Despite sanctions, a commune finds novel ways to survive through collecting and recycling waste in one of Venezuela’s coastal cities.
Communal Resistance Series
Luisa Cáceres de Arismendi communards. (Voces Urgentes)
Eastern Venezuela is home to extensive petroleum extraction and processing operations which have their hub in the cities of Barcelona and Puerto la Cruz in Anzoátegui state. The Luisa Cáceres de Arismendi Commune, one of the most advanced communes in the country, grew up in the shadow of this multibillion-dollar business in one of Barcelona’s working-class neighborhoods. This is a rapidly-growing commune – remarkable because of its success in an urban context – which focuses on recycling and waste disposal to maintain itself. In Part I of this two-part series, Luisa Caceres’ communards explain the challenges of building a commune in a country besieged by US imperialism.
History, Productive Projects & Organization
The Luisa Cáceres Commune has its headquarters in an abandoned lot that was cleaned up by the communards and put at the service of the community. It is a multi-space that serves as the epicenter of the commune’s recycling work, the home to a communal garden, and a site for meetings and assemblies. Near a splendid mural showing independence heroin Luisa Caceres and renowned 20th-century writer Aquiles Nazoa, the communards met with us to explain the history of their organization.
Carlos Herrera is a parliamentarian, a member of the commune’s executive committee, and the coordinator of the recycling company. Ingrid Arcila is the commune’s parliamentarian for public services. Arturo Aguache is a communal parliamentarian. Johann Tovar is a communal parliamentarian and part of the Communard Union’s direction. Rosa Cáceres is the public services spokesperson for her communal council; she is in charge of the Pablo Characo Nursery. Manuel Cherema is the commune’s security coordinator and Chief Supervisor of the Bolivarian Police in Anzoátegui. (Voces Urgentes)
Carlos Herrera: We began laying the basis for the commune some eight years ago, but the process really picked up steam in the past four years. We are advancing in the right direction – I think – and that means moving toward popular self-government.
Of course, this is not easy. As a dear comrade says, “If it is hard to agree about things at home, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find communal organizing to be hard.” This is even more true in a capitalist society in crisis, where individual interests tend to impede collective goals.
Little by little, however, we are building a space where the collective is center stage and the commune becomes the base for the construction of the new society. The construction process involves a great deal of work and sacrifice
Arturo Aguache: It was in 2018 that we fully registered the commune in legal terms. Since then, we have been advancing through trial and error, with some moments more marked by institutional cooperation, and others by friction with the state institutions.
In the past few years, with the sanctions weighing hard on us, we discovered that, as an urban commune, our focus should be services: that is what we have done. But our goal is not just to solve problems. Our real aim is popular empowerment through self-government, in a democratic manner, and outside the logic of capital.
Johan Tovar: The commune has the name “Luisa Cáceres de Arismendi” in honor of a great patriot. During the Independence Wars, the royalists killed her husband and imprisoned her. In the dungeons, Caceres was offered her life if she would appeal for royal clemency, pledge allegiance to the king, and abide by the law. Unwilling to do that, she took a gun from one of the officers and shot him. Of course, she was locked down after that, but Luisa Caceres never bowed down to them. She was a true patriot, who stood by her principles. That is why our commune bears her name.
Herrera: Our commune is in the middle of an urban center, in what Rubén Blades called “the concrete jungle” [selva de cemento]. That location, of course, brought some challenges with it, since there are no communal lands here and what “grows” here are shops and alienation. So in its early days, the commune had a hard time finding ways to produce.
Around 2018 or 2019, the crisis and the sanctions began to hit us hard. All the powers that be were aligned against the Venezuelan people and its government. [Lorenzo] Mendoza, the owner of the Polar food conglomerate, was also battling against our people: Harina PAN [Polar cornmeal] was hard to get and people were going hungry.
So we decided to build a small cornflour processing plant. Our dream was to supply our community with it. The plant worked for a while, but eventually the price of corn skyrocketed, fuel was nowhere to be found, and we were not able to keep the plant going.
While this project failed, we learned about supply chains and about the need to plan our production. We kept on dreaming… Now there are two Communal Property Enterprises [EPS]: one for trash collection and another for recycling.
Tovar: Chávez always emphasized the importance of science and technology to solve the problems that our society faces. Our experience shows that he was right: we need commitment and organization, but we also need to acquire knowledge and organize production efficiently.
Chávez also taught us that a communal society comes with a new geometry of power and a new organization in both the economic and the political spheres. Self-government is at the core of that proposal.
Here at the Luisa Cáceres Commune, we are advancing in that direction. Our highest governing body is the assembly, which is a space of deliberation and collective control of the accounts: the assembly is the seed of self-government.
Meeting at the Luisa Cáceres Commune. (Voces Urgentes)
Herrera: When it comes to the organization of the Luisa Cáceres Commune, we basically follow what is laid out in the Organic Law for Communes. Let’s walk through it step by step: our first organ for deliberation is the Communal Parliament. That parliament is made up of one spokesperson per communal council [there are 24] and three parliamentarians representing the communal enterprises, plus the Communal Bank’s spokesperson.
The parliament meets on the first Saturday of every month to talk about operative and organizational issues, review planning and resources, etc.
The commune also has an Executive Council made up of three spokespeople as well as Economic, Comptroller, Planning, and Administration councils. The latter coordinates issues such as public services, healthcare, housing, culture and education, and territorial defense among other responsibilities.
Tovar: We hope that our commune will give birth to a new material reality and a new consciousness. Following Chávez, we understand the commune as the key to solving the contradictions and problems in our society, and we think that we are inching forward in that direction.
Gas distribution at the Luisa Cáceres Commune. (Voces Urgentes)
Impact of the Blockade vs. Communal Solutions
Far from being passive during the crisis, the Luisa Cáceres Commune has developed a range of creative responses to difficulties as they emerge. In this way, they are demonstrating that communes can provide a popular, sovereign solution to the crisis.
Herrera: The impact of the blockade has been enormous, and it has also hurt grassroots organizations, particularly in the early days of the crisis. When people struggle to get enough food on the table for their families, it is very difficult to maintain grassroots organizations active.
During the worst of the crisis, many had to walk kilometers to get to work because they had no money to pay for bus fare, while others, particularly younger people, left the country. Others simply died because they couldn’t afford to buy the medicines they needed. This was all very painful.
The blockade affects everyone, from the young to the old. It is a criminal policy.
Manuel Cherema: The early days of the blockade were very hard for everyone, including the commune, but we didn’t sit still. In fact, our first communal enterprise was a small cornflour-making processing plant, and we were able to sell the cornflour at an accessible price. That enterprise is not active right now, but we learned a lot with the project.
Tovar: The blockade hit us hard, but the truth is that the hardest years of the crisis have been when we began to expand as a commune.. Interestingly, this also happened at El Maizal Commune and Che Guevara Commune. El Maizal took over productive spaces, the Che Guevara built industrial plants and greenhouses, and we took over waste collection and began the recycling work.
In our case, this all happened while the institutions were dormant during the pandemic. The commune was able to give an efficient response to people’s needs regarding a growing public health problem due to trash accumulation.
Herrera: Indeed, we were able to expand as an organization during the crisis. Why? Because we went on working and couldn’t count on getting economic support from the state. In fact, the state’s lack of attention served as a kick in the pants to communal organization.
Ingrid Arcila: We soon felt the impact of the sanctions and the blockade in our very bodies. Around 2016 food became scarce: we had to stand in lines for hours on end. Then came the medicine shortages: basic drugs such as diazepam were hard to get.
Now medicines and food are available, but prices are exorbitant. This situation becomes particularly complex when a loved one has to get an operation. Hospitals are short on supplies, so families have to get everything from gauze and latex gloves to sterilizers and antibiotics.
That is where the commune comes in: we often work to open institutional channels so that people with low resources will get support from the municipality or from another public office. This helps, but unfortunately, we have lost many people in the commune due to this situation.
In the future, when the commune’s means of production are consolidated, a part of our surplus will be earmarked for such emergencies.
Tovar: Here in the commune, the sanctions, the blockade, and the crisis limited our access to healthcare. The local CDIs [a community-based medical system begun under Chávez] started to collapse during the worst times.
When we saw that this was happening, the community got organized to better administer the medical personnel and the limited resources available. We started communal voluntary work days to paint and sanitize the spaces of the local CDI. However, we also organized so that the institutions would fix problems such as broken air conditioners. This was very important because many operating rooms had no AC, which made them useless.
The community likewise organized successfully to stop the theft of medicines. This may surprise you, but in situations of crisis, contradictions become more visible. That is why the community itself worked to supervise, introduce complaints, and establish strict monitoring of healthcare.
The blockade took many lives, and that was very painful. But it is even more painful when the situation is compounded by problems among us. Individualism takes control of a part of society when things get really hard. When that happens, there is one way forward: more organization, more communalization.
Luisa Caceres Commune Headquarters
Luisa Cáceres Commune headquarters. (Voces Urgentes)
FUEL AND SERVICES
Herrera: The sanctions on [state oil company] PDVSA had a devastating impact on society as a whole: production and distribution became a problem, and people had difficulties getting to work and even to the hospital.
For the commune, when the diesel shortages began, we faced an additional problem: we could not proceed with our trash collection schedule, and garbage piled up in the streets.
Tovar: When the fuel shortages were at their worst, another contradiction emerged: large capitalist enterprises had favorable agreements and would get very generous gas rations, whereas the commune would get a very small monthly allowance that was far below what was needed to do waste collection in the territory.
That is why we had to begin a public campaign: we let it be known that the Commune’s truck was not doing garbage collection because we had no fuel. Eventually, local cadres of the [PSUV] party heard us, and we reached an agreement.
Rosa Cáceres: About two years ago, getting cooking gas became a very serious problem as well. Since we are in an urban area where cooking with firewood is not an option, we had real problems. After a few months, we organized and reached an agreement with PDVSA Gas. Now the commune coordinates gas distribution, and it is working very well.
Here, at the commune, we look for collective solutions to our collective problems… and we have learned that popular power is very efficient in solving the day-to-day problems of the community. Of course, institutions also have a role in solving the problems that the pueblo faces day-to-day.
Arcila: The blockade had a huge impact on public services, particularly electricity, water, gas, and transportation. Lack of maintenance led to blackouts, irregular water supply, and poor public transportation.
For example, the water processing plant here often comes to a halt because it’s not possible for the state to acquire replacement parts. That means that we have sometimes gone up to seven days without running water here.
Another problem that we face is the telephone service. Phone cables are very expensive and theft is common, but CANTV [national phone company] cannot purchase replacements due to the blockade. Right now, more than 70% of the people in the commune have no telephone service.
Finding solutions to all these problems isn’t easy, but the commune has a Public Services Committee that works with public institutions to tend to the problems we have.
We have also organized “brigades.” A very active one is the Water Brigade which works on problems such as broken pipes, so that the water supply will be a bit more regular.
Tovar: Transferring city services to communes is viable. The Water Brigade is solving many problems at a local level. In the past, when we had a problem such as a broken water main, we would have to wait for the city to send a professional. That could last days, weeks, or even months.
Now, when there is a problem in the commune, we activate the brigade. The brigade is a communal initiative, but it is financed by the regional office of the Water Ministry. That institution provides the salaries, but the commune autonomously organizes the work. We have found this to be a very efficient method.
The communal project has been empowering people, through initiatives such as this. The fact that we can solve problems stimulates organization and gives people hope. Although we don’t have financial autonomy, we are moving toward self-government in the commune’s territory.
Aguache: Because ours is an urban commune, deteriorating public services due to the blockade became an enormous problem. However, that situation led us to organize and look for solutions. In so doing, the commune became a beacon or model in the community. It also became clear to us that communal organization could – if responsibilities and resources are transferred to it – solve our own problems.
We cannot celebrate the sanctions in any way, shape, or form, but we have learned a few things along the way: as an urban commune, when we take over services originally assigned to the state, we can do it efficiently and in a self-organized way.
Cáceres: Organization has been key to solving some of our problems, but there is still a lot to do. I should add, however, that the CLAP [subsidized food distribution] structure, which is alive and well in our region, has been a very useful tool. It has allowed us to reach those in the community who are not necessarily committed to self-organization.
Arcila: Any crisis will bring social problems with it. When the crisis here was at its height, theft went up and other social problems intensified, so we began to think about what to do.
That is why we are promoting the creation of Security Brigades in the communal councils here. Our idea is not to police each other, but to strengthen our commune: to build a society where peace and solidarity prevail.
Cherema: We are participating in a communal security pilot plan that former mayor [and current Anzoátegui governor] Luis José Marcano has proposed. Four communes in total are participating in this plan, which is a step toward building the communal city. The aim of the initiative is to rethink and implement a security plan from the grassroots. In fact, this is a legacy from Chávez: he talked about the need to move towards a communal police system that would not come from the outside.
New conceptions of peace and security should replace the old policing practices. Chávez also said that the police should be closer to the people, it should not be an external force. Following his guidelines, we are setting up communal brigades to learn about security, popular intelligence, and defense of what is held in common in the territory.
The communal security plan goes hand in hand with the National Bolivarian Police [PNB] but it is not an appendix of that governmental body. Each security brigade will have a spokesperson that coordinates its activity and, if needed, can work with the PNB. There will also be people in charge of intelligence, and we will establish the figure of the peace mediator. Our communal security plan is not punitive but rather conciliatory.