THE CHANGE FROM BELOW IN VENEZUELA
By: Raúl Zibechi
Now that the media waters have calmed down, we are able to talk about the profound transformations in Venezuelan society, that kind of long-term change called on to reconfigure societies. It cannot be strange to us that the big media don’t pay attention to these movements, but rather focus on news that vanishes without leaving a trace. More striking is the scarce attention that the analysts and a good part of party members grant them, probably because they consider that politics (with a capital P) are reduced to what happens in the proximity of government palaces.
We consider the experience of Cecosesola (Cooperative Central of Social Services of Lara State), a network of 60 communities with its epicenter in the city of Barquisimeto (2 million inhabitants) but with a presence in four states of northwestern Venezuela. The cooperatives are dedicated to agricultural production, small-scale agro-industries, health services, transportation, a funeral parlor, savings and loan, mutual aid funds and distribution of food and articles for the home.
The scope of the undertaking is not minor. They have 20 thousand associates in their group, 1,300 workers that are paid the same salary (which they call an advance or “anticipo”), almost 4,000 participate in the more than 300 annual meetings of the network, from weekly meetings to experiences (vivencias) in which everything is discussed, from the price of the products at the markets to management of the integral cooperative health center.
The three big family markets in Barquisimeto sell 600 tons of fruits and vegetables per week, 35 percent of the consumption of a large city like that, where 500 associates work. There are 250 boxes and they supply some 200,000 people each week. It is not a marginal undertaking, but rather the major point for the sale of food in the city, much more important than the supermarkets. Three aspects seemed outstanding to me.
There are no cameras or private guards, only “community vigilance.” Despite the tense lines that there are all over the country, those that form in the Cecosesola’s markets are serene and in solidarity. The morning that I participated in the center’s market, there were lost shoes in the disturbance that formed at the entrance. When the megaphone reported that fact, the shoes appeared in a few minutes. That’s what happens even when wallets and objects of value are lost. Despite not having vigilance, the “flights” (what capital judges as robberies) are only about one percent, compared to 5 percent in the supermarkets.
The prices are different. The fruits and vegetables have only two prices, so that the buyer can fill a sack with the most diverse foods and it’s weighed all together, simplifying the accounting. A weighed or average price is set. But what’s most notable is that the periodic assemblies of associates set the prices. The assemblies are open, in which the producers explain the costs and share the data with the other cooperative members, eliminating the intermediaries. This democratization of prices, costs and margins restores the market to the “transparency” that Fernand Braudel considered as the principal characteristic of pre-capitalist markets.
The third question is that the enormous network does not have management or leaders. They decide everything among all; thus the large number of meetings. Cecosesola defines itself as “an organization in movement,” part of a process of “personal and organizational transformation through wider participation from everyone.” Trust, conviviality, integration, shared emotions, substitute for formal statutes and positions at different levels.
At the time for explaining their way of doing things, they say that: “the only formal organizational instance is a flexible and changing group of ‘meetings’ open to he or she that wants to incorporate, without distinction as to their origin. We’re talking about meeting spaces that don’t obey a previous design, which are created and disappear according to the needs of the moment.” The logic is not one of accumulation (to grow, gain power or prestige) but to endure over time. They have lasted 40 years.
For eight days I participated in a dozen spaces, from meetings of rural producers and of the March 8 (8 de Marzo) production cooperative of pastas (where a young man declared himself a feminist), to meetings of the accounting office and of the health center. Rotation is the rule, the debate frank and direct, the learning is constant and the collaboration permanent.
There were 55 people in the health center’s weekly assembly forming an enormous circle. The center attends to 200,000 consultations annually. The construction of the building demanded three years of debates to decide on the structure. Three floors open to the city, without walls that block communication, lots of air, large collective spaces where the users and their children do yoga, physical and spiritual exercises, and converse while looking at the mountains.
In the assembly there were nurses, office workers, personnel from maintenance, the kitchen and cleaning, and even six or seven doctors out of the 60 that work at the health center; everyone discussing as equal to equal. There were criticisms because of errors, which were debated serenely. It is not easy to incorporate the doctors, but apparently they are softening. A female doctor participates in the markets as a cashier, a place that the office workers also occupy as they consider the vegetable space as the most agreeable.
Cecosesola is a cultural revolution in movement. I heard purchasers at the markets sense community although they never went to a meeting. They don’t receive anything from the State. They finance everything themselves. They teach us that it is possible to produce and live another way, based on other values than the hegemonic ones, which one can create and manage large spaces that capital dominates, with complete autonomy. One of the slogans of Cecosesola is: “Constructing here and now the world that we want.”
Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada
Translation: Chiapas Support Committee
Friday, May 16, 2014