Venezuela’s cooperative movement, which has increased a thousand fold since President Hugo Chavez’s first election in 1998, fosters development of the individual, but not “individualism”, through economic and social community building. This change in human relations is essential to throwing off the ideology and mechanism of capitalism which has so corrupted our human community.
In a recent article in www.venezuelanalysis entitled “Cooperatives in Venezuela Promote Solidarity, Equality and Dignity” (April 12, 2011), the radio collective, Radio Al Reves interviews some members of successful cooperatives currently active in Venezuela wherein cooperative members describe the impact of their cooperatives on their lives.
In the words of a cooperative member, Gustavo Salas:
Development of the individual but not of individualism, which are two different things. There is a saying that goes: we are not individualists nor are we collectivists, because we are trying to develop a collective environment where we are growing all of the time, and each of us developing as people. It’s a balance that’s not easy. You have to continually build it.
While the United States is “enjoying” the benefits of Ayn Randian “individualism”—the increasing impoverishment of its citizens while the wealthy few loot the labor, savings, and tax money of the majority, Venezuela is increasing not only the standard of living of all its citizens, but vastly increasing the ability of individuals to acquire new productive skills , develop leadership capacities. The Venezuelan cooperative movement is bringing important changes in the workers' social relationships with each other and with their communities.
In the last thirty years, many of the top economic officials in the U.S., such as former head of the banker-controlled Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, enamored by Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” sociopathic philosophy that the masses of people are fungible scum to be subjugated by the most successfully ruthless in industry and commerce, put Rand’s pernicious philosophy into practice by de-regulating virtually all government controls over greed and exploitation on the part of financial institutions and corporations while at the same time defunding programs which aid individual development and develop social cohesion.
The Randist neo-conservatives, such as the Koch brothers and their henchmen, seek to abolish programs which foster the free development of individuals, such as trade unions, social welfare for the poor, non-debt based scholarships for students, and government investment in infra-structure which creates jobs and job-training programs.
In the name of their twisted concepts of free markets and free trade, these putative Nietzschean capitalist supermen use their enormous wealth to buy our politicians and pass self-serving legislation which legalizes their looting. Their corporately owned media works 24 hours a day to indoctrinate voters into believing that capitalism is the only system that can create “freedom for all”. The result is that Kris Kristofferson’s lyric “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” has been made flesh for millions of Americans.
Venezuelan socialism is opening a different path. Freedom, in the context of Venezuela’s eqalitarian cooperative movement, has been made real based on the free association of workers, who share the ownership of the means of production and the decision-making in order to produce socially needed goods for sale. In general, all of the workers are paid equally for their labor from the profits, albeit those who work more hours or with mutually recognized intensity, generally receive extra benefits after all the expenses of the cooperative and the regular salaries have been paid.
Ciro Ramos de Rodriguez is a textile worker in the coastal Miranda State east of Caracas. She is one of 42 women who produce clothes such as school and government uniforms, for her cooperative, MUDEBAR. Here she talks to Radio Al Reves about how MUDEBAR started in 2005:
In reality, we didn't have money or anything until the government offered us credit so that we could achieve our objective, which was to associate ourselves as a cooperative. The process was a call made by the government to participate in a social mission called Vuelvan Caras, a call to all the women who were in their houses without work, simply doing domestic work, doing housework until god called, watching our grandchildren and taking care of the house and when all of the women were called to the mission we began taking the courses. We took really good courses, and from that they prepared us to become a cooperative...
I learned a lot. I am now in the third year of my bachelors degree and I am treasurer of the cooperative. With the help of the professionals that the government sent here, I have learned everything I need to know such as accounting, how to keep books how to control an account, how to write checks. This is something that poor people didn't know how to do, this is something that rich people did, but poor people we didn't know how to do any of this. I learned how to do many things that businesses do that I didn't know how to do before.
Ms. Ramos compares her work in the cooperative with working for a private company:
In a private company the boss exploits workers. The worker is exploited and the boss earns for themselves. Lets say I was working at a private company and I worked very fast, I would still continue earning the minimum wage. In a cooperative if I worked very productively I could make more money, but in a private company I have to maintain myself with the minimum wage. So even though I would push myself to work very hard, the boss would make lots of money and I would make one or two percent while they would take 98 percent from my effort and from my sweat. In a cooperative, no. We work for equal parts and it is shared between all of us. We're not going to enrich ourselves, but we will maintain ourselves and either way in a private company you are not going to enrich yourself, you are going to earn less.
In 1998, prior to the first election of President Hugo Chavez’s government, Venezuela had 813 registered cooperatives. After the new 1999 Constitution which specifically provided for government support for the formation of cooperatives, the movement blossomed through the efforts of Chavez’s Mision Vuelvan Caras.
By 2006, there were 263,000 cooperatives in existence. By law, the government now exempts the cooperatives from taxes, subsidizes the purchase of equipment and physical accommodations with low interest loans, and provides technical assistance as needed. Cooperatives receive precedence in the awarding of government contracts.
The government supplies the legal template for the documents needed to form the cooperative entity, called an “Acta Constitutiva y Estatutos De La Cooperative”, similar to Articles of Incorporation required of companies in the U.S.
A section of the Acta provides for the election of a coordinator, secretary and treasurer for a term of three years, with a separate committee of two persons to act as Controllers and Evaluators to monitor the actions of the officers and the cooperative at large. A Coordinator of Education must be elected to coordinate educational programs for members and a specified percentage of cooperative income must be reserved for education of cooperative members.
These educational reserves allows all cooperative members to be trained in the skills needed to administer the organization and improve their productive skills. All members are expected to participate in every aspect of cooperative life through a majority-rule democratic process. There is no legal requirement that all cooperative members be paid equally. Payment is subject to democratic decision, as are the day-to-day working procedures for the groups.
It must be noted here that, despite the constitutional and top level legal support for the cooperatives, there remain obstacles to cooperative development by virtue of the country’s long-entrenched administrative bureaucracy, some of which is still utilizing clerical procedures that date from the onset of Spanish colonialism. The cooperatives are required to maintain five sets of administrative record books, all of which must be hand-written and error-free, and comply with other bureaucratic demands that sometimes severely impede the efficient organization and operation of the cooperatives.
The Bolivarian socialist revolution has not yet entered the bowels of this resistant bureaucracy and it remains an urgent task.
Another problem area in forming efficient cooperatives is the fact that, within some individuals, especially those coming from the traditional middle class, the ideology of capitalist “individualism-” still pervades. The “What’s in it for me-ism?” can make it difficult to form cohesive cooperatives among groups of professionals. That is much, much less of a problem among unskilled workers and farm and rural laborers, the source of the majority of cooperatives in Venezuela.
Radio Al Reves interviewed cooperative members from groups in Lara State in the Andes, including Omar Garcia, a founding member of the Las Lajitas agricultural cooperative, one of the oldest cooperatives in the country, which now farms exclusively organically:
I think that we have survived these past years because all of us who started this cooperative, we didn’t have anything. We were farm workers, producers without anything, without a piece of land, without a hoe, without a pick. Through the cooperative, we were creative and we got capital. We got some credit extended to us for the acquisition of this land, we divided the credit into three parts, the first for the acquisition of land, which is actually very hard to get credit for, but we had a lot of luck with an organization that facilitated the loan, the second part went to capital for to pay workers and the third went for machinery. So we got credit for the farm and at this point the farm is totally paid off...
Our production in Las Lajitas is completely organic. We began to farm in a conventional way, but seeing that it brought many problems of pollution, both in those who consumed the product as well as in those who work the land. It was creating health problems. Seeing the level of pollution in the water and the environment we decided to figure out how we could produce in an organic way.
Thus, cooperative production can not only improve its workers’ economic condition, but give the workers themselves control over the conditions under which they work, including their conditions of safety and health. Their decision-making directly benefits the health of the whole community. All the workers do the thinking and administering for the cooperative, rather than merely being the fungible physical bodies whose labor produces commodities at the whims of the capitalist bosses. Working together to run the cooperative and produce their livelihood and rotating into all the other jobs in the project, changes the nature of social relations among workers in the organization and with their communities.
Ender Duarte, a member of the CECOSESOLA cooperative in Lara’s capitol, Barquisimeto, tells about the effect of cooperative working on social relations, especially when workers know intimately the problems of each other’s jobs because they have done them themselves:
Basically we all have the possibility of learning from each other and it’s distinct, because when we say that our relationships are of trust or of personal growth its really easy to criticize someone else if I don't understand their position. This is one of the possibilities that this rotation gives us. That we can all learn everything, and if one is not exercising power over others then we have no problem sharing all the knowledge. So knowledge is not private property of anybody, instead we share it and so in these rotations we all learn about the work that we need to do.
Gaudi Garcia, also of CECOSESOLA, notes that:
When we learn how to work together and we learn how to accept other people that are different from us, and the other person actually accepts somebody who is different too, and we can still work together to plan activities and we really achieve working together with people through differences, I think that this represents a huge spiritual strength and growth.
The CECOSESOLA cooperative is one of the largest non-governmental distributors of food in Venezuela where produce, dairy, meat, household goods and domestic appliances are sold at substantially lower prices than at other stores, yielding savings of over $11 million annually to the community. CECOSESOLA is also affiliated with many farmer cooperatives, providing transportation networks to get their goods to consumers. Thus the cooperatives connect with the larger communities in which they function, providing benefits not only to their members, but to all.
Ciro Ramos sums up something this writer has observed in the course of four years living here in Venezuela. The cooperative movement is only one aspect of the important social changes wrought by Venezuela’s socialist government and its visionary president, Hugo Chavez.
I am sixty years old and I have never seen a government like this one. He [Chavez] is caring towards the poor, towards those who don't have things, to solve problems. This president wants that no one in this country is poor.
And, through organizations such as the health mission, Barrio Adentro, the educational missions, Mission Ribas and Robinson, the new housing and agricultural missions and, especially, the cooperative mission, Mission Vuelvan Caras, the Chavez government has dramatically reduced poverty, ill health and educational inadequacies for the vast majority of Venezuelans. The secret is social organization at the community and work place level. Thus cooperative member, Omar Garcia, has important advice for us all, especially Americans:
I think that in this moment many things in the world have changed, but I think that what is really interesting is the organization of human beings, especially working people. Let’s say it, poor people. Organization of poor people is extremely interesting, and through organization we learn about all sorts of things. There are also difficulties in organization, but you have to overcome them. One way to overcome problems is to organize. I think as individuals it is difficult to overcome all the problems that we face. Also there is that human part of us that needs to have relationships with other people, we have desires to be with other people. Sometimes when we work alone as individuals we feel tired or we can feel like we are alone. I can make money, but without any participation. I think cooperatives help with this part...
The key to overcoming capitalism’s human devastation and systemic greed is to be found in joining together with other members of one’s community or work place and acting to transform our economy and thus our society into one that places human needs and aspirations at the top of our priorities. Forming out own cooperatives is one place to start.