk to people all the time and insist that yes, things can be achieved. For example, we fixed the road. The government provided us with the resources but it was our voluntary work. I participated in that, even though I don’t know much about construction. We could fix even more if we had more material support. It helps us to convoke people and do things.”

And how is the national commune movement going? I asked him. “I see two things. One, things are going well, there is an upward trend. Two years ago we proposed a regional meeting, but we didn’t do it because we weren’t capable then. Now we have this national meeting. Then there is the negative part. I think the communes are very far away from consolidating themselves. We lack a lot for our commune to be a real commune. We have projects for example, for agricultural production, but we aren’t implementing them yet”.

According to the communes ministry, a total of 677 registered communes and communes under construction were represented at the national meeting.

Opposition in Venezuela Try to Destabilize Maduro Government

On the eve of another election in Venezuela
by W.T. Whitney,Jr.

Nicolas Maduro won Venezuela’s presidential election in April 2013 by a slim margin, a result still unrecognized by the U.S. government. [Right wing]Opposition demonstrations quickly spread, killing 13 people. Now his government faces municipal elections on December 8, 2013 and engineered social turmoil has returned. Although polls have been favorable, the confidence marking election campaigns under predecessor Hugo Chavez, now dead, is gone.

Opposition forces have used destabilization to cast both the Chavez and Maduro governments as dysfunctional.

Powerful forces inside and outside Venezuela targeted the Chavez – led Bolivarian movement because of its decisive role in promoting continent-wide unity and social justice. The U.S. government is widely believed to have encouraged the unsuccessful right wing coup of 2002 and subsequent disruption of Venezuela’s oil industry.
Venezuelan – U.S. lawyer Eva Golinger has discovered a script for what’s happening now. Golinger, well known for her reporting on U.S. payments to Venezuelan opposition groups, recently arranged for publication of a document outlining opposition preparations in advance of the municipal elections. Entitled “Venezuelan Strategic Plan, it appeared in the Russian Times.

The [U.S.] Plan’s 15 “action points” cover sabotage, “massive mobilizations,” food shortages, “insurrection inside the army,” and control of publicity. The authors anticipate “crisis in the streets that facilitate the intervention of North America and the forces of NATO, with support of the government of Colombia.” The resulting “violence should cause deaths and injuries.”

According to Golinger, this plan emerged from a meeting on June 13, 2013 attended by Mark Feierstein, regional head of the US Agency for International Development and by representatives of three other organizations: Florida – based FTI Consulting; Colombia’s “Center for Thought Foundation,” linked to former president Alvaro Uribe; and the U.S. Democratic Internationalism Foundation, promoted by Uribe.

U. S. funded opposition groups are currently demonstrating in Venezuelan streets and forcing shortages of consumer goods. For Jose Vicente Rangel, vice president under Chavez, their attacks on electric power plants, city transportation services, and oil refineries are terrorist in nature. Stores are running short of milk, textiles, sugar, shoes, electronic equipment, and more. The government accuses importers and retail distributors of hoarding. Retail prices have skyrocketed.

The government sells dollars gained from oil sales at a fixed rate to importing companies. Importers sell goods they purchase with dollars to retailers who charge exorbitant prices payable in undervalued bolivars, the national currency. Inflation is up 54 percent in 2013. Movement of dollars out of the country and dollars sales on the black market contribute to inflation. Government spokespersons condemn profiteering, speculation, and hoarding.
Venezuelan, European, and U.S. mass media feature stories of popular frustration, even anger.

Worried Maduro partisans recall Chilean distress prior to the U. S. supported coup that removed President Salvador Allende in 1973. The Nixon administration wanted then to “make Chile’s economy scream.” A statement from 45 high-level retired Venezuelan military officers calling for military intervention testifies to high stakes in play now.
Maduro announced the creation of a National Center of Exterior Commerce that would regulate foreign exchange and control acquisition and distribution of foreign currency. His government seeks passage of a temporary enabling law that would authorize limits placed on profit-taking and speculation.

Because the Daka electric appliance chain was selling goods at a 1200 percent mark-up over import costs, the government occupied its stores on November 8 to ensure a “fair price.” Maduro asks consumers to show “consciousness, patience, and peacefulness in anticipation of prices being stabilized.” The government is expanding its popular Mercal grocery system that markets subsidized food products.

Venezuela’s Communist Party is not satisfied. Secretary General Oscar Figuera called for “complete nationalization” of overseas commerce so “the state can centralize national purchases of essential items based on national development priorities and on the private sector using bolivars to import goods.”

Economist Mark Weisbrot is optimistic. In 2012, oil revenues totaled $93.6 billion while $59.3 billion were spent on imports. Interest payments on foreign debt were relatively low. Currency reserves now approach $37 billion. So, “This government is not going to run out of dollars.” The fact that inflation fell in 2012 coincident with the economy expanding by 5.7 percent is a favorable sign, he suggests. And, “the poverty rate dropped by 20% in Venezuela last year.

NSA documents appearing recently in the New York Times courtesy of Edward Snowden identified Venezuela as one of six “enduring targets” for electronic eavesdropping in 2007. (Others were China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Russia.) The strategic goal then – and probably now – was to prevent Venezuela “from achieving its regional leadership objective and pursuing policies that negatively impact US global interests.”

Ángel Guerra Cabrera is betting on President Maduro. The Cuban journalist, a correspondent for La Jornada, claims Maduro has “ruined the dreams of imperialists and the right who were counting on his inability to maintain unity and the revolutionary direction of ‘Chavismo.’ We have seen a leader fortify himself with his own profile…With the cadres formed by commander [Chavez] , he has consolidated a cohesive and efficient.

Maduro’s government recently expelled three U.S. diplomats on charges they conspired with opposition groups with intent to destabilize. Neither country has posted an ambassador to its counterpart nation for three years.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

Preparing for December Elections

Slow Motion Coup in Venezuela

In the run up to the December 8 municipal elections the campaign of speculation, hoarding, profiteering, overpricing and sabotage of the economy has intensified. The Venezuelan government of President Maduro has denounced that there is a “slow motion coup” being implemented. The year on year inflation rate has reached 74% and the scarcity index is at a record level of 22%.

In the last few days the Bolivarian government has taken a series of measures to check on the prices at which a wide range of goods are being sold and forced businesses to adjust their prices. In many cases government inspectors found overpricing of 1,000% or more.

Businesses import goods with dollars they receive from the government at regulated prices and then mark them up for sale at prices calculated on the basis of the black market exchange rate. The government has denounced this as robbery against the consumers.

The government has also taken measures to fight against hoarding, discovering, once again, warehouses full of goods (from food to electronics) which are scarce in the shops. Once seized, they have been sold at regular prices.
Dozens of businessmen have been arrested pending trial as a result of these actions.

These measures have been received with enthusiasm by the Venezuelan people as they have made products available at normal prices.

from Hands Off Venezuela

Economic Offensive to Reduce Price Jacking

Implementing Profit Limits in Venezuela
By Ewan Robertson

Mérida, November 2013 – The Venezuelan government is planning to implement profit limits across the economy as part of a crackdown on overpricing.

The plan responds to the revelation of mass price speculation by retailers earlier this month, where some companies were found to be taking advantage of cheap imports at the government’s official exchange rate to then mark up prices and make profits of over 1000%.

Vice President Jorge Arreaza said that a deadline will be announced by which retailers must adjust their prices “in line with reality and fairness”.

President Nicolas Maduro has suggested that such profit limits will be around 15% - 30%, which he said would make profit margins similar to other Latin American countries such as Argentina and Chile.
A new register of small and medium companies is also being designed in order to monitor these companies’ supply costs and maintain “fair costs” along the production chain. A national fund will support companies which respect the new price limits.

A crackdown against overpricing has been underway for the past week and a half, with consumer agency officials and the National Guard forcing electronics and other retailers to lower prices judged as speculative and sell their stock to the public.

Due to inspections and agreements reached with industry sectors, since the beginning of this “economic offensive” retailers of electronic appliances, auto parts, toys, clothes and hardware have reportedly lowered prices from between 30 – 70%.

Maduro reported that over 100 businesspersons had been arrested for usury and price speculation, and 1,400 shops had been inspected.

Inspections continued in big name stores like Traki, EPA and General Import on Sunday.

“The discount margins are a protection measure so that a fair price exists for the consumer and a fair profit for the retailer,” said Luis Dominguez, a government development minister, during an inspection yesterday.

The crackdown is part of the government’s response to what it argues as an “economic war” being waged against it by business federations aligned with the conservative opposition. Officials say that such groups hoard products and speculate on prices to create shortages and drive inflation.

The country is currently experiencing a tenfold gap between the official and black market dollar price, annual inflation of 54%, and shortages of some food and household products.

Critics disagree that current problems are politically motivated and argue that government regulatory policies such as currency and price controls are to blame. They say that fiscal and monetary measures are required to address the situation, and the crackdown on overpricing will only exacerbate existing problems.

“The hangover that we’re going to have after this consumer binge, imposed by the government, will last much longer than the joy of buying electronic appliances in the party that is now ending,” said head of business federation Fedecamaras, Jorge Roig, to conservative paper El Universal yesterday.

Meanwhile Maduro vowed to continue course against the “economic war”.

“I congratulate everyone; vice president, ministers, high military command and the entire people, for the success of the economic offensive. Down go prices,” he wrote on twitter.