| Milk production is an important part of the economy at the Pancha Vásquez Commune Rome Arrieche | MR Online Milk production is an important part of the economy at the Pancha Vásquez Commune. (Photo: Rome Arrieche)

Organizing ranchers in the Venezuelan Llanos: The Pancha Vásquez Commune (Part I)

Originally published: Venezuelanalysis.com on May 24, 2024 (more by Venezuelanalysis.com)  |

This latest installment in the Communal Resistance Series takes us to the Pancha Vásquez commune in Apure State in the Venezuelan plains region [Llanos]. The Venezuelan Llanos are legendary for their rich cultural heritage and spectacular landscapes, but it is also rife with political and social contradictions. These include issues relating to land ownership, Indigenous rights and dispossession, and spillover from neighboring Colombia’s internal conflict.

Located on the outskirts of Elorza, in the southwest of the state, Pancha Vásquez is a huge commune in terms of territory. The commune comprises fourteen communal councils, three of which focus on agriculture, while eleven are dedicated to cattle rearing. The lands in this vast territory are mostly in the hands of small to mid-sized producers who take pride not only in their equestrian traditions and folklore but also in the special role that Elorza played in Hugo Chávez’s biography. That is because, as a young officer, Chávez was stationed in Elorza from 1985 to 1987 and sharpened his political vision there.

In this three-part series, we will explore the history and productive activities of the Pancha Vásquez Commune as well as the way it has addressed problems induced by the U.S. blockade.

| Gerardo Ramírez is a cattle rancher and spokesperson for the Pancha Vásquez Commune | Hugo Calzadilla is the local historian and a member of the Pancha Vásquez Commune | José Araque is a communal parliamentarian at Pancha Vásquez Commune and is a meat milk and cheese producer | José Calzadilla is a beekeeper in the Pancha Vásquez Commune | Juan Fernández is a communal parliamentarian for Pancha Vásquez Commune and one of its founders | Petra Cedeño is a cattle rancher and parliamentarian at Pancha Vásquez Commune | Rigoberto Contreras is the coordinator of a Milk Collection Center inside the Pancha Vásquez Commune | Róger Rodríguez is a cattle rancher in the Pancha Vásquez Commune Rome Arrieche | MR Online

Gerardo Ramírez is a cattle rancher and spokesperson for the Pancha Vásquez Commune | Hugo Calzadilla is the local historian and a member of the Pancha Vásquez Commune | José Araque is a communal parliamentarian at Pancha Vásquez Commune, and is a meat, milk, and cheese producer | José Calzadilla is a beekeeper in the Pancha Vásquez Commune | Juan Fernández is a communal parliamentarian for Pancha Vásquez Commune and one of its founders | Petra Cedeño is a cattle rancher and parliamentarian at Pancha Vásquez Commune | Rigoberto Contreras is the coordinator of a Milk Collection Center inside the Pancha Vásquez Commune | Róger Rodríguez is a cattle rancher in the Pancha Vásquez Commune (Photo: Rome Arrieche)

The Commune’s Long Historical Roots

Successful communes in Venezuela usually emerge out of a long history of struggles. Here the communards in the Pancha Vásquez territory tell us about the region’s legacy of resistance and rebellion. 


Hugo Calzadilla: Before the colonization, the Indigenous peoples living here were the Cuiba and the Pumé. Most of them were violently displaced towards the Capanaparo River [to the South of Elorza] by Spanish settler colonialists.

Many of our stories and myths and some of our traditions can be traced back to the Pumé and Cuiba peoples. Even the commune, the idea of living collectively, is linked to their cosmovision.

However, mainstream culture lives with its back turned to our Indigenous heritage and is blind to the history of outright violence against the Indigenous peoples who inhabited this land. As recently as 1966 there was a massacre of Indigenous people in Apure state, in Hato La Rubiera.

These stories had an impact on Chávez when he was stationed here. He learned about the massacre and about persistent violence against Indigenous peoples from a revolutionary priest called Gonzalo de Jesús. Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution fought for justice, but reparations for the Indigenous peoples of the Llanos are still a pending task. A revolution is never finished.

* * *

Hugo Calzadilla: Going back to the so-called “beginning,” these lands were first colonized by Justo de Granada, who founded a town called San José de Arichuna in 1774, which later became known as Elorza.

The colonization went hand in hand with Christianization of the Indigenous peoples. In fact, what we now know as the “Fiestas de Elorza” [local festivities held yearly on March 19] can be traced back to the days when the Indigenous peoples would be forcefully baptized and made to honor Saint Joseph. Everything has its dark side and its bright side: the Fiestas de Elorza are a rich expression of our culture, but we can trace their origin back to settler colonialism.

Until 1866, the Colombia-Venezuela frontier followed the Arauca River. What we now know as Elorza—this town on the south side of the river and celebrated worldwide for its music—was a border settlement for much of its history. The Colombo-Venezuelan border was redrawn some 160 years ago: Apure expanded southward into what was formerly Colombia, and in exchange, Colombia received the Guajira Peninsula.

One last historical snippet: Elorza takes its name from José Andrés Elorza, one of the leaders of the “Bravos de Apure” [Apure Braves]. The “Bravos” were the horsemen who ran Spanish general Pablo Morillo and his troops out of these lands. Their protracted struggle against the colonizers was crucial to our country’s independence.


Hugo Calzadilla: Born Francisca Vásquez [1878-1931], “Pancha” was a local landowner, a woman who held her own in a patriarchal world. This historical figure, always surrounded by tales and myths, inspired Rómulo Gallegos’ 1929 novel Doña Bárbara, which is considered the greatest Venezuelan novel of the 20th century.

Pancha married Pedro Emilio Carrillo and had a son also known as Pedro Emilio. Widowed at an early age, she took control of the large cattle ranch she inherited. Pancha “ruled” [mandaba] with an iron fist and became hugely successful. We are still learning about the vast number of estates she owned. However, it’s known that she died with at least 50,000 hectares to her name and was said to own piles of gold.

Pancha Vásquez’s life is a story of success, tragedy, and misogyny.

Let me tell you one of the tragedies-become-legend that defined her life. Pancha’s only son was killed by a bizarre animal that she always kept by her side. Legend has it that the animal was half-bull and half-horse and a proxy of the devil!

My uncle witnessed the death of young Pedro Emilio, and informed Pancha of his death. When she heard the news, all she said was: I told him that he should not touch that bull! She didn’t shed a tear.

Perhaps Pancha Vásquez was a ruthless person, but she worked hand in hand with the cattle hands and forged her own path in a patriarchal world. We named the commune after her because of her strength and independence.

| The Pancha Vásquez Commune covers some 84 thousand hectares That land is distributed among 1200 families most of them small to mid sized producers Rome Arrieche | MR Online

The Pancha Vásquez Commune covers some 84 thousand hectares. That land is distributed among 1200 families, most of them small to mid-sized producers. (Photo: Rome Arrieche)

The Commune and Its History

The Pancha Vásquez Commune is one of the most consolidated communal initiatives in Venezuela’s plains region. Here we explore the commune’s origins and its forms of self-government.

Petra Cedeño: This commune is composed of 14 communal councils. Its main activity is cattle rearing, mostly dual-purpose for both meat and dairy production. However, three of those 14 communal councils, the ones on the banks of the Arauca River, focus on agriculture. They produce corn, yuca, and plantain.

Additionally, fishing is also a part of our communal economy. As you can see, ours is a diversified and very productive commune.

Juan Fernández: We began organizing back in 2006 when the communal councils were being developed. These democratic grassroots spaces were the foci of revolutionary activity. Four years later, in 2010, when Chávez began to talk about the commune, five communal councils founded what we now know as the Pancha Vásquez Commune. Eventually, nine more communal councils joined.

In 2014, we finally were able to register the commune. The process wasn’t easy: when you build a project that challenges constituted power, you encounter many roadblocks. Chávez, however, had already predicted that this would happen, so we knew that we had to be persistent.

The commune took the name of Pancha Vásquez by majority vote. The argument was that she had been an energetic and combative woman. Because she was a big landowner and not a woman of the pueblo, I was not too keen on the proposal… but that’s how democracy works!

Petra Cedeño: This is mostly a commune based on cattle-raising. Because of the large and open terrain we inhabit, all of us are very far apart from each other. That’s why, when Chávez began to talk about the commune as a space for bringing people closer together, we seized the idea.

Building a commune isn’t easy, but ours has become the key organizational force in the territory. Pancha Vásquez has brought us closer together: now we recognize and appreciate each other, understand what we have in common, and organize ourselves to address common problems.


Juan Fernández: The land is privately owned at Pancha Vásquez, which limits our capacity to act as a commune. We now have the Collection and Distribution Center, a social property enterprise, but Chávez emphasized that non-private communal production is key to transforming society. Developing it is perhaps our most important pending task.

Just beyond the commune’s perimeter, but within the commune’s “punto y círculo” [Chávez’s conceptualization of a strategic area of influence], there is a great deal of underused state-owned land. We have requested that the INTI land institute transfer some land to the commune, but it hasn’t happened yet. Inside the state apparatus, some factions support the commune, while others favor “strategic alliances” with the private sector.

There’s another ranch inside the commune’s perimeter that is ripe for appropriation for the commune. A few years ago, an irregular armed group had a tract of land there. Fortunately, the National Antidrug Office [ONA] took action against them. Since then we have requested that the land be ceded to the commune, but we are still waiting for a decision on the matter. It would be fitting that it become communal land.

For us, the commune represents the future. The commune is not just a part of the project of building a better and more just Venezuela; it’s the beating heart of that project. That’s why the struggle to put some of the land in our commune under social property, and to obtain the resources to build communal enterprises is so important. Communal hegemony is crucial, but it won’t happen with ideas alone.

We live in a world where capitalism organizes everything—in contrast to the commune, which is Chávez’s legacy and our collective strategy. Even in the most difficult times, the commune has been a lifeline. We should never forget that!


Juan Fernández: Self-government is about people solving their day-to-day problems together. At Pancha Vásquez, we don’t want to be dependent on state institutions. At times we cooperate with them, and other times we demand their support. We believe that a significant portion of Venezuela’s oil rent should go to the communes, because communes represent the only way out of the capitalist trap.

In this commune, we aspire to build a relationship of cooperation with the government in which no one dominates. However, inside our territory, the commune is in charge.

What drives our efforts? The people, the communards, and the commune’s spokespeople who work tirelessly without any personal gain.

Of course, a commune isn’t a paradise. At Pancha Vásquez, we work hard, organize, and support each other, but problems do arise. Recently, we acquired a “Super-Duty” truck through an agreement with the Ministry of Communes. Some people wanted to use the truck for personal benefit.

The assembly—the highest authority in the commune—wasn’t about to let that happen, but solving the problem took months. The process was painful, but it also proved that the commune can address issues: we had to recall three spokespeople whose role was auditing and two others from the communal bank. It wasn’t easy but we were able to solve the problem collectively.

Now the truck is in the commune’s hands and it’s one of our main collective assets.

Petra Cedeño: A commune is a space where people discuss their problems, reflect on solutions, and organize a roadmap to achieve collective goals. It’s the community governing itself, as Chávez said!

The main problem we have as producers is getting our production to market and making sure that we don’t sell at a loss. These lands are vast and the roads are often in poor condition, making transportation a real problem. This is all compounded by the fuel shortages that the U.S. blockade generates.

Once we identified that transportation was a key problem, it became clear that the commune needed a collection and distribution center to shorten distances.

We will discuss the Pancha Vásquez Collection and Distribution Center more fully later on, but I want to mention that we’ve been able to carry out that project with very limited funding from the Ministry of Communes, on the one hand, and a lot of work and sacrifice from Juan Fernández and other communards, on the other.

In its two refrigeration rooms, local producers can store meat or cheese until the sale is concluded. Why is that important? That way the producers are no longer forced to sell to intermediaries immediately at the prices they impose. Instead, a producer can wait a few days (or months, in the case of cheese) until market conditions are optimal.

| A communal assembly at the Pancha Vásquez Commune Rome Arrieche | MR Online

A communal assembly at the Pancha Vásquez Commune. (Photo: Rome Arrieche)

Two Communal Leaders: Juan Fernández and Petra Cedeño

Despite being assembly-based spaces, functioning communes generally depend on a vanguard organizational group and specific cadres who fulfill leadership roles. Here, we tell the stories of two key figures in the Pancha Vásquez Commune.

Juan Fernández: My commitment to this land and the people who care for it can be traced back to my father, Ramón Rafael Fernández. He was a cattle herder, a hardworking man with integrity, who was deeply cherished by the community. He was always solidarious.

He raised his children to be hardworking and honest. My father didn’t go to school, but he worked hard and made sacrifices so that we could receive a good education. He first sent me to study in Biruaca [in Apure state], then Mérida. Finally, I went to college in Barinas. As a student, I became interested in politics, read Communist Party documents, and learned about the Chinese communes.

While my father didn’t identify as a leftist, he truly loved humanity and was very solidarious with everyone in the community. He used to say that people getting together to solve problems is the only solution.

My father died in 2008. Remembering him still brings tears to my eyes.

My father trained and educated me, but I was also shaped up by Comandante Chávez. Chávez emphasized the principle of solidarity and urged us to prioritize collective needs over individual ones. If my father was (and is) my moral guide, Chávez was my political mentor.

Now, as I dedicate my life to building the commune, I can say that I have had two fathers. I deeply mourn their loss, but in my own way, I continue on the path they laid out.

* * *

Petra Cedeño: This is a man’s world. There are very few women ranchers here and in the commune, I’m one of only two female parliamentarians.

I learned the trade from my father, who is a rancher in Biruaca.

On our ranch, we have around 250 dual-purpose cows, along with pigs, chickens, guinea fowl, and turkeys. Cheese is our primary product. In the summer, we produce about 18 kilos of cheese daily, but that goes up to 30 kilos during the rainy season.

Tending to a ranch is not for the faint of heart, but I enjoy the work. I enjoy working with people and making things work. That is what drew me to the commune. We live and work in a vast plain. Many of our ranches are far from each other; we have no phone coverage and many people don’t have electricity, so we learn about the world through the radio. But that is not enough! For me, the commune is about bringing us together, listening to each other, and solving very real problems.

That’s why my home has become a sort of communal headquarters. When people need a letter of endorsement from the communal council or from the commune, they come to my place and we figure it out.

First and foremost, I’m a problem solver. I enjoy working with and for the community. I want to see our commune prosper and our production grow. I dream of the day when everyone who is not yet committed to the commune will join it!

| Cattle herding is in the epicenter of the Pancha Vásquez Commune Rome Arrieche | MR Online

Cattle herding is in the epicenter of the Pancha Vásquez Commune. (Photo: Rome Arrieche)


Apure’s vast plains are ideal for rearing livestock. When you look at the landscape, the flatlands are punctuated by large samán trees and herds of both cows and water buffalo.


Juan Fernández: The economic basis of the commune is dual-purpose cattle [for milk and meat], although there are three communal councils on the margins of the Arauca River dedicated to agriculture. They produce corn, yuca, plantain, and topocho [a small plantain].

We estimate that there are about 60,000 heads of cattle in the commune, although we don’t have a livestock census. Most of our producers are small to mid-sized ones, but there are four “hatos” [large cattle ranches], each with 10,000 heads of cattle or more.

Chávez often talked about the importance of communal property and collective production for building a new socialist model. Our commune has no communal land, so we are working with that goal in mind. I’m sure we will succeed because we are really stubborn.

We do have, however, the recently built Pancha Vásquez Collection and Distribution Center, which is a social property enterprise. The Distribution Center just opened its doors [March 2024], but it will be very important for the commune.


Gerardo Ramírez: Our family-run production unit focuses on raising cattle—both buffalo and cows—for milk and cheese production. I used to grow corn, rice, and watermelon, but not anymore. Purchasing agricultural inputs became very difficult.

We currently have 80 heads between cows and buffalo. This is a low number for us: not too long ago 137 heads were stolen. Irregular armed groups are penetrating the Colombo-Venezuelan frontier and rustling cattle. In the past five years, our production has fallen by about 50%. First, sanctions made access to the inputs for raising livestock very difficult; then came the fuel shortages. You get the picture: the situation isn’t easy.

However, we won’t give up! I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m not from here but from Táchira, though I’m staying here for good. This land is beautiful and productive. Moreover, our commune offers a space to solve our problems. However, we really need the local and regional governments to address some of the problems that we have.

On our end, we’re working to boost production. Chávez once told us that buffalo would become the “black gold” of the Venezuelan Llanos. He was right: buffalo are far more resilient and productive. While there may be less demand for the meat right now, it’s actually very good, and buffalo milk is far richer in fat. As we speak, we are growing our buffalo herd. Many other ranchers are doing the same.


José Salomón Calzadilla: I learned about beekeeping from Father Gonzalo de Jesús about 25 years ago. Father Gonzalo was the same man who became Chávez’s spiritual mentor when he was posted in Elorza.

Beekeeping is a fascinating blend of science and nature, with each hive being an intricate and efficient world. These lands are good for honey production, but climate change is affecting our output. We used to produce about 500 kilos of honey every month during the dry season, but now it’s down to 400 kilos due to climate change.

We work with African bees. I bought the nucleus colony in Acarigua [Portuguesa state] many years ago. Now I have reached a point where I don’t need to purchase any inputs. If one is patient and learns the trade, the bees will do the rest!

In addition to beekeeping, I maintain a conuco [subsistence plot] where I grow corn, yuca, and beans, mostly for family consumption. Most producers in the commune do the same thing.


José Araque: My main production is chimó [chewing tobacco], although my family also has 70 heads of cattle.

Growing and processing tobacco is a meticulous process that combines agricultural skill with careful curing. First, the tobacco leaves are hand-harvested and sun-dried. Then, after finely chopping the tobacco leaves and mixing them with ashes, the product is cooked and reduced to develop rich flavors and the right texture. The whole process can take several weeks.

Diversifying production is important. Chimó-making was nearly a lost trade here, but it’s a viable, if labor-intensive, alternative. Producing a good batch is satisfying, and there is a market for it!

| Cheese making Rome Arrieche | MR Online

Cheese-making (Photo: Rome Arrieche)


Róger Rodríguez: “La Pradera,” my family farm, spans 175 hectares. Here, that is considered a small to mid-sized ranch. Due to the blockade, the past few years have been very difficult, so we have seen our herd significantly reduced.

This is why I’m working to diversify our production. I don’t want to be a monoproducer: if I’m growing animals to sell cheese or meat, I should be able to ensure the whole supply chain, from breeding the animals to making the feed. If I can produce the food for my herd in La Pradera, I’ll be less dependent on the market, creating a “virtuous circle,” which is one of my goals at the moment.

I now have a small herd of sheep and goats. They are robust animals. They can endure droughts, and we can surely feed them out of our farm. Our goal is to build up the herd and focus on artisanal cheese-making.

To further diversify, I also have pigs. I have been shifting away from conventional feed to producing my own feed for them. During the mango season, I throw mangos and corn cobs into a metal drum and let them ferment for about three months. Mango trees are very productive. The output is a product that is almost as efficient as commercial feed.

Finally, when it comes to diversification, the conuco is also key. This is not a new practice: our grandparents passed it on to our parents, who in turn passed it on to us. In itself the conuco is the most diversified agricultural form that I know of, and it kept us alive during the worst of the blockade. In our conuco, we grow everything from corn to plantains.


Juan Fernández: The Pancha Vásquez Commune includes three riverside communal councils. The members of those communal councils mostly engage in agriculture, and they launched a project called the Communal Market.

The Communal Market was born under the aegis of a powerful slogan: A day without intermediaries! Every Saturday, the campesinos gather to sell their produce directly to the folks from the José Andrés Elorza Commune [an urban commune in Elorza]. In so doing, they are breaking free of the yoke of the intermediaries, who exploit both the producer and the consumer.

However, the market has been dwindling due to fuel shortages, making it hard for campesinos to bring their produce to the market… And so, intermediaries are reemerging in our local economy.

We have learned some lessons from this situation: we all know that the intermediary, the so-called middleman, is not an ally of the producer. We took an important step toward freeing ourselves from the intermediaries’ exploitative practices by creating the Pancha Vásquez Collection and Distribution Center.


Rigoberto Contreras: The El Reencuentro” Milk Collection Center, in the heart of the Pancha Vásquez Commune, opened its doors in 2012. In our municipality, milk production is key, so ensuring that our producers have an accessible place to deliver their dairy production is super important.

We have a 3000-liter cooling tank, with daily intake ranging from 900 liters in the dry season to 2600 liters during the rainy season. You could say that the Milk Collection Center is now a space run by and for “free and associated producers.”

It works like this: producers are paid 47 cents per liter for cow milk and 64 cents for buffalo milk if they deliver to the center. They get slightly less when we ourselves have to fetch the milk from the farms.

Overall there is a general shift away from cows to buffalo because buffalos are more robust. During the past year or so we have seen a general upward trend in milk production due to this shift.

We have had ups and downs in the production and collection of milk since the blockade began. On the one hand, when it was very hard to get fuel, getting the milk to the collection center was difficult. On the other hand, many herds dwindled.

Finally, we faced another problem up until 2021. Until then, we paid milk producers in bolívares, but rampant hyperinflation made it hard for them. Now the payment is regular and in dollars, which is an incentive for producers to bring their milk here.

Juan Fernández: From a legal standpoint, the Milk Collection Center is a private enterprise, but it is run as a network of freely associated producers. Our goal is to convert it into a Social Property Enterprise [EPS] linked to the commune.

We want it to become an EPS for three reasons. First, we are committed to communal property. Second, because the Milk Collection Center is technically a private enterprise, state institutions are not inclined to support it. Third, Agroflora, the enterprise that purchases the milk, sets the rules without consulting us. By contrast, communal administration would give us more leverage to negotiate rates and request state funding.

In short, we are always pushing in the direction of the commune, which is the space that opens a window to the new world.

| Joropo dance Rome Arrieche | MR Online

Joropo dance (Photo: Rome Arrieche)


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