A unique popular leader takes us on a tour of Venezuela’s past and present that combines poetry, theory, and history.
Carlos Carles is one of the key figures in Comunidades Al Mando/Proyecto Nuestra America (Communities Leading/Latin America Project), a combative, multidisciplinary organization that was founded, according to Carles’ poetic interpretation, some 527 years ago. Comunidades Al Mando operates in diverse spheres, from productive projects (running bakeries, chocolate workshops, and fishing programs) to local defense schemes. In this interview, Carles works to show how past struggles point the way to future emancipation.
The Bolivarian Process is often seen as a messianic event: Chavez arrived and he made the revolution. However, your interpretation of the Bolivarian Process is quite different. For you, Chavez and the revolution are the outcomes of a long history in which the struggles of indigenous peoples, campesinos, barrio dwellers and factory workers all converge. Can you explain your version of the Bolivarian Revolution?
On YouTube, you can find a video of a conversation I had with President Chavez. That happened when the Patriotic Pole was founded. I told him, “You are our spokesperson and you are our own construction.” Indeed the Bolivarian Revolution and Chavez himself are the children of the Social-Historical Current [name given to the totality of historical struggles as they shape the present, coined by the Venezuelan organization “Desobediencia” in the 1990s]. Both the person and the revolution are collective products. They are the work of factory workers, campesinos, fishermen, homemakers, etc.
The Social-Historical Current aims to build a counter-hegemonic force that can confront the dominant ideologies, and that is where Chavez comes in. Picking up on Paulo Freire and Marx, ideology is false consciousness; it’s about the oppressed and the exploited reproducing the societal model of the exploiter.
In our present, when we face the dominant ideology’s repertoire – which promotes doctrine – we open the doors to critical thought – which promotes consciousness: awareness of the self without doctrine, without ideology.
We steer away from positivism, but we also steer away from postmodern thought while recognizing that it has left its footprint on us. Every time that we talk about the popular assembly, every time that we concern ourselves with Mother Earth, or when we understand the direct struggle against the occidental model that was imposed itself through blood and fire, then we are immersed in our native current, the current of indigenous resistance.
We were brought here by force, we came from where the sun rises. In recognizing this, we return to our motherland, to black Africa. There will be no liberation process without recognizing in us the sound of the African drums, in their culture that is here [pointing to his chest]. We are the river that brings together the tributaries of indigenous and maroon resistance. All that comes together with Latin America’s emancipating sword, which is the sword of General Petion [general who led Haiti’s independence struggle]. It is the sword that Petion passed on to Bolivar [Petion armed Bolivar’s expedition to eastern Venezuela in 1816].
We also draw from Liberation Theology, where the poor person is the prophet of his or her own liberation. In our faith, we take on the project of Christ-the-liberator and his purifying blood, the blood of insurrections, and with a rifle in our hands as the ELN compañeros do in the mountains of Colombia…
We are indigenous resistance, warlike maroons, and liberation Christians. We are the current against barbarism, against occidental barbarism. Between socialism and barbarism, we are with Rosa Luxemburg, with socialism. We subscribe to Gramsci’s [project of building] counter-hegemony, we are Marxists. Up with Lenin, down with Leninists! Long live Trotsky, death to Trotskyists!
Our current flows as part of the river of critical Latin American Marxism, which means that we cast our lot with the oppressed… We believe that in Marxism one finds the most fundamental clues in the struggle against capital, imperialism, and its lackeys. And when I say imperialism I’m talking about the oil lobby, mass media corporations, financial cartels and, of course, the military-industrial complex. All in all, just a few families!
As I was saying, we are the convergence of the humble folk, the workers, the campesinos and the barrio dwellers. We are the people that struggle to make ends meet: the people that have nothing to lose and a whole world to build!
We are also Bolivarian and we are the warriors of Ezequiel Zamora, the one who gave us the phrase “Freedom for the land and for men.” We are also, with Simon Rodriguez (who said “We either invent or we err”), creators of the new understanding. We are the magnanimous victors of the Battle of Ayacucho, the ones who freed these lands from colonialism. We are those who dance with Bolivar in the midst of Peruvian xenophobia, convinced that it is possible to build a world where all worlds fit, a world for those who are world-makers.
We are the current that has been forged in the crucible of history. Chavez is part of our current.
On that rainy day of 2012 [in his end-of-campaign speech], Chavez evoked and named our roots: “We are indigenous peoples in resistance,” he said, “rebellious maroons, revolutionary Bolivarians, libertarian Christians.” At that moment, Chavez was conjuring up the counter-hegemonic thinking of the Social Historical Current, of the current that struggled against colonialism and racism, against domination and repression and that blinded the world with its light on the 27th of February [day of the “Caracazo” in 1989].
Look, we accompanied Chavez since 1994, in the streets and inside the government, but fundamentally in the streets, in the barrio, in the factory, in the rural areas, in the mountains… and I know that the coming together of our struggles is what made Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. We made a myth. “There is a living myth there”… those were the words one heard in the streets in 1994, when Chavez began his journey across this land.
When Chavez came out of prison in 1994, were you there with him?
Yes, I was there. We didn’t walk by his side when he decided to keep company with Luis Miquilena [one of Chavez’s close advisors in the early days of his presidency] and the April 11 traitors. But after that, we walked together again. Chavez had the beautiful ability to look into the eyes of people and feel their pain. He connected with and understood the people.
Chavez is a person from our own ranks who managed – in the times of the PRV [Party of the Venezuelan Revolution] – to infiltrate what has today been reborn as the Bolivarian Army. We built Chavez, we got him to infiltrate the hierarchies, and he became our boss! Quite a feat!
The pueblo-as-constituent-power was a key idea in the early years of the Bolivarian Process. That proposal survives in places where there is direct democracy and popular power such as the communes, but the state institutions seem to have put it on hold. Do you think that the idea of the people as constituent power – as against the state’s constituted power – is still a relevant idea?
“Who says that it isn’t here” [“Quién dice que no es aquí”] is the name of both a poem and a newspaper that we published in 1994. In the poem, Bolivar gives a flower to Manuela [Saenz] and Charlie Chaplin, with his gestures, shows the possibility of another world. Then the poem goes on to question those who subscribe to a stagist vision because the creative powers of the people [in a reference to Venezuelan revolutionary singer Ali Primera] are now activated…
The main essay in that newspaper was called, “From dystopia to the Bolivarian utopia,” and it was written by Hugo Chavez. It dealt with the ideas for a constituent process. Today, more than 25 years after, we continue to say that the heart of the constituent power is in the day-to-day struggle. It’s in the streets, and it’s the potential that the poor have for constituting their reality in education and satisfying their basic needs, be they material, affective, recreational or cultural.
Now, we say (just as we said then) that the National Constituent Assembly is a hostile barrier; constitutionalism goes against constituent power and the constitution, even though it was useful as a toolbox, is a hurdle to emancipation…
That’s the case even for our current constitution! We questioned it as early as the year 2000, months after its approval, because it is a contract and Miquilena left his footprint there with his idea of the policlassist revolution – an agreement of sorts between the powers that be. Obviously that [idea] went against those of us who struggle for socialism, for a just and egalitarian world without exploitation and without domination. The 1999 constitution and the one that is being developed now are practically useless for us, useless for the urgent tasks at hand.
“Machete in hand” as General Zamora would say… That is the only way that the poor can advance towards a world of justice, towards making our own history. Our path is the path of the communities, the trail of “viento y memoria, fiesta y candela” [“wind and memory, gathering, and fire,” a trilogy key to Carles’ interpretation of the revolution]. We say wind and memory because tomorrow, the future, is the product of the past. The future is the creation of the people that have shaped their history with their blood.
The memory of what we were as societies, as peoples, as a nation and the memory of our battles in the forest, at sea, in the rivers, and sometimes closer to society – all those battles make us. Eighty-five percent of the people in this territory didn’t know domination because they wouldn’t bow down [to the victors]. They lived through war, but they never submitted. The battle against the system flourished in our cumbes, our palenques, and our quilombos [communities settled by escaped slaves].
And yes, the memory of struggle but also the fiesta, which is integral to our culture. Whenever we succeed, by means of protests, at getting water for the barrio, or when our neighbor graduates from high school, then we throw a party. Or when a bureaucrat blocking the creation of a commune is removed from his position as an outcome of our mobilization, then we throw a fiesta.
The wind stands for memory’s connecting thread. But the wind is gossipy, it goes and it comes back, while the fiesta is the natural space of popular organization. It is always there. We organize ourselves to dance, to drink, and to cook the sancocho [collectively made stew or soup]… Everyone puts something in the pot: someone a piece of chicken, others some yuka, or leek, or onion, or pepper. Everyone gets together and contributes.
That is the fiesta. The candela is lit when the path forward is closed to us. It is struggle and mobilization as the Ecuadorian people are doing now. It is an insurrectional process that opens the way for our history.
The initial spark for the Bolivarian Revolution seems to have come from the urban barrios. However, today we find that campesinos are at the center of the popular Chavista struggle. Do you think that the campesino struggle could lead to the Venezuelan people recovering a combative attitude?
The legacy of [campesino leader Ezequiel] Zamora includes concepts such as “Freedom for the land and for men,” “Popular election,” “Horror to the oligarchy!” and “Tremble oligarchs!” These slogans continue to be driving ideas for the Venezuelan pueblo.
If we look at the confrontation that is taking place over the whole planet, the confrontation between empire and nation cannot be separated from the one between capital and labor. That brings us to the issue of the [revolutionary] subject. In Latin America, there is a subject that does not coincide with the definition found in the classics. The epicenter of the Bolivarian Revolution was, is, and will continue to be in the communities. The communities are our class’ integral space. We are all there, partner and wife, hunger and nourishment, factory worker and campesino. We all fit, with the exception of the oligarchy or the parasitic bourgeoisie…
The campesino communities and the Caracas barrios are united in their struggle. If you take a look at the barrio, most of its dwellers are of campesino origin. Those of us who come from the barrio all have a grandmother or an uncle who comes from the campo. When we have our holidays, we go back home to Barinas, to Lara, to Yaracuy, to Barlovento, to Apure.
Now, however, something is reaching the boiling point in the campo. We accompanied the Admirable Campesino March and the INTI takeover, and when the time came, we broke police barricades. When faced with our acts of rebelliousness and demands for justice, the deviant elements present in the government spoke out calling us “mafioso campesinos,” “the disoriented left.” That is what we are in their words, whereas they are, also in their own expression, the “revolutionary bourgeoisie.”
So I would say that it is in the communities where a new subject is being built. That is where our destiny is being forged. We, the ones in the street, we are the outlaws… When Evo [Morales] and the Aymara people led the struggle against the privatization of water in Bolivia, when the cocaleros and their union took to the streets, that isn’t the classical subject. It’s not the working class as Marx knew it. We must make a new interpretation… All that means also that we have our own forms of struggle.
The Aymara, the Quechua, the Aztecs, the Incas, they preserved themselves, but the Caribes died fighting. “Let the Spanish come, let them see how the last free man dies in these mountains,” that is what Cacique Guaicaipuro [indigenous leader who resisted Spanish colonization in what we now know as Venezuela] cried out. The Caribes, the peoples in this territory, fought till the end. There was no alternative: we live free or die. That is how the Venezuelan people still struggle today.
On the 27th of February , we screamed the most libertarian word that history has ever known: “looting!” With that, we bid goodbye to the gods of political parties, the market, and the state. We said goodbye to the sacrosanct notion of private property, and we began to pave the way for the future, shining the way forward with our blood on the steps in the barrio. “Damned is the soldier that turns his weapon against his people, he will have no right to a homeland nor a flag,” that is what Bolivar said.
After the Caracazo, Hugo Chavez rose up in the army’s ranks to resurrect the Bolivarian character of the army. He did so in our company.
How do you understand the correlation of forces within the revolution today?
We are faced with a non-conventional war that has elements of a proxy war, as my dear comrade Carlos Lanz would say. There is a cultural, communicational, social and economic war underway. It’s an all-around war, which does not distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. That is the kind of war that we are facing.
The situation of Venezuela in the global context of class struggle is very complex. This is unavoidable, because we are a rebellious people standing on top of the world’s biggest oil reserve. Fifteen of the most important nineteen minerals are under our feet. Also, we are in the North of the South, in a strategic and geographically-privileged space of inter‐capitalist struggle.
How does that express itself in the territory? On the one hand, we have an opposition that represents elite interests. They are servile lackeys, pro-yankee sellouts. They are the continuation of the Fourth Republic [oligarchic representative democracy in place from 1958 to 1999]. This opposition is the vehicle of opprobrium and lies, and it will never return to power in Venezuela.
On the other hand, there is the party‐government, which is a player but is full of contradictions, sometimes trading in neoliberal policies. There is a class struggle there, but elite interests operate as well. You can find different tendencies in the government, from militarists to pragmatics to liberals, and there are even some left tendencies within. In that sphere, there is a chess game underway.
Both the opposition and the party‐government are sustained by the invisible anthill, those who in the end carry out all human constructions, the humble ones, the working people, the ones who struggle. The invisible anthill is forging the possibility of the future, as we speak. We are the ones who aren’t waiting for socialism to drop from heaven. We are making socialism through struggle.
We are at the crossroads where the humble people get together to build a future.
Comunidades Al Mando is an organization with a long history, in which it has engaged in a variety of struggles, and has a combative and grassroots way of doing politics. As a key member, can you tell us more about the organization’s history and practices?
Comunidades Al Mando can be explained with an African proverb: “small people, doing small things, in many small places.” When we all come together, we can transform the world. We gather and organize at a local level as an expression of popular power. At the national level, we work in “areas for reinforcing dignity.” At the continental level, we follow Bolivar’s strategy. Our continental project is now present in fifteen countries in Latin America as Comunidades Al Mando/Proyecto Nuestra America.
We also have five platforms. The first is the productive one. We have built community bakeries, workshops for making homemade chocolate, embroidery classes, and tourist lodges. We also organize small-scale fishing and fish farming, and we began working in urban agriculture much before it became a fashion. We have subsistence farms where we grow chickens, pigs and goats. There we also produce seeds and foodstuffs.
Another one of our platforms is the communicational one. We are the creators of AMNCLA, the National Association of Community Media, which broke up a few years ago. Eighty percent is the state’s responsibility, and twenty percent is ours. AMNCLA was intended to be a communication infrastructure that excluded both the private sector and the state. That strategy was defeated, and we are attempting to relaunch a free system of communication with radio production units, audiovisual production and distribution spaces, communication schools, and popular technology units.
Still another area of work is at the local or community level. We think that there can be no commune if there isn’t a comprehensive plan or project that is based on new horizons, understands our class enemies, and projects a new social model toward the future. The way that we organize, produce, distribute, and communicate – all that must prefigure the new society.
We are also operating in the area of defense. We just had some work sessions with 300 aviation cadets and our folks had shooting precision of eighty to eighty-five percent, while the cadets were at about sixty percent. We have a revolutionary tactic and strategy for resistance: the war of all the people.
Our popular militias, which do not wear uniforms, are another area of work. I’m talking about the militia that accompanies the common people including the grandmother who sells coffee, the kids that prepare the Molotov cocktails and the mortars. All this comes from the tradition of the Tupamaros in Uruguay, Colombia’s M19, Fallujah [in Iraq], and the 1989 rebellion in the streets of Caracas. It is a new kind of military scenario, and it’s growing. Really, it’s the only way to defend and advance.
And as I said, all this comes with a continental perspective. In Nuestra America, dreaming is possible, dreaming is a way of expressing love… That is why we have a Bolivarian front, a Caribe front, a Southern front, a Center North front. We cast our lot with the humble people. For us all this is not about state diplomacy, but about popular solidarity.
Those are the Comunidades al Mando fronts. We don’t look up for what has to be built from below. We are not looking to destroy but to build. We don’t want to win but rather to convince. We want to advance but have no desire to impose.
We are trying to build a world for those who believe in the world. We are part of a continental struggle that goes from Chiapas to the Southern Cone, and we are part of the Social Historical Current resisting together with the world’s peoples, creating a more just society and calling for a debate in the still-to-come Fifth Communist International.