Visits with Venezuelan cooperatives
We visited the Miranda Cooperative Centre in a middle-class district of eastern Caracas. The centre is located in a sprawling and dilapidated former textile factory; it now houses more than 40 cooperatives set up under the government’s NUDES coop program (Nucleo de desarrollo endógeno socialista.
When we arrived, about 100 workers were meeting to discuss the coming referendum vote and to organize themselves to register a workers’ council as part of the country’s new people’s power structures. After a good deal of back and forth discussion, the best-known leader of the centre, gave a talk on the referendum, Hugo Chávez’s role as a mediator in the Colombian civil war, and Colombia’s historic ties with Venezuela. He wound up with a rap on Che Guevara, Latin American revolution, and Cuba’s role in African liberation.
The textile factory had 3,600 workers until it was shut down in 1993. In December 2006 the vacant complex was occupied by a group of about 75 workers in an unauthorized lightning action—carefully planned to avoid a confrontation with police. The occupiers’ hope was that the textile factory could be re-equipped and put back into production. Government ministries have so far not given their support to that proposal. The former owners have never turned up. The facility is now home to 45 different cooperatives, and 250 coop members work here. There are coops providing carpentry, services, accounting, bakery, food production, mechanical, metal working, design, childcare, distribution, and truck transport. The coops have combined to establish workers’ commissions for education, administration, culture—ten of them. The centre is signed up with the federation of worker-run factories, FACTA, which unites 300 workplaces.
There’s a coordinating body elected by the workers, which meets weekly, and the results are taken to the assembly.
The coops are planning to set up more than 100 stands at Christmas, selling goods at a solidarity price, seeking to expand markets and increase employment here.
There are 80,000 cooperatives in Venezuela, with from five members and up.
At first, the Miranda centre was helped by the municipal government only and survived mainly through volunteer labour. In October, it received government credits. “To establish the centre,” Tony said, “we have had to fight the company that owns most shopping centres in Caracas and wants to develop this site as a mall, including with a casino and—of all things—a bingo palace. As if we needed a bingo palace! It’s been a story of popular resistance. We aim to prove that the people themselves can manage production and that the wealth will go not just to individual needs but social needs like schools. The vast factory, still mostly unused, remains property of the old owners, who disappeared in 1993. It remains for the government to determine what is a fair price to pay for this business. It is not clear whether it can be used for a textile factory or should be used for other purposes. Work is under way to set up a grocery market, a lunchroom, a parking lot, and a warehouse.
Tonny Rodríguez’s Story: Tonny’s background was of interest: “I come from a poor background; my father worked in this factory. I worked to get money for the family and did not finish school. I joined the reserves (a common way to get a job), so I was in the army two years, and afterwards I had contact with revolutionary groups. I was in the revolutionary organization of high school students, later in La Unica Via. This group folded, so I joined Chávez’s movement and took part in the failed 1992 uprising. I continued revolutionary activity and was arrested, and stayed in jail until Chávez’s victory in 1998. Then I worked in different projects: for social housing, for the 2000 constitutional referendum, to help with the mudslide tragedy in Vargas.
In 2000 I had problems with a neighbour who was involved in drugs. With two accomplices, he tried to kill me, and I took shots to the leg, body, and arms. I spent a year in bed and almost lost the leg. But they sent me to Cuba for an operation, and I spent three years there. The Cuban doctors saved the leg. I went in a wheel chair and came back on crutches and began to walk, now I am OK with a special cane—which the Cubans got from Canada, by the way. The Cubans are now proposing an operation to extend the bone in my short leg so I will not need a cane.
“My attackers were also victims of oppression. They continued in their life of crime and were all killed by other criminals.
“Such killings were routine in the Fourth Republic. Now we are trying to rebuild a sense of humanity. We have to go beyond just trying to accumulate wealth, beyond consumerism. We can live without poverty but without luxury—a different kind of good life.
“We want to build support for other peoples, like the United States, which has the highest drug consumption in the world and those killings in the schools. It is not the people who are responsible for that.”While touring the factory, we met a group of visitors from a textile cooperative, the Cooperative Textileros de Táchira. They also occupied a closed down facility. They got credits, restarted operations, and are a going concern. They have been paying back the loan for 18 months. They aim to create a social productive network that can link up directly with markets.
A few days later, we visited a smaller cluster of coops in the state of Carabobo: a shop producing and selling handicrafts and pottery, a furniture-making coop, and a lunchroom providing meals to the community. The centre offers free workshops for the community, and we see young kids doing sculpture.