Production and Conflict in El Maizal Commune

Commune or Nothing – Free Men and Free Land,” mural in El Maizal. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

In this article we examine the productive activities of El Maizal Commune, based on our visit in May. We also look at the relation between the commune and state companies, and explore the contradictions that emerge as the communal project moves forward.

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El Maizal Commune spreads over the states of Lara and Portuguesa, grouping 22 communal councils (10 in Portuguesa, 12 in Lara) and some 9000 people. Beyond its productive activity, the commune is a reference for its political activity, holding assemblies on a regular basis, having a very efficient communicational policy, and working as a reference for the Venezuelan communal movement, so that even foreign militants such as ourselves are drawn to the experience.

El Maizal has also conquered political space outside its territorial borders; for example, electing a member to the Lara legislative council in the elections of May 20. Nevertheless, the most important recent episode has been the controversial municipal election of December 2017, in which Ángel Prado, commune spokesperson and member of the National Constitutional Assembly, stood as a candidate.1 But the latter controversy has not held back the political project, the next step of which is the constitution of a communal city, alongside neighboring communes2, in the path to consolidating popular power in the territory.

Productive locomotive

The commune’s productive capacity has grown year by year. Out of the 2300 hectares of its territory, 900 are dedicated to its two main activities: 600 for the growth of corn and 300 for cattle raising. The agriculture company, which bears the name of Ezequiel Zamora, the 19th Century campesino revolutionary leader, focuses on growing corn, with production increasing steadily. In 2018 the goal was to sow, alongside small producers in the area, 1300 hectares and to harvest 9000 tonnes of corn.3

The company dedicated to cattle raising is named after communist guerrilla commander Argimiro Gabaldón, and it currently has 800 heads of cattle, some dedicated to the production of meat and the rest to milk and cheese. The levels of production, of course, fluctuate.

In addition to the production of corn, meat and milk we should mention the production of other goods by the commune or by associated campesinos in the area. This includes black beans, quinchoncho, pumpkins and other vegetables.

To top it off, the commune has another company, called Camilo Cienfuegos, that distributes PDVSA natural gas cylinders to 120 communal councils in Lara and Portuguesa. There is also a brick-production plant called Simón Bolívar, which makes bricks that have been put to use in the construction of 400 houses, a school, pavement and much more.

All this allows the population of the commune and those living nearby to acquire all these products at non-speculative prices through communal food fairs. This satisfaction of the population’s most basic needs is what sustains the political project of the commune.

Production of bell peppers in the greenhouses taken over from FONDAS and recovered by the commune. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

After our visit and conversations with several communards, it is no overstatement to claim that El Maizal is nothing short of a locomotive for production in this entire region. Its relation with neighboring small producers, around 80, is a good case in point. The commune has a credit model for production which consists in supplying seeds and supplies, preparing the land with its tractors, sowing and harvesting. The producer is then responsible for taking care of their plot and ensuring that the corn, or other product, grows.

At harvest the small producers keep part of the production for their own consumption, and everything else is gathered by El Maizal, to be sold in bulk, and a small percentage of this sale is kept to pay back the initial credit. Until recently the harvest was sold to the state’s silos, through the company Agropatria, but this will no longer be the case, as we will explain below. Similar credit agreements are in place for other products, for example, with coffee producers in the higher altitude areas.

During our visit we witnessed one of these agreements being hammered out “live.” With an almost hyperactive pace, Ángel Prado went over the peasants’ situation, reminded them of their responsibilities, and redacted the agreement document through which they would receive credit in the form of seeds and supplies. In the end a photo was taken to spread the news on social media, since these peasants are growing corn on land left idle, and the support of El Maizal is important to dissuade those who might consider coming to evict them.

The growth of El Maizal’s productive capacity has reflected itself in a growing conflict with Agropatria. This state company, nationalized by Chávez in 2010, is responsible for the supply of seeds, fertilizers and agrochemicals for agriculture. In the case of El Maizal, the relation with Agropatria meant that the latter would supply seeds and supplies for sowing, and in the end El Maizal would sell the harvest to the state. But it is a relation that has drifted towards conflict in recent times.

On the one hand, the fact that the harvest was handed over to Agropatria, which then goes on to sell it to other state or private companies, represents a contradiction with the communal project. That is because the construction of popular power in the territory involves taking over more means of production, which in this concrete case would mean that the commune itself would begin to process corn to produce cornflour. In the commune’s facilities there is a mill, and recently the building of an artisanal plant to produce pre-cooked flour was approved, with the capacity to process one tonne per day. However, the commune proposal to build an industrial plant to process 30 tonnes daily is still waiting for institutional approval.

It is not hard to see how a bigger productive and political capacity of the commune presents a threat to private interests and to those who defend such interests inside the state. The political coherence of the commune and its merciless attitude towards idle means of production threatens landowners and those that have become lax in their positions. Thus, in recent times, we have witnessed multiple acts of sabotage such as not handing out the necessary supplies for sowing.

These acts of “passive” sabotage go hand in hand with harassment from security bodies. Having not had access to the necessary supplies, and with a limited window of time for sowing, the commune was forced to buy supplies in the black market, where the Agropatria supplies were being sold! To top it all off, a unit from the Anti-extortion and Kidnapping National Command (CONAS) came to investigate and arrest Ángel Prado and two other communards for buying black market supplies! A swift campaign ensured their release. Shortly after, the nearest Agropatria facilities were occupied. This action revealed that seeds and supplies were being hoarded instead of being handed over to peasants, and thus a collective claim for restructuring the company emerged.

As a consequence of the actions of Agropatria, El Maizal is devoting part of its land to seed production, and in an assembly the commune decided that it would not sell this year’s harvest to the state or to private companies. Instead, it will put the harvest directly in the hands of the organized pueblo, through direct distribution initiatives such as Pueblo a Pueblo. In El Maizal, the conflict between constituted and constituent powers is not merely an academic matter, and the communards are not going to back down. This also reveals how fundamental it is to control the entire production chain, from the seed all the way to consumption.
Buffalo in the former UCLA facilities. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

“Ven a mi que tengo flor!”4

We had the chance to visit what was once an unproductive state project, taken over and recovered by the commune: the  greenhouses of Sabana Alta. Originally belonging to FONDAS (Socialist Agrarian Development Fund), only 12 of the 18 planned greenhouses were ever built. The existing structures were in a state of deterioration until the commune took over and had them handed over through a legal process. With much investment from the commune, there are now seven greenhouses functioning, producing cucumbers and bell peppers. These products grow in a matter of weeks and yield several harvests yearly.

The workers told us that this productive unit has the capacity to produce 100 tonnes of bell peppers per year. If we take into account the production of scallions and cilantro in garden beds, the project allows for a significant supply of vegetables to local communities at fair prices. The workers were eager to point out that the productive capacity still has plenty of room to grow, not just by restoring the remaining greenhouses and getting them producing, but also through qualitative advances, for example, by carrying out seed research.

A second case of occupation and rescue took place in the experimental unit of the Center-West Lisandro Alvarado University (UCLA). With an area of almost 100 hectares, the center had a few buffalo and dozens of Carora cows, an advanced genetic breed. When the commune recovered the practically abandoned facilities, the animals were dying and being stolen.

The cattle was recovered and, as we witnessed, there is now daily production of milk and cheese, which is still far from the maximum capacity of the milk-producing plant. We should add that a part of El Maizal’s cattle was taken over to the UCLA facilities after a “mysterious” fire that destroyed 200 hectares of grazing land during Ángel Prado’s electoral campaign in December 2017.

In the UCLA facilities, the communards also found a brand new, unused refrigeration system and laboratories that were never finished. The commune plans to get all this up and running soon. Another possibility being explored is fish farming (mainly of cachama) in the eight UCLA lagoons f, an activity which is now under way. We should point out that the commune has relied on the support of experts, some of them foreign (for example from Argentina) in this process of recovering the productive capacities of the formerly UCLA‐owned facilities.

Newborn piglets in the Argimiro Gabaldón unit, formerly Porcinos del Alba. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

The final and perhaps most significant example of a productive project recovered by El Maizal is the local Porcinos del Alba farm. This state company emerged out of an accord with Cuba, which established several pig-raising farms throughout the country. Nevertheless, in June 2017 the situation was catastrophic. The farm had been reduced to 400 pigs which were starving to death or being stolen, while animal feed was being hijacked before reaching its destination. Together with the project’s workers, the commune took over the farm, creating a company that is called Argimiro Gabaldón (like the above-mentioned cattle project). The animals were seen by vets and an agreement was struck with umbrella project of Porcinos del Alba.

Six months later, at the time of our visit, the situation was completely different. The 400 pigs had become over 3000, to the point where this farm was actually supplying other Porcinos del Alba centers. Nevertheless, these facilities have a still-to-be-reached operational capacity of 10000 animals. When we visited the farm (May 2018), we could see hundreds upon hundreds of healthy animals, including pregnant females and others that had just given birth. This center’s recovery has allowed the communities in the region to acquire animal protein at fair prices, which has been one of the main struggles during the economic war underway in Venezuela.

The main problem, as the communards told us, continues to be the access to animal feed. Based on soy, it is very expensive and there is sometimes a need to sacrifice animals due to the inability to feed them all. The animal feed should be supplied by the state, but the commune has repeatedly denounced that it has not received the agreed-upon quantities. Finally this past June there was a decision to sever ties with Porcinos del Alba and sell or sacrifice the majority of the pigs, keeping only those that can be fed until the commune is able to produce its own animal feed, which will occur after the corn harvest in a few months.

Going forward and confronting contradictions

In summary, we can say that land or productive units left idle in a radius of several miles around El Maizal commune, be it private or state-owned, are under threat of expropriation. To dispel all lingering doubts, we should point out that this is extremely positive! As opposed to the capitalist accumulation processes, nothing is being expropriated for the benefit of private individuals or groups. It is purely, and has been from the very beginning, a conflict between production based on human need and the sacrosanct character of private property.

Nevertheless, the conflicts between El Maizal and state companies (in these cases Agropatria and Porcinos del Alba) are manifestations of fundamental contradictions between the project of constructing socialism and the bourgeois state. It is undeniable that Chávez managed to lead the way, alongside the organized pueblo, in overcoming some of these contradictions, which is why the socialist hope remains alive in the midst of this unprecedented crisis. Nevertheless, other contradictions simmering under the surface, hidden by high oil prices and other causes, were simply postponed until they exploded.

Mural in El Maizal Commune. (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

When analyzing the Venezuelan situation, there is a tendency to point towards individual shortcomings: people selling products on the black market, managers that strike deals with big businessmen, and directors that misappropriate funds… All of this is grave, even more so when it becomes generalized, but it is an illusion to believe that the issue is purely a matter of ethics. Put another way, a monopolistic company such as Agropatria would function in an obvious way were it a private company. Yet for it to work as a state company, there is a need not just for careful planning and transparency from above but also for accountability from below. Otherwise, the tendency, which becomes worse in times of crisis, is to go on handing out supplies mainly to large producers and for workers to engage in black market activities.

The bourgeois state, be it in its institutions or companies, has an internal logic, which is for the most part vertical, with well-established hierarchies. This verticality becomes even more pronounced when management is in the hands of the military, which is the case for several state companies in the food and agriculture sector. Hence, there needs to be a constant effort to subvert this logic from the inside, because the structures are not designed for accountability from below, and even less so for the construction of popular power. We only need to recall that, when takeovers and rescues of land occur, the state, especially through the judicial sector and security forces, has been much more agile in acting in defense of the landowners than of peasants.

We do not want to promote the fantasy that one can move towards socialism on the margins of the state, ignoring its existence. But neither can we believe that everything will be solved by changing the management of state companies or providing new political orientations, which is not to say that there is not much that can be done in this regard. Only stronger worker and popular control in these companies (and along the entire productive chain), alongside other revolutionary measures, will allow a reorientation of the Bolivarian Revolution.

This is where the “Commune or Nothing!” slogan comes in. It is not a romantic chant or a childish demand to create a communal state by decree. It is a recognition of Chávez’s legacy and of his proposal for the construction of socialism. But beyond that, this is a rallying cry for all efforts to be put behind the communes and other popular power organizations. Because these are the sectors that have demonstrated, in the most difficult of circumstances, their political capacity and their ability to produce to satisfy the needs of communities near and far. With more resources, support, and power, communes like El Maizal can breathe new life into the revolutionary project.

• Originally published by Venezuelanalysis

• Source: Investig’Action

  1. After overcoming multiple obstacles, the commune managed to propose Ángel Prado as a candidate to the Simón Planas mayorship in the December 2017 elections. But his victory was not recognized and his votes were attributed to the PSUV candidate. There have been appeals filed before the National Electoral Council and the Supreme Court, but up to now there has been no decision. The interview with Ángel Prado (part I and part II) examines this struggle in greater detail. []
  2. The issue of the communal city is also discussed in detail in our interview with Ángel Prado (part I and part II). []
  3. Cornflour is used to make arepas, the most common food in the Venezuelan diet. []
  4. This is an expression from a Venezuelan card game, used by Chávez when referring to expropriations. []