Published July 19 in Sputnik News. Translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau. Lightly edited by WW staff.
Women in Caracas slums have a plan. They are setting up an economic system that allows them to ensure that food arrives directly from producers to their tables. Organization is key; it is what they are calling people’s power.
“It looks like a star-spangled horizon at night. If you could see it when the lights are switched on,” says a commune member on the roof of an unfinished house in the La Libertad neighborhood in southern Caracas. It’s in the area where the hills of the poor meet green mountains, at the border at the end of the city. As usual, there is a class and political geographic division. The heights belong to the poorest — most of them Chavistas [named for late president Hugo Chavez]. The lower areas are for the lower-middle classes who are, in general, opponents of the government.
The commercial epicenter is in the lower part; a street roundabout in a neighborhood district is the most important area. Everything you need can be found there. There, the problem is about prices, as in the rest of the country. There you find retail stores, supermarkets and grocery stores. And there is a corridor in a small shopping mall where the seat of the System of Communal Socialist Economic Initiative [“the System”] was set up a month ago.
This store has packages of cornmeal, coffee, sugar, salt, laundry soap bars and shelves stocked with butter and buttermilk. There is little left. Almost all of it has been distributed, and [the commune members] are waiting for a new shipment. The previous shipment had around 14 tons of goods. This one will be bigger and will include two new products: bars of soap and wheat flour.
“One of the plans is to prove that when people are organized, mobilizing, aware, they can face the war and help to preserve the revolution and build it with concrete actions,” says commune member Yaritza Navarro, while surrounded by several women.
The System began three months ago. The need for it appeared earlier when it was evident that major problems with pricing were due to the monopoly of several products, the chain of intermediaries and speculation on behalf of many traders. The question was always how to transform the diagnosis into action.
The starting point was the conviction to move on with self-organization and the certainty of doing it while having the support of the state — or not. How do you start when you do not have capital in a scenario like Venezuela’s current economy?
The diagnosis went like this: There are rural communes producing foods, and there are urban communes willing to buy them. It is necessary to build a system of a communal economy where food goes directly from the first one to the second, while at the same time staying in charge of the final distribution and pushing intermediaries and traders aside.
Communal economy begins with coffee
The commune members started with 1,000 kilograms of coffee obtained on credit. The hardest part was to convince the commune, located in the state of Lara in the country’s western area, to send that amount without prepayment, while taking care of the transportation as well. Both confidence and the legitimacy of the communes meeting in Caracas were decisive. Taking its first step, the System brought together 13 communes in one district of Caracas.
The second step was to receive the coffee without yet having a storage center. It is now open in the small shopping center. Each commune was in charge of distribution and sales, gathering the money and paying the coffee-growing commune. This primed the mechanism that allowed them to get their first capital and coffee surplus.
“With that surplus we took the risk of more links with producers and other food staples,” Yaritza explained. In a scenario of currency devaluation, the women decided to reinvest in more products, as it’s better to have food than money. They used the surplus on an essential tool: a communal truck, as theirs was broken and they did not have money to repair it.
People’s power in action
The System of Communal Socialist Economic Initiative started. It was designed to deal with three elements at the same time: economics, organization and politics. The goal was never to open a store to trade products from rural communes, but to strengthen every territorial organizational means through concrete actions. This is called people’s power.
Commune member Luisa Gragirena showed me a copy of the Organic Law on Communal Economy and explained: “This is our foundation. Our beloved president Hugo Chávez left us the legal platform so that we, as people’s power, develop and break the schemes of the capitalist system. It is not easy, of course, but it’s not impossible.”
Luisa read: “The present law aims at developing and strengthening people’s power, establishing the norms, principles and procedures for the creation, operation and development of the communal economic system … to satisfy the collective needs and reinvest the surplus socially by means of strategic, democratic and participatory planning.”
There is no communal economy without people’s organization, without building democratic bodies to participate and make decisions. In the System, the members decided that this main body meets every Wednesday at 3 p.m. Commune representatives meet, evaluate, plan and decide.
For instance, last Wednesday, they presented new products that will be included in the next operation. These products are manufactured by the Family Production Unit represented by Rosa Melendez, a commune member from Caricuao in southwestern Caracas: It has soap, shampoo and hair conditioner. So far, they have manufactured 4,000 bars of soap a month. They expect to reach 20,000 per month through the funding and shops provided by the System.
The target is to move toward production: “We are going to fund certified seeds, and according to the land, we are going to boost productive units. By December, we will be able to eat our green onions, bell peppers and the vegetables used for our traditional food at Christmas,” Yaritza explains.
Next steps in fighting the blockade
Every step has been achieved by means of organization. The commune members expect to set up storage centers in every commune section of the System, add two new items in every new dispatch and add more communes. They aim to achieve communal chains that may be sustained in this context, so that it ensures a fair income for producers and reinvestment of the surplus.
[The organizers] have achieved a strategic gain in three months: guaranteeing products to provide the breakfasts eaten in poor neighborhoods — coffee, arepa, butter and now buttermilk, which had disappeared from the market. They still lack cheese and animal protein sources; obtaining them is one of their goals.
The commune members have many goals. They — most of them women — have a strong will to face their difficult moments collectively. Chavism here has one of its clearest meanings — in each of these women, in communal councils, communes and the System. There are thousands like Yaritza and Luisa across the country.
As we said goodbye, they said, “It’s good that people know how Venezuelans are fighting against the economic blockade.”