Cooperatives attempt to eliminate some of the problems that are associated with capitalist ownership of the means of production. The goals of cooperative ownership and management are to democratize the workplace and reduce worker exploitation. A cooperative is defined by the International Co-operative Alliance as an "autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise." In other words, it is an economic organization owned and controlled equally by the people who work there.
CECOSESOLA is a network of cooperatives in the state of Lara in Venezuela. Their biggest enterprise is a large food cooperative located in the city of Barquisimeto, which has recently been receiving attention from leftist activists and independent media all over the world.
The CECOSESOLA food co-op is owned and managed collectively by all 470 of its workers. Everyone earns the same monthly wage. Almost all of the administrative and managerial decisions are made in meetings, by the consensus of everyone involved. This is especially unique because Cecosesola is a very large enterprise.
Their food markets, or ferias, supply somewhere between 25% and 30% of all of the families in Barquisimeto with fresh produce and other food.
CECOSESOLA insists, however, that their organization is not a model. The way they operate is in constant flux, and their current form took several decades to evolve from something that was originally much smaller and much more hierarchical.
I got to sit down and talk with a CECOSESOLA veteran, Gustavo Salas Romer, who has been working with the organization for over thirty years. The interview was conducted in English and has been transcribed word for word.
Tell us about how CECOSESOLA began?
Well, when we started, we started like any other cooperative, I think, in the world. We were very normal. The very first members were a group of people from ten cooperatives in Barquisimeto. And we started because in one of those cooperatives, the hospital, one of its members died and they didn't have enough money to bury him. And that initiated a discussion in the cooperative movement of that time, that we needed a funeral service.
So that was our beginning. And when we started out, I think we never would have imagined an organization this size, with this much variety of activities, we have a funeral service, we have household goods we sell, we have the ferias where we sell food, and all the activities that we have, that that could be generated and organized without any hierarchical organization.
Nobody has power over anybody else. We have activity. People work accounting, different activities, but when you do those activities, that doesn't give you power over the other associates. You're there for a time, and since activities are rotated, you might be in accounting one moment and you'll be sweeping the floors the next day, or you might be cooking. So those who are looking for power, they don't find a nice place here.
And so the reason why CECOSESOLA began was because of the need for a funeral service?
Yes, everything we have done has started with a social need. And that's discussed, and through the discussion, we find a way to do it. We have never been very concerned with money. If we decide to do something, we do it.
When did you become a member of CECOSESOLA?
There was a group of people that started when I started, that was 1972. There was about five of us. We came to a cooperative movement that was working very traditionally, but a lot of people within the cooperative movement were questioning the lack of participation. They wanted more of a chance to participate in CECOSESOLA. And we came from the outside with the same idea: that the educational process is not an "in school" type of education, it's what you do, how you relate yourself in the workplace. That's your main educational possibility, because education is relationships. So we started with that idea: to expand the participation in CECOSESOLA. That was the initial idea.
We didn't have clear at that time that you could eliminate completely the board of directors, but we wanted to go towards that. That CECOSESOLA should be an organization open to the participation of all its members. And the board of directors, what they should do is catalyze and promote that participation. But at the very beginning, I'm talking about 1974, we couldn't think of it because nobody had had that experience, that you could completely abolish the board of directors.
At the beginning it was very hard because our intention, our desire wasn't as clear and as shared as it is now. So that's what I say when people come and ask "how can I do something similar to CECOSESOLA?" Well, you get a group that has clarity that they want a shared experience, they want to respect each other, they want to construct relationships, and the rest comes easy. You don't have to do anything else; the rest just evolves. But if the group is not clear with that, if the group is there for personal, individualistic objectives, it's not going to work.
At one point CECOSESOLA became a bus service cooperative. How did that happen?
We got involved with the transportation because, since we were fighting for social justice and the Enterprise Bus owners wanted to raise the price, we said, "we'll take care of that. We will assume the transportation and we won't raise the price." So we bought 127 buses and we were transporting almost the whole city, but inflation came. So prices didn't cover our costs. So, since we were fighting for social justice, we held meetings in the community, we organized people, enormous manifestations, and we asked the government to subsidize the transportation.
And that meant that we were wielding power, so the political parties started getting afraid of CECOSESOLA, that we were going to displace them, that we wanted to be governor, that we wanted to be mayor of the city, all the political parties got very scared of us, because we had a capacity to mobilize the city, a much greater capacity than any political party. Because we had the buses and we had a reason: to not raise the price. So the students got involved with us and they defended us.
It got to the point where the political parties were very scared, so after elections, they decided to destroy us. And the government came in, and they took over our buses with the police. They jailed us, they persecuted us, and they took away our cooperative, because we were not of a political party. Supposedly we were competition, but we never had political ambition. And we spent five and a half months without buses. We had a hundred and twenty-eight workers that we had to feed. And we were completely broke.
The government didn't plan to give back the buses. They thought that once they took them away, that we would give up. And we didn't give up. We kept on fighting. We got help from different cooperatives; we walked to Caracas, and we protested in Caracas. We made it a whole movement, a national movement. And in the end they had to give us the buses back, but when they gave them back to us, we were completely broke. The buses were almost all destroyed by the government.
Of a hundred and twenty-seven buses, only thirty were functioning when we got them back. Because they used them, they took them away and threw them in the street without any coordination, without any management. So it was a mess. Our losses reached 30 million Bolivares at that time, and our capital was 1 million. So we lost our investment, we had lost it thirty times. In economics, that's broke sixty times. It's completely impossible to recover from that situation.
But we didn't give up. That's one of the secrets: to keep on fighting until you find a solution. And the food fair was the final solution, although when we started the food fair we never imagined that we could pay that debt. We had debt in the millions of dollars. We didn't have any way to pay it. We didn't even have any way to pay the salaries every week. But we survived for about three or four years, and then one day we decided to take the seats out of the buses and put some vegetables in them and go to the barrios and sell them, and that's how the food fair started.
But we did that to get a little income to pay the weekly salaries, we didn't ever expect that it would grow to this and that we would pay all that debt with the food fair. But after twelve years of the food fair, we had grown enough so that we paid all our debt. We are completely solid. We don't owe money to anybody. And that's been important for us, because it has made us work harder and unite more.
The key to all this is the desire. See, usually when people try to find something that has had a good experience that they want to copy it, they try to make a model. And we say, "We're not a model. We're not something you can copy, we're just a process." And that process, the coherence of that process is that there's been a desire. At first, not too deep, at first not very shared, but at this moment much deeper and more shared, is the desire to live together respecting eachother, in solidarity. If you have that clear, you don't need anything else. Everything else comes. But it's not a desire for economic richness, for power. It's not an individualistic desire; it's a collective desire. That's the difference.
We're wondering what the pay is like: is it similar to other jobs in Barquisimeto? Is it based on the hour?
The problem is that we don't have jobs. Like I said, one day you might be in accounting, the next day you'll be sweeping the floor. So we just have a flat daily… it's not a salary. I don't know how you say it in English. It's that we're anticipating our profits, but it's not called a salary. The people who enter here, who have been here for one or two years, they will have a small difference in income yearly. They have the same daily income, but there's a small difference in bonuses. We have always wanted to maintain at least a small difference to give the message that this has to be a big effort; we're not going to give you everything… But the difference, every time it gets smaller. After they've been here two or three years, it's the same as everybody. We earn, according to what our labor would earn in Barquisimeto, we earn maybe twice as much.
People come here that maybe don't even have second grade, third grade, fifth grade. My youngest son, his best friend graduated as an engineer a year ago. It took him a year to find a job, and he's earning less than us. So it's not a high salary, it's a bit more than twice the minimum. But, there are a lot of other advantages.
We have a health fund. If somebody gets sick or if family of ours gets sick, we have the money to solve it. We have special bonuses in December. We buy food a lot cheaper. So in the end, it might represent almost three times the minimum wage. And also all the advantages, all the opportunity to expand your knowledge that we have here. Also, there are certain careers that… we have the opportunity to learn about health, about maintenance, about how to grow food.
We also have the opportunity to study, to continue our studies. We're flexible with that. We also have the opportunity to travel. For instance, many of the associates here haven't left their hometown ever in their life. But right now, more than fifty percent have visited at least ten, fifteen, twenty cities in Venezuela that they never would've gotten to know. And, a lot of us have had the opportunity to visit other countries. So the opportunity to enhance your knowledge is another thing that we have here.