Alain Ambrosi (Canada) is a designer and producer of intercultural projects, independent researcher, author, videographer and producer of the Remix The Commons Project.
“We Are One Big Conversation”: Commoning in Venezuela
An Interview with Members of Cecosesola
Cecosesola has been making history for almost half a century. It all began in 1967 when a cooperativista in Barquisimeto, a city in Venezuela with a population of more than a million, died, leaving behind a family not only in mourning, but also unable to meet the funeral expenses. Soon thereafter, ten cooperatives, not wishing to leave death to market forces, came together and formed a single cooperative – a funeral home, Cecosesola.
Today, the Central Cooperativa de Servicios Sociales des Estado Lara is a network of about sixty cooperatives and grassroots organizations in the Venezuelan state of Lara, with about 20,000 members. The cooperatives sell at weekly markets in Barquisimeto and provide community-backed loans, among many other services.
One of its proudest achievements is its health center, the Centro Integral Cooperativo de Salud, which serves 200,000 patients every year. To start the health center in March 2009, Cecosesola raised US$1.8 million by selling fruit salads at the markets; by soliciting short-term, fixed interest deposits from cooperatives and individuals; and through consensus-based contributions made by all full-time staff.
What follows is an edited interview that Silke Helfrich conducted with several members of Cecosesola in Mexico City in 2012 and in Berlin in 2013.1 The interviewees were Jorge Rath, born and raised in Germany, who has worked with Cecosesola since 1999, chiefly as an acupuncturist; Gustavo Salas, a Cecosesola member for forty years who is active in the Escuela Cooperativa and the markets; Noel Vale Valera, a member of the Cooperativa El Triunfo since he was 15, who works mostly at the markets and in the computer team; and Lizeth Vargas, whose grandparents cofounded the federation and is active at the weekly markets and the health center.
Helfrich: Growing food, taking care of the sick, doing business, and burying the dead. How does all that fit together?
Salas: That’s just one way of describing what this is really about. We are in a communal process in which we are constantly educating ourselves and arranging our lives. In the process, we are affected by the usual forces: patriarchal structures, property, and so on.
Rath: But we turn those forces toward our own ends, as it were. In philosophical terms, one could say: “We suspend property without abolishing it.”2
Salas: That’s right. Nobody can say: Cecosesola is mine.
Rath: ….and the same thing is – gradually – happening with hierarchies, too. We don’t have a manager or a chair or a vice-chair.3 The only formal thing is our assemblies. And there are loads of them! We are basically one big conversation.
Vale: You have to know something about our history in order to understand that. In the 1970s, many of our members took part in demonstrations against doubling the local bus companies’ ticket prices. In 1974, they finally established their own transportation company as a cooperative, a business run by the workers themselves. It failed later on, mostly because of entanglements with political power struggles. Cecosesola learned from this bitter experience. In 1982, the general manager of the funeral home quit. Cecosesola didn’t hire a new one. The warehouse manager left. The position remained vacant. The same thing happened when the building manager left. In the end, the secretaries learned how to drive trucks, and the drivers took on administrative tasks.
Helfrich: How are members assigned to their tasks nowadays?
Rath: They rotate. From one task to the next. Everybody is supposed to be able to learn as much as possible. That also helps people to keep their focus on the whole operation rather than claiming their own little fiefdoms.
Vale: But there is no rotation plan. It’s like agendas at our assemblies. We don’t have them, either. We always start out with the principle that everything is voluntary; it depends on what each individual wants to do or learn just then.
Rath: But may I gently remind you that you haven’t rotated voluntarily for quite a while now. (laughs)
Vale: Let’s use a concrete example. I work in our health center and do massages and hydrotherapy. I take care of bookkeeping and staff scheduling. Sometimes I update the website or work at one of the markets on weekends. It’s free-flow rotation, not fixed in advance. I might be working in the office one day, mopping the hallways the next, and cooking the third. Who does what and for how long depends on people’s preferences, skills, and the needs at any particular time.
Salas: When we rotate, we encounter new people again and again, and that’s in line with our culture of personal contact. These contacts come to life wherever we happen to be working, not only in the assemblies. That’s anything but abstract. It’s very concrete. We touch the other person – literally.
Helfrich: Sounds exciting, but it also takes a lot of time and effort.
Rath: Well, it isn’t easy, but that’s how we want it to be. After all, Cecosesola isn’t our work. It’s the project of our lives.
Vale: In any case, I never have the feeling that I’m working.
Rath: Well, we are less interested in producing “something that’s ours” than creating “us.” We want to understand and change ourselves. That generates a kind of collective energy. Of course, there are situations in which we don’t feel it, but we generate this energy again and again, collectively.
Vale: It’s also a question of perspective. We try to conceive of Cecosesola as a personal process of development, not as work. Work! Just thinking about it makes you tired! It isn’t always successful, and it isn’t for everybody. But we’re taking this path, for example, in our assemblies without a fixed agenda. We talk about what needs to be done. Sometimes the same issue is discussed two or three times before we find a consensus.
Helfrich: That brings us to an important question: How do you make decisions?
Rath: Our goal is to reach decisions by consensus. So we never vote, because we don’t want to split into a majority and a minority. Instead, we take the time to talk, to deliberate together, and to develop “our common criteria.”
Helfrich: Could you describe that in more detail?
Rath: They’re criteria that we can use for orientation in all kinds of everyday situations when individual groups or people make decisions. One of the criteria is that whoever makes a decision in the end is also responsible for the decision and for communicating it.
Vale: We never expect to make decisions together in our assemblies. We just talk a lot about how a decision can come about and according to which criteria. In the end, the decision itself can be made by one, two or three people.
Helfrich: And that really works?
Vargas: Yes, and it has been working for decades. Of course, it isn’t easy. After all, we’re a group of 1,300 people. But we don’t have to discuss everything together. We’re often confident that the other members will represent us well and tell us about decisions.4
Helfrich: What about pay?
Vale: We don’t pay ourselves wages. Instead, we pay an advance on what Cecosesola will presumably make.
Rath: ….but we don’t work in order to make a profit or to accumulate goods. That isn’t what drives us, and that’s why our surpluses are relatively modest. A large part of any surplus we make is spent on things for everyone, for the cooperative. In other businesses, you would call that reinvestment. In addition, we have to set aside reserves as required by law. If any money is left over after that – and that usually isn’t the case – we adjust the advance. In recent years, we used the inflation rate as our criterion so that the advance wouldn’t be eaten up by inflation.
Helfrich: Who gets paid how much?
Vale: In principle, everybody gets the same amount. The cook earns the same as the bookkeeper, but we also take different needs into account, for example, if someone has just had a baby. The only exception is the physicians. They get about twice as much, and their pay also depends on the number of patients they treat. Only a few doctors are prepared to work full-time in Cecosesola for the advance we pay.5
Helfrich: So – the more patients, the more they earn?
Vale: Exactly. We would like to change this system, but we haven’t been able to agree on a solution. It’s easier with the vegetables. We decouple the price of the vegetables from the time and effort we put into them. We use an average price per kilogram.
Helfrich: Does that mean that peppers cost as much as potatoes?
Vale: Yes, it does. We produce a lot of vegetables in the cooperatives. So we explore exactly what is necessary to produce them. We add up the number of kilograms produced – across the entire product range – on the one hand and the costs on the other. Then we divide one by the other to figure out our average price per kilogram. Our yardstick is simply the production costs including what the producers need to live.
Salas: This is how we produce a considerable part of the food eaten by up to 300,000 people. It’s pretty tricky to manage such growth and still be as creative as in the early days when five to eight of us brought vegetables to market.
Helfrich: And does your system work?
Vale: Yes, it does. Compared with others, we’re doing very well. Of course, there are losses, just like everywhere else. Food goes bad, things are stolen, and so on. We have to “juggle” with that. That is why we are very careful to keep losses as small as possible; we make sure the lettuce doesn’t go bad and that we don’t damage the manioc.
Rath: By the way, this system saves people quite a lot of money. Many kinds of vegetables cost disproportionately more “outside.” Our price per kilogram reduces red tape, we don’t work with middlemen, and seasonal fluctuations don’t make a difference, either.
Vale: The decisive factor is that we don’t follow the market or the market price. If prices for tomatoes and potatoes go up someplace, that doesn’t mean that we’ll raise prices, too. What matters for us is that we earn what we need.
Helfrich: What is actually the most important thing for your process?
Salas: Respect! Respectful relationships in the comprehensive sense of the term. I don’t just mean tolerance, but respect for the other person we are living with. We cannot treat our counterparts like things that we want to profit from. We must perceive the entire person. In order to do that, we need transparency, honesty and responsibility. They are the basis for trust, and that is fundamental. Because trust is the foundation for what we call “collective energy.”
Vargas: And that can move mountains.
Salas: By the way, trust can be developed infinitely. That is why we say that our process is limitless. We show that is it possible to relate to other people in a different way. Anyone can take this with them into their own context if they want. We don’t have a toolbox for it, though, because we don’t assemble things; what we do is shape relationships.
Helfrich: What is your relationship to the state?
Salas: Independence is very important to us. That is why we don’t apply to the government for financing. We try to work within our own means, and that is why we always start small. But we work together respectfully where necessary. By the way, working within your own means creates something mystical. Great enthusiasm for what we are doing.
Helfrich: What do commons mean to you?
Rath: There are many theories about the commons. That isn’t really our issue. We show what an example of the practice of the commons looks like, or what it can look like. We need more experience, but not in the sense of “models.” Cecosesola is not a model and doesn’t seek to be one. The theory of the commons can develop only from a collaborative practice, from concrete processes. Cecosesola is our commons.
Salas: We don’t assume a dream about what the world or society should be like. Notions about “this is what the world should be like” often end up with the ideas being forced down people’s throats. We start out with ourselves and our culture, and we’re very much aware that cultural transformation takes time. All this individualism! It isn’t the same thing as individuality, which we strongly support. How are you supposed to build up trust if everybody is “chasing after their own opportunities”? That is why we often analyze how our culture affects our relationships, and what constructive things might come out of it.
Helfrich: Could you give an example?
Salas: At some point, the idea came up to start using cash registers at the markets. Cash registers are the norm everywhere, but we don’t use them. The cooperativistas at the markets take the money to the office in envelopes. That’s it. So at some point, this idea to use cash registers came up to make it easier to monitor the transactions. We discussed it in countless assemblies for almost three years. And then we finally realized that these cash registers serve one function above all: to monitor the cooperativistas at the markets. That would amount to withdrawing trust. And we didn’t want to do that. So we continue as before, without cash registers, and using envelopes. We saved the money for the investment. And we gained trust.
And then, the Venezuelan tax office made cash registers a legal requirement …”
Helfrich: Thank you very much for this informative conversation!
In December 2014, after this interview was conducted, the Venezuelan government decided to tax the country’s cooperatives at a rate approximately 35 percent higher than the rate applied to for-profit businesses, starting immediately. Until then cooperatives had enjoyed special protections under Article 118 of the constitution passed in 1999. The government justified the new tax rate by saying the income of cooperativistas should be considered taxable surpluses – a claim that Cecosesola says cannot be reconciled with other official statements. On the basis of its revenues in January and February 2015, Cecosesola calculated that its additional taxes total roughly 50 million bolivares (US$7.25 million) – a sum that would put many cooperatives out of business.
Cecosesola is resisting the new tax rate. It has launched a number of large and small responses, including a petition drive that had collected more than 200,000 signatures by July 2015, and urgent alerts to its international networks. Cecosesola is also seeking a dialogue with the state, especially the Regulatory Authority for Cooperatives or the Ministerio de las Comunas. On May 4, 2015, Cecosesola led a march of more than 1,000 of its members from five federal states to the headquarters of Corpolara, a development organization representing the state in the federal state of Lara. The three-kilometer protest walk took place in a “thoroughly playful/peaceful atmosphere,” as Jorge Rath wrote. Cecosesola members now realize that they must consider the fundamental question of what kind of cooperativism they desire as well as whether and how the government can differentiate between authentic cooperatives on the one hand and capitalist businesses and pseudo-cooperatives on the other. The conflict, which has not yet been resolved, can be followed on Cecosesola’s website, https://www.cecosesolaorg.bugs3.com.
Cecosesola By the Numbers
|1 integrated health center with operating room, radiology department, lab, alternative therapies, and 12 doctors’ offices.|
|500 tons of vegetables are produced and marketed every week.|
|1,300 members, including approximately 700 in the productive cooperatives and weekly markets.|
|3,000 assemblies per year, more or less, including all local, regional and departmental assemblies. That amounts to almost ten per day.|
|60,000 people buy from Cecosesola every week at the markets.|
|150,000 people are covered through Cecosesola for funeral costs in the event of their death.|
- Interviews in Spanish at Pillku and Remix the Commons.
- Editors’ note: This phrase is a reference to Hegel’s concept of “sublation” which has three senses: a lifting to a higher level; a retention of the sustainable parts; and an ending and overcoming.
- Editors’ note: That was not always the case. In the beginning, the federation and its cooperatives were completely conventional, with an executive director and employees. The executive director earned almost twice as much as his assistant and four times as much as the secretaries. Over time, people became dissatisfied with the lack of transparency and participation in decisions. When the bosses left, they were not replaced – and the current structure organically emerged to replace the organizational hierarchies.
- A German book, Cecosesola, Auf dem Weg. Gelebte Utopie einer Kooperative in Venezuela (Berlin: Die Buchmacherei, 2012), describes the cooperative as having a “collective brain.”
- Three physicians work full-time at the health center, and another sixty operate or treat outpatients there. However, they are not members of Cecosesola, rarely participate in assemblies and consider the work part of their professional lives. This topic is frequently discussed within the network.