= the Central Cooperative for Social Services of Lara: "A cooperative where there are no positions, only tasks to be done".
URL = http://cecosesola.org/
"The Central Cooperative for Social Services of Lara (CECOSESOLA) is technically a cooperative of cooperatives, but the name is a little deceiving. When the new Cooperative Law was passed in 2001 allowing the change, members of CECOSESOLA decided to legally open up the Central to other organizations, not specifically registered as cooperatives. They kept the name for familiarity sake. CECOSESOLA now has over 300 associated workers, nearly 20,000 associates, and is composed of over 80 cooperatives (savings, agricultural, production), civil associations, organizations, and a puppet crew.
It’s a cooperative service and it’s delivered by one of the oldest, largest and most important cooperatives in the country.
CECOSESOLA numbers report that an approximate 55,000 families shop at the five ferias weekly, which run Friday- Sunday. This amounts to about a third of Barquisimeto’s 1.5 million residents. In all, 400,000-450,000 kilos of vegetables are sold every weekend at competitive prices of 50-75 cents a Kilo. The vegetables and fruits are acquired from 16 groups of local producers, plus a whole line of products, many of which arrive from eight “Units of Community Production” (smaller cooperatives producing for the Ferias). CECOSESOLA admits to have weekly sales of over $500,000, which works out to approximately $32 Million annually. Not bad for a cooperative."
From an interview conducted by ELLIOT JENSEN AND ANNA ISAACS with Gustavo Salas Romer:
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.
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." (http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4804)
"In Venezuela and abroad, Cecosesola holds the reputation for being a leading example in successful and innovative cooperativism. For years they have hosted a continuous flow of visitors- researchers, students and everyday citizens alike- all drawn by the prospect of a working alternative to the capitalist model.
Here they find just that- a more humane and just social-economic system, whose main pillars are shared responsibility, consensus-based decision-making and ongoing communication through regular participatory meetings. It was in these circumstances that on September 27 2010, three volunteers arrived in Barquisimeto from the Prout Research Institute of Venezuela. The following is based on ten days in the life of the Center of Cooperatives of Social Services of Lara State (Cecosesola, its Spanish acronym), that in December celebrated 43 years of struggle and success.
A wooden plaque boldly engraved with the words: “MEETING ROOM OF CECOCESOLA DIRECTORS” has found a new location after visiting many corners of the funerary services office in the cooperative’s central building. It now rests, solemnly, in the front window of the building they call the “School”, located on the same grounds as the Central Market, the biggest market of food and domestic goods in Barquisimeto. The official-looking object has the symbolic weight of a museum piece. It is displayed to remind hundreds of worker-members that pass through every day of a very different time in Cecosesola’s history, when it was a “hierarchical, rigid and bureaucratical” organization (1).
Since the co-op was founded in 1967 by a group of 10 cooperatives in the region, until today, it has aimed at progressively diminishing those vestiges of the traditional vertical structure on which the current “patriarchal culture” is based (2). This theme, incidentally, has been both valuable for the organization, and has produced extensive knowledge from the daily experience in the laboratory of their workplace.
“The workers were just workers – they obeyed and didn’t take part in the meetings,” remembers Gustavo Salas, 68 years old, one of the many young volunteers that went to Barquisimeto in the early 70’s to advise the regional cooperative movement, then organized around savings and loans. “In 1971 when I got here, after leaving the administrator’s position of one of my father’s companies, Cecosesola was already a bureaucratic organization, and because of that, it had lost the enthusiasm of the first years,” he adds. This wave of volunteers, who were inspired by the Cuban Revolution, the Allende movement in Chile, and by an ideal of Christian socialism, originally came to help the religious group, Communitarian Organization for the Marginalized, that had given impulse to the development of the cooperative movement in Barquisimeto since the 60’s.
“We had a dream: that the cooperatives would be like an advance model of the society we wanted to build. But we didn’t know how to do this, and besides, we thought the transformation depended on the State, on some kind of power,” recounts Teofilo Ugalde, a 67-year-old Cuban native. He arrived in Venezuela in 1968 as a Catholic priest, and came in contact with the organization during it’s most politically and economically challenging years managing a Cooperative Transportation Service (1974-1985). This quickly become the largest and most affordable bus service in Barquisimeto. Trouble began in 1980 when the local government cut off subsidies, and the cooperative began running up $300,000 in debt every month. Cecosesola maintained it’s low price at half the going rate, at .25 Bs., as promised to the local community, despite financial difficulties imposed by the government. This fight laid the foundation for the dynamic self-organizing process that defines what Cecosesola is today.
And what is Cecosesola today? The collective describes itself as a “cooperative integration organism,” that involves 60 community organizations, more than 20,000 members, and a broad spectrum of activities including: agriculture, small-scale agro-industry, funeraral services, transportation, health, savings and loans, mutual funds, and distribution of food and domestic items. The cooperative has annual gross sales of 200 million Bolivares Fuertes, close to US$47 million." (http://priven.org/262/)
Experiences of Gender and Cooperativism
Kathryn Brignac, "My experiences at CECOSESOLA":
"The ways I directly saw women being included and empowered through work and achieving equality was not only through benefits such as equal pay, but also through the freedom they have working in a democratic workplace. CECOSESOLA is based in participatory democracy and thus all voices are heard in small and larger meetings, held multiple times per week, where they make the processes transparent and make decisions collectively. Also, because there is job rotation and the option to do the jobs you want, this means women are not stuck in the worst jobs, or any job they feel is not empowering. This creates a different power dynamic that is more equal than jobs that run on a capitalist model. This is not just an economic opportunity for women; it is creating true economic development and human development through including and valuing their participation. Additionally, they are doing work that is providing for the community by offering healthy, local foods and other necessary goods at the market, for lower prices than other places. They also offer their health services from the health center at a much cheaper cost than private health centers, with reduced prices for members, including services for pregnant women and mothers.
The creation of empowering work for women as well as a new type of economy, based on endogenous development and anti-capitalist values, is an important part of the cooperative movement. Many of the women’s cooperatives I visited were started by housewives in their homes who often could not leave home to work because they needed to care for their children, and they lived far from opportunities, such as in the country. Gabriela at Ocho de Marzo told a classmate in an interview, “Rural women were relegated to working at home and taking care of their children, taking care of their spouses, cooking…we started to see that rural women had value, had know-how, and were capable of doing other work” (7). This, along with a desire to organize women to make something of value out of locally available products, spurred the creation of several of the cooperatives, including Ocho de Marzo, Moncar, and Avivir. Ocho de Marzo started making whole grain pasta using local vegetables to produce something healthy for their community; later Moncar, which formed making pasta sauce and jams, uses the tomatoes, onions, and fruit already available at local farms, including another cooperative, Las Lajitas. They both make healthy food products which are then sold in a stable market, at the CECOSESOLA feria in the city. The women at both of these cooperatives told us how they have gained respect in their communities, and now even their sons and grandsons are coming to learn these skills from them. While these cooperatives pre-existed the current government and its programs, others came about more recently and with more government support. One such cooperative is Avivir, a small women’s cooperative that makes natural cosmetic products and herbal applications, as well as producing goat cheese on the side. They also formed out of the desire to work in their communities, organize as women, and be close to their children. The cooperative began by learning skills from students to make things that the community needed, first being shampoo, then face cream, soap, and now an herbal menthol chest rub, all made of natural ingredients, much of which is foraged locally. This all started in one person’s kitchen, until they were able to get microcredit and now have their own workshop near their houses, with more equipment. The most interesting part of talking with them for me was the way they have been so innovative to meet whatever demand for a product comes up, and they expressed how difficult it has been to create some of their products to be as natural as they want, for the health of the workers and community. Their work was in stark contrast to the ideals of the nearby Proctor and Gamble plant, where workers use harsh chemicals that are imported, and which does not allow for the same feeling of solidarity or for the convenience of working near your home and family.
More participatory and inclusive organizations like cooperatives, unlike the Proctor and Gamble plant, produce things needed by and produced from the local community, and promote endogenous development, development using resources and knowledge that is already in existence to achieve the economic transformation of their society. This type of development also revives traditional methods, such as using local plants for cosmetic and medicinal purposes, which I saw being done by several cooperatives, including Avivir. It is not only more sustainable and healthy, but allows for production within the community, whether that is wild harvesting plants, or a farming cooperative growing medicinal herbs, such as the several ones we met in the Páramo, a region in the Andes, and also outside of Caracas. Often the skills needed for this are already present in a community and just need to be taught. The resources to apply these skills can be found through community organizing, such as in communal councils, to plan projects or in forming cooperatives to meet some community need For example, one cooperative “Lombricultura Mubay” that was part of the large Mixteque Communal Council in the Páramo is predominantly women who started with the aim of conserving a local river, and are creating humus and using worms for composting. They are planning to reclaim the knowledge of one of the women’s grandmother who was a midwife to begin growing and using medicinal herbs in the community, which is a rural farming community in the mountains. This shows a dedication not only to their community, but to creating something new that has a value that is not monetary, but recognized as important by the people living there.
Working somewhere that is focused on solidarity and cooperation has also changed how they view work at home, in families, and in their communities. Both told us they meet with other women’s cooperatives every week to discuss other issues in the community and that machismo still exists in their communities, but has improved a lot since they have shown their work is supporting the community and economy. One of the women at Moncar, Gaudi, talks about their work in an interview:
“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. “(8).
An important note is that within these cooperatives we saw more than a shift in work duties, but changes taking place in the collectivization of other spheres, including what some people refer to as “solidarity work”. Even if Venezuelan women have a partner who is providing for them or are not impoverished economically, the burden of the caregiving and domestic work still falls on them. This is referred to by some people there as the “triple carga” or triple burden of work many women face: domestic unpaid work, paid work outside the home, and community organizing to change their situation.In these cooperatives they have begun incorporating the idea of solidarity and collectively doing the work of production into all of the work included in the “triple carga”, by means of creating support networks in their communities to deal with basic needs such as food, education, caretaking , etc. Many of the women will take care of each other’s children to allow for them to meet their own needs and also to do the community work that is necessary. Additionally working at CECOSESOLA I saw many jobs that may often have been done by women traditionally- such as working in the kitchen to prepare meals for the workers- being done by men also, due to the rotation of work. While I would say on the larger scale men are not being pushed to do more of the domestic work and caregiving as a whole in Venezuela, I think the cooperative structure is bringing those ideas up by changing the values of work to be more socialist and feminist. Erasing the separation between the home, work, and community spheres is what will allow them to tackle sexism and machismo in all spheres of life and push for equality." (http://bolivarianperspectives.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/womens-cooperatives-within-the-bolivarian-revolution/)
1. Carla Ferreira:
There’s a perfect brand image for Cecosesola: their meetings. On Monday, before eight in the morning, human circles form outside the “school,” wherever there is shade. Every Monday, all day long, is reserved to review the previous three days of the Produce Market. The largest of their productions, this market supplies between 50,000 to 60,000 people (30 percent of the Barquisimeto population) with affordable produce and home goods. According to the data from the last month of September, the prices of vegetables were only 55 percent of those sold in the general market. But the communitarian network of food production and distribution extends to four additional states – Trujillo, Portuguesa, Yaracuy and Barinas – making Cecosesola the leading non-government food supplier in the Central-Western region of Venezuela.
Everyone carries their own chair. There are no neckties, PowerPoint presentations or debate moderators. Participation is natural, dynamic and all-inclusive. Topics of discussion vary between wholesale and retail prices, weekly sales, work methodology, the lunch menu of the collective eating hall or even personal matters, so long as they are pertinent to the overall functioning and well-being of the collective. “The keys are the meetings. We spend 20 to 25 percent of our time in meetings,” explains Gustavo Salas, conscious of how strange this may seem to an outsider. His wife, Teresa Correa, who has been with the cooperative for 41 years, clarifies the dynamics and the usefulness of these encounters. “They’re a tool for collective reflection. That’s where we evaluate our responsibility to grow as people and to create common criteria. As we fall in love with the organization, there’s more sense to the meetings. And what does the time and the money we spend on meetings matter, if we save on directors, bosses, etc.?”
Meetings are the “only organizational structure of Cecosesola” but they do not always end with a decision, or even less, a vote. That would divide the collective between those who agree and those who differ over a particular proposal. Teófilo Ugalde explains the local indigenous tradition as a way to understand the dynamics of these human encounters where consensus is sought. “When the indigenous people get together in a churuata (a communal thatched house), the meeting continues, even though some are coming and going. The community stays together until those who are present reach clarity on any point. That’s when the meeting ends,” he describes. In Cecosesola, they seek the same objective. It doesn’t matter how many hours or days it can take to reach consensus, as long as during the path they were able to build a “collective agreement.”
Another primary component of the cooperativism practiced in Cecosesola is the rotation of tasks, engendering a more open attitude towards work by transcending the myth of specialization. “There are no job positions, only chores to be done.” (6). And Eduardo Salas, 23 years old, is a good example of the personal and professional growth as a result of this system. Today he works in the “farm,” an animal farm that also produces organic fertilizer, but since he got involved with Cecocesola at age 12 as a helper packing bags, he has done everything in the Produce Fairs. He began in the “quincalla” (cosmetics), then he was the coordinator of vegetables in the Downtown Fair and then the coordinator of groceries in the Ruiz Pineda Fair. During this time, he continued his studies – it is a commitment that all minors and their parents or legal guardians establish with the Cooperative Central. Today he is studying tax administration at the university. “We don’t stay in one place. We are in a process of change, of evolution,” he comments.
He admits that one of the most important achievements he obtained in Cecosesola was to learn to take initiative. “It’s vital in our lives, I practice it here, in my house and in my music group, were I compose songs and play the guitar.” For Eduardo, the meetings are “educational spaces, which help our personal and organizational development.” He has the clear notion that he is part of an organization that makes a difference, not just in Venezuela, but on a global scale. “I feel as though I’m with my family. It’s an organization where every opinion counts and is respected. In other places, people just work and nothing else. They pay you to do that.”
The cooperative salary or “member anticipation,” as they call it, is an equal share of the total surplus, and it is the same for everyone, regardless of one’s current job responsibilities. Today this amount is equal to three times the minimum wage. However it is not something stable and fixed. “It’s subject to reductions or increases, depending on sales. But everything is decided in the assembly, with all the members, more or less 400 people, the cooperative members and also the producers,” clarifies José Raul Vizcaya. He is 22, another boy that began packing bags when he was 12 years old, and who has already gone through all the chores in the Downtown Fair. On the other hand, points out Teresa Correa, “The rotation has the educational value of learning to respect the work of others.” For example, it’s less likely that someone will complain if lunch is delayed in the dining hall, because they’ve all been in the kitchen many times cooking for hundreds of people. Most importantly, concludes the stanch cooperativist, task rotation “prevents generating spaces of power, and in a capitalist society we have the tendency to do that.”" (http://priven.org/262/)
2. On Wages
From an interview conducted by ELLIOT JENSEN AND ANNA ISAACS with Gustavo Salas Romer:
"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." (http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4804)