Tertulia, vol. 43
Hola. This is Barbara with cultural news from the Spanish-speaking world. Today I’d like to take you to Venezuela and introduce you to the cooperative Cecosesola.
Last year, the Venezuelan cooperative was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, which annually honours and supports those offering practical and exemplary answers to the world's most urgent challenges. Sometimes the Right Livelihood Award is also called the «Alternative Nobel Prize». Cecosesola was chosen «for establishing an equitable and cooperative economic model as a robust alternative to profit-driven economies». That sounds awesome, doesn’t it?
What is Cecosesola and what does it do?
Cecosesola stands for Central Cooperativa de Servicios Sociales del Estado de Lara (Central Cooperative of Social Services of the State of Lara). Lara is a federal state in the Western part of Venezuela (see map below). Its capital is Barquisimeto where more than 50% of the state’s population lives.
The cooperative is an umbrella association of 50 cooperatives which are integrated into a network for the production of goods and services. The network brings together more than 23,000 members from the grassroots sectors. The starting point of the cooperative activities was the foundation of a funeral home in 1967. When a resident died without the family having money for a dignified funeral, there was initially a collection of money. Starting from this collection, an insurance system was developed, to which today 184,000 people belong. Due to the underlying principle of solidarity, the costs for a funeral are much lower than those of funeral services operating in the market. Cecosesola has extended this strategy to all its other activities. Whether it is the supply of healthy food on weekly fairs, savings and financing services or good basic health care - the claim remains to keep prices lower than in normal shops. It is a great success that the cooperative has been providing these services to lower-income areas in a crisis economy, such as Venezuela. It has also helped to reduce the tensions between the people in the cities and those in rural areas. An overview of all fields of action can be found on the organisation's website, which I used as a source for this text.
Establishing a big conversation
This spectacular, sustainable success in socio-economic terms is based on principles of commoning, i.e. self-organisation through intense communication. These cultural practices make the work of the network so remarkable in my opinion. Unlike a purely market-driven economy or one that is centrally planned, the needs of all stakeholders are taken into consideration. These needs are discussed in meetings where everybody has a chance to speak up. No boss has to motivate or censor. The workers are members of the cooperative and manage the activities in decentralised spaces, rotating their tasks. There are no governing bodies or lines of command. Communication requires self-esteem and honesty. Maintaining good relationships when conflicts are getting discussed is an essential principle of constructive communication. Commons researchers Helfrich and Bollier put it this way:
The Cecosesola network of cooperatives in Venezuela cultivates a culture of such deep trust that people are willing to express and receive sharp criticisms while showing great respect and affection for one another (…). This sort of Transparency in a Sphere of Trust is essential. It is the only way that reliable information can be elicited — some of it embarrassing — while sustaining solid personal relationships. A commons needs truly honest judgments and wisdom, not just formal professionalism.
In an interview of the late Silke Helfrich with members of the cooperative the communicative rules - centred on establishing a community rather than a business - become transparent. This interview also shows that the rules emerged organically. There was no playbook or theoretical blueprint. They did not know about Elinor Ostrom’s design principles when they founded the cooperative and developed its rules of practice. In that respect, it is worthwhile to note that maintaining independence from parties and governments is another principle of the network (Georg Wolter, Peter Bach, Alix Arnold und Georg Rath (Hgs.), Auf dem Weg. Gelebte Utopie einer Kooperative in Venezuela, Buchmacherei: Berlin, 2012, p. 14.).
Recognition of the idea of commoning
It is with sadness that Silke Helfrich, the well-known German commons researcher already mentioned above, was no longer able to celebrate the Right Livelihood Award with the «cooperativistas» from Venezuela. In 2021, she had a fatal accident when hiking in the Liechtenstein Alps. She had nominated Cecosesola for the award. It would have been thrilling for her to see the association’s work for the commons recognised. In her view, Cecosesola was not just an example that cooperatives can indeed scale, but that it “serves as a hosting infrastructure for all sorts of experimental, niche ventures in commoning”.
May Cecosesola’s work continue to inspire and seek better ways to meet the needs of people and the planet. You can find more material about the cooperative on its website.
This is all for today. I will be back in a couple of weeks. Let me know of any other commons projects from Spain or Spanish-speaking America that might be interesting for the readers of this newsletter.