Above Photo: Monte Sinaí Commune parliament meeting. Voces Urgentes.
Small producers in a lush valley are determined to overcome the impact of the sanctions by building a commune.
Monte Sinaí Commune is a young organization working hard to foster communal production and strengthen non-market social relations. This commune’s territory reaches into both Anzoátegui and Miranda states, but has its epicenter in the small town of Santa Bárbara in the Guanape Valley. Various crops, including coffee, cocoa, black beans, diverse tubers, and avocado, all grow in this lush and varied region. Since the coffee trees here are old and low in yield, the commune has built a plant nursery to grow coffee seedlings to replace the old trees.
History And Production
Monte Sinaí’s communal parliamentarians talk about the commune’s origins and the food it produces.
Maritza Solano: These higher-altitude lands used to be part of the Rio Guanape Commune, but that commune was too large, so it split into five smaller ones.
Ours is a young commune, and it faces many challenges. For example, some people have to walk for hours to get to the weekly meeting in Santa Bárbara, because the roads are in poor condition and gasoline is hard to get. However, this is a blessed land with huge productive potential.
Alcadio Lemus: The process of forming the Monte Sinaí Commune began about a year ago. Since then, we have been working very hard. As the saying goes, we are a diamond in the rough, but the beauty of the project is beginning to show.
Our parliament meets every Wednesday no matter what. That is where we bring our ideas to the table, debate, and plan.
Ariasca Llovera: Our “mother commune” [Rio Guanape Commune] was very big, and those of us who live in Santa Bárbara would have to walk hours to go to the meetings. That was not easy for everyone. Now some people have to walk a short trek, while others still have to walk a long way to attend a meeting.
Alcadio Lemus: Chávez promoted popular power. His legacy is very important to us, and that is why we are working hard to organize the commune from the grassroots. We face many challenges, but we also have the potential to build a robust commune. Here people are hardworking and nature is generous.
The main crop in the region is coffee. The coffee that we grew here historically was the criollo variety, but now we are shifting to C27 [a new, more productive coffee variety] with help from the CVC [the state-run Venezuelan Coffee Corporation]. They are helping us grow seedlings to renovate our small plots, which is very important since the coffee trees there are very old.
Cocoa is also an important crop here, but we also grow ocumo, ñame, cassava, black beans, plantains, and avocado.
There are also small-scale cheese producers in the commune. Finally, we have two small-scale Family Production Units [UPF]: a cassava-wafer plant and a chocolate plant.
Lenin González: Monte Sinaí has great potential for ecotourism as well. Our main asset is the Guacamayal Park, a municipal recreational park that was abandoned for a while but is now being recovered through a joint initiative involving the local government and the commune.
Yuvidí Llovera: We think that our commune will succeed, but we need both political and technical education to advance. We need workshops to better care for the new coffee variety that the CVC is introducing into the area, and we need to learn more about the administrative processes that building a commune entails.
US Sanctions: Impact And Grassroots Solutions
The Monte Sinaí communards are convinced that a robust commune is the key to solving the current crisis.
Luis Solórzano: Back in 2015, Barack Obama issued an executive order that declared Venezuela to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat.” That was a new situation for us, and it deteriorated very rapidly.
We would ask ourselves: What are we going to do? What are we going to eat? How will we get the medicine for our mother or aunt?
Then came the oil blockade, which is a truly criminal policy. During those years, the CLAP [government food plan] became very important for everyone, but the food that came in the CLAP bag wasn’t enough. I know of families that made meals out of rice water and nothing else. Those years were very hard!
José Luis Pinto: The situation got very ugly around 2018. Obtaining gasoline was almost impossible, and we could no longer get our crops to the market. The health of the community began to deteriorate around the same time, with some people dying and others leaving the country. Those were really hard years, but now things are a bit better.
Domingo Llovera: During the hardest years of the crisis things were very grim. We didn’t have agricultural inputs such as urea, fertilizer, or pesticides, and we didn’t have a way to transport our crops to market.
Luis Solórzano: Production dropped down to zero for a while. I tell you this first-hand because I’m a teacher, but I’m also a farmer. I grow black beans, ñame, ocumo, and avocado. During those years, I shifted to doing only subsistence farming.
Beyond the crisis, we are suffering from the impacts of climate change. We have had periods of intense rain followed by long droughts. Meanwhile, deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture are drying out many water sources. The poor always get the short end of the stick… Yet we have one strength: our organization!
Maritza Solano: For a while now, getting pesticides and other agricultural inputs has become very difficult. First, there were none to be found, then the prices skyrocketed.
This means that the production here in the higher lands of Valle Guanape is mostly organic now. We have also learned how to make compost out of organic waste. All this has advantages – since we are not exposed to agro-toxins – but it shouldn’t be romanticized either.
Production has dropped during the last few years. Organic agriculture requires knowledge and resources. The CVC has offered us some workshops. They helped us shift from criollo coffee to C27, which is a better variant, but we need to acquire more knowledge to get the most out of our new coffee trees.
Luis Solórzano: We have learned a few things during the blockade. For example, as a country, we cannot depend exclusively on the oil rent. To keep our heads above water, our only option in the campo is to work collectively. Now we are more careful with resources: we value the CVC’s support; we take care of our few tools; and we cherish the commune – it is a labor of love because the commune is the solution!
However, building a commune in a country under siege isn’t easy. Our main challenge is that this is a rural commune in a very extensive territory. Much of the population is concentrated in Santa Bárbara, but there are people who have to walk two or even three hours to make it to a meeting.
Coffee Seed Nursery
Lenin González: Last year we got support from the CVC to renew our coffee trees in Valle Guanape. Our objective now is to increase our production, which is very low now since most of the trees are old.
Here, in Guacamayal Park, we have a nursery and we recently planted 32 kilos of C27 coffee seeds. They are sprouting right now.
Yosmel Díaz: We have fifty thousand seedlings in the nursery, but our goal is to produce one million plants in 2022 to fill Monte Sinaí’s hills with coffee trees. However, we don’t just want to grow coffee seedlings here; we also want to grow cocoa seedlings.
Family Production Units [UPF]
Lenin González: We have two UPFs here in the commune, a chocolate plant and a cassava-wafer plant. Both have much potential to grow.
UPFs are part of Chávez’s Communal Economic System. They integrate the work of families who own their own plots of land or means of production into the communal project.
William Flores: We plant the bitter cassava in our conuco [small farm] and, ten months later, we harvest it. Every day, very early in the morning, we bring the crop to the cassava-wafer plant on our donkey. First, we peel the cassava, then we wash it and extract the poison, process it [this is the only mechanical process], and set it to dry in the sun.
While all this is happening, my wife collects wood to get the fire going to make the cassava wafers on the budare [metal sheet placed over an open fire].
My whole family works here at the UPF: my dad, my uncle, and my wife. We also get help from some kids to load the cassava, peel it, and bring water to the plant. We all get up at 3 am and we work until sunset. It’s hard work!
Domingo Llovera: We grow good cocoa here, so it is all too evident that we should be producing chocolate.
As it is, we produce chocolate bars and powdered cocoa on a small scale, but we hope to increase our production. It is important to overcome the logic of raw material production and generate income for the community with processing plants.
Even a small chocolate plant makes a difference. Imagine how it would be if we had several plants! That is one of our objectives.
José Luis Pinto: In the mountain, among producers, there is a long-time tradition of bartering. This tradition was revived during the crisis: if I have cheese and I need cassava or coffee, I will engage in bartering with my neighbor. This has an obvious advantage: we are trading outside of the market.
We think that, as a commune, we should promote barter, especially with other communes.
José Luis Pinto: When things got really hard here, our production went down to almost nothing: people were just producing for their own subsistence and small-scale barter. That also forced us to diversify our production: now we produce plantains and grow sugar cane to make guarapo [sugar cane juice] with which we sweeten our coffee.
Things are picking up a bit, but an important part of our economy is still barter-based. Occasionally, we still take a sack of coffee into town and exchange it for a tool.
Going Forward, With Chávez
The late president saw the commune as a project that was key to the socialist transition. Although his vision seems to have fallen by the wayside in Venezuelan state politics, Monte Sinaí’s communards are doing all they can to consolidate a young commune.
Alcadio Lemus: We have a long way ahead because we are a young commune – and a commune born in the heat of the crisis at that! There are many adverse factors here.
Nonetheless, we have Chávez’s project in our heads. and we understand that commune-building is a collective endeavor: it’s about the commons. As we understand it, a commune is about the pueblo organizing itself to produce and satisfy collective needs.
Luis Solórzano: Chávez talked about the need to build a sovereign nation. When he talked about sovereignty, he wasn’t just referring to territorial and political sovereignty. He was also talking about food sovereignty. Unfortunately, we didn’t understand how important his conception was: had we internalized his thinking, we would not be in this situation now.
Chávez also left us the commune as a legacy. As producers, we now understand the importance of working together, of helping each other. The alternative is no alternative for us.
If we had followed Chávez more closely, things would have been different and less painful when US imperialism and the local oligarchy conspired to topple the Maduro government. Of course, we should not forget that Chávez’s government was also permanently under siege: remember the coup, the oil sabotage, and the paramilitary incursions.
In any case, we have learned our lesson, and that is why we are so committed to building a robust commune here! We have a long way to go, we need support, but we think we will succeed.
The crisis hit us hard, and it also damaged grassroots organization: we were all struggling to survive. Now things are picking up, and we are hopeful that we will be able to make our commune take root and grow.