Women’s cooperatives within the Bolivarian Revolution
This winter I traveled to the Venezuelan cities of Caracas, Merida, and Barquisimeto for several weeks each, with a two-month long program through the Evergreen State College called “Venezuela: Building Economic and Social Justice”. During my stay in Venezuela I had the pleasure of volunteering at CECOSESOLA, a large network of food cooperatives and markets. Most of my time was spent working in the large marketplace, or feria, and learning from the compañer@s there. They also brought me to visit and speak with several smaller woman-run cooperatives in the network and with my class I visited several farming cooperatives that included many women, or were started by women, and making a large impact in their community. I went in very curious about how these cooperatives are revolutionary and also feminist, what women’s roles are inside of them, and what these cooperatives really have meant to the women. The cooperative movement pre-dates the current Bolivarian Revolution, and has been a parallel process that I believe shares similar values and goals with the revolution. One of the most important of these goals/values is the creation of a “social” economy that is anti-capitalist or non-exploitative and promotes equality. Both the cooperative movement and the Revolution are having impacts on women that I believe to be revolutionary because of the roles of women in the movements, the development of a new economy and of the people within it. Furthermore, women-run and women-inclusive are a very important part of the feminist movement and so far, an important way to create gender equity by promoting feminist values within cooperatives and the Bolivarian Revolution, through a separate, parallel process.
How the Bolivarian Revolution has affected women and promoted cooperatives:
On paper the Bolivarian Revolution has set many goals around achieving a more equal society for women. The Venezuelan Constitution of 1999 gave women the right to equal pay for equal work (Art. 91); the right to a life without violence or discrimination (Art. 21); and the very important Article 88 that recognizes women’s work in the home as a form of productive work that deserves pay(1).These, among many other articles that affect women indirectly, outline the goals of the Bolivarian Revolution as created by the Venezuelan people in creating gender equality. I feel many of these goals are aligned with the ideas of cooperativism and similar to the goals of women’s cooperatives in particular.
Since 1999, many organizations, social programs, and laws have been established that have directly affected women, and the cooperative movement positively. This includes the Women’s Development Bank, Banmujer. Banmujer was created in 2001, and has provided training and financial support in the form of microcredit to millions of women to open cooperatives. Also, land reform, started as a decree by Chavez called the Land Law has been important to the formation of farming cooperatives on land that is deemed unproductive and then given to people willing to work it and occupy it, favoring female headed households. With the help of Banmujer, land reform has allowed many more women to form farming cooperatives which are changing the makeup of those who do farm work that is often very male-dominated in Venezuela (2). Several of the women run cooperatives I visited had been started in their own homes and relied on Banmujer microcredit to make them productive and sustainable when they started. Other social programs also focus specifically on women, such as Misión Madres del Barrio which provides compensation for impoverished mothers working in the home and Misión Robinson or Misión Ribas, free adult education programs that many women in cooperatives use to gain literacy and a high school diploma. These misiones have addressed poverty by creating opportunities for women to run their own businesses and also giving wages to women who work within the home, giving all work, domestic or otherwise, economic value and allowing all women to have a higher quality of life. These programs, such as Misión Madres del Barrio also are breaking down many of the societal norms and against the capitalist ideology that only work which results in revenue can be given economic value, thus, implying caregiving and domestic work as valuable. It has also had the overall effect of a drop in general poverty from 49% in 1998 to 27% in 2011 for all people, regardless of gender (2).
Despite the efforts of the government, poverty is still very gendered in the country. In Venezuela many women are still either confined to working in the home or working in the informal economy, selling goods on the street, working under the table as maids, or doing other jobs that provide no security, benefits, labor protections or wage guarantees (3). In fact, “Of the entire workforce only 31.9% are women … Of those with work 63.8% receive an income of less than 500 Bolivars per month”(4); Minimum wage is currently 1,548 Bolivars per month–which is considered the minimum amount needed to live a dignified life. Comparatively, CECOSESOLA workers make between twice and three times the amount of minimum wage in Barquisimeto, with bonuses, health benefits, and lower prices for food and other commodities(5). Lidice Navas, an important socialist-feminist leader within the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the party of President Hugo Chavez, said that
“the biggest challenge [in the Bolivarian Revolution] has been to break the historical relationships of dependency, discrimination, and exclusion…This has been one of our biggest accomplishments, which has inspired women to create new forms of productions based upon what they already know, non-capitalist production that advance us toward a new form of economy, the socialist or solidarity economy”(6).
Going to other women-run cooperatives, I saw how these cooperatives are including women and women-run businesses into the economic development of the country and getting women out of the home and informal economy by creating other jobs for women that offer living wages, independence, and benefits not offered by domestic work. Often these jobs offer the opportunity to stay near their community and home if they wish to while they work. All of this not only alleviates poverty but is allowing for the development of a sustainable economy through endogenous development.
My experiences at CECOSESOLA
The ways I directly saw women being included and empowered through work and achieving equality was not only through benefits such as equal pay, but also through the freedom they have working in a democratic workplace. CECOSESOLA is based in participatory democracy and thus all voices are heard in small and larger meetings, held multiple times per week, where they make the processes transparent and make decisions collectively. Also, because there is job rotation and the option to do the jobs you want, this means women are not stuck in the worst jobs, or any job they feel is not empowering. This creates a different power dynamic that is more equal than jobs that run on a capitalist model. This is not just an economic opportunity for women; it is creating true economic development and human development through including and valuing their participation. Additionally, they are doing work that is providing for the community by offering healthy, local foods and other necessary goods at the market, for lower prices than other places. They also offer their health services from the health center at a much cheaper cost than private health centers, with reduced prices for members, including services for pregnant women and mothers.
The creation of empowering work for women as well as a new type of economy, based on endogenous development and anti-capitalist values, is an important part of the cooperative movement. Many of the women’s cooperatives I visited were started by housewives in their homes who often could not leave home to work because they needed to care for their children, and they lived far from opportunities, such as in the country. Gabriela at Ocho de Marzo told a classmate in an interview, “Rural women were relegated to working at home and taking care of their children, taking care of their spouses, cooking…we started to see that rural women had value, had know-how, and were capable of doing other work” (7). This, along with a desire to organize women to make something of value out of locally available products, spurred the creation of several of the cooperatives, including Ocho de Marzo, Moncar, and Avivir. Ocho de Marzo started making whole grain pasta using local vegetables to produce something healthy for their community; later Moncar, which formed making pasta sauce and jams, uses the tomatoes, onions, and fruit already available at local farms, including another cooperative, Las Lajitas. They both make healthy food products which are then sold in a stable market, at the CECOSESOLA feria in the city. The women at both of these cooperatives told us how they have gained respect in their communities, and now even their sons and grandsons are coming to learn these skills from them. While these cooperatives pre-existed the current government and its programs, others came about more recently and with more government support. One such cooperative is Avivir, a small women’s cooperative that makes natural cosmetic products and herbal applications, as well as producing goat cheese on the side. They also formed out of the desire to work in their communities, organize as women, and be close to their children. The cooperative began by learning skills from students to make things that the community needed, first being shampoo, then face cream, soap, and now an herbal menthol chest rub, all made of natural ingredients, much of which is foraged locally. This all started in one person’s kitchen, until they were able to get microcredit and now have their own workshop near their houses, with more equipment. The most interesting part of talking with them for me was the way they have been so innovative to meet whatever demand for a product comes up, and they expressed how difficult it has been to create some of their products to be as natural as they want, for the health of the workers and community. Their work was in stark contrast to the ideals of the nearby Proctor and Gamble plant, where workers use harsh chemicals that are imported, and which does not allow for the same feeling of solidarity or for the convenience of working near your home and family.
More participatory and inclusive organizations like cooperatives, unlike the Proctor and Gamble plant, produce things needed by and produced from the local community, and promote endogenous development, development using resources and knowledge that is already in existence to achieve the economic transformation of their society. This type of development also revives traditional methods, such as using local plants for cosmetic and medicinal purposes, which I saw being done by several cooperatives, including Avivir. It is not only more sustainable and healthy, but allows for production within the community, whether that is wild harvesting plants, or a farming cooperative growing medicinal herbs, such as the several ones we met in the Páramo, a region in the Andes, and also outside of Caracas. Often the skills needed for this are already present in a community and just need to be taught. The resources to apply these skills can be found through community organizing, such as in communal councils, to plan projects or in forming cooperatives to meet some community need For example, one cooperative “Lombricultura Mubay” that was part of the large Mixteque Communal Council in the Páramo is predominantly women who started with the aim of conserving a local river, and are creating humus and using worms for composting. They are planning to reclaim the knowledge of one of the women’s grandmother who was a midwife to begin growing and using medicinal herbs in the community, which is a rural farming community in the mountains. This shows a dedication not only to their community, but to creating something new that has a value that is not monetary, but recognized as important by the people living there.
Working somewhere that is focused on solidarity and cooperation has also changed how they view work at home, in families, and in their communities. Both told us they meet with other women’s cooperatives every week to discuss other issues in the community and that machismo still exists in their communities, but has improved a lot since they have shown their work is supporting the community and economy. One of the women at Moncar, Gaudi, talks about their work in an interview:
“We organized ourselves as women to create a space in our society, a space of encounter, a space to address the problems that housewives and women face, and especially rural women who have been very marginalized. And also to liberate ourselves from sexism. Women should occupy a space with gender equity, with equal conditions, and equal opportunities. “(8).
An important note is that within these cooperatives we saw more than a shift in work duties, but changes taking place in the collectivization of other spheres, including what some people refer to as “solidarity work”. Even if Venezuelan women have a partner who is providing for them or are not impoverished economically, the burden of the caregiving and domestic work still falls on them. This is referred to by some people there as the “triple carga” or triple burden of work many women face: domestic unpaid work, paid work outside the home, and community organizing to change their situation.In these cooperatives they have begun incorporating the idea of solidarity and collectively doing the work of production into all of the work included in the “triple carga”, by means of creating support networks in their communities to deal with basic needs such as food, education, caretaking , etc. Many of the women will take care of each other’s children to allow for them to meet their own needs and also to do the community work that is necessary. Additionally working at CECOSESOLA I saw many jobs that may often have been done by women traditionally- such as working in the kitchen to prepare meals for the workers- being done by men also, due to the rotation of work. While I would say on the larger scale men are not being pushed to do more of the domestic work and caregiving as a whole in Venezuela, I think the cooperative structure is bringing those ideas up by changing the values of work to be more socialist and feminist. Erasing the separation between the home, work, and community spheres is what will allow them to tackle sexism and machismo in all spheres of life and push for equality.
So how do I see these cooperatives as revolutionary?
These workplaces are creating a “social” economy or “solidarity” economy through not only their production, but the empowering values they hold of democracy through participation, development of the whole self, inclusion and equality. Their workplace is non-exploitative, anti-hierarchal, and thus anti-patriarchal. Also, the goal of attaining equality is being initiated by the workplaces at the grassroots level by the very act of changing power structures, challenging gender roles, and giving economic opportunities to women so that they are able to be independent, have solidarity with other women, and fight for equality in all spheres of their lives. By the inclusion of women and creation of women-run cooperatives in the movement, there is a feminization of the economy happening.
–This paper is part of a zine on cooperatives in Venezuela based on several classmates experiences, being made for the Cooperative Conference at The Evergreen State College in June 2012. The entire zine will be posted to this website later.
- Gregory Wilpert, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, 2007. New York: Verso Press.
- Maria Paez Victor. “Why do Venezuelan Women Vote For Chavez?” Apr 24 2010. CounterPunch. <http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/04/24/why-do-venezuelan-women-vote-for-chavez/#_edn16>
- Courtney Frantz.“La Revolution es Feminista”. Sept 1 2009. <http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4757>
- Jessie Blanco. “Venezuela Has A Woman’s Face”. Mar 4, 2009. <http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4260>
- Elliot Jensen, Anna Isaacs. “CECOSESOLA Cooperative: An Interview with Gustavo Salas Romer”. Sept 202009. <http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4804>
- Susan Spronk, Jeffery R. Webber, Lidice Navas “To Have and To Be: Building a Socialist-Feminist Economy in Venezuela”. Jul 1, 2010. The Bullet.<http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/5466>.
- Interview with Gabriela Carrera, by Vanessa Hoy, February 2012.
- “Cooperatives in Venezuela Promote Solidarity, Equality and Dignity”. Radio al Reves. Apr 12th 2011. <http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/6128>