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Luisa Cáceres: Commune-Building in Urban Venezuela

Luisa Cáceres communards assembled beside communal mural

Luisa Cáceres communards assembled beside communal mural. (Photo: Gerardo Rojas/Voces Urgentes)

Chris Gilbert is a professor of political science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela, and the creator and co-host of the Marxist educational television program Escuela de Cuadros. This article is adapted from his upcoming book, Commune or Nothing!: Venezuela’s Communal Movement and Its Socialist Project (Monthly Review Press, 2023).

Last year, the much-watched YouTuber Luis Villar Sudek, also known as “Luisito Comunica,” arrived with his team, camera, and checkbook in hand to the Lechería neighborhood in eastern Venezuela. Lechería is one of the most privileged urban developments in the country, forming a kind of bubble for the super-rich, who often arrive in airplanes to avoid the hoi polloi that might interfere with the good life they have, enjoying the tropical climate, perfect Caribbean beaches, and exquisite food. Luisito’s aim in visiting the region was to buy a luxury apartment, taking advantage of the low real estate prices that resulted from the country’s economic crisis. The young YouTuber recognized the problems that most Venezuelans experience in the U.S.-sanctioned country, such as the lack of electricity and scarcity of basic goods. However, he also told his audience that he likes to invest with a view to future profits, and the apartment’s extremely low price made it a great deal. In the end, Luisito was so delighted with his new acquisition that he dedicated an entire video to celebrating the bonanza: a fully equipped beachside apartment he had obtained for almost nothing.

Yet the realities of working-class, revolutionary Venezuela were not far away. No one would imagine that at a short distance—admittedly in a much poorer neighborhood—was one of Venezuela’s most successful urban communes. This commune is called Luisa Cáceres de Arismendi, after a fourteen-year-old patriot who disarmed and shot her royalist captors in the struggle for independence two hundred years ago. Because the commune is inside Venezuela’s sizable port city of Barcelona, the Luisa Cáceres initiative can be seen as a kind of test case for urban communes. These present a unique set of problems for the communal movement that got going with Hugo Chávez’s call in 2009 to build communes as the “basic cells of socialism.” However, since most of the country’s population lives in these zones, such problems cannot be ignored. Prominent among them is that all communes need to have a productive base, but what can an urban commune produce? A rural commune can grow food crops or raise cattle, an Andean one can cultivate coffee and cacao, a seaside commune can do fishing and fish processing. Yet urban areas, which are mostly residential in Venezuela, remain something of a riddle for the communal movement. For Luisito, the opportunity presented by an urban area fallen on hard times may have been clear: speculation on property values. But what can a socialist commune do in the concrete jungle of Venezuela’s huge cities?

The Luisa Cáceres Commune in Barcelona has long been considered a flagship project in Venezuela’s communal movement because of how it has forged a way forward despite the challenges of its urban location. For that reason, Cira Pascual Marquina and I have made it the latest stop in the ongoing project we are carrying out to investigate and learn from communes in the country. Retracing Luisito’s steps, if not his aim, the five-hour drive that takes us from Caracas to Barcelona, passing by Anzoátegui state’s giant oil refining and shipping operations, goes quickly. When we arrive at the commune’s headquarters, we encounter a half-acre walled lot with various shipping containers along its perimeter, as well as a garden and improvised gazebo. The communard who receives us, Carlos Herrera, sits us down in the gazebo and bluntly explains the dilemma of Venezuela’s urban communes. “What grows here in these cities”—here he pauses for effect—“are just shops and alienation!” Carlos briefly recounts the commune’s six-year history, focusing on its various false starts in finding a viable economic project. Most of its initial efforts in developing productive undertakings ran aground. However, the communards’ stubbornness paid off when they finally discovered a solution, which turned out to be as crude as it was obvious. The fact is that all cities produce trash, and lots of it! So with a rebellious spirit worthy of its pistol-slinging forebear, the Luisa Cáceres Commune has tackled the problem of having a source of income in an urban area head-on by taking over an important section of the city of Barcelona’s garbage collecting.

This was not the commune’s first income-generating project. Rather, it is one they arrived at after other experiments. An initial project of the commune was processing corn flour—the primary staple in Venezuela, used for making arepas, hallacas, bollos, and empanadas. They obtained the machinery to grind and package the product, and even attempted to go up the supply chain by seizing land in the nearby township of Mallorquín where the raw material, white corn, could be cultivated. Yet the Luisa Cáceres communards found that, after a short time, they could not compete with the producers in the private sector. “We lost the battle to sell corn flour,” Carlos says, “but in the process, we learned about supply chains and the need to plan our undertakings.” Luckily, another option emerged when the one-time television reporter Luis Marcano, who was then mayor of Barcelona, made good on a campaign promise that he was going to transfer responsibility for city services to no fewer than nine local communes, each of them charged with trash collection in its respective area.

The communards at Luisa Cáceres seized upon this opportunity. Their doing so turned out to be fortunate for residents in the zone, for as things played out, the other eight communes quickly gave up the ghost. They were less aggressive, allowing the former municipal truck drivers to continue working in trash collection, which led to conflicts, because these drivers were not fully committed to the project. By contrast, the Luisa Cáceres communards understood—perhaps a lesson that they had learned from their having half-control over the corn supplies: you must control the entire chain—that having only partial responsibility was dangerous territory. They insisted on running the whole trash-collecting operation themselves, with their own drivers. Whereas the other eight communes quickly saw their trash-collecting service fall apart with any minimal obstacle, this group of communards was able to face and address obstacles as they emerged, all in the spirit of cooperation. In effect, praxis makes things perfect! By controlling the full process, the Luisa Cáceres communards could make the corrections that were needed. They could suffer the consequences of their own errors and enjoy the benefits of their successes, doing so in a context of mutual respect and recognition.

The experience of Luisa Cáceres Commune is a fascinating example of how things can work efficiently in a social context involving cooperation and mutuality in the workplace. To see how it played in the community at large, I followed the commune’s garbage truck, lovingly baptized Lucho, as it made its rounds through the surrounding barrio. The whole process was a relatively ludic and extravagantly social undertaking. With a cluster of communards and neighbors crowded around it, the commune’s garbage truck advanced slowly through the working-class zone, with its low-lying houses and small shops. The smell of ripe garbage notwithstanding, the entire operation had the air of a church picnic. People came out of their houses to talk with the drivers, since they are just as interested as the commune’s workers in keeping the streets and city clean. Instead of the conflict that is always present when capitalist management is involved—an antagonism that affects both workers and clients—there was cooperation, a good atmosphere, and a festive spirit. Even the much-loved garbage truck was treated with affection and respect. After all, the truck had a name and was part of the family!

It is said that a “moral economy” is an essential part of working-class consciousness. Instead of bare transactions based on economic value—the rational calculations of an abstract Homo economicus—the working class applies notions of fairness, reciprocity, and equilibrium to exchanges and other interactions. For this reason, in spaces that workers themselves control, attitudes and behaviors based on solidarity come into play, while consensus-based norms and obligations often trump strict considerations of value, transcending the so-called “cash nexus.” This is the positive side of a moral economy; its benefits, for a society and its members, are completely evident.

Yet any productive undertaking or service, even garbage collecting, requires resources. What is fair compensation for the services rendered? That is a question that the Luisa Cáceres Commune had to face early on. Arriving at agreements with the neighbors was not an easy task, given that the ten years of oil bonanza had accustomed Venezuelans to free services and made “gifts from the government” into the baseline for fairness in society. Even so, the communards were able to make inroads into popular consciousness by using persuasion and through the example they set in ensuring a regular service of garbage collection. Often, they would approach the issue of compensation obliquely, simply asking people if they were satisfied with the service and what they thought it was worth. They also began to direct their minimal overhead to social services, such as a women’s center and other projects benefiting their neighborhood.

All of this is part of the logic of a moral economy. A dense network of customs and traditions determines what is correct and acceptable, serving as a basis for appeals to a legitimacy that goes beyond mere legality. The communards at Luisa Cáceres have tried to work this angle. However, it goes with the territory of the moral economy—and this is the negative side of responding to such a moral polity—that they are sometimes accused of being merely a local mafia since they control resources that, despite social work and social outreach, are not yet under direct control of all members of the zone. Managing conflict and these kinds of contradictions in a socialist transition has become an important task for them. When you occupy or take charge of a public project, who will benefit initially? And how is this justified?

These problems of community relations came to a head with a second project of the commune that is our next stop. That project is an occupied Mercal grocery store that is a short trek from the walled-lot headquarters where the commune’s garbage collecting operation is based. The Luisa Cáceres communards took over the storefront space a few years ago, because it was not delivering the subsidized food that is the basic remit of Mercal, a distribution project dating from the early years of the Bolivarian process. The spirit of emulation also played a role in the occupation. The Luisa Cáceres communards were in communication with comrades in El Maizal, perhaps the most advanced commune in Venezuela, which was boldly seizing land in Lara state on the other side of the country at about the same time. The communards here wanted to advance too in their own territory. They were also aware that the Mercal storefront, which had fallen on hard times during the blockade, was about to be privatized. It was the moment to act!

Since the store manager was a woman, the communards sent three women as a vanguard. Communal parliamentarian Ingrid Arcila, who is here in the storefront today, took part in the seizure. She explains how they went to the manager and said, “Good afternoon. Please give us the keys and your phone. This Mercal is now in the hands of the commune.” Doing things in this gentle way—they eventually returned the manager’s phone and allowed her to call her daughter—they wished to avoid projecting a bad image in the community. The manager understood that resisting the communal takeover was pointless. After the communards occupied the space, they cleaned it, gave it a fresh coat of paint, and repaired its refrigerators. Now the Luisa Cáceres-run Mercal offers bags of food to the community and maintains its facilities at a level it had never before enjoyed. The storefront is also a space for the community to meet and organize. Its walls are draped with complex charts related to food delivery and campaign mobilization in the zone.

The Luisa Cáceres Commune puts great emphasis on self-government. It is also among the most collectively organized communes and least prone to individualistic leadership of those we have visited in Venezuela. One of its spokespeople is Johan Tovar, who has taken time from caring for his nine-year-old to meet with us in the Mercal storefront this afternoon. We are interested in learning more about commune-building in this urban area where the relation with a complex state apparatus is particularly thorny, involving close contact with the city government and its authorities. This is no minor issue, since Venezuela’s rentier state, as it developed during the twentieth century, has long been the focus of mass expectations due to its control of the oil wealth. In responding to our questions about the relationship with state power, Johan tells us about Chávez’s attempts to remake and rethink the Venezuelan state from above—but he puts even more emphasis on grassroots practice in negotiating this relation.

Johan tells us that the most important, experience-based lesson for the Luisa Cáceres communards has been their growing awareness of the effectiveness and importance of self-organization. This has been learned from both their failures and their successes, which seem to depend directly on the degree of autonomous organization they have achieved. As Johan puts it:

We discovered that communal organization is viable, and communes teach us that self-government and communal production is the way to get out of the current crisis. However, we still have a long way to go. Self-government cannot just be a matter of words; it cannot be always a precarious balancing act between popular power and institutions. Full autonomy of the processes is a must, otherwise we could become an institutional appendix.

In a country where the idea of the benefactor state has entered deeply into popular consciousness (so much so that Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil called it the “magical state”), grassroots autonomy will always be hard won, and it will certainly be hotly contested during the course of the socialist transition. However, Johan’s defense of what he calls “full autonomy” as against the “precarious balancing act” of overdependence on state institutions resonates with the basic thesis of the communal path toward socialism and the reason it can succeed where earlier, more statist socialist projects failed. The key point is that the communal strategy can succeed because it is more internally coherent than the state socialist model applied in the Eastern Bloc in the twentieth century. Regarding the latter, Hungarian philosopher István Mészáros, who was a major inspiration for Chávez, once wrote that the Eastern Bloc socialist model was like a person who falls because they try to sit between two stools. His idea was that “actually-existing socialism” was an incoherent hybrid of two mutually hostile systems, but without the efficiency (or the rationality) of either one.

Because of its composite nature, the Soviet system had problems with control of the work process. It could neither apply the imposed, external discipline of the capitalist overseer, nor rely on that of true socialist self-government, that is, the internal discipline of self-managed workers. This explains much of what happened in the USSR and other Eastern Bloc countries, where there was essentially a problem of too little—not too much—socialism. Workers were told that the property of the means of production belonged to the whole society, including them, but they did not have a decisive role in determining how to employ the machinery or how to dispose of the product. For that reason, Soviet workers considered the “socialist means of production” to be not fully theirs, but someone else’s—or, most often, nobody’s! Social property was established through legal decree but it was not something real or truly felt. Stories about factory life in the USSR speak abundantly to this. There was an irrational use of resources, a host of bad labor practices (including purposeful waste), “storming” (last minute drives to fulfill the plan), the hoarding of inputs, and, eventually, collapse.

The communards at Luisa Cáceres have seen something similar play out in Barcelona, where they found that the other communes, who had only partial control of the garbage removal project, essentially “fell between two stools.” No one, neither the state functionaries nor the communards, took responsibility for the service. As had occurred in the Eastern Bloc, social property existed only on paper. The buck was continually passed, and the drivers eventually rebelled because they were not an integral part of the project. For all of these reasons, there is a continual push at Luisa Cáceres Commune toward more self-government and greater self-management in production. There is still much to be done, as the communards here are the first to admit. The most important thing, however, is that having chosen a coherent path, they are avoiding the impasse of the earlier socialist model.

Visiting this commune has been a learning experience because of the challenges that come from the urban context, including the proximity of state power. On our last day, before leaving, we return to the walled-lot headquarters. It is midday and people are very busy, sorting plastic material from the truck that has just come back from a morning round of garbage collection. We find ourselves examining a splendid mural on the commune’s north wall that depicts the courageous patriot Luisa Cáceres herself, along with other Venezuelan notables. The young revolutionary appears here in a period dress alongside a rising sun and in the company of communist poet Aquiles Nazoa. This has become the commune’s preferred space for group photos (not selfies!), and it is the symbolic and moral center of the commune. Standing before this mural that connects the country’s rebellious past with the communal future, it occurs to me how far this impressive commune is—in a social, rather than physical, sense—from the quotidian performance of individualism that most YouTubers, including Luisito Comunica, trade in.

When the communards notice our presence, they take a break from sorting plastic to join us for photos in front of the mural. We take these pictures enthusiastically, as mementos, to eager shouts of “¡Comuna o nada!” Then, at the suggestion of communard Rosa Cáceres (no relation to the eponymous forebear on the mural), we devote some time to touring the commune’s recycling operations—closely connected to the waste removal project that is their mainstay—and the community plant nursery they maintain. Urban gardening is something that became common in the Bolivarian process, often inspired by Cuban “organoponic” methods. These Cuban gardens have been extremely successful in their home country, and have helped overcome the island’s legacy of monoculture. In his last years, Fidel Castro himself took much interest in these gardens and fervently promoted the cultivation of multi-use moringa trees there, said to be an excellent food source and have other health properties.

Here in this Venezuelan commune, urban ecology and conservationism have been natural areas of work for the communards. They have found that simply by caring for urban spaces, they can preempt some of the sanitation problems in the city. For this reason, the communards use the plant nursery in this lot to cultivate ornamental flowers and bushes that they later place in spots that had formerly been used for dumping trash. Rosa tells us that the plants help people to see the city and its spaces as theirs and to attend to them spontaneously, on their own. “One of our objectives here is to change the ‘chemistry’ of sites that have become informal dumpsters,” she says. The workers put the plants in strategic locations, often using old tires as planters, as they move around the city collecting garbage. The nursery also hosts edible plants and herbs. I ask about a moringa tree, wondering if the tidings of Fidel’s pet project have gotten to this distant location. Rosa points to a scraggly but tall sapling, with numerous dangling seed pods—one of which I eagerly pocket.

Along with the plant nursery, the communards recycle both metal and plastic, providing an additional source of income. When the Lucho garbage truck arrives, the waste is carefully separated. Neighbors also bring bags of plastic bottles to the site. Recycling exists all around the world now, and the separation of waste has become a sort of global norm, with color-coded trash cans found in most major cities. However, the work here in this commune has more social substance and economic importance than the recycling operations (or, for that matter, most community gardens) of the Global North. A visitor can see how the communards here have adopted the globalized slogan, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” painting it on the commune’s walls. The connection to a worldwide movement is likely meaningful for these communards. However, it is important to recognize that these terms mean something more substantial in this commune. In the context of a Venezuelan commune—where reducing is imposed by the crisis and the blockade, reusing is a productive undertaking, and recycling an existential necessity—the slogan also goes hand in hand with new social relations.

It is meaningful, too, that their community garden bears the name of Pablo Characo, a longstanding opponent of transgenic seeds in Venezuela. Characo was an organic intellectual and supporter of the Bolivarian process, who was born and lived not far from here. He died from COVID-19 last year, but bequeathed to the country and region an autochthonous corn variant called Guanape MFE, which he preserved and promoted as an alternative to imported seeds. This lifetime project was carried out in the midst of a process of national liberation and social emancipation. In the context of this robust commune, it is gratifying to observe the workings of a grassroots and socially integrated ecology: environmental practices that are connected to the much-needed transformation of social relations that is required if ecology is to go beyond being merely symbolic activity and well-meaning gestures.

2022, Volume 74, Number 07 (December 2022)
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