Opinion and Analysis
Cooperatives in Venezuela Promote Solidarity, Equality and Dignity
RADIO AL REVÉS: In Barlovento, a tropical coastal region of Venezuela, Ciro Ramos de Rodriguez sits poised to talk about MUDEBAR, a cooperative of 42 women who produce textiles for their local schools, and government officials, as well as other clothing needs within the region. MUDEBAR is located in a quiet residential neighborhood in San Jose de Barlovento, and the clean, airy new building, which is home to over 100 sewing machines, shines bright in the hot afternoon sun.
CIRO RAMOS DE RODRIGUEZ: In reality, we didn't have money or anything until the government offered us credit so that we could achieve our objective, which was to associate ourselves as a cooperative. The process was a call made by the government to participate in a social mission called Vuelvan Caras, a call to all the women who were in their houses without work, simply doing domestic work, doing housework until god called, watching our grandchildren and taking care of the house and when all of the women were called to the mission we began taking the courses. We took really good courses, and from that they prepared us to become a cooperative.
RADIO AL REVÉS: The social program, Mision Vuelvan Caras, was created in 2004 as a government initiative which promoted the formation of cooperatives, small-scale worker-owned and managed businesses. The state provided credits for capital investment, tax breaks, contracts and incentives for cooperatives, and intensive free-of-charge job training and administrative support. Ciro participated in these courses.
CIRO RAMOS DE RODRIGUEZ: I learned a lot. I am now in the third year of my bachelors degree and I am treasurer of the cooperative. With the help of the professionals that the government sent here, I have learned everything I need to know such as accounting, how to keep books how to control an account, how to write checks. This is something that poor people didn't know how to do, this is something that rich people did, but poor people we didn't know how to do any of this. I learned how to do many things that businesses do that I didn't know how to do before.
RADIO AL REVÉS: While Ciro has learned many business skills through the training within the mission, she is clear to distinguish between a traditional private business and a cooperative.
CIRO RAMOS DE RODRIGUEZ: In a private company the boss exploits workers. The worker is exploited and the boss earns for themselves. Lets say I was working at a private company and I worked very fast, I would still continue earning the minimum wage. In a cooperative if I worked very productively I could make more money, but in a private company I have to maintain myself with the minimum wage. So even though I would push myself to work very hard, the boss would make lots of money and I would make one or two percent while they would take 98 percent from my effort and from my sweat. In a cooperative, no. We work for equal parts and it is shared between all of us. We're not going to enrich ourselves, but we will maintain ourselves and either way in a private company you are not going to enrich yourself, you are going to earn less.
RADIO AL REVÉS: When MUDEBAR began in 2005, there were 194 women who formed the cooperative, and now only 42 members remain. Some of the women went on within the educational social missions and found work elsewhere, but the global economic recession has been a larger factor, and in the last few years they have had fewer contracts and have struggled to maintain full-time work for all members.
Despite these setbacks, MUDEBAR has managed to thrive and continue as a result of hard work from its members as well as substantial government support for the cooperative. In addition to training and credit, the government also provided all of the funding for their building, pays for the electric bill, and provides a substantial portion of their market through purchases of government and school uniforms. This level of state support for the formation of cooperatives and anti-poverty programs, in Venezuela, is unprecedented.
CIRO RAMOS DE RODRIGUEZ: I am sixty years old and I have never seen a government like this one. He is caring towards the poor, towards those who don't have things, to solve problems. This president wants that no one in this country is poor.
RADIO AL REVÉS: Prior to the election of Hugo Chavez Frias in 1998, Venezuela had 813 registered cooperatives throughout the country.
After the Constitutional Assembly, which birthed the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela, the oil-rich country began a massive political, social and economic transformation and invested substantial resources into a wide range of anti-poverty programs and experimental projects to facilitate a more equitable development.
With the initiation of Mision Vuelvan Caras during the Chavez presidency, the significant increase in tax breaks, resources, training and government contracts created a cooperative 'boom' which peaked in 2006 at 262,904 registered cooperatives. However, many of the newly formed cooperatives failed or never got off the ground and today, the Venezuelan government estimates about 70,000 functioning cooperatives, the second highest number in the world after China. Despite failures, the massive investment in cooperatives in the last 6 years has come with many important lessons.
MUDEBAR is one of the successful ones, that despite a significant decrease in members, has kept its doors open and spirits high. Ciro explains how they determine their pay and what they use the surplus for.
CIRO RAMOS DE RODRIGUEZ: Within the cooperative, we split the money up into equal parts with all of the members. So we take out everything that is administrative costs, we take out the costs that the cooperative has, to pay for the maintenance of equipment, all of these types of things, we take the cost out and whatever remains we distribute equally among us with the exception of the money that we put into a reserve fund for education, for emergencies and what remains after this 50 percent goes to buying new materials and 50 percent goes to wages for paying workers. If we work a lot it goes a long way, but if we work a little, we pay ourselves little. How do we make decisions? The cooperative is a society where we all have opinions and where we all have equal voice.
RADIO AL REVÉS: MUDEBAR is just one cooperative, and there is no fixed model for how pay is distributed, although there tends to be a generally equitable pay among members.
Heading from the coastal region of Barlovento towards the Llanos and beginning of the Andean Mountains in the state of Lara, we arrive at the heart of the Venezuelan Cooperative movement. Lara is home to numerous cooperatives that formed in an era where there was little government support and they had to build each process by scraping together the few resources that they could.
Omar Garcia is a founding member of Las Lajitas, an agricultural cooperative in the rolling green hills of Monte Carmelo, a small town above Sanare. Their cooperative formed over 40 years ago by members who were farm laborers and often had to migrate seasonally to find work. To solve the problem of unemployment and poverty, a number of community members formed Las Lajitas cooperative.
OMAR GARCIA: I think that we have survived these past years because all of us who started this cooperative, we didn't have anything. We were farm workers, producers without anything, without a piece of land, without a hoe, without a pick. Through the cooperative, we were creative and we got capital. We got some credit extended to us for the acquisition of this land, we divided the credit into three parts, the first for the acquisition of land, which is actually very hard to get credit for, but we had a lot of luck with an organization that facilitated the loan, the second part went to capital for to pay workers and the third went for machinery. So we got credit for the farm and at this point the farm is totally paid off.
RADIO AL REVÉS: Las Lajitas now has 83 cooperative member/workers, and Omar describes how they organize their work.
OMAR GARCIA: We organize ourselves into teams. There are teams that are in charge of chicken production, a team that’s in charge of the development of organic crops, another team that is in charge, in this case me, of the seeds, and that’s how we are organized by teams. We also do the administrative work and that's rotational. Right now we have a fixed time, which is two months, in which each member takes on the accounting and administrative pieces. We have had some difficulty with people who don't like doing the administrative piece and they say "I can’t do it, I am not going to take on this responsibility,” but I think that each member has to take on this responsibility so that there is transparency so that we are equals. The problem with many cooperatives and organizations is when they leave the economic aspect to two or three people, when they leave the economic management up to the president, the secretary and the treasurer, this is what often causes problems. So we are breaking this scheme, so that there is transparency and also so that we are learning as cooperative members, as farmers and as producers. Here thanks to god there is a lot of transparency.
RADIO AL REVÉS: The theme of rotational work is a consistent form of organization for many cooperatives. Gaudi Garcia of MONCAR, a small cooperative that produces value-added food items such as tomato sauce and jam explains how they organize work.
GAUDI GARCIA: We are six housewives from this community in Monte Carmelo, and here the work is rotational. We all have different roles. The person who controls the account, that's rotational, the responsibility of preparing the sauces and the sweets every day, it shifts whose turn that is. Each day it changes who is responsible. So for example today, the women who is in charge, she's responsible for organizing the work. If she needs to look for another person to help her with that, that's her responsibility, and if there is any more urgent work that needs to be done that day, its her responsibility. We also have a director role, which lasts three years and we switch that role.
RADIO AL REVÉS: Each worker may have rotating positions, but every member is still paid equally.
GAUDI GARCIA: We are earning a minimum wage, 70 Bolivares daily. I think it's little, but at the end of the year we subtract our losses from what we made and we pay ourselves retroactively. Thanks to god, we've never had a net loss. We haven't had an excessive profit, but neither have we had a loss. And so we pay ourselves retroactively with what we've made on all of our work.
RADIO AL REVÉS: Many cooperatives pay in a similar manner to MONCAR. Each worker receives a weekly payment, which varies from cooperative to cooperative, and at the end of the year, the surplus earnings that remain after costs and reserve funds are removed, get distributed amongst workers.
OMAR GARCIA: Here we all have the same salary, the same base pay. The person who transports the products to Barquisimeto makes the same amount as the person who is using the pick, and the person using the pick makes the same as the person who is with the cows, and the person who is with cows makes the same as the person who is cooking the food, and the cook makes as much as anyone else doing any kind of job for this cooperative. That’s the base pay. Nevertheless the surplus that we divide among workers at the end of the year is done in a equitable way. We make a list of the number of days , worked for each cooperative member. So if I worked forty days, I'll receive a year end payment that reflects 40 days. If a member works more than me, he was more responsible, he put more effort towards production, it's real that he's going to earn more than me, because he put more effort toward working, he had more commitment to the cooperative, the end of the year pay is based on days worked for each cooperative member. Apart from the end of the year payment we also keep a savings fund for each cooperative member based on days worked.
RADIO AL REVÉS: The decent wages, and savings fund are one of the benefits of a cooperative for the workers, but another benefit is that workers themselves make decisions about what health risks that they will or will not take. Omar describes why the cooperative decided to transition from conventional production, which uses chemical pesticides and fertilizers, to organic production.
OMAR GARCIA: Our production in Las Lajitas is completely organic. We began to farm in a conventional way, but seeing that it brought many problems of pollution, both in those who consumed the product as well as in those who work the land. It was creating health problems. Seeing the level of pollution in the water and the environment we decided to figure out how we could produce in an organic way.
RADIO AL REVÉS: Another cooperative outside of Sanare, Ocho de Marzo, originated from concerns about community health. Women who were community volunteers on the local health committee were addressing the issues of lack of access to nutritious foods in their community. Out of this process came the proposal to form a cooperative that produces whole grain pasta, granola and other nutritious foods.
8 DE MARZO: With the help of a priest who came to visit our health committee, we started to see how we could improve nutrition, how to make natural remedies in our houses so we wouldn't have to take our kids to the hospital as much and how to cure certain sicknesses with plants that grow in the community.
RADIO AL REVÉS: Ocho de Marzo, meaning the 8th of March, was formed by 8 women who chose the name to honor international women's day and the work of women. The women are clear that the formation of the cooperative has been an important part of combating sexism in their personal lives as well as in their communities.
8 DE MARZO: When we started the cooperative in the era of the 80s, there was a lot of sexism within marriages. The idea persisted that women needed to stay in the house and it was the man who would go out to find work to sustain the family. We were not trained, we hadn't studied. Now we have one cooperative member who graduated with a degree in accounting: I made it through fifth grade, we haven't graduated from universities but it has been the university of life that has led us to bring this project forward. So all of the training we've gotten I've liked, because I know it's relevant to the cooperative and to the work that we are doing. And so we are owners, we are members, we are workers and I dont have anyone who is ordering me around, I know what I need to do each day.
RADIO AL REVÉS: In Monte Carmelo, the cooperatives have been an important force for creating economic opportunities, social development and participation of women.
GAUDI GARCIA: So we organized ourselves as women to create a space in our society, a space of encounter, a space to address the problems that housewives and women face, and especially rural women who have been very marginalized. And also to liberate ourselves from sexism. Women should occupy a space with gender equity, with equal conditions, and equal opportunities. Fighting against sexism to me is one of the most important struggles for women to achieve family stability as well as social, cultural and economic stability.
OMAR GARCIA: In this case when we formed the cooperative we were all men. But after time women started to affiliate themselves with the cooperative, which we thought was extremely interesting, that women also joined in cooperative work apart from the work that they already have as housewives. Also that they participate with the same rights and decision-making power that we as men have. Now we see women as people, not as a slave in the kitchen working and watching the children and I know that this has been because of the cooperative.
RADIO AL REVÉS: In the industrial zone of Barquisimeto, the capitol of the state of Lara, there is one of the largest, busiest markets in town. Filling an expansive warehouse, buyers can find a full array of produce, dairy, meat, household goods and domestic appliances at substantially lower prices than other stores.
Run by a cooperative named CECOSESOLA, the Central Services Cooperative of Lara, the Ferias de Consumo Familiar are today the largest nongovernmental distributor of food in Venezuela, moving 450 tons of produce weekly and serving 55,000 families at cost, passing on a savings of an estimated $11 million annually directly to the community. Aside from being a distributor, CECOSESOLA is also affiliated with many of the producers themselves, directly benefiting farmer cooperatives with higher returns, while providing the transportation networks to deliver goods to a market.
Founded in 1967, CECOSESOLA originally developed as a social organization to provide affordable funeral services that were otherwise outrageously expensive. The cooperative soon grew into the field of transportation, at its height serving as the entire bus transit system of Barquisimeto. In the late 1970s CECOSESOLA endured a major setback when the local government confiscated and destroyed the vast majority of their buses, nearly bankrupting the organization.
Rather than giving up, the cooperative reorganized and began using their remaining buses as mobile markets for the sale of produce and goods. This initiative eventually grew into theFerias Familiar that can be found in several states. Today the cooperative is comprised of 1,200 workers, with an extended family of 20,000 associated producers. Workers at CECOSESOLA are all equally paid and make three times the minimum wage. The cooperative is also engaged in providing health services, and have opened six regional health centers that serve over 150,000 patients annually. They sell domestic electrical products, provide cooperative financial services, capacity building and training services.
Gustavo Salas, who has been with CECOSESOLA for over 40 years, shares the different approaches between CECOSESOLA as a social organization versus a private enterprise.
GUSTAVO SALAS: When we started with the buses, what is a bus company? It’s a company that gives service to the community. But when we began we didn't want to continue with a relationship of clients. We are all a part of a community, those who are working in the buses and those who are riding the buses. So from the beginning we said, 'this is an organization by the people, for the people' and that we are constructing together. So we organized an assembly in the neighborhoods and those assemblies decided what the bus routes were going to be and who would be some of the workers. And out of those buses we also had political discussions and distributed fliers. So we broke with this business model of division, the separation into a business that gives a service and those who receive it. When we began theferias it was the same. We all bought things at the markets, because I also buy here and I come from a community. So we're breaking with the business logic of one serving the other, because in fact we are constructing this together and this has an educational value and indirectly has an economic result.
RADIO AL REVÉS: The theme of equality runs deep in the culture of CECOSESOLA.
GUSTAVO SALAS: There's a coordinating team, there's a team to coordinate the vegetables, to coordinate the market, but everything is rotational. Coordinating the buying, the accounting or anything else doesn't give anyone power over anyone else.
RADIO AL REVÉS: Gustavo elaborated that each cooperative member works about 40 hours of concrete work a week, but that there is generally an additional 10 hours of meetings. Ender Duarte, another cooperative member with CECESESOLA, explains why the meetings are so important.
ENDER DUARTE: Basically we all have the possibility of learning from each other and it’s distinct, because when we say that our relationships are of trust or of personal growth its really easy to criticize someone else if I don't understand their position. This is one of the possibilities that this rotation gives us. That we can all learn everything, and if one is not exercising power over others then we have no problem sharing all the knowledge. So knowledge is not private property of anybody, instead we share it and so in these rotations we all learn about the work that we need to do.
Meetings are not spaces to make decisions in the majority of cases, although we make some. Instead meetings are formative spaces where we are giving tools to people to make decisions in the moment, in real life. For example, in this moment people are making a huge quantity of decisions about merchandise, about the products that we are sharing. So our intention is that all of us can make these decisions. So meetings are spaces where we nourish ourselves through the formation of collective criteria that give us the possibility to make decisions. We say no to individualism, but yes to growing as individuals, and the power to make decisions as individuals implies personal growth.
RADIO AL REVÉS: Investing in people, through education, political formation, and respect is a key element in running cooperatives. Gustavo talks about why cooperatives need this focus.
GUSTAVO SALAS: Our experience shows us that in concentrating on the process of formation, the economics become resolved through the process because what is organization? Organization is the integration of people. Our culture makes us separate, makes us compete, makes us struggle for power and climb the ladder, so many organizations instead of integrating us, try to control us. The organization of a private business is separation. They break you into departments and they separate you through hierarchies, from the top down. So instead of integrating they separate. This creates problems within a business. They often achieve control but it creates communication problems, trust problems. Then they have to pay specialists millions of dollars to make the system better. So we say ‘we're going to deconstruct all of that. We're going to get rid of the departments. Get rid of hierarchies. And simply, we're going to try to come to agreements. We're going to integrate ourselves.’ So here there's not specific jobs. There's not a director. There's not a president. There's not a supervisor. There's nothing like that. And now with the feria we are over 600 workers and there's absolutely no administrative distance at all. Simply; all of us clean, all of us cook, all of us do security. We rotate all of the positions. And what gives us the possibility to do it like this? Meetings and meetings and meetings and meetings, at least fifteen hours of meetings a week.
RADIO AL REVÉS: Years of cooperative collective work has created a wealth of knowledge and experience. Here are some of the words of wisdom from those who have worked in cooperatives for over 20 years.
GAUDI GARCIA: When we learn how to work together and we learn how to accept other people that are different from us, and the other person actually accepts somebody who is different too, and we can still work together to plan activities and we really achieve working together with people through differences, I think that this represents a huge spiritual strength and growth.
8 DE MARZO: When we say the word cooperative, we have to learn that the word cooperative comes from the word to cooperate.
GUSTAVO SALAS: Development of the individual but not of individualism, which are two different things. There is a saying that goes: we are not individualists nor are we collectivists, because we are trying to develop a collective environment where we are growing all of the time, and each of us developing as people. It’s a balance that’s not easy. You have to continually build it.
8 DE MARZO: The organization is going to help you form yourself as a person, as a human being. The workshops that we receive, workshops of formation, here we've been formed by many workshops. This is the difference with working in a private company and working with a cooperative.
OMAR GARCIA: I think that in this moment many things in the world have changed, but I think that what is really interesting is the organization of human beings, especially working people. Lets say it, poor people. Organization of poor people is extremely interesting, and through organization we learn about all sorts of things. There are also difficulties in organization, but you have to overcome them. One way to overcome problems is to organize. I think as individuals it is difficult to overcome all the problems that we face. Also there is that human part of us that needs to have relationships with other people, we have desires to be with other people. Sometimes when we work alone as individuals we feel tired or we can feel like we are alone. I can make money, but without any participation. I think cooperatives help with this part.
GAUDI GARCIA: Cooperativism is founded on the values of equality, participation, respect, tolerance, solidarity and dialogue. I think that despite the differences that we have, we have achieved this here. Something that has created a lot of problems for us here is when indifference takes a hold of us, when we don't feel community problems as if they are own because we say no, we're okay, I have my secure work.
8 DE MARZO: If we make a cooperative but we don't participate in meetings of the social movements that exist, we're not going to know how to nourish ourselves, because everyday we have new things we need to learn and not just by ourselves.
OMAR GARCIA: Yes, the cooperative in the social aspect helps a lot. It forms people so that they can organize in their own location, so that they can work in an organized way, which is the only way to solve many problems, although we continue having problems, the problems never end, if we fix one of them another is going to come, but that is life
GAUDI GARCIA: Cooperativists have to have an ideological formation, and it can't be any other way. It can’t be any different from the process of development and change. So in this moment we need this: a cooperativist formed with clear ideologies, where are we going, why are we cooperativists, what moves me to be a part of a cooperative? Is it only economic resources, or is it a model of life that I want for my community, for my people?
GUSTAVO SALAS: We've said for a long time that this is not a model to copy. It's a way to live life, it's a life option. Each person has to decide what life they want to live and nobody can impose that on somebody else. So when groups come here and try to copy us I say, 'forget about copying us. You have to do your own process, and if you are disposed to reflect, to meet, to talk to each other, then its not going to be like our process. It's going to be different, but your going to find a way to live your lives.' So of the many groups that are integrated into CECOSESOLA, every one of them has their own rhythm, each one has their own moment. The important thing is that they move within their process.
RADIO AL REVÉS: The lessons shared by these veteran cooperativistas members include the following:
- Forming a cooperative is work of the heart, it's not just forming a structure and making roles, everything will result from your own efforts.
- The fundamental element of cooperatives is that there is trust and there is trust because there is transparency, responsibility and respect.
- We can't close ourselves into the economic, we have to transcend into the social and see that there is a reality within your community, and because you are organized you can therefore help to resolve the problems.
- Cooperativism is not a document it is something you carry in your heart.
- A requirement of this work is to lose your desire to give orders. If you like to give orders, or you like to follow them, then this is not for you.
- A message to workers is that the only way to move forward is through organization, an organization that is clear, transparent and responsible.
RADIO AL REVÉS: There are many types of cooperatives, including producer and consumer co-ops. In the United States, people are more familiar with co-op Credit Unions, grocery stores, or cooperative housing units. So while nearly 1 billion people worldwide are said to be members of cooperatives, the majority of these cooperatives are not easily distinguished from traditional private enterprises. Even large corporate chains such as Best Western, and Recreational Equipment Incorporated- or REI- are registered as cooperatives because of legal and tax technicalities.
These corporate models of cooperatives, and the ones featured in this program, are worlds apart. The often small scale, worker-owned, operated, and managed cooperatives, which make decisions collectively through consensus and play an active role in their communities are defined by an entirely different set of economic and social values.
It takes many years and a lot of work to develop these practices, and the work presents many challenges. For these reasons, despite massive money poured into the development of cooperatives in Venezuela over the last 7 years, many have failed. Without proper training, a clear social vision, a sound business plan, and participation and transparency, cooperatives face huge challenges.
Despite the demise of so many cooperatives in Venezuela, the lessons learned have meant that the experiment was not a failure.
As the world continues to be mired in a variety of economic, social and environmental crises, it is becoming increasingly clear that new forms of organizing society and the economy will be needed as part of any real solution. Cooperatives might just be part of that answer. If you are interested in forming cooperatives, some of these resources may be helpful:
This has been a production of RADIO AL REVÉS.
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