Communes In Venezuela: Experiments In Direct Democracy

Latin America is a witness to experiments by leftward leaning heads of states particularly in Venezuela, Bolivia and Equador. These are often seen as anti-US, anti-market, autocratic and have been demonized in the western media. These shifts happened after growing discontent with devastating effects of neoliberal policies in these countries. New leaders such as Hugo Chavez, Evo Molares and Rafael Correa emerged to represent a new search for alternatives.

building-communeThe book by George Ciccariello shows efforts in the direction of direct democracy with a socialist orientation being undertaken in Venezuela. The communes represented the base of experiments in direct democracy and received further push through the role of Chavez and Maduro.

The book starts at the backdrop of Caracas riots in 1989. This was a first in the series of Latin American rebellions against the spread of neoliberal economic reforms. The ‘structural adjustment’ of 1980’s led to wage cuts, laying off public sector workers, cutting social welfare expenditure and privatizing public goods such as water and gas. While foreign corporations benefitted, bus fares and gas prices became unaffordable for the poor. Poverty and unemployment grew in this “lost decade”. It paved way for similar other uprisings in Latin America such as Inti Raymi uprising (1990) in Equador, Zapatista rebellion (1994) in Mexico, rebellions against water and gas privatisation in Bolivia (2000 and 2003).

With Chavez coming to power in 1998, constitution was written with the participation of social movements. Social welfare and Participatory democracy received priority. After failure of kidnap attempt of Chavez in 2002, oil production was taken up by the state. Oil money was used to enhance social welfare with investments on health care, fee education, and subsidised food. These changes drastically reduced poverty and inequality. Conditions were created for community control over running water, education, health care, stable streets and housing, cultural and sporting activities. Communal councils were officially recognized grassroots assemblies responsible for self-government at local level. The broader units would be called communes.

The search for alternatives led to emergence of new forms of democracy that were local, participatory, direct and communal. Local communes were active participating in rebellions as well in management of local issues such as water, production of crops. Chavez saw no contradiction between democracy and socialism and described “socialism is democracy and democracy is socialism”. Communal councils were established in 2006 and communes in 2010. These existed much before Chavez but got legal recognition under him. These took up issues whether building new roads or basketball courts or drug violence. These were seen as non-capitalist, socialist alternatives. Creation of communal culture was felt necessity to enhance direct democracy.

Each commune is different. Some may be debating road construction, some agricultural production, textile production or another running a community radio. Persons elected in communal councils are subjected to community oversight. Means of production may be state owned, commonly and directly owned and managed by the communes themselves. The aim of communes is to build self-managed and sustainable communities with collective internal control. Instances of private property being expropriated and handed to communes are also seen. These were not efforts at “decentralization” but organizing power from the bottom up. Communes are seen as a future alternative in organizing production, distribution and management of day to day affairs.

In urban spaces, despite the poor cooking for the rich, cleaning their homes, taking care of their children and being central to circulatory part of the system were placed in shantytowns with no proper facilities. The radical land law and establishment of urban land committees in 2001 led way to claim formal ownership over land by poor. Through the Squatters movement they were able to reverse the swing of segregation from the city. The communal councils and communes managed access to clean water.

The book also discusses the attempts by Venezuelan right to come back to power through 2014 protests. It adopted the tools of popular resistance, imagery and social media techniques of the left. These protests were aimed at returning to the past and were supported by global networks and given the image of popular resistance. The formerly violent groups adopted nonviolent techniques through trainings received from Albert Einstein Institution (AEI). These are recipients of funds from US funded institutions such as National Endowment for Democracy (NED), International Republican Institute (IRI) and United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) aiming at promoting rightwing agenda.

The collectives that emerged were seen as a threat by Venezuelan right. These existed much before Chavez but got recognition under him. It got spaces as alternative to capitalist expansion. Though communes and communal councils received state support, they also fought with the state for autonomy. Commune tradition was integral to Venezuela such as the practice of Sancocho, the weekend practice of preparing collective lunch. Some of the communes were born around Sancocho, such as El Maizal Commune. This corn producing commune cultivates in 2,000 acres, corn is grounded and fine flour prepared. It directly manages massive cornfield challenging assumptions about the capacities of the poor. Communal council makes decision related to production process, investment of surplus. The commune produces 2.5 million kilos of Corn, 30 thousand kilos of coffee and 50 thousand liters of milk. The commune’s productivity is twice that of national average. Attaroa commune is one which manages cluster of hexagonal buildings of different sizes producing blocks. Pio Tamayo commune came together around politics than economics. They see that production is a means but not an end. The goal is self-government. Urban communes manage transport and distribution collectives. El Panal manages a radio station named Arsenal Radion 98.1 with transmission of music and political discussions.

Producing communal culture is the process of building political consciousness and collective co-existence and cuts into urban consumerism. These build a social consciousness of collectivist and a communal living. Islands of socialism are sought to be created around the concept of Toparchy .

It is not that the communal project does not have challenges and is a smooth movement. There are challenges in building communes in urban spaces, particularly when production activities aren’t developed. There is challenge continuously from anti-chavista opposition. There is also the threat of consumerist culture, built by oil economy.

Despite the challenges, the transfer of power from private and state hands directly to the commune is empowering them. They are providing alternative space to make long promised dream a concrete reality.

The book is an essential reading for those interested to understand the changes taking place in Latin America. The experiments show new alternatives to neo-liberal model of development. Some commentators have even described these model as 21st century socialism.

Title of the Book: Building the Commune – Radical Democracy in Venezuela

Author: George Ciccariello

Publisher: Verso

Year of Publication: 2016

Author: T Navin works as a Researcher.  He did his M.Phil from Jawaharlal Nehru University.  

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