Socialism is not a thing but a process.” – Richard Levins
Photo: all photos by Ingrid Feeney
“Sí hay un socialismo del siglo XXI: y se llama ecosocialismo.” (Yes there’s a 21st century socialism: and it’s called ecosocialism). The words, painted in strokes of white gold, leapt in bold relief against their faded blue background: a concrete wall about two meters tall which encircled the central meeting square of Agua Negra, Yaracuy, Venezuela. Dusk had fallen and the material boundaries of the wall seemed to melt into the thick indigo of the heady, sweltering tropical night, its message appearing as if emblazoned from stardust on the infinite horizon of the sky itself. Across the square, on the opposite wall, another message. A frenetic scrawl of soil black upon bright, vegetal green: “Hasta la victoria siembren!” (Sow towards victory!).
The square was lined with long folding tables piled high with plantains and chili peppers, handmade clothing and works of art, artisanal soaps, second-hand toys, and musical instruments. Dense throngs of people, young and old, crowded around the tables to negotiate barter transactions: soap for plantains; bottles of home-made chili sauce for a well-loved drum. Groups of children dressed in colorful garments expressing their afro-descendent heritage lined up in preparation to ascend the plaza’s built-in stage, their peals of laughter punctuating gathering drum beats, heralding the performance to come. Amidst the ebullient chaos of this celebratory trueque, a crowd of globally-renown and up-and-coming revolutionaries circulated, exchanging exhausted yet exhilarated expressions of gratitude and affection: a Peruvian peasant resistance leader shook hands with a Kurdish freedom fighter. A Kenyan human rights organizer embraced an Amazonian land defender, laughing through her tears. The collective energy of the crowd was electric— they had just declared the First Ecosocialist International.
From October 31st to November 3rd of 2017, radical delegates from five continents gathered between the two above mentioned walls to formulate a strategy and plan of action for a 21st century socialism. Cradled in the forested mountain territory of the nature goddess María Lionza, the event was held in the Cumbe of Veroes, birthplace of the afro-descendant maroon liberation struggles of Venezuela. One hundred years after the October Revolution, there was no longer a specter haunting Europe. Rather, “thousands of spirits” had manifested in response to “The Cry of Mother Earth.”
The delegates, representing nineteen countries and twelve indigenous nations of the Americas, were received with thunderous drums of welcome by their hosts, the maroon farmers and seed guardians of the bioregion Cumbe Adentro. For four days and nights, this newly formed alliance of indigenous and afro-descendant land defenders and seed guardians, agroecologists and anti-colonialists, Marxists and Bolivarians, Black Panthers and beyond— representing communities of struggle from Standing Rock to Amazonas, from Tanzania and Sri Lanka to Jackson, Mississipi— worked collectively to draft a Combined Strategy and Plan of Action for the salvation of Mother Earth.
Unlike the socialism of the 19th century, which typically centered around the (implicitly male and often white) industrial proletariat as the archetypal revolutionary subject, and, perhaps for this very reason, whose vision failed to transcend the rationalizing impetus of a productivist teleology, the socialism articulated by the First Ecosocialist International is explicitly antipatriarchal, “spiritual, pluri-cultural and multi-ethnic.” In order to escape the “cunning logic of the system which murders life, and its ability to constantly recycle itself,” the diverse founders of the First Ecosocialist International explicitly adopted a pluricosmovisionary perspective which establishes the conuco, or small farm, as the base unit for an emergent, future society founded upon the recovery of historical memory, territorial organization by bio-region, the rights of Mother Earth, the decolonization of the mind, and the reconfiguration of indigenous nations.
I was fortunate enough to take part in the founding of the First Ecosocialist International, as part of the mesa Tierra (working group of The Body of Mother Earth). As an element of la mesa Tierra my voice and lived experience became interwoven with the voices and lived experiences of a group of seasoned indigenous and afro-descendent seed-savers, land defenders, agroecologists, and midwives. Together we developed short, medium, and long-term strategies and actions to recover nutritional and medical sovereignty through the reclamation of our food and health. The other working groups were Fire (The Energy of Mother Earth), which developed strategies and actions to reclaim economies of mutual aid, ecologically and socially appropriate technologies, and sources of renewable energy; Air (The Voice of Mother Earth), which developed strategies and actions towards a liberating education, the defense of peace, rights, and buen vivir; Water (The Milk of Mother Earth) which developed strategies and actions to reclaim the management of water and other common goods; and Aether (The Spirit of Mother Earth), which developed strategies and actions to reclaim control of cultures, models of civilization, and ancestral cosmovisions.
Earth Working Group.
Earth Working Group.
Isidro Romero Martinez, pueblo Yupka, addresses the Earth Working Group. Son of the great Sabino Romero, murdered in March of 2013, Isidro is defending the ancestral territory of the Yupka in Sierra de Perija, Zulia, Venezuela against the violent advance of mining and cattle interests.
On the fourth day, the 5 working groups came together and deliberated, producing through horizontal consensus The Combined Strategy and Plan of Action, which can be accessed here. We all knew (and continue to know) that we had created something of great significance.
Wahu Kaara addresses the First Ecosocialist International.
And yet, as I write this today, the international Left has barely paid any heed to the unprecedented Red-Green alliance forged last November in the Cumbe of Veroes.
Indeed, when I returned to my life as a PhD student in the United States I was saddened to find that many of my fellow academics regarded news of the First Ecosocialist International with raised eyebrows and cynical dismissiveness simply because the event was in part sponsored by the Venezuelan government. Surely a vision of ecosocialism developed within the midst of a petro-extractivist ‘state socialism,’ assert the skeptics, must be but a toxic counterfeit of the ideal ecosocialism whose theoretical dimensions and contours are being debated and delineated in academic journals, seminars and conferences the world over.
I will not, in the brief space provided by this blog entry, be able to address the many misconceptions about Venezuela and the Bolivarian process which distort international public opinion across the political spectrum.
I will however invoke the words of Richard Levins, who, based on his extensive participation in Cuba, implored us to remember that “socialism is not a thing but a process.” Clearly, the conversation on the dialectic of state, market, and civil society in the revolutionary process is an important one—and one that is alive and well among grassroots movements in Venezuela. (For a thoughtful reflection on the contradictions between petrosocialism and ecosocialism in Venezuela see here.)
The founders of the First Ecosocialist International are well aware of these contradictions, which were a major topic of discussion in the Cumbe of Veroes.
They ask the international community to recognize their efforts to hold the Venezuelan state accountable, as in the case of the Orinoco Mining Belt megaproject. They ask also for the international community, in particular the international Left, to recognize the accomplishments of the Bolivarian process— such as the recent negotiations around the establishment of the Caura National Park, which have led to a recognition of the territories of some indigenous groups— and the broad support it enjoys among indigenous, afro-descendent, and working-class Venezuelans.
To conceptualize the Bolivarian Revolution as a top-down process in which Venezuelan working-class communities are passive victims instead of active agents requires strategic blindness to the fact that the engine of the revolution is now and has always been located at the community level. Today there are approximately 46,000 registered communal councils and 1,600 communes in Venezuela. It is the power of these communal organizations which have, among many other accomplishments, driven the emergence of the “unprecedented popular advances towards food sovereignty manifesting at present”, despite ongoing efforts mounted by external and internal opposition to topple the Bolivarian government through tactics of manufactured scarcity and deprivation. (For an excellent analysis of the politics of food in Venezuela, see here.)
Seed Alphabet Book. Work of 2nd Grader in the Cumbe of Veroes.
These communal councils and communes “are in fact the mainstay of the Bolivarian process, its backbone really, and many of them, despite being perceptive critics of aspects of government policy, are the first to call to rally for the revolution at the ballot box behind the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and other members of the Chavista coalition like the Communist Party.”
In his book ‘Building the Commune,’ George Ciccariello-Maher describes the structures and processes of communal governance in Venezuela:
Sometimes a commune is sixty women gathered in a room to debate local road construction, berating political leaders in the harshest of terms. Other times it’s a textile collective gathering with local residents to decide what the community needs and how best to produce it. Sometimes it’s a handful of young men on motorcycles hammering out a gang truce, or others broadcasting on a collective radio or TV station. Often it’s hundreds of rural families growing plantains, cacao, coffee or corn while attempting to rebuild their ancestral dignity on the land through a new, collective form.
The dominant, simplistic narrative of a passive citizenry once captured in hypnotic sway by the charismatic leadership of Hugo Chavez, and now held as reluctant hostages to the desperate, clientelistic authoritarianism of Maduro, is to be expected from the right-wing and liberal media. But it is also largely disseminated in Leftist academic circles whose business is supposed to be the elucidation of socio-political nuance (see for example “Debates: on Venezuela” in the fall 2017 issue of LASA Forum, available here).
I ask, would the ‘authentic’ revolutionary character of The First Ecosocialist International be regarded with such suspicion if the alliance had been forged in Colombia, where 282 human rights defenders have been murdered since January 2016? Or Brazil, where un-elected president Michael Temer is currently embroiled in scandal? Or Mexico, where nearly 80 politicians have been assassinated within an electoral campaign period of seven months? Or the United States, where a troglodytic fascist presides over the highest office of a state which has sanctioned the summary execution of 454 civilians by its hyper-militarized police force so far this year?
Much has been made of the 14 deaths attributed to Venezuelan government security forces during the 2017 guarimbas,and “[w]hile any government-sanctioned violence merits concern, attention, and investigation, it nevertheless bears asking why…the imperfect state of democracy in Venezuela attracts singular attention, even as many atrocities in the world today go underreported.”
At risk of digressing, I cannot shake the feeling that the unwillingness to accept the ‘authenticity’ of the Bolivarian process in Venezuela mirrors a tendency among a swath of the academic Left to disparage the food sovereignty movement— most emblematically represented by La Via Campesina (arguably the world’s largest transnational social movement) — as problematically driven by an overly ‘essentialist’ or ‘identitarian’ politics.
We pay lip service to the abstractions of ‘identity,’ ‘place,’ and ‘culture,’ while, Janus-faced, writing off the transformative potential of a movement some 200,000,000+ strong for its rootedness in a multifarious politics of identity. How is the epochal struggle for the defense of place and culture, of locally-specific and ecologically-and-culturally appropriate lifeways against the homogenizing onslaught of neoliberal globalization not going to be rooted in identity? And why should it not be?
I ask, then, which revolutionary social movement sufficiently embodies the latest theoretical trend for us to tether our hopes to it in good conscience?
Perhaps, I fear, we don’t want hope…
Perhaps we’d rather stand aside
Steepling our fingers, debating, deconstructing—
Disingenuous saliva dripping from our lips
As we write off those fighting the flames on the front lines
And the world burns.
Perhaps we’ll we be content
When the last ‘identitarian’ is dead, (along with the Oceans)—
When we can gaze coolly at their objectified memory
From behind a glass partition
And wax nostalgically about their extinct ontological formations.
Perhaps, I fear, we don’t want hope…
The banishment of hope from politics in North America is the most dramatic impression I took away from my time in Venezuela. In the United States I have long chased the ghost of radical, transformative, loving hope. I chased it into the academy, where I feel the hollow weight of its absence.
Finally, I chased it to the Cumbe of Veroes, where— as profoundly difficult as things are, clutched in the furtive talons of a Northern aggression which seeks to “make the economy scream” — there is an abundance of hope.
In the Cumbe of Veroes we could not access processed sugar due to the economic crisis in Venezuela. We chewed sugar cane and ate small, sweet bananas as we wove ourselves together in radical, transformative, loving hope.
Comrades in the Cumbe of Veroes.
Charlotte Hill O’Neal honors Pablo A. Mayayo with a Black Panther pin in Caracas.
The many Venezuelans who became my life-long friends and comrades over the course of the formation of the First Ecosocialist International feel for us in the States. They feel for an entire generation burdened with crushing debt. A generation skilled and nimble in hopping from unpaid internship to precarious job in the deceitful and draining ‘gig economy.’ A generation with no free time or inclination to build community, agitate, and resist. They feel for the multitudes of Black Americans wrongly incarcerated in for-profit prisons and gunned-downed in the streets with impunity. They feel for the children, for whom the simple act of going to school is now inflected by a subtle yet nagging fear of massacre.
The Venezuelans who are the living core of the Bolivarian process extend their empathy and solidarity to us, and they deserve the same in return. With sanctions intensifying following the May 20th elections, the solidarity of the international Left is more important than ever.
In the words of one State Department representative:
“The pressure campaign is working. The financial sanctions we have placed on the Venezuelan Government has forced it to begin becoming in default, both on sovereign and PDVSA, its oil company’s debt. And what we are seeing because of the bad choices of the Maduro regime is a total economic collapse in Venezuela. So our policy is working, our strategy is working and we’re going to keep it on the Venezuelans.”
Street Art depicting Economic Warfare in Caracas.
At a time when the North American Left is so rightly critical of the grotesque human rights violations playing out at the U.S. – Mexico border, we unwittingly play into the hands of those same fascist politics by doubting the autonomy and self-awareness of the revolutionary process in Venezuela— a place which, despite being mired in conflict, contradiction, and hardship, remains a bastion of resistance against U.S. hegemony.
To the academic Left in the U.S. (and elsewhere) I pose a question:
For whom are we analyzing, critiquing, and deconstructing? When is the time to apply our skills to advance a revolutionary cause?
If not for the people who are fighting a system of death with a spirit of life and hope, then for whom? If not now, then when?
“We invite all peoples, movements, organizations, collectives and beings in the world to join the First Ecosocialist International, and to undertake the collective construction of a program for the salvation of Mother Earth… We confront a contradiction: restore life, or lead it to extinction. We must choose…” — First Ecosocialist International
Hasta La Victoria Sembremos!
 “Trueque can be translated literally as “barter,” but beyond this it is a social movement in Venezuela built around anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist visions of eliminating money and returning to the ancestral mode of production, consumption and distribution” (First Ecosocialist International).
 “Cumbe” is equivalent to quilombo or palenque; it signifies a maroon community or stronghold.
 The Cry of Mother Earth! Convocation of the First Ecosocialist International- Re-Weaving Pangea: Communique #21
 *Pluricosmovisionary: A plurality of visions of the cosmos; a perspective which goes beyond the “multidisciplinary” or the “transdisciplinary,” which combine the perspectives of various disciplines, but within the same western and academic epistemology.
 The conuco is the ancestral mode of production practiced by indigenous people in Venezuela. It corresponds to the words for similar indigenous agricultural forms such as the allyu (in Bolivia), the chacra (in Argentina), and the milpa and chinampa (in Mexico), among many others.
 While some of the socialist revolutions of the twentieth century were centered around agriculture as the path to human liberation, they “failed to decouple the structure of agrarian production from the capitalist form of labor, as well as to transcend the idea of nature as mere tap or sink” (Arboleda and Feeney, under review, see also Ho, 2003; Rice and Tyner, 2017).
 It is no coincidence that The First Ecosocialist International took place during the same year in which 197 environmental and land activists had been murdered. This figure is the highest on record, and represents a fourfold increase since it was first compiled in 2002 (Global Witness 2018).
 ‘Building the Commune,’ George Ciccariello-Maher.
 U.S. State Department, “Senior State Department Officials on the Secretary’s Travel to Austin, Texas; Mexico City, Mexico; San Carlos Bariloche, Argentina; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru; Bogota, Colombia; and Kingston, Jamaica,” January 29, 2018, http://state.gov.