Project of the Day: CECOSESOLA, the task-based cooperative in Lara, Venezuela

CECOCESOLA = the Central Cooperative for Social Services of Lara: “A cooperative where there are no positions, only tasks to be done”.

“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.”

Some details about their history, 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.”

Carla Ferreira writes:

“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.”

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