CUA, Venezuela — With an Iranian tractor, and two big subwoofers blasting salsa music across his onion patch, Ivan Lora says he is turning his weedy hillside into a building block of Venezuelan socialism.
“Comrades,” Lora said, taking leaders of his newly formed commune on a tour of his two-acre farm, “with this land and an irrigation system, we could be growing food year-round.”
Surely, the “Eternal Commander” — the late Hugo Chávez — would have been proud.
Lora, 65, a lifelong city dweller with no farming experience, settled here with his family four years ago on land expropriated by the Chavez government. Today he is a member of one of the 900 officially registered “communes” that have become the focus of a far-reaching government effort to remake Venezuela into a socialist society.
It aims to use communes as the central organizing feature of Venezuelan life, complete with new forms of government, public services, and socialist-minded farms and businesses that spurn the profit motive.
Lora’s commune, an hour outside Caracas, is named “El Sueño del Commandante” — the Commander’s Dream. It is a far cry from the flower-powered, yurt-dwelling, free-love version that flourished farther north in the 1960s and 1970s.
Although Lora got some land and the little red tractor from the government, he and his family live in a scrap-metal shack along an isolated stretch of highway. For rides, he relies on the commune’s leaders, who insist on being called “spokespeople” because they say they disavow hierarchies.
Lora’s main contribution to socialism has been a willingness to sell onions, peppers and cucumbers at a 60 percent discount to his fellow communards at the weekend farmers market. He calls them his “socialist prices,” in contrast to the “capitalist prices” he puts on the rest of his produce during the week.
Supporters of the commune effort say it will transform Venezuela’s economic, social and political relations into something more wholesome and authentically democratic. At its best, it inspires poor and once marginalized Venezuelans to work closely with their neighbors and take control of the planning, execution and fiscal oversight of community projects that improve their lives.
“Hundreds of thousands of comrades are carrying out this vital step toward socialism,” said José Luis Hernan, a former presidential palace aide elected chief spokesman of the Commander’s Dream last year.
Skeptics of the government’s push see more cynical forces at work, viewing the communes as little more than a free-love orgy of graft, and a power play by Chávez successor Nicolas Maduro to divert resources away from state and local governments controlled by Venezuela’s opposition.
Even as falling oil prices put a squeeze on the crude-dependent government’s finances, Maduro has boosted the 2015 budget for communes by 62 percent, calling them “the maximum expression of democracy” and “pure socialism.”
This month, he ordered federal, state and municipal governments to relinquish such key services as trash collection, road maintenance and housing construction to the communes and other agents of “people’s power.” Naturally, government funding will go with them.
Trained accountants and traditional bookkeeping rarely follow. Instead, they’ll be replaced by citizen assemblies in which commune members are responsible for ensuring transparency and rooting out corruption.
“The communes are more democratic than a mayor’s office or a city government because they give people more of a say about how resources are spent and where the money goes,” said Atenea Jimenez, a legal adviser to the Justice Ministry who is working on legislation that would define relations between the new communes and existing Venezuelan institutions.
Eventually, Jimenez said, the goal is for the communes to replace what the government considers an inferior system of “representative democracy” with a more “participatory” version that promotes collective debate and decision-making. “That’s why so many local mayors oppose them,” she said.
Before his death from cancer in March 2013, Chávez said he wanted Venezuela to have 3,000 communes by 2019, telling followers, “La comuna o nada,” or, roughly, communes or bust.
A new Ministry of Communes now keeps a running tally. Critics say many of those on the roster are a fiction.
But with Maduro’s approval rating falling to 30 percent in the most recent polls, the communes are becoming a key conduit for a weak president trying to shore up patronage networks and drape himself in the Chávez mantle, they say.
Detractors complain that the communes are evolving into a parallel state that has no basis in Venezuela’s constitution.
“They are a mechanism for distributing government funds in exchange for political loyalty,” said Maria-Pilar García Gaudilla, a Venezuelan sociologist who studies the communes and has found very few that live up to their lofty ideals.
Regardless of their pretenses, she said, the communes are anti-democratic in practice because Venezuelans who don’t consider themselves socialist or who don’t want to join a commune find themselves living in neighborhoods or communities whose elected governments are getting pushed aside.
Each commune is supposed to be anchored by some form of economic or productive activity — a “socialist enterprise” — that provides local jobs and income. Here in Cua, commune leaders say they’re planning to build a “nucleus of endogenous development” — basically a planned central cluster of schools, clinics, workshops and stores whose main currency would be communal solidarity, not greedy profits.
On another purported commune not far from Lora’s onion farm, Maribel Hernandez struggles to plant corn and care for three children and a granddaughter. She, too, had received a plot of land after a government expropriation, and was relocated from a Caracas slum along with dozens of other families. Only two remained.
Hernandez said she can no longer irrigate her small cornfield with water from a nearby creek because it was contaminated by sewage from a government housing project.
Snakes had eaten all her chickens the week before. She clubbed them to death with a pipe, but now the family has no eggs and is short of food.
“I’m not looking for a handout,” she said. “But we can’t survive out here on our own.”
Things look a bit better at an urban commune in the rough San José Cotiza neighborhood that climbs a steep Caracas hillside. There, commune members deliver canisters of cooking gas with trucks provided by the state oil company. They call their business the “Che Guevara Direct Communal Social Enterprise” and wear new uniforms with red caps.
“We’re building a business whose profits go to the people, not a tiny group of bourgeois owners,” commune leader Vianney Ramos said.
Yet with gas prices limited by the government and no built-in profit margins, the employees had to take up a collection recently to replace the clutch on one of their two trucks. It wasn’t clear whether the government would pay them back. The commune’s other “socialist enterprise,” a seamstress workshop, also was out of commission, they said. Thieves had broken in and stolen all the sewing machines.