Eastern Venezuela is home to extensive petroleum extraction and processing operations which have their hub in the cities of Barcelona and Puerto la Cruz in Anzoátegui state. The Luisa Cáceres de Arismendi Commune, one of the most advanced communes in the country, grew up in the shadow of this multibillion-dollar business in one of Barcelona’s working-class neighborhoods. This is a rapidly-expanding commune – remarkable because of its success in an urban context – which focuses on recycling and waste disposal to maintain itself. In Part I of this two-part series, Luisa Caceres’ communards explained the challenges of building a commune in a country besieged by US imperialism. In Part II, the communards talk about the commune’s social property enterprises and about self-government.
Social Property Enterprises
Direct Communal Social Property Enterprises [henceforth EPS] are collectively-owned economic projects under new social relations. The Luisa Cáceres Commune has two active EPS.
Ingrid Arcila: We had a problem with waste disposal in the [Simón Bolívar] municipality for a very long time. The problem was endemic: trash would accumulate on the streets and many parking lots turned into dumpsters. The crisis made the situation more critical: it became a public health problem.
Now, since the commune took over waste collection in 2020, the streets are clean and the health of residents has improved significantly.
Johan Tovar: Luis José Marcano, Barcelona’s former mayor [and current Anzoátegui governor], campaigned saying that he would transfer responsibility and control of public services to communes. He consulted the population to determine if they would ratify the transfer. The result was an overwhelming yes. That is when the Luisa Cáceres Commune requested a transfer: the commune would take over trash collection and asked that the garbage truck be assigned to it.
However, things were not so easy: though the mayor signed off on the transfer, the bureaucracy dragged its feet and sabotaged the process. It was a struggle, transferring state functions to popular power is never easy.
Arcila: On March 2, 2020, the garbage truck was finally passed to the commune, and we said “let’s put our noses to the grindstone.” We knew nothing about the process of garbage collecting, but we weren’t afraid. Right then and there, a few of us got on the truck and began the collecting process, while another group sat down around the table and began drawing up a map, a pick-up schedule, etc.
We also developed an environmental education plan so that people would not dump their waste in places where trash had accumulated in the past. The plan went hand in hand with a process of cleaning up critical zones such as parking lots and sidewalks.
When the people in the community saw that the streets were clean, they began to change their behavior, they began to feel more closely connected to their neighborhoods, and more people began to help with communal garbage collecting.
Carlos Herrera: The transfer of state services involves a four-step process on our end: waste collection, transport, recycling, and dues collection.
Now, when it comes to dues collection, there is an issue that must be eventually solved: we do waste collection in the entire territory of the commune and beyond. This includes both households and commercial entities, such as stores, restaurants, etc.
However, when it comes to paying fees for the collection, the city government has decided that commercial entities, which are the largest contributor by far, will pay their fees to the municipality, while the commune will collect household dues.
This is a real problem because when the garbage truck breaks down, the household fees collected by the commune are not enough to pay for the repairs and we have to beg the city government to help us. This is highly inefficient and generates a relationship of dependence that isn’t positive.
Tovar: There have been two bottlenecks in the process of transferring waste collection to the commune. The first was the transfer process’s very slow time frame. Later, when the truck was eventually given over to us, it came with assigned drivers who were not part of the commune. These drivers went as far as to sabotage our plans.
Things were not working and we had a meeting with Marcano [former mayor]. Our position was that we needed full control of the garbage truck and of the whole waste collection process. Eventually, we got full control of the truck.
The second bottleneck is payment collection, which Carlos [Herrera] mentioned. Since the bulk of the cash that is owed goes to the city government, that keeps us dependent on them, because the funds that the EPS gets are not enough to maintain the truck.
Another issue is that the commune has to collect payments by going from door to door. This isn’t easy because people are not used to paying for services. The minimum quota is 50 cents [of a US dollar] per month, which is a very low rate, but people are often remiss.
The household-to-household collection process generated some friction, but eventually, we won the hearts and minds of the community, including those that do not sympathize with the government. While the payment collection process is still limping along, it generates enough income to cover workers’ salaries and basic truck maintenance. Unfortunately, when it comes to replacing a tire or a mechanical arm, we have to request support from the city government.
I should also add that private waste collection companies (and much of the country’s waste collection is being privatized these days) charge two to three dollars per household, so ours is a very inexpensive service.
The bottom line is that we are still struggling for the full transfer of control. Until we are able to collect commercial sanitation fees, the process won’t be self-sustainable. We think that, eventually, as the commune’s organization expands, we will be able to pressure the city and successfully control the entire process. When that happens, we are likely to have an overhead in the commune, which would give us more autonomy.
For the commune, waste collection represents a leap forward in terms of organization: it is an exercise in democratic grassroots power and an important step toward self-government. Now, when there is some problem with waste, people don’t call the municipality’s offices, they come to us, or – if there is a disagreement regarding sanitation fees – people call for an assembly and the matter is debated. In other words, an exercise in democratic power is growing, and that is good for the commune.
Herrera: We were one of four communes that had waste collection transferred. Unfortunately, the other communes remained too dependent on the institutions and tutelage. When it comes to commune-building, tutelage doesn’t work.
Nonetheless, while Luisa Cáceres has not achieved full autonomy in the garbage collecting project,, the commune has an important degree of independence.
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