If you happen to one day find yourself in Venezuela, in the agricultural state of Lara, in the capital city of Barquisimeto, and you happen to ask a local where he or she gets their fruits and vegetables.
There’s a good chance they will respond, La Feria (The Fair). La Feria is not a chain, it is not a Walmart, a Lider-Price or a Safeway. 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.
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.
The ferias are by far the most popular of CECOSESOLA’s activities, but the cooperative also provides banking services, a home-appliance consignment program, funeral services and a network of affordable health clinics. CECOSESOLA is now one of the largest and most successful coops in Venezuela, but you wouldn’t know it from talking with them; it wasn’t always that way and not everyone thinks that’s a good thing.
The state of Lara is considered by most to be the traditional heart of the Venezuelan cooperative movement. This agricultural region lies southwest of Caracas on the road to Merida and the foothills of the Andes. Partially due to its strategically mountainous geography, Lara was an important base of the Venezuelan Tupamaro guerrilla movement throughout the 1960s. Coops arrived around the same time, partially promoted by Jesuit priests and the US government’s Alliance for Progress, either attempting to free the campesinos with the new theology of liberation, or counter the revolutionary movement by giving communities a reason not to join the guerrilla. Savings and Loan coops were the first to form in Lara in the early 1960s, such as el Triunfo which was founded with around 30 members in 1962 and has now grown to 2,820 associates.
CECOSESOLA was founded on December 17, 1967, when one of the members of el Triunfo passed away and members decided to unite with nine other local cooperatives to facilitate an affordable means of burying the dead of their burgeoning cooperative movement.
From humble funeral beginnings the Cooperative Central moved through various periods as if by accident or, as some might prefer, synchronicity. In the mid 1970s, CECOSESOLA formed a transportation service that within four years had become the most economical (as a rule, CECOSESOLA kept their prices at half the going rate) and largest local bus service in Barquisimeto. Unfortunately, in 1980, when the local government cut off subsidies, the cooperative began to run up a hefty debt, losing $300,000 a month. In order to pressure the government to reinstall the subsidy, CECOSESOLA called a bus strike, and initiated a campaign for “free and voluntary transport” reminding one of the Montgomery bus boycott, where volunteers offered a ride to those in need of a lift.
The local government had had enough. That night, March 18, 1980, members of the Venezuelan secret service, DISIP, along with local police arrested various cooperative members and confiscated CECOSESOLA’s offices, installations and their 128 buses for allegedly “hoarding” gasoline. A propaganda campaign ensued against the cooperative and Lara state governor Carlos Zapata Escalona was reported to have called the instigators fascists, and blamed CECOSESOLA with “trying to alter the public order.” 140 days later, after demonstrations, arrests, caravans, and a 7-day march to Caracas, a court order was finally able to force the government to return the sequestered property, but the damage had been done. Many of the vehicles had been dismantled and the parts sold off. The transportation service was in “ruins”, CECOSESOLA’s members were divided, and (according to CECOSESOLA) the cooperative was infiltrated with DISIP informers. Left with what appeared to be a hopeless situation, 17 of CECOSESOLA’s 46 associated cooperatives had fled. Friends and economists alike advised the Central to throw in the towel. For many, “CECOSESOLA was already liquidated,” and according to long-time active member and former CECOSESOLA President, Gustavo Salas Romer, CECOSESOLA had accrued a debt totaling nearly $5 million.
According to the business code, over the next 10 years, CECOSESOLA would officially go bankrupt 60 times, and debt would equal 30 times CECOSESOLA’s capital. In 2003, in a compilation of articles from the period, CECOSESOLA stated, “we needed all of our creativity, all of our work capacity, and especially, our enormous solidarity strength to be able to compensate for the inexistence of material resources. In those days we said, that if they did not break our sprit, sooner or later we would find an out.” And it appears that CECOSESOLA found theirs, a short while later, at the Triunfo feria.
Birth of the Ferias
In 1983, CECOSESOLA member, el Triunfo, held the first feria in a tiny corner building the neighborhood of Pueblo Nuevo. With the success of the Triunfo feria other larger ferias would be formed in the following years. Thus the seeds were sown, from which the now-immensely profitable ferias would grow.
In 1984, the existence of the few-dozen remaining obsolete buses would lead to the ingenious idea of running mobile farmer’s markets whereby fruits and vegetables would be brought and sold directly in the neighborhoods of Barquisimeto. The service, plus the ferias turned out to be tremendously successful and by 1995, CECOSESOLA had completely paid off its multi-million dollar debt.
Lara’s Central Cooperative continued to add services over the next several years. Under the structure of the Savings and Loan, they started linea blanca in 2000, which brought an affordable means of acquiring home appliances to their thousands of members. In 1998, el Triunfo again took the lead and established an affordable health clinic for its associates, thus laying the foundation for what is now a network of six cooperative health services across Barquisimeto- all organized within the cooperative central.
On Sunday, April 23, CECOSESOLA celebrated the first step in its future health project plans- a fiesta for the “ground clearing” of its new “Cooperative Integral Health Center.”
Under the hot Lara sun, Janis Carolina Culmenares attempts to shout over the blistery Latin band performing on a small stage just beyond the barbeque stand. She is planning on studying to be a nurse and has worked in the Triunfo clinic for two and a half years. Her excitement for the new Health Center is contagious.
“We want to begin with emergency- 24 hours service, surgery, traumatology, general medicine and add all the rest of the services… birthing, x-ray, dentistry, acupuncture,” says Culmenares, “Since we can’t construct it completely we are going to go little by little, doing it in pieces, just like seeds growing. Right now we are meeting each month with all of the doctors, talking about their opinions about what is needed.”
The Heath Center is a truly ambitious 3-story project for an expected clientele of 500,000 patients a year. Costs could run to almost $2.8 million, of which they only have $1 million set aside . But the rest, they say, will come. “Our years of experience and struggle together has taught us that we can achieve anything together,” says Salas Romer.
The CECOSESOLA network of health services now caters to 150,000 patients a year. Services include general care, podiatry, dentistry, gynecology, and more, with costs ranging from $4.50 to $8.50 per visit. At the Triunfo medical center, general care and pediatrician is free for the approximate 3,000 associates and up to eight of their registered friends or family members. Members of the cooperative recently decided to raise their associate cost per month to $1.50, and associates also benefit from other discounts, such as 10% off services like dentistry, which costs about $10 for a teeth cleaning. 150-300 patients partake daily in their Acupuncture services paying just over a dollar per treatment.
However, such excellent care appears to come with trade-offs. The 300 associated workers in the Cooperative Central work long hours. Manuel Daza, one of the more dedicated organizers stated recently that he probably works “about 80 hours a week.” “I know it’s crazy, but it’s worth it.” He said, “And there are exceptions, especially for mothers who have to be with their children… the family is part of what we are working for.” Daza makes about $115 per week, plus an extra $40 per each child. He has two. That may not sound like a lot, but it is almost double the minimum wage which President Chavez raised in April by 10%. Workers also receive a healthy vacation benefit of 1 to 2 months off per year, depending on how long they have been with the cooperative. But most importantly, according to Daza, everyone receives the same weekly salary (or as Venezuelan cooperatives call it “associate advance”) regardless of how long they have been with the Cooperative.
There does appear to be one exception. All weekend long, over a hundred children age 12 and up join the ranks of the workers at the cash registers, bagging the produce and products for tips. While child-labor laws do exist in Venezuela, it seems that CECOSESOLA has a special government permit which allows children to work at ages younger than 16.
If they were not there, they would be “smoking Marijuana and drugs on the street.” says Alfonso Olivo, a lifelong cooperativista and co-founder of the LEUFOGRUP, a two-year-old advisory cooperative that lends legal and administrative support to other cooperatives. Olivo has known CECOSESOLA for years, but has never been a member. “Four hours they work and four hours they study, and all of them eat free,” he says. “That can’t be bad.” Since the new Venezuelan Cooperative Law was passed in 2001, the youth are now permitted to become official cooperative associates at age 12, which most of them do, and which entitles them to a yearly bonus. Funds are also set aside for vacation trips, health and educational programs, but nevertheless the point is sticky and the use of child labor is just one of a number of widely spread criticisms of the CECOSESOLA system.
Interestingly, the majority of these criticisms appear to be based on past CECOSESOLA realities, as the organization has admittedly changed dramatically through its almost 40 years of existence.
“In the 70s,” explains Salas Romer, “Wow, we had some conflictive assemblies… people struggling for power. Not anymore. Those looking to take power don’t even know where to begin.”
Although CECOSESOLA is still criticized for having a hierarchical business-like structure, they believe that that couldn’t be further from the truth. “We have no President, no VP, no Secretary,” says Salas Romer simply. “Our assemblies are wide open for everyone and decisions are made in consensus.” Their use of consensus is reaffirmed in article 16 of the current CECOSESOLA statutes (renewed in 2002 to coincide with the new Cooperative law), and actually appears to be the norm, even in assemblies of hundreds of associates. Nevertheless, criticisms do remain.
“Death is productive…” “They sow death,” said one Lara resident, critiquing their funeral services, “for them, death is productive.” Reynaldo Gomez, who has been working with the funeral service for 13 years, and whose parents were cooperativistas, feels differently, “CECOSESOLA was born out of the necessity to offer this funeral service to the new savings and loan cooperatives… We have always wanted people to feel as though they are getting a different service than the commercial funeral services. Different? How? We consider it a necessity to go to the community, and we organize ourselves just as we organize in life- with the consumption fairs and the health services- we organize in death.”
A number of those interviewed claimed that the CECOSESOLA prices were more expensive than other private funeral companies. But Gomez says that even for those not in the association, the prices are still economical. “Sometimes, 70% the going rate. $250 per funeral, rather than $550.” As for the associates, Gomez says that costs run $1.30 per month, and like the health services, benefits go to the 19,000 funeral service associates and eight friends or family members.
“They don’t leave anything for the producers…” “CECOSESOLA has always been a business, a multiplier of the vice of exploitation,” says Alvaro Murillo, Barquisimeto native who has spent 10 years working in cultural, religious and community media organizations. “CECOSESOLA has never done anything to have a low-priced product, never done anything to bring a product to the community with a fair price.”
CECOSESOLA employee and associate, Daza, disagrees. According to Daza, at their ferias, CECOSESOLA takes an established 30% off the top of the price of fruits and vegetables, and 12% from other packaged goods. Daza verified that producers generally make a profit of 10-30% and added “what CECOSESOLA makes on top, can help us to buy black beans at, let’s say, 1,000 Bolivares a Kilo, and sell them at a loss of 100 Bolivares. Which we have done.” According to associate Salas Romer, producers are further encouraged to buy or sell their products elsewhere if they can get a better price, although it appears that they typically don’t. “Look,” says Murillo in response. “If the producers had another place to sell their products, they would.”
“I don’t know whether to call it a cooperative or a business…”
“CECOSESOLA, in terms of agricultural production, are making millions, in terms of their funeral service, they’re taking advantage of someone else’s suffering… for me CECOSESOLA has been a complete business,” says Murillo, highlighting what many consider to be one of the great debates, or misconceptions of cooperativism. “I don’t know whether to call it a cooperative or a business.”
LEUFOGRUP’s Olivo agrees that CECOSESOLA is a business, but not for the same reasons. “The cooperative is a business. Cooperatives are social businesses,” says Olivo. “They are private businesses of collective property. We are private because we are not with the government. The owners are everyone. That is the difference with a mercantile business.”
Olga de Amoroso, former President of the National Cooperative Central of Venezuela (CECONAVE), shakes her head and tries to explain further, “Just because it’s a cooperative, does not mean it can’t be successful. That’s the mistake we made for years… We should not be afraid of generating money… There’s an equilibrium, cooperativistas also have families that they need to take care of.”
Regardless of people’s perceptions, one thing is clear, CECOSESOLA is large; so large that the government department in charge of cooperatives, SUNACOOP (Cooperative Superintendent) admitted in late April that CECOSESOLA has been difficult to audit. “We have wanted to audit them, and we don’t know where. We are still looking,” joked SUNACOOP Regional Coordinator, Jose Gregorio Pimentel. Meanwhile, CECOSESOLA says they do their books every week in various meetings among all of the workers, which several members have verified. “Opposition…”
CECOSESOLA has also received criticism for being part of the opposition. “They have a leader who is not fond of the government,” said Olivo in April. “That’s true. His name is Gustavo Salas…”
Gustavo Salas Romer’s brother, Henrique Salas Romer, is the pro-business, Yale-educated former governor of the Venezuelan state of Carabobo. He is also the founder of the political party- Proyecto Venezuela (Venezuelan Project), and the ex-presidential candidate who lost to President Chavez in the 1998 elections. Gustavo Salas Romer holds his political cards close to his chest, but regardless of his political affiliation, he makes CECOSESOLA’s position crystal clear.
“We are a-political and a-religious… We don’t let these things get in the way of the organization… CECOSESOLA is based on mutual respect… We have been called a lot of things, but we are with our own process. That is our strength, if we were to get caught up in politics and religion, it would create divisions and we would fall apart.” Salas Romer says as if foretelling the future. But these answers don’t quite cut it for the thousands of newly formed, government promoted cooperatives, who in the words of one cooperativista are “cutting their veins for this government.”
Traditional vs. “Bolivarian” Cooperatives
At last count, at 108,000 cooperatives and growing by the hundreds per week, Venezuela can now boast of being the country with the most coops in the world. Over 99% of these coops have been formed since President Hugo Chavez took office 7 years ago . However, with the overwhelming majority of these cooperatives in support of Chavez, and with government support mostly going to these new cooperatives, this has created tension between the traditional and “Bolivarian” cooperatives.
While CECOSESOLA may not be met with approval by many in support of the Bolivarian process, and they may be “a-political”, but they have leant a hand to their fellow cooperativistas. “We do what we can and are always willing to help,” says Daza. According to SUNACOOP regional director Pimentel, CECOSESOLA has always supported with workshops, trainings and expertise, when asked.
Elba Torres, a member of the newly formed Lara State Cooperative Council described CECOSESOLA as one of the pillars and philosophical bases of their organization. “They were our unconditional and fundamental support so that this could come about,” she said recently. The cooperative councils are being formed across Venezuela with the hopes of building and consolidating a united cooperative movement.
CECOSESOLA’s use of consensus, and apparent horizontal decision-making structure seems to be a healthy source of pride for the organization. Members expressed feeling as though they have a say in the decisions of the cooperative, and they participate in numerous meetings all week long. “Monday- all day, Tuesday- all day, part of Wednesday, Friday” explains Daza, “Usually, there are numerous meetings happening at the same time.”
Although CECOSESOLA has excelled in recent years under this organizational structure, its model has not worked for everyone. According to el Triunfo’s Culmenares, because of its success, other coops have tried to duplicate the CECOSESOLA model. “But they can’t,” she says simply. “Each attempt folds within a few months. That is because no one here knows any more than anyone else. We are a big family.”
Miguel Berroteran from the Semillero del Futuro education cooperative in Caracas couldn’t agree more. “Wow, CECOSESOLA, that is our goal,” He says, “That is what the rest of us are striving for. They truly have achieved an unprecedented level of consciousness… which is hard to understand from outside. You have to live it to understand how it works… unfortunately, most of the rest of us are still trying to break down the ideological barriers that remain.”
“This organization will be the expression of the personal and community processes of transformation,” reads Article 2 of the current CECOSESOLA statutes, “we assume the obligation of maintaining and cultivating between the associates, the values of respect, solidarity, equality, critical thinking, responsibility, obligation, communication, transparency and honesty.”
John Holloway, professor at the University of Puebla, in Mexico, and the author of the acclaimed book, How to Change the World Without Taking Power, affirmed to have seen the realization of these goals in action on his visit to CECOSESOLA in January. “It is very clear to me… [that] you are very conscious about how you are transforming the things in the city, or wherever you are working, about how you are transforming the relations and living conditions of a lot people.”
“The goal is transformation,” reaffirms Salas Romer, “The economy is second, and we know that we will be able to get by. Our whole organization is constantly in flux and changes, that’s what enables us to be able to continue…. What the assembly decides in consensus, goes.” That’s easy to say now with an annual income of $10 million just in the ferias alone. But it seems to work Reynaldo Gomez of the funeral service agrees and reiterates what appears to be the heart of CECOSESOLA’s success, “we are totally apolitical and non-religious. We don’t differentiate, we respect. The day that we get mixed up in each other’s business, we will end up politicizing, and we will be finished.”
Meanwhile CECOSESOLA continues to prosper and grow, and if their experience is a sign, this trend will not soon fade. CECOSESOLA is big. “But that’s not bad,” says Olivo sitting in the one room consulting cooperative of which he is a member, “I wish there were more groups like CECOSESOLA. A lot more, instead of 10, 100… It’d be much better and easier, because lone cooperatives are harder to support, integrate, administer resources.”