The more than 20,000 associates of the Central for Social Services of Lara State (CECOSESOLA) in Venezuela, coordinate their activities through a series of open meetings and the spontaneous formation of ad-hoc working groups in which the boss/subordinate figure is nowhere to be found. Its only formal organizational body is a flexible and changing set of open meetings: get-together spaces that don’t obey a previous design, and are created or disappear according to the needs of the moment.
The flood of bad news about the economic and political situation in Venezuela that has prevailed in recent years is overwhelming and even depressing. That’s why the case of CECOSESOLA (Central for Social Services of Lara State), surprisingly (expectedly?) ignored by the media, is a breath of fresh air, a cheerful reminder that when people decide to take responsibility to live an interesting life and cooperate to achieve this, there is nothing to stop them – even when the decomposition of the social and economic environment reaches critical levels.
Half a century of Venezuelan cooperativism
CECOSESOLA is a network of communities devoted to cooperative production spanning five states of western central Venezuela. Most of its operations are concentrated in Lara state, specially in its capital, the city of Barquisimeto (home to more than a million people), where CECOSESOLA hosts popular fairs every week through which one third of all fresh food in the city is sold, mostly produced locally by small producers – a feat in a country that today imports the vast majority of the food consumed by its inhabitants. The 31 retail spaces distributed in Lara, Trujillo, Barinas, and Yaracuy states, mobilize among all 600 tons of fruit and vegetables each week, with annual sales exceeding US$100 million. And all this at prices that despite not being subsidized in any way, are usually lower than those of the PDVAL State-owned food-shop chain.
The history of the network goes back to the early 60s, when it became necessary to create a funeral service for the ten cooperatives operating in Barquisimeto at that time, created years before by Jesuit priests linked to the Gumilla Center. Today, in addition to food distribution and funeral services (in fact, the funeral home operated by CECOSESOLA is the largest in the region), the network has expanded its activities through 50 community organizations engaged in a wide variety of activities: agriculture and small-scale agro-industrial production, household goods, savings and loans, and a holistic health center that involved an investment of three million dollars and serves, in addition to members, thousands of barquisimetanos every year at affordable prices.
That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
But it was in the mid-70s when CECOSESOLA underwent a profound transformation in its culture and organizational structure. And that change was the result of an experience that brought it to the brink of financial collapse.
During those years, the government launched a program intended to organize the urban public transport system cooperatively, and CECOSESOLA embraced the initiative taking a government loan to buy 127 buses.
But almost immediately the prevailing mentality in a government-administered sector began to pollute the management of the business. A large part of the cooperative’s workers were seduced by corrupt municipal authorities, and cooperated with these and local entrepreneurs on a looting operation that resulted in the forcible seizure and dismantling of the buses.
That crisis led, first, to the idea of getting into the food-distribution business: they removed the seats of some of the buses they managed to recover, filled them up with vegetables, and started going around neighborhoods selling what they bought at the wholesale market, at producers’ associations, and the only agricultural cooperative that existed in the region: “La Alianza.” The success of the initiative was what allowed them to pay the debts they had contracted with the State to buy the buses.
But mostly, the disastrous episode made it clear that the root of the problem resided in CECOSESOLA’s organizational structure, which by then was as hierarchical as any traditional company, and therefore capable of being exploited by internal or external actors who might capture the higher echelons of management in order to take advantage of the cooperative spirit of the rest of the members.
From then they gradually began to test a number of organizational changes until reaching an almost perfectly horizontal structure that today is characterized by several interesting features.
The more than 20,000 CECOSESOLA associates coordinate their activities through a series of open meetings and spontaneous formation of ad-hoc working groups where the boss/subordinate figure is nowhere to be found. They define all this as “an organization in motion, whose only formal organizational body is a flexible and changing set of open meetings: get-together spaces that do not obey a previous design, and are created or disappear according to the needs of the moment.”
Equitable compensation and rotation of duties
1,300 of the 20,000 CECOSESOLA memebers are associate-workers receiving the same weekly anticipo, an advance on a bonus charged at the end of the year. There actually are some differences among the advances received by associates, especially when it comes to people with higher consumption needs like parents that sustain their families.
Also, almost all job posts at the cooperatives that comform the network are rotative. This not only reinforces the sense of fairness regarding the realization of tasks, ensuring that all members, regardless of their qualifications, conduct cleanup activities and others that in principle would require less skilled labor, but also celebrates and reinforces multi-specialization as a core value of the community. Although highly knowledge-intensive positions that require the realization of more complex tasks rotate less frequently, all members go through virtually all positions in the organization throughout their lives. Some members learn to write while performing office tasks, and even the health center’s doctors work at some point as cashiers at food fairs.
Individual responsibility as a basis for cooperation
The concept of responsibility has a strong presence in the vocabulary of CECOSESOLA members. As expected, when people put aside the notion of authority and understand how fruitful it is to work in an environment of freedom, they assume and internalize responsibility quite naturally. It is not only understood that long-term success will depend solely on the dedication and effort of each one of the members, but constructive criticism is celebrated as a tool to improve performance and, from a pragmatic, day-to-day point of view, members assume full responsibility for the financial losses caused by mistakes as much as they enjoy the financial fruit brought about by the successes: cashiers assume missing money at the cash machines they operate during fairs, merchandise losses are assumed by the team responsible for the corresponding area, etc.
Consensus as directing principle
Another important organizational change implemented gradually from the bus-business 70’s crisis that naturally complemented horizontalization, was the overcoming of electioneering as a collective decision mechanism, and replacing it for the search for consensus.
Today, members spend approximately 25 percent of their time meeting, discussing, and reaching consensus on management. For example, the design of the holistic health center building entailed three years of debates, and food fairs are held only three days a week, in order to devote the rest of the week to deliberate on broader issues related to them.
But beyond ensuring that management, products, and services are in line with the values of the community and with the desired quality, the most interesting thing about these meetings is that members see them as an end: they are open conversations that more than being the basis for management planning, are also occasions for sharing meals, experiences, and strengthening the fraternal ties that in the end are what fuels their quality of life.
Or, as explained by one of the founding members in his own words, the meetings are not subject to economic management, rather the opposite: “the economic aspect is our excuse for getting together.”