[News] In the Shadow of the Venezuela Blockade: Stories of Resistance from El Maizal Commune

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Fri Jul 23 15:17:57 EDT 2021


venezuelanalysis.com <https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/15268> In the
Shadow of the Blockade: Stories of Resistance from El Maizal Commune (Part
I)
By Cira Pascual Marquina and Chris Gilbert – July 23, 2021
------------------------------

*El Maizal Commune lies in the fertile lands between the Lara and
Portuguesa states in western Venezuela. Founded in 2009, this rural commune
has since become an important political and economic force in both the
region and the country. It not only produces huge amounts of corn every
year, but also raises cattle and pigs, along with a growing number of
additional side enterprises. Most importantly, El Maizal Commune forges new
social relations and new human beings: people committed to the socialist
project that Chávez promoted during his lifetime. *

*This summer, we took the challenge to leave Caracas – where a pragmatic
capitalist restoration is generally seen as the best way to respond to the
economic crisis and sanctions – with a view to discovering how Venezuela’s
most successful commune confronts the current multi-crisis. We embarked on
the difficult journey (gasoline shortages have turned what should be a
five-hour trip into a day-long odyssey) to talk to El Maizal’s seasoned
communards about how they see the country's situation, the solutions they
have learned through experience, and the future they project for the
besieged country.*

*In the first of this three-part series, we listen to El Maizal’s
communards explain the principal effects of the sanctions and the ways in
which this flagship organization works to maintain Chávez’s communal path
towards socialism.*
The Impact of Sanctions on El Maizal Commune

*The US-imposed financial **sanctions*
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/tag/sanctions>* on Venezuela in 2017 and a
2019 oil embargo had a devastating impact on Venezuelan society. A group of
communards from El Maizal laid out the effects of this blockade on their
production.*

*Ángel Prado: *Back around 2015 and 2016, when resources became scarce and
speculation with food and currency devaluation began, we were concerned
that our project could disappear because the psychological impact on people
was huge. It was felt not only in the city but also in the rural areas.
Public banks used to finance farm projects in Venezuela to buy inputs.
Those years were very difficult, even demoralizing!

The sanctions have severely affected the commune’s production and also the
life of the *pueblo*. Imperialism finished off Iraq and Libya, and they are
trying to do the same with us. Sanctions amount to a declaration of war.

In desperation, some people here gave up the struggle. Some went to work in
the private sector, while others sold all they had and simply left the
country. The crisis and the sanctions were a harsh blow, which struck
deeply into people’s subjectivity, into their very spirit.

But Chávez taught us about dignity, about popular participation and popular
power, along with participation in elections. Here in El Maizal we were
able to maintain our project. We did so with an active and combative
spirit, despite the disappearance of things necessary for our production
processes, including diesel, gasoline, spare parts, and seeds.

The blockade and the sanctions have affected Venezuela’s rural areas in a
powerful way. Here the problem is not so much about lack of food, but
rather machinery and agricultural inputs. (After all, there is not a single
person in these villages who does not have a tomato plant in their garden.)
However, the lack of inputs affects us a great deal.

People here understood that if they did not produce food, they were going
to die of starvation. Yet the lack of inputs generated widespread concern
and many problems. Nevertheless, the dynamism of this community, of this
commune, meant that the population here did not just spend its days looking
at social media and complaining about how the blockade would kill us, how
there were no seeds, etc.

To avoid demoralization, we encouraged participation in different areas:
occupying land; election processes; productive, cultural, and educational
work; establishing links with other communes; and so on.

All of this helped us avoid demoralization, which is what was experienced
by those people who don't even want to be in their country, who do not even
want to struggle. I think that one of the things our enemy most wants is to
demoralize people and take away their desire to struggle. Our attitude, our
willingness to struggle – rather than wait around for a miracle to occur –
led us to hook up with many other people, and in turn, people began to pay
attention to us.

In short, the sanctions have affected El Maizal Commune’s production a
great deal, and also the life of the *pueblo *here. We have had big losses
in production, together with human losses. For example, if a person has
kidney problems or cancer, they may not be able to get chemotherapy or
radiotherapy and someone will have to go to Colombia to get it. Perhaps
they will have to sell their home, and when they get back, the family
member might well have died. These are not just material losses, but also
human ones.

*Yohander Pineda:* Regarding the communes, Chávez said that building them
would not be easy, and we would find many barriers and roadblocks. Chávez,
who was indeed a visionary, said that communes required a lot of hard work
and would face contradictions. Yet he claimed that the commune was our path
towards socialism. Hard work and commitment would open the path toward
socialism for us.

These have been hard times. The crisis, the sanctions, the pandemic, and
other factors have made it difficult to get anything: from seeds to
gasoline and diesel fuel to replacement parts for tractors to medical
attention for communards and the community.

For example, we are now planting our fields. Finding fuel for the tractors
has been a real ordeal. All this slows down the process. If we need to
repair our farm machinery, purchasing a spare part is extraordinarily
expensive. That will affect things downstream, when harvesting comes around.

When El Maizal was born, the government had many resources and was clearly
committed to the communes. Now things are different. Still, our commitment
to Chávez’s project hasn’t dwindled. Rather it is stronger than ever. That
is why we work hard day in and day out. In so doing, we produce food for
the people suffering the worst consequences of the sanctions. We also
demonstrate that communal production is not only possible but also can be
efficient.

So, yes, the sanctions have had a huge impact, but the challenge has forced
us to be more creative. In fact, I think that we have grown as
revolutionaries in this situation, and our communal project has taken hold
in the people.

*Prado: *As part of his anti-imperialist discourse, Chávez warned us about
the need to study the enemy that we are facing. He used the example of Cuba
for how to confront an external enemy. That country has endured a 60-year
blockade, but its population dies very old, wins Olympic medals, carries
out scientific research, and benefits from technology and advanced health
care. All of this in a poor country that is under siege, but which resists
and struggles in a revolutionary way!

Well, Chávez warned us about possible scenarios like this that could come
about because of our country’s anti-imperialist stance and also because we
are an oil-producing nation, along with other raw materials that
superpowers want to control and appropriate. A leftist government was sure
to enter into many contradictions with the US, and this was going to affect
the popular classes.

Hence in 2009, when El Maizal was founded, we began to build a whole
agricultural infrastructure, struggling to take over means of production. A
commune can't be just a slogan, it can’t be mere rhetoric. We tried to
develop a new form of organizing through collective work, by caring about
the project of the commune, by teaching through example, and by being
careful about our leadership – to not let people down, to not lose
legitimacy. We began to work with social initiatives like the Housing
Mission <https://venezuelanalysis.com/tag/great-housing-mission> and Mercal
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/tag/mercal> [state-owned supermarket chain],
but we simultaneously developed a productive apparatus.

In the end, the situation turned out to be the dire one that Chávez
predicted! However, when the crisis arrived, our hard work allowed us to
resist because of the economic resources that by then belonged to the
commune and our acquired experience with productive work. We were able to
confront the crisis because we were both economically and ideologically
strong.
Creativity and innovation in the face of the sanctions

*Far from being passive during the crisis, El Maizal Commune has generated
a range of creative responses to difficulties as they emerge, demonstrating
that the communes are robust spaces for constructing a popular, sovereign
alternative. *

*Prado: *Around 2017 we began calling on people to participate more
actively in the commune. We designed a distribution system to combat the
prevalent market speculation and hoarding. Around then we also started a
small industrial plant for roasting coffee and for making cornflour and
animal feed. Further, we got a freezer room for meat storage. We also
designed mobile stores to sell our products directly, without
intermediaries, and at lower prices, while developing a barter system to
exchange production with other communes.

Here at El Maizal we work in a coherent way… and it’s hard work! We face
many problems every day, but usually when one door closes, another opens
up. We have some allies in the government, and their support has been
helpful. However, the most important thing is our own resourcefulness,
together with the alliances that we have built with the MST [Brazil’s
landless workers’ movement], the Che Guevara Commune
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/14897> in Mérida state, and so on

For example, we face serious problems with animal feed at El Maizal’s
Porcinos pig farm. We have had to be creative and invest a lot of resources
in dealing with it. Managing the pig farm has been very difficult, and we
have had to make many sacrifices. Still, with ingenuity and hard work, we
have been able to keep the means of production in the hands of the commune
and at the service of the *pueblo*. We have maintained the means of
production, thereby avoiding the danger of privatization processes [that
have occurred elsewhere in the country]. We won't let ourselves be
demoralized!

Fortunately, El Maizal is not the only organization that has been
reinventing itself in these times. The difficult economic situation has led
some communes to reorganize, to care better for what they have, to stay
honest, to be more sincere with work, to develop a greater sense of
belonging. We are not alone in this struggle, and the fledgling Communard
Union <https://venezuelanalysis.com/tag/communard-union> is proof of that.

Our survival in this situation has to do with both our work and our
awareness. I think the government is making a big effort to maintain
political power, but if the people are not organized, if we don’t struggle,
then the government may end up yielding to the enemy. That is why we need
to struggle to keep Chávez’s project alive, and it takes hard work.

*Pineda: *For many years, the surplus we generated through corn production
here was spent on social needs. However, in recent times, we have been
diversifying: we have important holdings of cattle (more than 600 heads)
both for meat and dairy production in the Argimiro Gabaldón Communal
Production Unit.

We also diversified our crops, and for the last three years, we have been
developing what is for now a small agroindustrial branch. This is the
Camilo Torres Communal Production Unit, which processes cornflour, coffee,
and animal feed. In fact, this facility is very important, it’s kind of a
dream come true. Chávez always talked about the need to build whole
production chains outside of the capitalist market, and we are taking
important steps in that direction.

The commune also has the Armando Bonilla Distribution Center and a network
of stores where we are able to sell our production without intermediaries
at lower prices.

The commune’s parliament made the collective decision to diversify around
2015 and 2016, when the crisis was beginning to hit hard. We decided then
that an important part of our surplus should be reinvested in the commune’s
productive units.

Until then, we had been able to direct it to social purposes: the commune
built schools, houses for the poorest families, extended electrification to
many households, paved roads, etc. Now the commune continues to invest
socially, especially to help resolve medical problems in the community, but
most of the surplus goes back to strengthening our productive capabilities.
This has allowed us to continue producing for the people.

*Jennifer Lemus: *Diversifying is important to us. I am the head of the
Ezequiel Zamora Communal Production Unit, which we consider to be El
Maizal’s “PDVSA” [a reference to Venezuela’s state oil company, the
centerpiece of the country’s economy for decades]. We have been hit hard in
this productive unit: in 2017 we planted 1000 hectares of corn, but in 2018
we only planted 300. That was a huge drop!

Little by little, we realized that we should not be so dependent on our
“PDVSA,” that we need to plan and diversify. I can confirm that we have
done it. The change has come with big sacrifices on our part, but now our
production is more diversified.

Also, we took Chávez’s insistence that communes should be able to complete
the production circuit seriously. That is why some four years ago we began
to think about developing an agroindustrial branch. The Camilo Torres
Communal Production Unit was born that way, and it allows us to turn corn
into cornmeal and animal feed, and to roast and grind coffee.

All this makes us very happy. It used to be that we would produce a
tremendous amount of corn, but we would most likely never eat an *arepa*
made with that corn. Now that has changed!

We are building whole productive circuits. Now we don’t depend on the state
silos or the private intermediaries: we produce the seed, sow, harvest,
process the corn, and even sell our production in the commune’s stores at
below market prices. We also exchange our production with other communes
such as the Che Guevara Commune in Mérida state. With them, we have
exchanged cornmeal for chocolate and coffee.

There are some bottlenecks that we still have to resolve. There have been
problems getting enough feed to the pig farm because it is extremely
expensive. Now, we have the machinery to process it, and we are even
planting sorghum, mung beans and soy, which can be used to produce balanced
animal feed. However, we are missing some components. Even so, we are
advancing towards communal productive sovereignty.

Despite diversifying our production and completing productive cycles, we
have a ways to go and must still address some obstacles. In this sense, we
have recognized that technology and innovation is important for us. That is
why we are thinking about the need to have our own center for research and
innovation.

We have also been advancing with the production of seeds and fertilizers.
The comrades from the MST have helped us a great deal with this. We are now
producing and storing part of the seeds that we use on our crops, and we
are producing natural fertilizers. This frees us from the capitalist
market, giving us a greater degree of autonomy. It is also healthier for us
and for those who eat our produce!

*Windely Matos:* For many years, El Maizal was focused on large-scale corn
production. However, in recent years, getting all the agricultural inputs
needed for growing corn has become really difficult. That is why we came to
the conclusion that we had to diversify our production.

We began to raise cattle in larger numbers, but we also started to plant
what we call “war crops” such as pigeon peas, yucca, and other grains and
vegetables that we didn’t produce before. Corn had been our “petroleum,” it
sustained the commune and with the surplus from selling our corn crop, we
were able to build schools and houses.

Then the crisis and the sanctions impacted our reality, so we had to
diversify. It hasn’t been easy and we made mistakes along the way, but El
Maizal Commune is alive and well, and we are ever more committed to
Chávez’s dream of communal socialism every day.

This is a self-governed, productive territory. The people from El Maizal
work hard day in and day out: the [US’] coercive measures are not going to
disturb our productive and political rhythms. We are here to stay!

*Antony Suárez: *At the Camilo Torres Communal Productive Unit, we can now
process 3000 kilos of cornflour daily. We are focusing on developing our
agroindustrial muscle here: we need to be self-sufficient when it comes to
production, and we need to be more efficient every day.

The machines that you see here have all been modified so that we can speed
up the process… Although we are not engineers, we have been able to solve
complex problems and look for solutions. The crisis and the sanctions have
sparked our ingenuity: if we want to produce for the people, then we have
to look for ways to solve the problems we are facing.

*Bernadino Freites: *With the crisis, we have become expert technicians and
engineers. Getting pieces for our machinery in the market is very
expensive, so we are now making them, and we are even making the
large-scale plows that attach to the tractors. We are also constructing a
hydraulic press. All this raises our spirits, it makes us proud, it
remoralizes us.

Of course, the sanctions and other problems are greatly limiting our access
to gasoline and diesel fuel. For this reason, we are forced to plan with
precision, particularly now, in the planting season. We have to care for
all that we have, we have to maintain it, and when a problem comes up, we
must solve it with creativity.

It used to be that when a tractor or a truck had a problem, we would just
purchase the replacement piece. Now we look for other solutions, and we do
it as a team. We have an extraordinary team here at the commune’s
mechanization unit!

*Isabel González: *At the Che Guevara Communal Productive Unit we have
13 industrial-scale greenhouses, although only seven are active now. Here
we produce cilantro, tomatoes, bell peppers, spring onion, and other
vegetables.

Our main bottleneck is that we don’t have a functioning tractor for the
greenhouse. Although repairing the one we have would be relatively simple,
we don’t have the resources to do so. As a result, we are doing all the
work by hand, which is much less efficient. Nonetheless, we provide
vegetables for El Maizal’s communal canteen, and when we have a surplus, we
sell it locally at prices below the market. In fact, people are quite keen
to buy our produce because they know it’s of high quality.

At the Che Guevara unit we use almost no toxic agrochemicals. In fact, one
of our main lines of work is making earthworm humus, a natural fertilizer
that has two base components: cow dung and earthworms. This fertilizer is
used in the greenhouses, but it also for El Maizal’s large-scale crops. The
earthworm hummus is not only healthier than being exposed to chemicals, it
is also much cheaper and it doesn’t deplete the earth of its natural
nutrients.

*Lemus:* The crisis and the sanctions have hit us very hard. We have lost
people, and have had losses in production. Yet that doesn't keep us from
doing what we should do: producing for the people while maintaining
Chávez’s legacy alive!

The commune is the people’s government in the territory, popular power in
action, and that comes with an enormous responsibility. We have to be very
efficient! We cannot fall into the trap of explaining all failures and
problems with the same two words: “sanctions,” “blockade.” Although the
impact of the crisis is huge, we are living proof that producing food and
building a commune is possible and necessary under these circumstances.

That is why we are designing a productive plan that will guarantee our
project’s sustainability and the wellbeing of the *pueblo*. Efficiency,
good planification, hard work – these are a must in the middle of the storm
caused by the sanctions and by those factions that don’t support the
communal project. As it is, ours is not only an economic challenge, it’s a
historical one!

[Photo credits: Christian Ferrer and Cira Pascual Marquina]
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