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Poco a Poco: Cooperative work in Olympia and abroad

When 2012 was named the International Year of Cooperatives, sparks flew in the cooperative community in Olympia, Washington. Those working in co-ops here began investigating how to make our cooperatives stronger. As part of this effort, two staff members from the Olympia Food Cooperative, as well as Evergreen students and faculty, visited Venezuela and subsequently organized a conference between local co-ops, the Evergreen State College, and members of CECOSESOLA which is a huge cooperative network in the city of Barquisimeto.

Following the visit, a small networking group—the CoSound Network—was created to strengthen the seemingly disparate cooperative organizations and collectives in our South Sound area. To stay connected with CECOSESOLA, we organized a second exchange trip Barquisimeto for July 6, 2016 with four CoSound Network members: Estefani Perez-Gomez (Flaming Eggplant Cooperative Cafe), Whitney Bard (Olympia Food Cooperative), Sasha Fischel-Freeman (former CECOSESOLA member) and myself (Northwest Construction Cooperative),

For five weeks, we lived and worked with CECOSESOLA, attending meetings, working in la ferias (supermarkets), and touring the vast number of cooperatives within CECO spanning the state of Lara and beyond. When we were sick, we were treated at the Cooperative Health Center. We bought our food from la feria, and lived with the CECO members who had visited Olympia the previous fall.

If you have been following the news from Venezuela, you understand how difficult the situation has been; falling oil prices have created a brutal economic crisis that has enveloped the country. Without oil wealth, Venezuela has been unable to import needed products it doesn’t produce or manufacture. Most U.S. media sources, never very sympathetic to Venezuela, have painted an apocalyptic picture of the situation—especially in the capital city of Caracas—and the reality is not far from that. The food lines are real; the shortage of medicine is real. Families must choose between medical care and buying food. People cannot find or afford batteries for their cars, gas for their stoves, or personal care products like soap and menstrual pads. Most of the rich have left or pay to have basic needs delivered to their homes, while the vast majority of Venezuelans find creative ways to meet their needs in lieu of this pervasive economic disaster. Folks have begun making and selling soap, trading goods with their neighbors, growing their own food in small kitchen gardens, and taking small side jobs to make ends meet.

Now entering its 50th year, CECOSESOLA is the largest cooperative in Venezuela and its services are the most affordable in town. Its health center provides medical care at one-third the price of private clinics and is one of the few health centers offering alternative therapies such as acupuncture and hydrotherapy. (I attended a workshop at the health center to spread awareness on natural birth and worked at a summer camp organized by CECO for youth in their membership.) CECOSESOLA’s network of cooperatives include a funeral home, dozens of small organic food producers and farmers, a cleaning product manufacturer, medical clinics and a recreational facility for its members. About 1200 people are members of CECOSESOLA and decisions are made through a consensus model characterized by long meetings, sometimes spanning multiple days with many dozens of people.

In the U.S., as we confront the reality of our new president elect and the social, economic, and political consequences of his agenda for the next four years, the idea of cooperative resilience becomes ever more relevant. The question we asked most at CECOSESOLA was “what is going to happen?” We learned that Venezuelans anticipate a long road of instability and then an even longer road to rebuild the country’s economic infrastructure. In this challenging period, it is inspiring to see how CECOSESOLA has remained so affordable and serve so many people.

In most cases, cooperatives are more resilient than traditional businesses: they are less affected by changes in global markets; their members rally behind them; and they can diversify their services based on fluctuating consumer needs. CECOSESOLA has survived many challenges in the past 50 years including state harassment and economic hardship. Nevertheless the cooperative has maintained its cohesive culture and continues to demonstrate its ability to be flexible and adapt to new conditions such as changing community needs. CECOSESOLA is made up of those who use its services; it survives because the individuals that work there, shop at la feria, and use the health center have learned to survive and adapt.

One cooperative of CECOSESOLA we visited, a decades old women-run bakery and pasta producer in Sanare called Ocho de Marzo, has started making bread from yucca, a common root vegetable in Venezuela, because the price of wheat made pasta production unaffordable. Ocho de Marzo is a female-centered cooperative, formed out of women’s support groups for mothers and workers in the Sanare community who were determined to carve out their own financial independence. Today Ocho de Marzo is shifting to new projects and products to stay viable while continuing to provide jobs and mutual support for women in the community. Other groups in Sanare and around the country are starting seed banks and seed saving programs to move towards a more localized, self-sufficient food system.

There could not be a more important time for all of us to work cooperatively on a local level and connect to other democratic organizations nationally and globally. My uncertainty about the times ahead is tempered by knowing how resourceful and innovative the collective process can be. And so, poco a poco, little by little, we grow.

For more info about the CoSound Network, please email cosoundnetwork@gmail.com

Emma Thomson is currently a collective member of the Northwest Construction Cooperative and former Flaming Eggplant Cooperative Café collective member. Emma is also a member of the CoSound Network, the Emma Goldman Youth and Homeless Outreach Project, and a volunteer with Parents Organizing for Welfare and Economic Rights. She spends a lot of time in meetings.  

 

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