A flagship commune in Venezuela responds to the US blockade by diversifying its production.
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 – to investigate 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 part of this three-part series, we talked to several communards about the impact of the sanctions and the creative solutions they have employed during the blockade. In part II, El Maizal’s workers explain the commune’s new production strategies and the importance of political education in these difficult times.
Family Production Units
El Maizal started the Family Production Unit program [henceforth UPF for its initials in Spanish] to offer support to small producers in the context of the crisis.
José Bonilla: The Family Production Units initiative formally began in 2020, when the commune’s Economy and Production team designed an integrated plan to finance and support small producers. For a few years now, campesinos from around the area, who are affected by the crisis, have been coming to El Maizal for support. The commune has always tried to help them, but just last year we developed a program to respond to their needs, which has been very effective.
Any family in the communal city territory that is interested in producing can be part of the UPF program, whether it’s to grow corn, beans, or vegetables, or to raise cattle and pigs.
The program works as follows: producers receive implements, seeds, and fertilizers. Some might get a breeding sow or one or two heads of cattle. We always give them technical mentoring and training – including visits from our veterinarian, if they receive animals. They also can get animal medicines from El Maizal. Finally, if a producer needs something that we can’t offer at a given time, such as a sack of fertilizer, the commune will offer them a loan.
The UPFs later reimburse the commune with a part of what they produce, which they deliver to the commune’s Armando Bonilla Distribution Center. From there, it goes to the communal stores.
The UPF program has been very successful in that it has brought us closer to small producers in the area of the communal city. Although the program was born to offer alternatives to small producers during the crisis, it’s here to stay because it’s an effective policy both for increasing production and fostering ties with the community.
The UPFs are a model that strengthens the commune throughout the whole area while offering a good alternative for producers in these times when sanctions are hitting us hard and stifling production.
Yohander Pineda: El Maizal Commune has twelve communal production units, including large-scale crops of corn, beef and dairy cattle, pig farming, and food processing. These units are the productive heart of the commune. Still, in recent years we have been developing a new strategy of resistance in the face of sanctions: the UPFs.
The idea is that El Maizal will foster family production projects. Through the Communal Bank, we provide small credits and coordinate their access to seeds, tools, herbicides, and even cattle or breeder sows to small independent producers in the area of the communal city. We do this to foster production here, and the small producers have proven to be very efficient in the face of the crisis. Since 2020, the commune has financed 315 UPFs. In return, the UPFs reimburse the commune with a percentage of their production.
We also promote small family gardens that grow cilantro, zucchini, eggplant, spring onions, and other vegetables. At a time when many people have difficulties purchasing food, these gardens can be very important.
I should add that the UPFs don’t just receive seeds, agricultural inputs, and cattle. El Maizal also offers training and technical mentoring.
El Maizal’s Communal Bank coordinates the initiative, and it’s working out very well. It has helped boost small-scale production and build stronger ties between El Maizal and the small producers in the area.
Windely Matos: In El Maizal, we try to promote unity within diversity. That is why during the last two years we have been working with small-scale family units, which are now associated with the commune.
The program directly benefits the families, and it also helps the commune since part of the production goes back to the Armando Bonilla Distribution Center.
Of the 24 communal councils in El Maizal’s territory, 15 are now participating in the UPF program, and we hope the number will continue to grow.
We conceived the UPFs in the context of the sanctions: it is a project that stimulates production in the area. As more and more people are producing their own food, the program is partly displacing the market forces operating here. The UPFs are reactivating small-scale production at a time when people really need it!
Political and technical education at El Maizal Commune
The communards at El Maizal believe that more study and debate are needed to respond to the crisis and the blockade. That is why the commune is putting a lot of effort and many resources into its ideological and technical school.
Bernadino Freites: For me, there is one secret to surviving the blockade with integrity: formation. The Soviet Union cracked under pressure. Why? Because they did not maintain their political horizon in clear view. Meanwhile, Cuba, a small island, continues to resist the longest blockade in history after the fall of the Soviet Union. I think ideological formation is the key to their survival.
Chávez had a huge commitment to popular education. Early on, he turned to Fidel for help with education: thousands of Venezuelan men and women went to Cuba in the early days of the Bolivarian Process. I had the privilege to go there with the Francisco de Miranda Front [a youth education project that was important in the early years of Chavismo]. I eventually left the Front, but the process changed me forever.
Chávez also talked about the need to build a political education school for the PSUV. In fact, at one point, there were many schools: the PSUV had its own, many of the government’s ministries had them, and Venezuelan governorships had such schools too. Now they are all gone. Why is that? Nobody in power likes to be questioned, and critical thinking promotes that.
I’m actually very proud that here at El Maizal we have a political and technical school. Young men and women are preparing themselves. They are learning how to think critically, and about Chávez’s legacy. We are pouring time and resources into the school because we believe that educational formation is the only way to resist the blockade with integrity.
Pineda: Political education is very important to us. I could even say that, apart from production, it is our main focus. El Maizal has a technical and political school that aims to prepare producers who are committed to communal development. We want to do things better, to be part of a sovereign nation that produces its own food, but we don’t want to be dependent on the state. All that requires us to improve ourselves technically and ideologically.
In the struggle for life to go forward under this criminal blockade, political formation is very important. We have to study, we have to understand how imperialism operates, on the one hand, and how reformism organizes itself, on the other, so that we won’t get demoralized.
In the school we have studied the Chinese communes, and we took a month-long course on Che Guevara’s Budgetary Finance System, which made us rethink the way we do things here at El Maizal Commune.
Finally, because it works in collaboration with the Communard Union, offering courses to communal initiatives around the country, the school has brought us closer to other organizations, and we are learning a great deal from their experiences as well.
Jennifer Lemus: Having come to the commune around 2011, I can say that El Maizal has been a school for me. I have learned not only about agriculture, organizing, and cooperation, but also about political theory and political economy.
However, beyond my own formation process, here at El Maizal we believe that political and technical education is central to our project. Our school began to take shape some three years ago, in the midst of the crisis, and it has become an important component not only for the commune, but also the Communard Union.
The school helps us unite with other communes and with social movements around the country. Although it is based here, it has become a school for people from communes around the nation. It also has international links, since our comrades from the MST [Brazil’s landless workers movement] are helping with the project.
We are convinced that consciousness comes from the combination of labor and political education. Here, at El Maizal, we don’t work only for our salary, though it’s certainly important, but for a whole project. The school breaks with the routine of work, and it gives us tools to understand why we work and how we should work.
The crisis has demoralized many people. More than few have lost hope because they don’t see a way forward. We are privileged in that sense, having been able to keep our strategic project in view. The school has helped us a great deal in that regard. In fact, it has brought many people back into the fold of the communal project. That is a source of satisfaction, because the commune is, after all, Chávez’s most important legacy: when he said “Commune or Nothing!” we took it at face value.
Our school is not only political, but also technical. As I speak, there is a technical course underway. Young kids from the [nearby] towns of La Miel, Sábana Alta, Sarare, and their environs are learning about productive processes: our veterinarian is teaching them how to care for pigs and cattle. They’re also learning about field crops and greenhouse production, among other things.
The technical side of the school shows the local youth that there are options in life. They don’t need to leave Venezuela. Sadly, many young people have abandoned the country not only because of the crisis, but also because they feel there are no alternatives.
The school has grown along with the commune. If El Maizal Commune has to make sacrifices to sustain the school, we will do it. As a country, we have learned the hard way how a crisis can affect people’s subjectivity. The impact of the sanctions is devastating, particularly if people are not able to analyze the situation. That is why we are taking Chávez’s ideological project very seriously.
Matos: Our technical and political school is very important, and it has really blossomed in recent years. A great many people have gone through it, including youth from Simón Planas [El Maizal’s township], but also people from around the nation who are working on grassroots productive projects and organizations, especially from the Communard Union.
The school trained a great many political and technical cadres who are now leaders of various productive projects and social organizations, here and elsewhere. Most of them are very young, some are as young as 17! This is quite extraordinary for those of us from the older generation. It is wonderful to see youth committed to the dream that Chávez entrusted to us.
Recovering land and other means of production
El Maizal’s communards talk about recent efforts to recover land and other means of production in the context of the crisis. In accordance with Chavez’s thinking about the commune, these projects involve self-government and new productive relations based on social property.
Ángel Prado: The towns here are named after the heads of the moneyed families that once owned these lands. This area suffered immensely following the 1961 land reform carried out by Acción Democrática [a corrupt socialdemocratic party], which really benefited the rural oligarchy.
When Chávez died and the economy started to deteriorate, the government became rife with internal struggles. There were even rumors Maduro was going to fall. The landowners that had previously monopolized the land in Venezuela – but had lost ground under Chávez – now began to feel stronger. They wanted to take back the means of production. Unfortunately, they have been pretty successful in doing so recently, throughout the country. They actually attempted to do the same with El Maizal, but here they failed miserably!
Now, one thing about this old landed oligarchy is that they don’t just want to take control of the land. Above all they want to wipe out the new culture and new forms of struggle that we learned with Chávez. They want to eradicate the idea of popular organization…
When it became clear that they were trying to roll things back, we evaluated the situation and decided to go on the offensive. We read about the Cuban Revolution during the blockade, when Fidel Castro launched an offensive in the face of the imperialist assault. We thought: let’s apply Fidel’s formula. If they try to take over a mean of production, we’ll take three. If having means of production – let’s say a herd of cattle, or a corn field, or some other productive project – could provide us with economic resources needed to overcome the crisis, then we’ll take it!
That is how in 2017 we started to take over a number of productive projects including Maisanta [former UCLA agrotechnical campus], Josefa Camejo [former UPEL agrotechnical campus], and Porcinos del Alba [pig farm, now Porcinos El Maizal].
Of course, the commune’s activity in the region faced resistance. Between 2016 and 2018, the local oligarchy threatened us. Also, the villages in the area were semi-feudal, and there were attempts to displace the campesinosfrom their homesteads so that the monopolies that hold large extensions of the best land in this country could take it back. The commune had to offer support to the small producers here so that they would not be run off the land.
This land here is very fertile. We are between foothills and plains, and there are vital aquifers that nourish our fields. This is a fertile territory with great potential for agriculture and that is why many eyes are set on it.
Pineda: In 2017, we took over the technical campus of the UCLA [Universidad Centroccidental Lisandro Alvarado] in Simón Planas. That satellite campus had classrooms, land, industrial refrigerators, and other agro-technical facilities. However, the facilities had been abandoned for years and were in very poor shape. People from the community were asking us to rescue the land and buildings, which we did.
Now it’s under communal control and currently hosts El Maizal’s political education school, but we also jumpstarted production there, particularly cheese making. Additionally, there is a tilapia farm there which is in its early stages.
We were very active in 2017. Tthat year, we also took over Porcinos del Alba. It had been a private pig farm that the government nationalized around 2010. By 2017, the management had practically abandoned the project. Despite it having the capacity to raise 7000 animals, there were just over 300 starving pigs there. The commune recovered the plant hand-in-hand with the workers, and now it’s a communal production unit.
Since then, we have been able to increase production at Porcinos El Maizal. Now at the service of the people, it has certainly had its ups and downs, mainly because the takeover generated friction with certain sectors of the government, and that has made access to animal feed difficult.
Pedro Feo: In 2017, Porcinos del Alba was practically abandoned. It was then that the workers themselves went to Ángel Prado asking that El Maizal take it over and save the project. The plant had been under state control, but it was about to collapse as a result of the crisis, the institutional apathy, and corruption. The takeover was a popular undertaking carried out by the workers and the commune together, but it generated some friction with government institutions.
Little by little we have been able to recuperate production, although we still have problems getting animal feed, which is expensive. The government recently gave us some help, but we don’t want to be dependent, so we are experimenting with new methods to produce feed at the Camilo Torres plant [an El Maizal communal production unit]. We are looking for an alternative to the commercial products, but we are still short of being able to produce a fully balanced feed.
If we can solve the animal feed bottleneck and also begin implementing artificial insemination, then we will be able to advance towards producing 7000 animals, which is the plant’s maximum capacity.
The year 2017 was a period of communal expansion. El Maizal also recovered the UCLA’s agro-technical satellite campus that year. That campus, with its vast lands for cattle grazing and other facilities, had also been abandoned for years. When the commune took it over, everything was in terrible shape. Much of the equipment had been stolen, and the few surviving cows were uncared for and malnourished.
Over the years we have been able to salvage some of its facilities, and we now have 40 cows there of the Girolando breed for dairy production. Additionally, we have reactivated a tilapia farm and two of the campus’s six walk-in refrigerators are now working. We are using them to store seeds. We are also reactivating a tilapia farm.
Furthermore, the UCLA’s school rooms are now the classrooms for our technical and political school. In effect, we restored them to their original purpose: young people from the community and from around the country come here to learn.
Finally, Maisanta [El Maizal’s name for the former UCLA’s campus] now offers medical attention to the community. As you can see, we are in a remote area, and many people here are very poor. Recently we remodeled and refurbished two rooms to set up a communal medical center. Every Saturday more than 40 people from the community come here to get free medical attention. We offer general medicine, pediatrics, odontology, and traumatology, all free of charge. This helps build stronger ties with the community.
Prado: The commune is a struggle of the pueblo. And the pueblo doesn’t just produce, participate, and defend the project. The people also aspire to have popular control and self-government in the whole territory: that is one of the strategic objectives that Chávez laid out.
Here in El Maizal people are struggling for the symbolic (and real) control of the territory. People here are organizing. The Chavista struggle for justice in these rural areas won’t stop.
Featured image: Jennifer Lemus (Venezuelanalysis)
(Venezuelanalysis) by Cira Pascual Marquina and Chris Gilber