Above photo: Chavista grassroots organisations are mobilising amid the coronavirus pandemic. Maureen Riveros / CUSAC.
VA writer Ricardo Vaz looks at two popular power organisations from Caracas and their collective responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
Analysing different future scenarios is a very common exercise for Venezuelan political organisations. With constant US pressure, imagining situations of foreign invasions, military coups, early elections, etc. is natural. Leftist organisations look to describe these scenarios before envisioning what their eventual role would be.
Nevertheless, no one was prepared to face the coronavirus. While in the abovementioned examples revolutionary organisations have no problems figuring out where they stand, and where their enemies stand, this context changes everything. The enemy at hand is “invisible,” it cannot be fought on the streets or in a collective fashion. Not only that, there is also the fear of being infected or (worse) of infecting other people.
Popular struggles were on the rise across Venezuela in past months. Besieged by US sanctions, the government continues on the path of favoring foreign investment and granting more and more benefits to private capital. Amid this heightening of contradictions we saw the emergence of projects such as the Communard Union, which openly proposes to build a political alternative to contest hegemony within Chavismo.
And then came the pandemic and the quarantine. However, fighting back against the paralysing instinct, Chavista popular organisations have begun to mobilise in order to achieve grassroots solutions.
Solidarity and revolutionary creativity
“Right now the pandemic overrides everything,” Ana Marín told Venezuelanalysis. “We have the challenge of organising in such a situation, while also dealing with US invasion threats, meddling, and blockade.”
Ana Marín is a spokeswoman from El Panal 2021 Commune in barrio 23 de Enero in Caracas, and a member of the Fuerza Patriótica Alexis Vive (FPAV). FPAV is one of the most advanced political organisations in the country and the main engine behind the commune. Amid the current COVID-19 crisis, its members have sprung into action to tend to the most urgent needs of the community.
Asked about the collective’s “secret,” Marín pointed to a maturity and experience gathered from the struggles in recent years.
“About three years ago we understood the need to control the entire productive chain,” she said. “With all the experience here in the commune we could run a bakery, a sugar packaging plant, a textile factory, but without the raw materials we were doomed.”
As a result, in her words, “a bunch of caraqueños went to the countryside!” Marín told of experiences in growing food and raising cattle which had “lots of hardships and mistakes,” as well as clashes with powerful local actors who felt threatened. Nevertheless, the primary production experiences are still running and have contributed to Alexis Vive’s growth both in political and organisational terms on a national scale.
El Panal Commune, and the regional FPAV chapters, are some of the main drivers behind the fledgling Communard Union. Marín insists that the communes coming together is essential, but at the same time argues that a “leap” is needed.
“We have three lines of action we call “seduction,” “industrialisation” and “proletarianisation” of the barrios. Communes need to produce but they also need a class-based identity,” she stressed.
Marín admitted that “the coronavirus freezes things a bit,” but insisted that the communal logic needs to make itself felt. In the case of El Panal Commune, the initiatives that were immediately implemented were the result of previous organising work.
“We already had registered people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, who are more vulnerable. With our textile factory Las Abejitas del Panal we produced masks, and our school canteens were also active,” she detailed.
The commune opened a canteen two years ago, and in recent times it has been taking over the canteens in different schools. In the current context, Alexis Vive, together with other grassroots organisations, is cooking hundreds of daily meals for kids, the elderly, and the most vulnerable people in the vicinity of each school.
The focus on children, Marín explained, has been another priority for the commune during the quarantine. Along with schoolteachers in the community, kids have been given learning materials and activities to continue their education. Didactical games are also being prepared so that children can understand what is going on and why they need to stay inside.
One concern that Marín singled out has to do with abuse, since many parents see schools as “children deposits” and are not used to having their kids around all day. In that sense, the communal education brigades are always wary of any signs of child abuse.
“All of these challenges stand before us. We have to call on solidarity but also on revolutionary creativity,” she concluded.
Popular power ‘combos’
The Unidos San Agustín Convive cooperative (CUSAC), in the barrio San Agustín also in Caracas, is a more local, smaller and younger organisation. But it has just as much determination and “revolutionary creativity.”
With around 30 members, the cooperative has been advancing on several political, productive and educational fronts. However, its most important activity is the fruit and vegetable distribution events it holds every two weeks. Rotating between three sectors of the barrio, this initiative is a joint effort with the Pueblo a Pueblo Plan, a campesino platform born in Trujillo State which supplies food directly to several urban collectives.
Martha Lía Grajales, a member of the cooperative and of the human rights collective Surgentes, talked to Venezuelanalysis about the challenges of organising a food distribution event in the current context.
“The event we had on Saturday, March 28, brought a series of hurdles. Personal ones, of being able to overcome our fears, the concern about being infected. And also collective hurdles, to create a methodology that would ensure the safety and well-being of everyone in the cooperative,” she explained.
The first major change was that the purchases were made in advance. Each CUSAC member could gather up to five friends and relatives interested in buying, guarantee their payment and the delivery of the food. Likewise, the use of masks and gloves, hand-washing and recommended distance were strictly enforced.
On the other hand, uniform food “combos” were sold to everyone. This had been the way the food distribution events had worked in the beginning, but was then made more flexible during the crisis when the poorest residents could not afford to buy the entire combo.
“For the cooperative, as a reference of a new way of doing politics, it is essential to have this ability to reinvent ourselves in order to continue advancing,” Grajales pointed out.
Another important difference was that, in order to minimise the number of people involved, only cooperative members participated in preparing the food bags (members over 60 were also relieved from duty). This meant that all the work of unloading the truck, weighing the food, separating, weighing the individual amounts and preparing the bags fell on less shoulders, when usually all the people interested in buying participate in the different tasks.
“But there were also things that were kept unchanged,” Grajales insisted, “such as the spirit of building power from below and generating solutions collectively.”
Another unchanged aspect was the low price of food. The 9-kilo combos cost 312,000 bolivars (less than US $4), and people also had the chance of buying a kilo of black beans for 75,000 bolivars (less than $1). The significant savings in comparison to the “normal” market is due to the efforts of the Pueblo a Pueblo campesinos and the direct link between countryside and urban centres, without intermediaries.
Questioned about the role of popular power in the current situation, Grajales said this is a “turning point.”
“There is a struggle between the accumulation of capital and the reproduction of life itself. Our efforts should push for a new rationality, a logic of greater justice in economic, political and social terms,” she stressed.
Wrapping up, she reiterated the importance of demonstrating through concrete practice that solutions are borne out of popular power built from the ground up.
“In the cooperative we try to reflect about what we are living through and seeing how from the experience we have gathered, we can respond to these challenges, difficulties, while upholding our socialist, feminist and decolonial horizon,” Grajales emphasised.
The coronavirus epidemic has exacerbated the contradictions of capitalism on a global scale. In this difficult context, even more so in Venezuela, planning and the search for collective solutions are more important than ever. Chavista popular organisations, such as Fuerza Patriótica Alexis Vive or the Unidos San Agustín Convive cooperative, have major challenges ahead of them in the upcoming months. But at the same time they have shown, time and again, their commitment to Chávez’s project of communal socialist construction.
In this crisis, as in all others, only the people will save themselves (Sólo el pueblo salva al pueblo).