Chavez “communes” stoke Venezuela democracy debate

CARACAS,  (Reuters) – Tucked into forested hills in  southwest Caracas, a red-brick housing complex for the poor is a testing ground for Venez-uelan President Hugo Chavez’s latest  step to build socialism in the Latin American oil producer.

The phalanx of simple five-storey apartment blocks, some  still being built, anchors the “Cacique Tiuna Commune”. This is  one of a network of “socialist communes” that Chavez and his  supporters want to extend across the nation in a political and  legislative offensive to dismantle “bourgeois” capitalism.

Not surprisingly in a country whose politics is as  flammable as gasoline, the project enshrined in a package of  “power to the people” laws is stoking a political firestorm.

Fueling the political debate is the proximity of  legislative elections on Sept. 26.

The government says the communes will help end poverty. But  furious opponents, who already denounce Chavez as a repressive  autocrat, say the initiative heralds outright communism in  Venezuela and so violates its pluralist constitution.

“A barrier is being crossed … we’re passing from Chavez’s  tropical socialism to open and glaring communism,” says Emilio  Grateron, mayor of Chacao, an opposition stronghold entrenched  in a more wealthy eastern neighborhood of Caracas.

Displaying colorful murals of Venezuela’s 19th century  independence hero Simon Bolivar, and one of Argentine guerrilla  legend Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the 2,220-inhabitant Cacique  Tiuna Commune is conceived as a showcase “socialist” community  among the dirt-poor hilltop slums that hem in the capital.

Chavez and the laws’ promoters deny the communes project is  a bid to railroad the country into Soviet- or Cuban-style  Marxism. They say the legislation is compatible with the 1999  Constitution and follows socialist goals of ending decades of  inequality in Venezuela and giving more say to the poor in the  running of their own lives and that of the country.

“We’re headed for socialism here, I haven’t deceived  anyone,” the combative Venezuelan leader told his ruling PSUV  party in a meeting this week. He blasted local Roman Catholic  bishops who have criticized the communes program, calling them  “troglodytes” and “fascists”.
Chavez says the bishops and business “oligarchs”, media  tycoons and foreign “imperialists” who populate his full  pantheon of ideological foes are misrepresenting the communes  project as a pretext to destabilize his government.

The former soldier survived a brief coup in 2002. Opponents  say he is conjuring up fake threats to throw a smokescreen over  his failure to turn around the deteriorating economy and put a  brake on rampant violent crime.

In the upcoming elections, opponents are expected to dent  the National Assembly majority of Chavez’s PSUV, which has been  shaken by a scandal over the discovery of thousands of tonnes  of rotten government-managed foodstuffs and polls showing weak  public backing for more socialism and expropriations.

Chavez is still popular in his 11th year of rule, but his  support is under strain as the economy slumps. It contracted  5.8 percent in the first quarter of this year and inflation is  persistently high at an annualized rate of 31 percent in June.


Chavez’s searing leftist rhetoric and his investor-scalding  track record of strategic oil, industry and mining  nationalizations have made him an anti-capitalist and anti-U.S.  standard bearer in Latin America and the world.

The largely pro-Chavez National Assembly has initially  approved the communes bill and some related laws. A second  final approval is pending, and supporters say they hope this  can happen before the elections.

“We’re talking about government by the people,” said Ulises  Daal, a pro-Chavez parliament deputy and one of the main  promoters of the project. He says the legislative plan to set  up self-sustaining, self-governing “socialist communes” builds  on the existence of some 36,000 Chavez-inspired “communal  councils” that already dot the country.

Daal said 214 communes were already “under construction”.  Some have introduced barter markets and their own currencies.

Grateron and other opposition mayors have launched a noisy  counter-offensive. They say Chavez is trying to force through  by law a shift to all-out socialism he failed to introduce in a  2007 constitutional referendum that he narrowly lost, the only  nationwide ballot he has not won.

Opponents single out the Communes Law’s repeated references  to “social” and “collective” ownership.

“It’s a clear orientation towards the reduction and  disappearance of private property,” said Noel Alvarez,  president of the Fedecamaras private business group.

However, the Communes Law text does say Venezuelans can  “possess, use and enjoy individual and family property and  patrimony”, and Daal insisted that private property remained  unaffected by the legislation and was guaranteed.


Neither ideological nor productive fervor were much visible  at the Cacique Tiuna Commune, which boasts a plastics plant, a  vegetable garden, a “socialist” carpentry shop and a plant  nursery.

During a visit last week, the plastics plant was idled, the  irrigated garden was awaiting “refinancing” to start and at the  carpentry shop only a handful of laborers worked under the  stern gaze of a mural depicting the historic Indian chief Tiuna  after which the commune is named.

“The Comandante (Chavez) wants this to be a showcase  community,” said Yamilet Ramirez, the Commune’s spokesperson.  “The idea is that it should be self-supporting.”

But the Cacique Tiuna commune seemed some way off its  intended goal as a self-sustaining, self-governing community.

“People don’t seem enthusiastic, they don’t want to  participate, I don’t know why, since it’s for them,” said the  head of the carpentry shop, Alexis Valdiviezo.

He himself did not have an apartment in the commune but was  brought in six months ago by the Basic Industry Ministry to  oversee the creation of a “socialist” carpentry network.

“I’m living in a hotel,” said Valdiviezo, who said he had  been promised an apartment in the commune by Chavez.

But for many of the commune inhabitants, the apartments,  built with a primary school, a state MERCAL grocery and a  soon-to-be opened high school, represent a huge improvement on  their previous slum accommodation in hilltop shanties.

“We like it, of course … this benefits all the people,”  said Ines Herrera, who works as a cleaner at the primary  school. “There is a bit of apathy, but that’s normal”.

“No one here is shouting about Marx or Lenin,” said  Ramirez.


In the same way that Venezuela’s oil income has bankrolled  Chavez’s socio-political projects over the last few years, a  host of government ministries and their budgets are clearly  heavily engaged in supporting the emerging communes.

A clause of the Communes Law stipulates that existing state  governorships and municipal mayorships should make funds  available to finance projects for the communes. This has led to  worries by opposition mayors that the new structures will  monopolize funds, accompanied by political discrimination.

The Commune Ministry’s own information sheet on the Cacique  Tiuna community notes among its weaknesses: “There were commune  members who hold an ideology opposed to the government”.

The legislation foresees each commune having its own  parliament, elected in open assemblies, and a five-member  council to ensure the execution of decisions taken. A Communal  Bank, and communal justice system will also be created.

Critics say the creation of these parallel systems  alongside existing state and local structures will generate  confusion. “It’s the frontier of chaos,” Grateron said.