Building Productive Workers’ Army in Venezuela

A conversation with Sergio Requena of the Productive Workers’ Army . Born in 1974 in Puerto Ordaz, in the industrial heartland of Venezuela, Sergio Requena is a worker at CVG Carbonorca (state-owned plant producing anodes, a component needed to process aluminum). He is a key player in the formation of the “Productive Workers’ Army”, a voluntary initiative that takes on the challenge of jumpstarting industrial plants (both state‐owned and worker‐controlled). Since 2016, the organisation’s “Productive Workers’ Battles” have become a reference amongst those committed to rebuilding the industrial muscle of the nation. The project has brought hundreds of workers together and put some twelve industrial plants back on their feet. Of the twelve Workers’ Battles carried out by this volunteer brigade, eight happened while Requena headed Corpivensa (a state institution whose mission is to encourage industrial sovereignty and productivity) and was able to channel some state resources to the initiative. Today that support has dried up, but the struggle continues.

 

I would like to begin by asking you to give us a brief overview of the situation of Venezuela’s state-owned factories today.

As is the case with most of Venezuela’s productive apparatus, the state enterprises are in crisis. Furthermore, those enterprises are fragmented and disjointed: each plant, each factory has its own specific objective, its own logic, meaning that there is a large number of isolated initiatives. Each is on its own, with nothing bringing them together in a network, because there isn’t a national production plan, nor is there a plan that would organise even the whole state-owned sector.

To make matters worse, there are some deliberate obstacles put up to production from within, from the enterprises’ leadership. So the main problem is that there isn’t a centralised production plan, but add to that the fact that within the crisis (and the disorder that comes with it), some particular economic interests have surfaced, and you get the bigger picture.

State firms form an archipelago of islands, each with its own little ruler, who single-handedly decides if the enterprise will produce, under what conditions, what happens with the product, etc. Additionally, he decides who they will contract to acquire raw materials and services. In general, a director will contract outside of the state-owned enterprises, and will do so with the aim of seeking personal economic benefits.

When President Maduro launched the Economic Recovery Plan, he referred to the fact that there are many companies producing very little or nothing at all. Our view is that there are two roots to the problem: there is no productive plan for state enterprises, and private objectives and interests organise production (or lack thereof) in state-owned plants.

There is another bottleneck: in many of these plants, the bosses argue that production has come to a halt because the enterprise doesn’t have funds to purchase the machine parts that need to be acquired so that the operations can get back on track. But it turns out that the machine parts that have to be replaced come from abroad and must be purchased in US dollars.

Historically in Venezuela, and especially in state enterprises, machines and machine parts came from abroad and were purchased in dollars. All this happened without finding out if within the country, and particularly within state enterprises, partnerships could be found leading to joint solutions. Today, the bosses continue to request dollars (which are not available) and they justify the stalled production by pointing to funding limitations instead of looking for solutions that can be found within the country.

You are part of a collective volunteer project for the recovery of the country’s productive apparatus, both state-owned and worker-controlled enterprises, which has come to be known as the “Productive Workers’ Army”. In 2016, a group of workers from the industrial heartland of Venezuela in Bolívar State began to recover a state enterprise called La Gaviota, a fish processing plant. Can you tell us about this initiative?

I would like to begin by going back to 2013. It was the beginning of the crisis, and the workers of three privately-owned factories occupied the plants after the owners infringed workers’ rights and sabotaged production. The companies were Indorca, Calderys and Equipetrol in Guyana’s industrial ring. The process of recovering the plants was collective and very efficient. Soon after their occupation, the plants were back on a regular production schedule. These three plants continue to operate under worker control.

Three years later, in February 2016, folks from La Gaviota in Cumana (Sucre State), a state‐owned plant, invited workers from Indocra, Calderys and Equipetrol plus others to jumpstart the fish flour plant’s industrial oven. It was a five-day journey where the knowledge of each worker plus a lot of collective creativity (and sacrifice) allowed us to jumpstart production. We did this with no resources beyond our knowledge and our tools. Really, in five days we were able to raise production from zero to 100 percent!

During those five days, we worked long hours and slept in the plant. The work was voluntary and the whole process of recovery became a crash course—we all learned a lot, and all the workers who participated were remoralised. The fact is that each “Productive Workers’ Battle” is a school in which we teach each other, we share knowledge, and we look for solutions collectively.

And this brings us back to what I was saying earlier: by now there is plenty of evidence that workers are capable of recovering stalled factories and that large investments are not necessarily needed, even when production has dropped to zero.

La Gaviota was the first in a long and ongoing campaign to recover state‐owned factories and factories under worker control.

Yes, after La Gaviota we went to Maquinarias Barinas in Barinas State, and there we waged the second battle. In the factory, an important part of the machinery was non‐operative. Actually, there was a machine room with all new equipment that had never been made operative. It was never put to use and repairs were needed. We left it at about 80 percent of its productive capacity.

Again, the collective process of getting the plant back on its feet (well, on its feet for the first time!) remoralised the factory’s staff.

In this battle, we also implemented a parallel learning space, an initiative that is now key to every battle and that we call “Collective, Integral and Permanent Self-Formation.” We organised a workshop on freehand drawing of mechanical parts.

Then, in March of 2017, we carried out a battle in Planta Madre Wuanaguanare, a factory that produces food-processing machinery in Portuguesa State.

Little by little the Productive Workers’ Battles began to draw attention. They began to be known, and we got an invitation to head up Corpivensa, a state initiative to promote industrial and productive sovereignty in the country. During the seven-month period that we were in Corpivensa, we were able to carry out eight “productive battles”. Since we had institutional support, we had that extra muscle. Of the eight productive battles that we carried out during that period, four were in gas cylinder plants, and one was in a Nutrichicha plant that produces rice-based drinks for the School Alimentation Plan. We also waged another battle in La Gaviota, and finally a battle at the Amuay Oil Refinery in Falcon State.

We have had 12 productive battles in total, and we have begun to call ourselves a “Productive Workers’ Army”. Some 2,200 people have participated in these battles, so we feel that we are an army that can be deployed to any plant in any state to raise productivity.

 

Our army is very varied. Our army is made up of both active workers and retired workers, both workers from the public and the private sector—in short, people with very diverse experiences. But the most important thing about our army is that it is made up of revolutionaries who want to overcome the current crisis.

When you go to a factory, your main goal is to jumpstart production, but the educational process is also very important. Can you tell us more about this?

First, I should clarify something. We don’t only repair machinery, we also repair consciousness. There is a ideological understanding to the whole process. When the Productive Army goes into a factory, a process of remoralisation begins. The plants’ workers participate in the recovery of their factory and transform their own reality. This practice of doing (this praxis, if you will) opens the way to what Che called creating the new man and the new woman. Jumpstarting production with our own hands, with limited resources, getting the factory back on its feet, yes, all that is important. But if we do that and we fail to remoralise workers, then the plant will fall back into its earlier slumber.

Raising morale is through praxis, that is the key for us, but we also foster parallel collective educational activities, as I said before when I talked about the ongoing “Collective, Integral and Permanent Self-Formation” that we undertake. During the Productive Battles, we share experiences—skills acquired through work—and we also address organisational problems.

As a result of this, the plant’s workers get organised in workers’ councils, in feminist brigades, and in Productive Workers’ Councils. Ensuring that some form of organisation grows out of the experience is fundamental, as workers’ organisation is the only thing that will guarantee the continued production in a plant.

Basically, our main goal is to break the inertia that installs itself due to bureaucracy: inertia that ends up killing production. After we leave, there must be internal conditions (not only material conditions) to continue the work, and that is why we emphasise organisation.

The “Chinese Model” (this term is used in Venezuela to refer to the growing participation of Chinese capital in the reorganisation of the economy) has discursively entered the public sphere. On the other hand, your model is a socialist model that points to workers’ control and seeks to bring solutions to our problems from below and from within. It could even be called a Guevarist and patriotic model, couldn’t it?

We refer to our effort, our collective epic struggle, as an “Admirable Campaign”, a term that recalls Bolivar’s campaign for the liberation of Venezuela’s western regions. We understand that there is a crisis situation, with some elements of conspiracy and economic war. Yet on top of that, there are serious management problems in public enterprises, corruption and other interests that don’t contribute to a solution. Faced with this complex situation, many are looking for solutions elsewhere.

For our part, we cast our lot with the people of Venezuela. The gaze of Venezuela has historically been directed to the exterior: we felt that we couldn’t solve our own problems. Chavez offered a brief respite from that logic; with him, we were able to see what we had, we recognised ourselves. I think it is time that we begin to acknowledge again that we can do things, that we do have skills. Our productive apparatus has practically come to a complete halt, but there are thousands of men and women who are committed to coming out of this crisis, and they have incorporated themselves into the Productive Workers’ Army. These workers do not want to be spectators. They want to be subjects again, reactivating our participatory and protagonistic democracy.

So indeed our proposal is patriotic. We believe that we can do and make things, that we aren’t doomed. We have a strong conviction that the people, the workers, the working class, together we can bring ourselves out of the crisis that we face in the industrial sector and elsewhere. We are the ones who will build the sovereign and emancipated Patria [homeland] that Chavez aspired to create with the protagonic participation of the people. We are convinced that we can do this, that patriotic Venezuelans can do this, although we will always welcome with wide open arms comrades from other countries, people who are committed to socialism. But this is a war that we have to wage and that we must win. Only the people of Venezuela can solve the problems of Venezuela, and from our point of view, this must be done with Chavez and with commitment to participatory and protagonistic democracy.

One of the most intense debates within Chavismo right now is the debate about the “ethical referent” and the need (since Chavez’s death) to point to exemplary experiences that might bring the project out of the stagnation that we are facing now. There is a mystique around El Maizal Commune and the Admirable Campesino March, but in the working class, in the industrial sector, the Productive Workers’ Army has become a referent as well. Can you talk about this?

When we talk about ethical referents, we must talk about revolutionary coherence, and revolutionary coherence is a kind of North Star that guides our praxis. Our objective is to help to recuperate the productive apparatus of the nation. For this to happen, as I said before, there must be a process of remoralisation and organisation, which is the key to the success of our initiatives.

In the Productive Workers’ Army we teach by example, with a praxis that brings together political and social commitment with work. So we hope that we will carry with us a school for the workers with whom we work, arm in arm, during the Productive Battles.

Sacrifice is, like it or not, an essential part of our epic struggle. We often travel for thousands of kilometers to get to a factory; we leave our family behind; we sleep very little and when we do, we sleep in the plant. All this tends to change the plant’s dynamics. We can actually say that we—the hundreds of men and women of the Army—teach by example. The sacrifice that a Battle entails is key to a shift towards a revolutionary ethos.

All this, of course, happens with President Chavez as a guiding light. His example fills us with strength day in and day out. He taught by example and he sacrificed himself for us. In return, we commit our lives to our country.

 

Read more