Last week president Maduro, using special powers granted to him by an enabling law, approved two new laws that strengthen the role of the communes and communal councils in the state structure. Under these new laws, governmental entities should transfer basic services, such as primary health, maintenance of schools and sports facilities, and “production and distribution of food,” to “organized communities, communes and communal councils, and other forms of base organizations of the popular power.”

During 2013 Maduro often claimed that one of the last instructions given to him by Chávez on his death bed was to push towards the “communal project”. Indeed the “construction of the communal state of the socialism of the Twenty First Century” was one of the five “historical objectives” mentioned by Chávez in the presidential elections campaign of 2012.

Since then, the government’s move to a communal state structure was pushed forward haltingly under the previous Minister for the Communes, Reinalo Iturriza, now Minister of Culture. A census of communes ordered by Maduro in September 2013 counted 1,150 registered communes and 31,670 communal councils nationwide. That is about 20% more than the web page of the Ministry for the Communes reflected at that same time.

On 17 May, 2014, Maduro announced the establishment of a “Presidential Council for Communal Government”, which would be “a governmental body where the communes will be the protagonists in important issues, such as public, economic, and social policies, in order to advance in the construction of socialism.”

In September this year Maduro announced a series of measures which he termed the sacudón, or shake up. Among these was the transfer of Elias Jaua from the Foreign Ministers to the dual post of Minister for the Communes and Vice President of Territorial Socialism. The last two of the “Five Revolutions” announced by Maduro that day were the Political Revolution, “to construct a new state, a communal state, following the project left by the Eternal Comandante [Chávez],” and the Revolution of Territorial Socialism, “oriented to the consolidation of the communal model.”

Also in September Vice-President Jorge Arreaza insisted on the importance of the construction of the communal state, because through the communes “Venezuela will prove to the peoples of the world that it is possible to overcome, in the 21st century, neoliberal capitalism, and to change the logic of capital to that of labor, which is the path to socialism, liberation, and a dignified life.”

The terms “communal state” and “communes” are absent from the 1999 Constitution. The first mention of communes in Venezuelan laws came with the approval by the National Assembly in 2010 of the “Organic Law of Popular Power” and the “Organic Law of the Communes.” In the latter law the communes are given far reaching at the local level.

The definition of the communes in Article 5 gives a taste of the broad rhetoric of the complete law: [Communes are] “A socialist space that, as a local entity, is defined by the integration of the neighboring communities with shared historic memory, cultural traits, uses and traditions, that recognize themselves in the territory and in the productive activities that sustain them, and over which said territory they exercise the principle of sovereignty and protagonistic participation as an expression of the Popular Will, in accordance with the regime of social production and the endogenous and sustainable model of development contemplated in the Economic and Social Development Plan of the Nation.”

Critics have been alarmed by the vagueness of this definition as well as the government’s insistence that communes and communal councils will directly administer local resources. Some see the proposal as an attempt to transfer power and competences from elected local authorities and institutions, such as state governors, mayors, and municipal councils, to an ill-defined and unelected structure more easily and directly controlled by the central government. Allan Brewer Carias, a strong critic of the government now living in the US, wrote back in 2011 that the “communal project will act as a ficus tree, as a strangler tree, it will first grow around the constitutional state, and then it will empty it, destroying it.”

But supporters see no contradiction between the idea of communal state and the 1999 Constitution. Constitutional legal expert Hermánn Escarrá believes that, even if not mentioned, the communal state was foreseen in the articles of the Constitution that define sovereignty as “residing exclusively in the people.” George Ciccarello finds links between the contemporary communal movement and the 60’s guerrilla. He argues however that the current communal state project stems from the government and therefore generates unsolved tensions: “The still-unfinished project of the Venezuelan commune emerges ‘toparchically’ from this tension, with the state but also beyond and against it.”

The naming of Elias Jaua as Minister for the Communes could be a way of lifting the profile of the communal project. However, historian and analyst Margarita López Maya argues that circumstances are different from the time the communal laws were approved: now the difficult financial situation limits the chances that the transit to the communal state will be successful: “The communes and the announced presidential councils are a compulsory component of the president’s socialist rhetoric, but with the current fiscal limitations, their future is in doubt.”