December 10 2021
By Cira Pascual Marquina and Chris Gilbert – Venezuelanalysis.com
First-hand accounts of the impact of the US sanctions on a coffee and cocoa growing commune in the Venezuelan Andes.
The Che Guevara Commune lies on the fertile hillsides that rise up from the shores of Lake Maracaibo in western Venezuela. Historically this has been a cocoa-growing region but in more recent years coffee, sugar cane, and pineapple have also become important cash crops. It is a region of much domestic and international migration, and many of the communards have roots in neighboring Colombia, belonging to families that fled political persecution or simply sought a better life in Venezuela.
Through hard work, focused on two productive activities – a lowland cocoa-processing plant (the Che Guevara EPS) and a highland coffee cooperative called Colinas del Mirador (Colimir) – these communards have built a sociopolitical project that has survived all kinds of adversity.
A short flight to Merida’s El Vigia airport and a two-hour drive along the Panamerican Highway brought us to this well-kept commune centered in the village of Mesa Julia (Tucaní township). Our main interest was to see how this commune, with a far-reaching reputation worthy of the revolutionary name it bears, has dealt with the US sanctions and the overall crisis that Venezuela is facing. However, we also wanted to know about their approach to communal construction in general and the longstanding project of a socialist transition in the besieged country.
In the first of this three-part series, we look at the Che Guevara Commune’s creative responses to the challenges thrown up by the sanctions, which include the application of a new fuel-saving technology and developing their own currency.
History of the Che Guevara Commune
Sited on lower foothills of the Andes, the Che Guevara Commune has become well-known for its resilience and productive capacity. Here two committed communards outline the commune’s history, structure, and its key projects.
Ernesto Cruz: We began to work on building the Che Guevara Commune around 2010-2011. At that time, there were ten communal councils involved. After the death of Comandante Chávez in 2013, we managed to register the commune through Fundacomunal [state institution that administers communes].
My aunt, Olga Veracruz, who was politically formed in the midst of the war in Colombia, was the one who proposed calling the commune “Che Guevara.” She is now rather old, but for many years she was very active here. She promoted the organization of communal councils and later the commune.
Olga was a student of Marxism, arranging study groups with local women, and was the force behind a local newspaper with a leftist vision. She left her mark on this commune, proposing that Che Guevara’s conception of solidarity should be a guiding principle for us. That is why we call ourselves the “Che Guevara” Commune.
When the commune was finally registered, we developed several projects, including housing construction. During those early years, we also began to design the project that would become the Che Guevara EPS [EPS means Social Property Enterprise], which is a cocoa processing plant.
Zulai Montilla: The Che Guevara Commune is located in the highlands of the Tucaní municipality, in the Sur del Lago region [Mérida state]. The area has a farming tradition: coffee and cocoa are the main crops grown here, but people also grow plantain and pineapple.
The commune’s territory is home to 1562 families, distributed among fourteen communal councils. Each council chooses a spokesperson who will participate in the commune’s parliament. The parliament monitors the commune’s initiatives and projects. Above the parliament is the assembly, which is the commune’s highest self-government body and the space for making the most fundamental decisions. Anyone who lives in the commune’s territory can participate in the assembly, with equal voice and vote.
There are two active production units in the commune’s territory: the Che Guevara EPS, where cocoa is processed, and the Colinas del Mirador Cooperative [Colimir], to process coffee. Both units have a spokesperson in the communal parliament.Impact of the imperialist blockade and the crisis of capitalism
The US-imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela (2017) and the oil embargo (2019) have had a devastating impact on Venezuelan society. The workers at the Che Guevara Commune explain the blockade’s effects on their lives and on their productive projects.
Douglas Mendoza: The blockade has been hard on us. Here, in the highlands, access to fuel is fundamental. How can a coffee or cocoa farmer take the crop to market if there is no gasoline or if it costs three dollars a liter? Fuel shortages have hurt campesinos very much.
In the last few years, numerous people migrated to Colombia to find work: many sold everything and left the country. Often the older family members remain here and receive a small remittance from relatives abroad. Some people also travel for seasonal work and then come back.
Ernesto Cruz: In the last few months commerce in Tucaní is recovering a little, but there is still not enough work for everybody. At the moment we are seeing a new wave of migration. People are moving toward Caracas, where the service economy is recovering: young people from the area are going to the capital to work in restaurants or retail.
The migration situation should not be surprising: a small cocoa farmer can earn about $500 from a harvest and that is hardly enough to live on. There are few incentives for young people to stay in the area. This has an impact on the population, which is getting more sparse and older.
Zulai Montilla: The commercialization of chocolate is very difficult these days. Selling our production is not easy, due to the pandemic and the gas shortages. Two years ago we had customers coming from Trujillo and Táchira [neighboring states] to buy chocolate, but the fuel shortages mean this is no longer profitable.
As for supplies, fortunately, we have been able to get what we need: cocoa, powdered milk, and sugar. However, it has been hard to get packaging materials to offer a good presentation of our products. We are now working on that angle, and I’m sure that we will improve little by little.
The main problem we have is power outages, because molded chocolate needs refrigeration. If the temperature rises a bonbon or chocolate bar loses its shine and texture, and we have to restart the process. We have to put the chocolate in a bain-marie, then we take it to the mill, and finally we mold it again.
All this impacts our production. Still, we have not stopped: we go through hell and high water to meet our commitments, but we manage. We are fighting to stay on our feet, and we hope to come out stronger.
Ernesto Cruz: We face many challenges on a daily basis as a result of the blockade, the general economic crisis, and the sanctions. Our main obstacles are blackouts and fuel shortages.
Fuel shortages were a major problem until the beginning of this year. Only smuggled gasoline was available, and it cost as much as four dollars a liter. Then things got a little better, and now we can buy gasoline for 90 cents a liter.
The fuel situation has a strong impact on the Che Guevara EPS: it is very difficult for campesinos to bring their cocoa crops to us and private intermediaries take advantage of this. They go directly to a plot of land and offer the campesino a payment that is below the market value… Between losing the crop altogether and selling it cheaply, the producers go for the second option.
On the other hand, here at the processing unit gas scarcity means that getting orders to their destination is difficult. The truth is that there isn’t one single producer who hasn’t been hurt by the fuel shortages.
Electricity is also a bottleneck. In this area, we sometimes have blackouts lasting three days in a row. When the power goes out, mechanized processing stops. That is a problem for us, but there is an added problem: molded chocolate in the refrigeration chamber loses its shine, and we are forced to restart the process.
While there is no denying that the sanctions have been tough on us, we continue to produce, showing that it’s possible to build an alternative from below.
Douglas Mendoza: Many people here have been forced to sell their jeeps, which they used to bring down their harvests of ten or twenty bushels of coffee. Some people have returned to using mules, or carry coffee or cocoa on their motorcycles, two bushels at a time. Others simply have to pay to have their harvest brought down or are forced to sell to unscrupulous middlemen… Still others have simply left the country!
Just today I had to buy five liters of gasoline – at one dollar per liter – for the brush cutter. That’s expensive, but when things were tougher, fuel went as high as four dollars per liter!
The problem is that we depend so much on fuel, especially for the transportation of the crops. So when fuel prices spike, a campesino can go bankrupt.
The US war against Venezuela is terrible. However, we also see problems with the local government. Here we are authentic Chavistas. We are very loyal and will never vote for the opposition, but that doesn’t mean that we applaud our representatives when they do things badly.
Nonetheless, in spite of the war, the contradictions, and other difficulties, we are committed to staying in this beautiful land, working for the family and in the Colimir cooperative, where we also work for the community as a whole.