Before Hugo Chávez’s passing earlier this year, building the so-called “communal state” figured among the most ambitious—and controversial—goals of the Bolivarian Revolution. Imagined at first to coexist with, and eventually to replace, Venezuela’s political apparatus, the communal state would extend from communal councils to larger, self-organized and self-governing entities—communes—to form the new social and economic bodies of a common territorial space. Though formally enshrined in law in December 2010 and now numbering in the hundreds, the communes and their broader project, the communal state, remain tentative, their record mixed, and their future uncertain in the wake of Chávez’s death.
In the mid 1990s, while studying sociology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, Atenea Jiménez formed part of the student movement against austerity and privatization. After graduating in 1998, she joined Chávez’s first presidential campaign. Though never a member of any political party, Jiménez eventually went on to work with various government ministries and programs at the national and state level to help promote grassroots organization. In 2009, she helped found the Network of Communers, a fledgling group linking together commune participants nationwide. She is now a national spokesperson of the Network. She was interviewed in May 2013 by Alejandro Velasco.
AV: What is the Network of Communers?
AJ: In 2008 President Chávez spoke of building socialism of the 21st century based on popular organization, from the communal councils to a higher level of organization, which would be the commune. We started to work with the Ministry of Planning and Development to promote the commune. There were around 15 or 16 communes then, and we operated with a dynamic different from what had characterized previous state programs—we built up from experiences at the local level. In 2009, we decided collectively among the groups who were already there, which represented various popular and communal social movements, to articulate that diversity of experiences into what is now the Network of Communers. We felt that by having an organization that articulated those experiences and promoted other grassroots experiences—no longer from the state or government—we could go further. In this country, ministers turn over quickly, so many initiatives are left unfinished. We assessed the situation and thought that what was most important was for the people to take up that call that President Chávez made at the time. So we defined our objective as the building of a communal socialist society, one that broke with the socialism that, unfortunately, as happened in Europe and other parts of the world, became bureaucratized and grew removed from the people. Today we are 120 communes nationally. Since it is an open expression of popular power, more and more are joining us. Not all communes participate in the network. Whether or not they join depends on what the majority of communers at their local levels want, whether they want to link up with a space beyond their local commune. But we knew that if we remained too local, it would threaten the construction of socialism.
AV: You said that in the beginning, people from diverse movements helped launch the network. What type of diversity is reflected there?
AJ: There are people from the guerrilla movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, people who came from cultural movements from thirty years back; from resistance movements, indigenous movements, people who came from the student movement, leftist revolutionary movements, from the Communist Party, PSUV militants, from other groups. But we achieve unity based on several criteria. A main criterion is that this struggle calls us to be united. Generally, in political parties, struggles and debates are more abstract than concrete. In this communal movement, we focus on finding those elements of everyday life that unite our struggles as a group of people with a broad array of experiences, even people who have never participated in any party or movement. This makes participation very rich because it’s diverse, and it allows exchanging experiences, forms of knowledge, forms of doing that we have from our everyday life. That greatly enriches the organization. And since it is a flexible organization, it’s not vertical, it’s a more horizontal organization where spokespersons debate, where they can be replaced, there’s not that strict, disrespectful link found in political parties or more static organizations.
AV: What is the network’s structure? How do you coordinate among the various communes?
AJ: We have a provisional structure. We have regional spokespersons, elected by communers in the network. But it’s not so rigid. There are one, two, sometimes three spokespersons, and they rotate. It’s a working group. There is a national meeting where over 400 spokespersons participate. There we define strategic aims, but also more concrete political goals and on that basis, we plan for the year. Meetings also take place when circumstances require it. We call an urgent meeting and spokespersons come. There is a national-level team of spokespersons, which I and two other others currently make up—from Caracas and from the interior—but it is not an official post but rather linkages that permit the flow of information and all of us to meet. But we don’t only have spokespersons. We are building the councils that the congress recommends. We have economic councils, organizational councils, training councils that just recently created a communer school. And we have pending a communications council that is about to meet, and a security and defense council. Once they’re ready, these five councils will form the structure of political organization of the network. Beyond those councils, we proposed a national system of communes. That is, no longer just communers with spokespersons to coordinate their actions, but the communes themselves articulated in an economic, political, and communicational system. Clearly, that will take more time, more effort, and we are building it.
AV: In general, outside Venezuela, communal councils are better known than communes. What is the relationship between communes and the councils?
AJ: Communal councils are the main component of the commune. Various communal councils, together with other organizations, make up a commune. It is a territorial council, made up of all the organizations in a specific area, as defined by the same citizens through an assembly. What has happened is that communes have had many hold ups in their formation, and that is why you hear about them less than communal councils, which also have a longer lifespan and more development. The commune requires a much greater effort. A communal council is a smaller space. Its aims are also narrower. The aim of the commune must be to govern that territory. Beyond government, that implies all areas of social life—economic, political, cultural, ideological. Of course, it’s a project that needs to be built in process. We say we are in the process of building communes. It will be a long time before it happens.
AV: There are examples of areas where people aligned with the opposition have organized communal councils as a mechanism to make demands upon the state, to exercise control over resources, etc. But doesn’t this pose a problem of scale when you speak of the communes? In territorial spaces where there may be communal councils aligned with the opposition and others aligned with the revolution, how are differences addressed?
AJ: The system allows for any community that wants to organize into communal councils, from any social class, to do so; it’s the law. The communal council is an open space of participation, where neighbors and citizens congregate regardless of their political position or ideology. However, in the commune, the majority decides. The citizens’ assembly holds debates, makes plans, and the majority of citizens decide. So differences are addressed at that level, through debate, discussion, and putting forth political proposals, and also more concrete, everyday proposals. Now, there are some basic principles in the commune. In my opinion, the people in the commune, as a government of the working class, cannot be exploiters. That is, the bourgeoisie can’t be in the commune, unless they assume class consciousness, the economic, political, and cultural principles of the commune, because the commune is more than just a large communal council—it is the government in that territory, and that government has a political orientation. And that orientation is socialism. There may be people in communal councils who are poor, who are not with the revolutionary process. But in the case of popular sectors, they are revolutionary subjects. We need to work so that they join the revolutionary process. That’s one of the tasks we have. I don’t think the bourgeoisie is more than 20%. So, the revolutionary subject is that whole social class that needs to sell their labor power to live. If they are not with the revolution, our revolutionary task, our role is to convince them through deeds. That is why the economic issue is so fundamental to build the commune. How do we generate different relationships and consciousness in that space, based on communal economic initiatives that make social property and possession?
AV: What role do communes play in the larger project of the Bolivarian Revolution?
AJ: President Chávez saw the commune as the main element of 21st century socialism, to make participation and protagonism real. Socialism must connect daily life to democracy—real democracy, not the bourgeois democracy that we have all been living in, and which is still our referent. It is necessary, then, this communal power that people are building with great effort and dedication. It gives us an auxiliary power in addition to the other powers. The idea is for the commune to be the center of a community, and for workers’ councils to be more and more incorporated into the commune. It would be like a republic of councils, of workers’ councils, campesino councils, communes, allowing the people to self-govern. That’s our historical objective: for the people to take up that project that we lost when colonizers arrived, and take up again their power to self govern. That is, communal power would be the central axis of socialism—if we are able to build it. It’s an enormous task that hasn’t proven possible in history, the creation of socialism from this perspective, that people govern, that people build, decide, plan, build their lives, a society of equals.
AV: From what you say, the government both promotes communes and conceives them as something that will surpass the state. What, then, is your relationship with the government?
AJ: This process is not free from contradictions, contradictions proper to life itself, if we see it from a dialectical point of view. President Chávez launched the idea of the commune and has promoted its construction. But we are also governing in a state that is liberal bourgeois. It’s the same state that existed before. It’s not a new state. In a similar way, the economic foundations of the country are the same: rentier capitalism. We still live off of oil rents, and that generates a rentier subculture among political elites and the people in general. So the contradictions come precisely because the Bolivarian Revolution arrives through peaceful means, it did not destroy everything and start from there. Instead we are governing with this state and have had to deal with the contradiction of governing in a state that we need to destroy. We are reinforcing the state that we need to undo. That generates a series of contradictions. Sometimes the same ministers lose sight of the objectives we have traced, and they defend the institutions we need to destroy as a people.
That tension, which is also present in everyday life, has generated a waning, an exhaustion in the population. Because even though we know that it exists, imperialism is not in our everyday lives. That is, evidently shortages are the product of those policies, an entire theater of operations in the world, but the Venezuelan people, in their everyday lives, what they see is a constant obstacle from institutions that are bloated, slow, bureaucratic, clientelistic. They prevent the objective that the revolution set forth from being accomplished. Even though we have major social accomplishments, in people’s everyday lives there are problem areas that reveal that contradiction and exhaustion. Our role as a popular movement is autonomous—because we are not tied to the state, government, or party. We understand that our historic role is to make the revolution. And if we are convinced of that, then we can’t simply be add-ons. We are protagonists in the process. So, from that fortress that is the government, its institutions, [the idea] that it’s from the state you make the revolution, tensions are generated between popular organizations that demand greater participation and protagonism—not just as masses but as key players, as active subjects in this process and a government that wants to assume leadership, and substitute that leadership with a whole bureaucratic apparatus. It’s a contradiction that we frequently face.
AV: Is autonomy necessary for communal power to function? Certainly outside Venezuela, one perceives a tension between government promotion and communal autonomy.
AJ: We believe that at this moment, more than ever, with the oil wealth model I mentioned and the type of state we have, our major effort and value is autonomy. But it’s not autonomy for its own sake. It’s not autonomy delinked from power or without a vocation to govern. We say autonomy, but we are dependent on the decisions of citizens’ assemblies in this movement. Autonomy to defend the objectives we have set for ourselves, to be united, to be as one. Autonomy to not become bureaucratized or clientistic. That’s our main principle and perhaps we’ve proceeded more slowly than other organizations, but with well planted feet because what we’ve built, we’ve built through our own strength. We say that everything the people build with effort and dedication endures. Otherwise, they become tools and elements that fail because they are not sustainable, because the people didn’t create them or feel them.
Sometimes it seems that the people are confronting the government because the organized people demand profound change, while the functionaries keep reproducing the repesentative bourgeois logic. This confrontation is not frontal, it's not public, but it is a latent scenario within the revolution.
AV: What are the major challenges you see ahead for the commune movement?
AJ: To start, we’ve set for ourselves the challenge of changing our structure of governance. That will generate progress in the level of consciousness of all its militants, not just within the network, but also in the rest of the political forces that exist, on the right as well as the revolutionary process itself. We also need to move towards the unification of the popular movement and the left—at first, to link with those who are disposed to do so. But beyond that, move towards the unification of the people, which at this time has gone through a process of disorientation and instability, as well as violent attacks from the right. We cannot continue to believe that ministries, that this state structure, if only we used it efficiently, can help us surpass this difficult stage. Because we also face a very difficult juncture, and it requires much more political precision and attention.
The network has been working to control the revolution, without much articulation with the government. That does not mean we expect autonomy. We believe the government must facilitate this process. That is, there must be spaces of articulation and coordination that, until now, haven’t been there. So there must also be contacts with other movements, like the indigenous movement, where grave things have occurred. We are betting on Nicolás [Maduro], who comes from the left, from labor struggles. We see that he is open to that. Our challenge is to make that rapprochement happen and create a new way of doing politics in this country where grassroots organizations that are truly organic can have a concrete expression. That is, that they can decide with regards to planning, administration, and execution, and not simply be receptacles of policies. Because the Venezuelan people who are organized demand as much. In this stage, we need to direct all our strength to a different form of government, a government of transition, not thinking that we are making the commune right now—that’s dreaming, like utopia. Instead, it must be a form of government where the different forces of popular power converge. And for Nicolás to be a spokesperson of that popular power that’s being built, and of the people in general. That’s an immense challenge we face.
The other challenge is the economy. It’s an issue of constant concern to which we need to inject science, participation, but above all technique. We need to continue to move towards an economy in transition to socialism. The political aspects of government administration won’t be enough if there isn’t a corresponding economy that rises, with a different social relationship that questions the society in formation, also toward socialism. We have several communal companies where we purchase directly, so we are making a heroic undertaking of new organization, of new relations. And it has gone very well, we have good organizational structures. Of course there is still a lot to do, because it is a seedling in a sea of capitalism. But in terms of social relations, of what we are creating, of what we can do, of what people feel capable of doing collectively, without capitalist interest in the way, we have many and interesting accomplishments.
Alejandro Velasco is Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at New York University’s Gallatin School. A historian, he writes and teaches on modern Venezuela. Transcribed by Julia Burnell; translated and edited by Alejandro Velasco.
Read the rest of NACLA's Summer 2013 issue: "Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?"