Outside of Venezuela, communes are a little known aspect of the Bolivarian Revolution, yet the development of the communal state is integral to the vision of 21st century socialism laid out by former President Hugo Chavez.
In this series, In Commune, Venezuelanalysis will explore different experiences of rural and urban communes to help better understand what these highly controversial bodies mean, how they have been put into practice, and what they could signify for the continuity of the Bolivarian Revolution in the current situation of political and economic imperialist aggression.
The Che Guevara Commune (Part 1)
In this chapter of In Commune, Venezuelanalysis visits the rural Che Guevara Commune, located in the Caracciolo Parra Municipality, between the frigid mountaintops of Mérida State and the steamy hot climates south of Lake Maracaibo.
This commune began to take shape ten years ago with the influence of the Ezequiel Zamora Campesino Front, now known as the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current, but today the commune has taken on a much broader identity with the participation of diverse historical and developing popular organizations from the territory.
The economic and productive system of the Che Guevara Commune has only started to take shape in the last two to three years, but it has quickly become a national reference based on the production of two major local crops, coffee and cocoa.
The most recently created productive unit is a communally owned company, called Che Guevara 2021, dedicated to processing cocoa and producing chocolate. Made up of mostly women, this company was born in 2014 with a collective effort to purchase a one hectare lot and a humble makeshift drying and fermentation room. After years of work with local farmers, the company received financing and technical support to build a high quality fermentation area, greenhouses for seedling production and a semi-industrial plant for chocolate production. The next step was trading the seedlings with local farmers in exchange for cocoa beans and soon the company was producing 250 to 400 kilograms of chocolate per week.
The Che Guevara 2021 chocolate company is not the only productive unit dedicated to cocoa. Its predecessor, the Equidad Cooperative, located in the area of the “La Redoma” Comunal Council, was already in the works when the commune was founded. It was created by local cocoa farmers and spokespeople of the communal council with the intention of providing a local outlet for the processing of cocoa, since most farmers were forced to sell the fruit to retailers who would process their products and sell the cocoa beans at much higher prices. However, unlike the Che Guevara 2021 company, the Equidad members do not aspire to industrial production of chocolate, but rather focus on promoting decentralized, small scale artisanal chocolate production with workshops for local farmers, schools, communal councils and nearby communes.
Located in the higher altitudes of the communal territory is another cooperative. This initiative, which is dedicated to coffee production and processing, likewise predates the Che Guevara Commune. The Colinas del Mirador Cooperative (COLIMIR) was founded in 2004 during the early boom of governmental promotion of cooperatives through the national training and financing program, Vuelvan Caras. However, when receiving government financing proved impossible, the cooperative quickly withered. A few newer associates later saw the cooperative as a space for solidarity and mutual benefit and dedicated themselves to it’s revival. They began by collaborating in the members’ coffee fields on a weekly rotating basis and organizing popular education programs. Years later, between the profits of their production and recently received government support, the cooperative has achieved a full production cycle with greenhouses for seedling production, land for coffee planting and harvesting, industrialized processing and transport.
Each of these productive units has seen the potential of moving beyond their own production and becoming part of the communal economic system. For the last two years, COLIMIR, The Che Guevara 2021 chocolate company and the Equidad Cooperative have been building a political and economic relationship which has allowed them to strengthen their productive processes, promote policies and projects with the government as well as support the development and well-being of their community.
Because of the altitudes and rough terrains of the territory, the Che Guevara Commune has historically had little to no meat production. Something that had not been an issue when gasoline, transportation and soaring prices were not as problematic as in the current context under US unilateral sanctions. The productive units of the Che Guevara Commune are now promoting a new culture of protein-based production with a program to provide youths and families with goats, sheep, pigs and fish ponds for reproduction and consumption, alongside permanent training and technical assistance.
Although formed in very different circumstances of the Bolivarian Revolution and their own communal territory, each of these productive units has been carefully developed to tend to the local needs, taking into account the full cycle of production, transcending issues of price speculation and scarcity of materials which often plague small scale productive units.
In the second half of this chapter of “In Commune,” we will explore how this economic and productive system has directly improved the quality of life and organization of the Che Guevara Commune.
The Che Guevara Commune (Part 2)
The Che Guevara Commune, located in the temperate foothills of the Andes mountains of Mérida state, has flourished in the last few years with the participation of important productive organizations from the area dedicated to chocolate and coffee. These organizations have contributed to the local economy by controlling the entire productive chain. This eliminates exploitative intermediaries, benefits local farmers, workers and cooperative associates while stabilizing the local economy. The communards attribute this model to their namesake, Ernesto Che Guevara, for his contributions to the development of a socialist economy based on budget planning.
The Che Guevara Commune’s economic planning has led the communards to create a local currency to sidestep the Bolívar’s continued devaluation. This system is based on the price of coffee and is called the “Cafeto.” The Cafeto is acquired through a deposit in the COLIMIR cooperative’s coffee bank, and can then be exchanged for goods and services from the communal productive units as well as communally distributed domestic gas.
The Cafeto has also allowed the Che Guevara Commune to interchange products with other organizations and communes outside their territory, including PROINPA (research lab dedicated to research and development of potato seeds) and El Maizal Commune from Lara State. Both organizations sell their products for Cafetos which they in turn exchange for coffee, chocolate or other services from the commune.
This process of economic and productive development of Che Guevara Commune has also seen the organization play a key role in the rising popular power organization, the Communard Union. Through its participation in the Communard Union, the Che Guevara Commune has expanded its economic and political reach both on a local and national level.
At the same time, the commune’s growth has meant a greater investment in the welfare, educational and social development of the local area. The COLIMIR Cooperative, for example, has financed the renovation of local schools. The Equidad cooperative holds weekly barter markets and donates a percentage of the profits for the financing of communal activities. For its part, the Che Guevara chocolate company provides local schools with chocolate so that children can taste the chocolate made from the cocoa grown on their own family farms.
However, the biggest contributions of the productive units are organizational. With US sanctions causing a lack of spare parts and fuel shortages, especially in rural areas, the communards have worked together to provide alternative solutions. This has meant forging agreements with the municipality such as providing transportation for students and teachers in exchange for a regular supply of fuel.
The communal productive units finance educational and social activities, as well as sporting events, directed at local youth. The objective is to provide them with a sense of identity and purpose and promote communal values. As a result, many local youths have incorporated themselves into sporting activities as well as the different productive units of the commune.
The Che Guevara Commune has demonstrated great capacity to unify its diverse local revolutionary forces and tackle the challenges in the current context of imperialist attacks and the subsequent economic and political turmoil. The experience of the Che Guevara Commune is evidence of the resilience which the communal system can provide, and the local communards have no doubt that they are writing a very important chapter in revolutionary history.
Previous episodes of “In Commune”
Episode 1: Altos de Lídice
Episode 2: Pancha Vásquez
Episode 4: Che Guevara (part 1)