Co-operatives are said to be quietly transforming people’s values in Venezuela. Worker co-operatives develop trust, solidarity and teamwork. Co-operation and community empowerment are values which contrast with the individualism and selfishness promoted by the corporate-owned mass media to increase consumption.
The Co-operative Law of 2001 set the minimum number of members at five and required the government to give preference to co-operatives when awarding contracts.
After the failed coup in April 2002, President Chávez began to emphasize co-operatives in a big way in order to transform property into collective forms of ownership and management. Co-op registration was made free of charge, co-ops were exempted from income tax, and micro-credit was made available to them.
However, there was a high rate of failure among registered co-operatives due to insufficient training, poor supervision, and lack of followup support and only around 50,000 co-operatives were actually functioning – still the highest total for any country after China. President Chávez shifted the government’s approach from co-operatives to “socialist enterprises” and worker takeovers of factories.
The strongest Venezuelan co-operative is CECOSESOLA (Co-operatives of Social Services of Lara State). Founded in 1967, the food co-op consists of 538 worker members who sell to 60,000 shoppers each week from three locations in the city of Barquisimeto. Their prices average 30% less than those of commercial supermarkets and their annual sales top US$20 million. There are no bosses or managers; the workers rotate jobs and all workers receive the same pay.
The network also has many different types of small producer co-operatives, credit unions, a health clinic with both conventional medicine and alternative therapies, and a network of co-operative funeral homes.
CATURVEN, in Caracas, is a very successful co-operative formed during that campaign in 2002. It services the heavy machinery produced by Caterpillar Inc., the world’s leading manufacturer of earth moving and mining equipment.
There are now 38 members, 40% of them women, and all are paid good salaries with less than two times the difference between the highest paid and lowest paid members. They are part of the Strategic Solidarity Alliance, a network of 17 cooperatives with a total of 986 members that service the Caterpillar heavy equipment throughout the country. Members say that the only real challenge they face as a co-operative is the length of time it takes them to come to a decision, but that none of them would trade their weekly meetings for an autocratic workplace.
The encouraging news is that, even after the government stopped promoting co-ops in 2008, another 40,000 have been registered. The number today is estimated to be approximately 90,000, with over a million members.
How seriously will they be affected by the recent elimination of tax exemptions for nonprofit organizations and co-operatives, one of several measures to compensate for the loss of revenue following the significant reduction in the price received for Venezuela’s oil?