« Building Utopia » is a travel-reporting project about self-management, popular power and democratic participation, started by two young Belgians. It is a committed journalistic project that aims to discover inspiring alternatives in Spain and Latin America. To be continued on www.utopiasproject.net. Kairos will welcome the description of these experiences in its columns.
THE COMUNER@S AND THE DREAM OF A COMMUNAL SOCIALIST STATE
In Venezuela, the « Bolivarian revolution » is taking its course, with very different realities. Citizens’ initiative, the network of comuneros takes the recent idea of socialist municipalities and makes it the basis of a new society.
Through the cracked window of the bus that takes us to El Tocuyo, a small town in the west of Venezuela, we see a sign that welcomes us to the « socialist municipality of Francisco Tamayo ». The city is known for the dynamism of its municipalities, reason why a regional meeting of the network of « comuneros » and « comuneras » is held there, where we go.
The next day, between two workshops, Coromoto, sixty years old, will offer us the new Bolivarian Constitution that she always carries in its saddle the law of the communes. « Now the people can exercise power directly. We can decide for ourselves. It’s right there in section 5″.she explains with emotion. Another participant added: « The idea of the communes is to build socialism from below, from what we are, with the participation of all ». A vast program, in which the comuneros believe and to which they have decided to dedicate all their efforts…
ORIGINALLY, A PLETHORA OF COMMUNAL COUNCILS
To understand the landscape in which the communes are placed, we must go back to 2006. That year, in the dynamics of the « Bolivarian revolution », the law that created the communal councils was passed. These are citizens’ assemblies that bring together 200 to 400 families. They are endowed with certain competences and substantial subsidies, which are supposed to enable these communities to improve their living conditions themselves.
At present, communal councils cover very different realities. Some, especially in the countryside, have been very active and have carried out relevant projects. But while there could theoretically be as many as 70,000 communal councils across the country, they have not necessarily been established everywhere. In many of them, achieving effective citizen participation is not easy. In addition, it quickly became apparent that the scope of action of communal councils is often too limited to address certain issues.
Above the communal councils, the idea of communes emerged, as a more global body that would federate the communal councils and other organizations in their common problems. Still recent (the law on communes dates from 2010), the majority of communes are under construction. Even if some of them are becoming more and more flesh and blood around one or the other concrete project.
« Themission of the communal councils and municipalities would be to articulate the organizing fabric of the communities, » explains Julio Salazar, of EFIP (Team of Formation, Information and Publication), in Caracas. « But this fabric is very fragile in some places. Many things have been « decreed » by laws and created artificially. The government’s vision is correct when they want to give people the ability to organize. But it can’t be decreed. It must be related to something real ». The experience, very positive in its mobilizing and integrating dimension, has not yet reached the expected expectations of participation and politicization.
THE CAVALRY OF THE COMUNEROS
However, these laws are a real tool. And on the basis of these, solid initiatives have been created… In particular, some have decided to see the communes as something more than just another participatory body. By encouraging the creation of new communes, by meeting to discuss their vision of them, they gave a soul to the idea of socialist communes.
« The network of comuneros was created in 2009. Above all, our priority was to articulate the 16 isolated experiences of the existing communes, but also to stimulate the creation of new communes. The idea was to exchange our experiences and provide mutual support« says Atenea Jiménez, one of the network’s spokespersons. As the national meetings progressed, more and more local councils and municipalities joined the project. There are now more than 120 of them in the network.
A REVOLUTIONARY CONCEPT
Very far from their Belgian namesakes, these Venezuelan communes respond to a completely different logic. Conceived as local entities of direct self-government of the citizens, they are an innovative concept, which could in the long run draw a new geometry of power and provoke a profound transformation of the Venezuelan society. The project of a « socialist communal state » offers an example of what another society could be. Without capitalism, without productivism and based on self-management.
The idea is to rebuild society on new foundations, starting from the self-organization of limited territories, where citizens would be called upon to directly manage both the political and economic aspects of their commune. « The municipalities are political-territorial entities that share a certain territory, culture, habits, but also economic and environmental potential, and that, by sovereign decision, decide to constitute themselves as a municipality « , explains Nelson Ures, one of the souls of the Francisco Tamayo municipality.
The comuneros do not see the municipalities as isolated local initiatives or entities that would divide the country. They are aware that the municipality must have higher levels of aggregation. Thus, they are developing a much more global organizational scheme. In the long run, the idea is that the communal socialist state may come to replace the state in its present form. Through the communes and their various thematic sectoral councils (economy, education, security, communication…) and through the workers’ councils, the decision-making centers would be brought back to the local level. Decisions that go beyond the local level could be discussed in federative bodies, where the people present would be spokespersons for their councils rather than representatives. The heart of the economy would also be brought back to the grassroots. For economic needs that could not be met by the municipality, there would be federations of municipal enterprises that would develop joint projects. The communal city would federate several communes, above that would come the communal territory, and the whole country itself would be constituted in a vast federation of communes and workers’ councils, as central elements of the new state. Everything would come from below, and would rise to the top only when necessary. « It is a whole that would be integrated for the construction of a new way of living », concludes Atenea.
A UTOPIA PERMITTED BY LAW
The Law of Communes, passed during the last legislature of President Chavez, provides a legal framework for the members of the comuneros network. The communes are officially recognized as self-organizing structures, they have competences, the communal state is mentioned, etc. The tool is valuable, but it has its limitations. For Atenea, the » five laws of popular power » in general are still too conservative and not sufficient. It addresses three main criticisms to them. Despite an apparent participatory process, they have been made in a very closed way; there is a lack of political will to enforce these laws (their effective enforcement would already allow for more progress); the laws are designed to keep the people’s power an appendage of the state. Therefore, for Atenea, it is necessary to make a « very creative interpretation ». » The law is an interesting tool to move forward on concrete elements, but it does not take up the essence of the communes, which is much broader, which for us concerns all areas of life. The law is valid for a very short transition period. But we can’t follow a law that tells us what steps to take, since we are in the process of inventing them. ».
Today, the comuneros have to develop and conceptualize the communal project. The regional meeting in Tocuyo was aimed at reflecting and exchanging on the theme of the economy, central to their development.
AN ECONOMY FROM BELOW, NON-CAPITALIST
During the two days in El Tocuyo, a new scheme for communal economies was recurrent in the discussions: to get out of the capitalist market economy, to produce locally through socially owned enterprises — which belong to the community -, to focus production on the needs of the territory and to exchange surpluses with neighboring communes. Barter, food sovereignty, participatory democracy… The slogans of the revolution — which are struggling to be realized in the country — the comuneros believe and work on them. Juan Estéban, who came from Colombia to develop bartering in Venezuela, gives an example: « In the territory of the municipality of Francisco Tamayo, there are already four social property companies, which practice solidarity, which help each other, whose profits
are reinvested in the community or to create other communes. In the regional meeting in El Tocuyo, the afternoon of Saturday was dedicated to the visit of productive communal enterprises: gas distribution network, integral family farm… And all the participants took the opportunity to exchange economic experiences of their different municipalities. A project bank is being created within the network, so that the ideas and experiences that each commune develops can be shared and enrich the others.
In the discussions among comuneros, there is a strong awareness of one risk in particular: that of ultimately replicating the capitalist model in communal enterprises. The question of profits in particular is debated: to what extent should a communal enterprise aim at profits? All agree that the social share should be paramount. But some go further, explaining that the search for more profit ends up changing the different mode of operation aimed at, the new vision of work developed. « In the end, you become exactly like a capitalist, even if your business is called something else », summarizes Yuset, from the communal family barn of El Tocuyo. For Wilmer at Falcon State, it’s even clearer: « We can neither be the same nor like them. We must oppose « .
It is not only a matter of changing the structures, both political and economic, to get out of capitalism. The comuneros also want to change mentalities. « With as a first step the will to want to live in common, and to function without hierarchy ‚ » emphasizes Atenea. And for William Gudiño, Atenea’s companion, the awareness of » the need to break with concrete dependence on capitalism, including cultural dependence. We need to think about how it works, so we can break away from it all ». When another participant suggests developing their own brand of Coca Cola, William corrects: « No, what we need to do is make papaya juice, for example. For William, it is literally a matter of « inoculating ourselves against capitalism, preventing the seeds of it ».
A PATH INTO
THE BOLIVARIAN PROCESS
The project of the comuneros is ambitious. They are only at the beginning, yet the network of communes in Venezuela is growing stronger every day.
Aware of the need to reinvent themselves, the comuneros want to function by constantly evaluating themselves. In February, they created the « School of Comuneros ». This one is not located in one place in the country. Rather, it is a structure that all the communes can appropriate, which would systematize experiences and learning, and on which to build to move forward. It aims to provide all those involved with tools for empowerment and awareness.
The comuneros’ project is driven by a real impulse from below and a sincere desire to participate fully in the revolutionary process. But most of them do not believe in the path of bureaucratic and institutional party socialism. If the comuneros have seized a concept proposed by the law, they are giving it a soul of magnitude. Their relationship with institutions is therefore sometimes ambiguous. On the one hand, they demand from the Ministry of People’s Power the funds that are rightfully theirs, as the state’s money is the people’s money. They accuse « Funda Comunal », the Ministry’s body responsible for accompanying and coordinating the municipalities, of having the wrong role. Little by little, the comuneros have come to assume part of the role of impulse and accompaniment of new municipalities, among others. « This department doesn’t know what their task is. For them, they are the leaders of the comuneros. But the comuneros don’t have leaders. They don’t understand that popular power has a different dynamic. They should be driving, but they are co-opting, » says Atenea. For one of the participants in the weekend in Tocuyo, it is a question of « to save the revolution, that the communal power can assume the power fully « .
If the comuneros are idealists and believe in the possibility of a social communal state, which advocates equality and cooperation and where the means of production are in the hands of the workers, they are also realists. The current stage is one of transition, where the state retains its importance, both in the shield of laws it develops for the municipalities and in the financial resources it has available. But their will to self-organize is great and they have already started to build their utopia at the local levels, without waiting.
Edith Wustefeld and Johan Verhoeven