Interview with Wilson Garcia, member of the Che Guevara youth collective

Subtitles in English. Interview filmed in 2012.

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Why Chavez Won: An Inside View


Why Chavez Won: An Inside View

Lisa Sullivan, October 8, 2012

A few days before the elections, a friend from the states wrote me: “Hi Lisa, all the main stream media down here has Chavez losing and ready to die. Can you give me a more accurate update on the elections?”

My inbox began to fill up with similar inquiries, many from people who I had met when leading delegations here to Venezuela, my home of 27 years. They were confused, wondering why Chavez was going to lose, die, or steal the elections, or all of the above. Those were, after all, the only stories to be found, countered by that of the great white hope in the form of a young, skinny opponent (the adjectives repeated ad nausea by the media describe opposition candidate Capriles).

Where, my friends asked, was all that enthusiasm and spirit they had seen here, the one that had transformed this nation into the least unequal spot in all of Latin America, where free university education, health care and cheap food led to Venezuelans rating themselves as the happiest people on the continent? Had Venezuelans suddenly dropped the most significant political project in Latin America of the past 50 years to suddenly opt for skinniness and youth?

Even NPR set the stage for Venezuelan elections to a backdrop of doom and gloom, as friends notified me in a rush, listening to the Diane Rehm show. For busy and exhausted US citizens just trying to survive via the longest work hours on the planet, they only had time for small sound bites about Venezuela, or any global issue. And these sound bites painted a picture of Venezuela in shades of grey, kind of like those last tottering days of the Soviet empire. Into this scene, rides – or jogs – the youthful skinny Mr. Good to finally chase out the old (age 58) and solidly built Mr. Bad, according to Ms. Rehm and company.

How, then, then to explain yesterday’s street scenes? The ones showing colorfully attired and jubilant Venezuelans standing patiently in huge lines at polling centers, sharing laughs and empanadas with fellow line-mates, indifferent of political loyalties. On the cameras, everyone looked so happy in those long lines, certainly that must mean that they were all voting against Chavez, that evil cancer-ridden old chunky socialist dictator.

But even worse, how to explain the RESULTS? How to explain how this cruel “strongman” had won robustly with more than 54% of the vote, 10% more than his opponent. Or, that there was a record 81% voter turnout? Well, it must be ……….fraud. That was the other scenario the mainstream media had constantly dangled. But wait, in a few minutes the opposition candidate was on televions himself, accepting defeat, acknowledging the decision of the Venezuelan people and absolute legitimacy of the electoral system. Wasn’t it only Jimmy Carter who was allowed an occasional sound bite that spoke positively about the Venezuelan electoral system (the very best of the dozens his Carter Center has monitored). Wait, this just isn’t going as planned.

So, why? Well, without delving into the messy deep part of that question (think: Iraq and weapons of mass destruction), maybe let’s just touch on some of the easier reasons. In spite of the fact that there were 12,000 journalists in Venezuela covering the elections last night, only a handful of them seemed to venture far from their 5-star hotels to take a look around the barrios and small rural towns where most Venezuelans actually live. Like I do. Perhaps if they poked around there for a half hour or so, they might discover what’s behind all this love for this madman.

How about, for a start, free health care, and right in your local community? Well, if you don’t believe those red-shirted socialist Venezuelans occasionally shown on tv pumping their fists at rallies, try listening to a gringa. A few weeks ago, I returned to Venezuela after a long set of travels interspersed with minor surgery. By the time my flight touched ground at the Maiquetia airport, my head was pounding and my vision blurring.

The next morning my companero Ledys took me to the local government health post, or, CDI, similar to those found in almost every Venezuelan community. As I stumbled in, the waters parted and soon I was on a gurney with young Cuban and Venezuelan doctors patiently asking me many questions and examining me. Realizing I was having a reaction to the pain medication that I took for the first time on the plane, I was sent home with new meds and a smile, never interchanging a single id or form of any payment. Within a few hours I was helping friends dig a vegetable garden. What a contrast to the series of medical appointments I had just undergone in the US, where the first words at a doctor’s office were never “good morning” but, “your insurance card and id”.

But the next day Ledys and I were back at the CDI, albeit in opposite roles. This time is was he with the pain, a raging one, in his lower right abdomen. Ledys was certain that the “socialist” arepas we had eaten the previous day had laid havoc to his gut, as he gulped several down, taking advantage of their rock bottom price. The doctors thought otherwise, especially after doing emergency lab work. The next thing I knew, the same social worker who had helped us the previous day was strolling him by wheelchair into an ambulance and sending me off with a kiss and assurance that we were in capable hands. Within minutes, we arrived at a four-story brand new building in the heart of Petare, one of the most populous and poorest sectors of the country, but I felt that I was back in Washington, in a state-of-the-art hospital.

But no, this was definitely Venezuela, as I discerned when no id was requested, the only information requested being name and age of patient. By late evening, orderlies called me to the hospital ward where I found Ledys looking happy and pain free after three hours of surgery to rid him of his appendix and hernia (they threw in the second surgery since he was already opened up.) Two days later we were sent home, with meds and follow up instruction. Total bill: $0.

If free health care isn’t enough reason to explain Venezuela’s election results, maybe you can look to the faces of the young people who were jumping up and down last night in front of the presidential palace. For some odd reason, they just didn’t buy the charm of that young skinny candidate, in spite of the fact that he even wore his lucky shoes yesterday (the press just loved that touch). Maybe the reason for their unadulterated joy was the lack of two words in their vocabulary: student loans.

I found that out when recently I hosted a dialogue been university students from the US and Venezuela at a cultural center that Ledys and I started in the sprawling barrios of Barquisimeto. When I saw the quizzical look on the faces of the Venezuelans as I attempted to translate the term student loans – which the US students were explaining were their main stumbling block to a hopeful future – I realized it wasn’t a question of translation, but of opposing realities. When we began to build this center twenty years ago, we only had two young at the center who had made it to college. Now, among this group of 15 Venezuelan musicians, all between ages 17-20, and all hailing from these barrios, every single one of them was studying at the university. Tuition was free and some even had scholarships to cover food and transportation. Student loans?

As Ledys and I anxiously awaiting the results last night I was getting text messages from my comadre Erika, a young mother of six, and my neighbor. Erika treats every recent election (and there have been many of them, over 10 in the past decade or so) as a matter of life and death, waiting anxiously with heart-in-hand outside the one polling station in our little town of Palo Verde, the one school building there. When I arrived in this community 15 years ago, the school was just a grade school. In the past ten years, it has doubled in size, and now also functions as a high school by day, on weekends as a free government university, and evenings, as one of the tens of thousands of “mission” schools, run by the government.

Erika grew up having to pick coffee instead of going to school. Three years ago she got her grade school degree from the mission school, and is now well on her way to a high school degree. She is thinking of what to study at the university level, maybe social work. She often repeats to me: “”comadre, notice how Chavez always says, WE the poor. He is one of us”.

Erika lives in a hand fashioned home of bahereque (waddle and daub) like mine, snuggled in a small community at the end of the town. More than half of the thirty or so homes in our neighborhood are brand new, sporting the before unheard-of indoor bathrooms and kitchens, all tiled in a lovely sea green. Erika was part of the community council that helped with the census that determined which families most needed the new homes (mostly, those that squished several nuclear families together under one roof). Others had more need as she acknowledged, so she helped with the process, but remained with her old home.

Funds for 16 homes were dispersed by the government, but the community council managed the funds well enough to build 17 homes. The instant that the election results were announced Erika called me with joy and tears in her voice: “comadre, we won!”.

I confess, I also felt tears stream down my face. I was holding my computer to the television screen so that my daughter back in Virginia could see the results via skype at the moment they were announced. Her tears joined mine. She remembers all too well growing up in the pre-Bolivarian Venezuela. The one where her friends in the barrio could barely scrape enough to eat, where some had parents who died of lack of health care, where none ever dreamed of going to college. That’s the Venezuela before, the one that the mainstream press never bothers to mention, the Venezuela that led Latin America for the deepest plunge into poverty in the 15 years preceding Chavez. The Venezuela directed by the IMF and World Bank, two of the main buddies the lucky-shoed candidate promised to usher in again.

After the results, the television screens turned to the scene outside the presidential palace. Did the US mainstream press bother to show that scene? It was utterly electric. Seas of red-shirted Venezuelans had been waiting for hours for results, and now the moment was theirs as Chavez stepped out onto “the balcony of the people”. As crowd and president intoned the national anthem together the look of sheer joy on the faces of so many Venezuelans, a nation that saw my children grow and flourish and learn to become caring people in love with justice, I let my own tears flow.

“Chavez is the people” is the phrase heard over and over here. To those back in the states, how could you possibly understand, there is no real coverage of what happens in Venezuela in the mainsteam media. But to watch that scene, that utter connection, you would also sense that each of these people felt that who they are was being uplifted at that moment : their absolutely dignity, their unalienable right to healthcare, education, housing, food and above all, a sense that they have the power to determine the direction of their own country All of this was lifted as high as the stars last night.

The electricity built as Chavez held high above the crowd the sword of Simon Bolivar. The one mismatch for me and Chavez has always been his military persona, and as a life-time peace activist, the image of a sword isn’t exactly what does it for me, even one gleaming like this in gold and diamonds. But the chant of the crowd as he raised the sword is one that I have heard over and over again in my recent travels to the length and breadth of this Latin America, a continent that I have lived in and loved for the past 35 years: “alerta, alerta, alerta que camina, la espada de Bolivar por America Latina” (Alert: The sword of Bolivar is walking throughout Latin America.)

As Chavez held up the sword, he and the crowd swayed as they spoke and cheered that real independence was finally coming to Latin America, a continent increasingly configuring itself as one: UNASUR, ALBA, CELAC, all variations of Bolivar’s dream. The independence that Bolivar won from Spain, via a sword, was now being won again, from a colonizer that took over no sooner than Spaniards had departed: my country.

But this time the sword was indicative of a new form of battle: democracy. The massive enthusiastic and peaceful turnout at Venezuelan polls yesterday is the real story of Venezuelan elections. The fact that deep social change is happening in Venezuela and throughout Latin America, via a ballot box and not bullets, is what I celebrate.

In my travels as Latin America coordinator for the School of the Americas Watch, I have heard too many stories of atrocities, murders, rapes, disappearances, torture at the hands of dictators that we in the US trained and supported. And I don’t just mean in the 60’s and 70’s. I mean in the 2010’s, like in Honduras, where human rights leaders, peasants and journalists are being murdered right now, today, because of our support for an illegal coup to unseat a president who dared to invite his population to dream the dreams of dignity that flowed in the streets last night, the dreams of Morazan, Central America’s Bolivar.

One final note. There are actually lots of journalists who do take the time to seek out and write about the real story. They are not to be found in the mainstream press, but they can be found in organizations such as CEPR, the Real News, Venezuelanalysis, the Americas Program, Upside Down World, and many many more. My saludos to them this morning, how we need you and thank you for rolling up your sleeves, with meager or no budgets, and working late into the night to report the truth. From Venezuela, from the heart of the Bolivarian dream for Latin America, gracias!

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Video with Leobardo Acurero, a Venezuelan Revolutionary Ecologist

This was done in Barquisimeto, Venezuela in March of 2012. The video is in Spanish with English Subtitles.

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Chavez Supporters Flood Venezuelan Capital as Campaign Closes

Source: The Real News Network

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Why the U.S. Demonises Venezuela’s Democracy

By Mark Weisbrot – The Guardian UK, October 4th 2012

On 30 May, Dan Rather, one of America’s best-known journalists, announced that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez would die “in a couple of months at most”. Four months later Chávez is not only alive and campaigning but widely expected to win re-election on Sunday.

Such is the state of misrepresentation of Venezuela – it is probably the most lied-about country in the world – that a journalist can say almost anything about Chávez or his government and it is unlikely to be challenged, so long as it is negative. Even worse, Rather referred to Chávez as “the dictator” – a term that few, if any, political scientists familiar with the country would countenance.

Here is what Jimmy Carter said about Venezuela’s “dictatorship” a few weeks ago: “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”

Carter won a Nobel prize for his work through the election-monitoring Carter Center, which has observed and certified past Venezuelan elections. But because Washington has sought for more than a decade to delegitimise Venezuela’s government, his viewpoint is only rarely reported. His latest comments went unreported in almost all of the US media.

In Venezuela, voters touch a computer screen to cast their vote and then receive a paper receipt, which they verify and deposit in a ballot box. Most of the paper ballots are compared with the electronic tally. This system makes vote-rigging nearly impossible: to steal the vote would require hacking the computers and then stuffing the ballot boxes to match the rigged vote.

Unlike in the US, where in a close vote we really have no idea who won (see Bush v Gore), Venezuelans can be sure that their vote counts. And also unlike the US, where as many as 90 million eligible voters will not vote in November, the government in Venezuela has done everything to increase voter registration (now at a record of about 97%) and participation.

Yet the US foreign policy establishment (which includes most of the American and western media) seethes with contempt for Venezuela’s democratic process. In a report timed for the elections, the so-called Committee to Protect Journalists says that the government controls a “media empire”, neglecting to inform its readers that Venezuelan state TV has only about 5-8% of the country’s audience. Of course, Chávez can interrupt normal programming with his speeches (under a law that pre-dates his administration), and regularly does so. But the opposition still has most of the media, including radio and print media – not to mention most of the wealth and income of the country.

The opposition will probably lose this election not because of the government’s advantages of incumbency – which are abused throughout the hemisphere, including the United States, but because the living standards of the majority of Venezuelans have dramatically improved under Chávez. Since 2004, when the government gained control over the oil industry and the economy had recovered from the devastating, extra-legal attempts to overthrow it (including the 2002 US-backed military coup and oil strike of 2002-2003), poverty has been cut in half and extreme poverty by 70%. And this measures only cash income. Millions have access to healthcare for the first time, and college enrolment has doubled, with free tuition for many students. Inequality has also been considerably reduced. By contrast, the two decades that preceded Chávez amount to one of the worst economic failures in Latin America, with real income per person actually falling by 14% between 1980 and 1998.

In Washington, democracy has a simple definition: does a government do what the state department wants it to do? And of course here, the idea of politicians actually delivering on what they promised to voters is also an unfamiliar concept. So it is not just Venezuela that regularly comes under fire from the Washington establishment: all of the left and newly independent governments of South America, including Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia are in the crosshairs (although Brazil is considered too big to get the same treatment except from the right). The state department tries to keep its eyes on the prize: Venezuela is sitting on 500bn barrels of oil, and doesn’t respect Washington’s foreign policy. That is what makes it public enemy number one, and gets it the worst media coverage.

But Venezuela is part of a “Latin American spring” that has produced the most democratic, progressive, and independent group of governments that the region has ever had. They work together, and Venezuela has solid support among its neighbours. This is the former president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, last month: “A victory for Chávez is not just a victory for the people of Venezuela but also a victory for all the people of Latin America … this victory will strike another blow against imperialism.”

South America’s support is Venezuela’s best guarantee against continuing attempts by Washington – which is still spending millions of dollars within the country in addition to unknown covert funds – to undermine, delegitimise, and destabilise democracy in Venezuela.

Original Source: The Guardian UK


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In the news: Venezuelan Government Created 22,000 Food Establishments in 9 Years

Read full article here:

Since 2003, the Venezuelan state has created over 22,000 establishments nationwide as part of its food distribution network, including the low-cost grocery stores Mercal, Pdval, and Abastos Bicentenarios, as well as storage warehouses and refrigeration centers.

This news was announced by Food Minister Carlos Osorio, who said the efforts are aimed at guaranteeing access to basic foods among the entire population at accessible prices, elevating the quality of life of Venezuelans who under prior governments had deficient nutrition.

He recalled that the State began to develop and strengthen its food infrastructure between November 2002 and January 2003, because big businesses associated with the right-wing had paralyzed the food production business and closed supermarkets in order to destabilize the country.

So far, the government has opened 267 Arepera Venezuela restaurants, which sell the traditional arepas, lunches, and drinks at very low costs.

“There are also popular cafeterias and Casas de Alimentación [soup kitchens]. A whole infrastructure we have developed in the last nine years that was born in 2003 with Mercal, Pdval, and then Abastos Bicentenarios. We have a distribution network that is helping strengthen food security,” Osorio said.

Legal norms such as the Law on Food Security and Sovereignty, Osorio said, have helped consolidate primary production as well as agro-industrial processing, storage, distribution and sales.

“The Food Ministry has 70 processing plants for precooked corn flour, balanced foods, milk production plants which generate 36,000 liters per month, oil processing plants, to satisfy the nutritional needs of the people instead of profit,” Osorio said.

Food for Everyone

Osorio said the number of people who have accessed food distribution sites established by the government has increased considerably in recent years due to the quality, supplies and prices of the goods offered there.

During 2011, the Mercal grocery stores were accessed by 10.9 million Venezuelans, while 1.4 million visited Pdval stores and 2 million visited Abastos Bicentenarios.

Meanwhile, in the first six months of this year, 12.5 million shopped at Mercal, 2.3 million shopped at Pdval, and 1.5 million at Abastos Bicentenarios.

Better Nutrition

Osorio also referred to the fourth National Survey on Familiy Budgets for the year 2008 to 2009, which found that food is not a problem for the majority of Venezuelans, with 80 percent having Access to three meals a day, while another 16.2 percent had four meals a day. In total, 96.2 percent had at least three meals a day.

The study was carried out by the Central Bank of Venezuela, the National Institute of Statistics, the University of the Andes and the Guyana Corporation of Venezuela.

AVN / Press – Venezuelan Embassy to the U.S. / July 27, 2012


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Becoming Ant: A Lesson in Cooperative Mentality

Becoming Ant

Heidi Barta

“A functioning organization with no one in charge is so unlike the way humans operate as to be virtually inconceivable.”

~ Deborah Gordon, Ants at Work


            Have you ever watched ants at work? Lying on my belly one summer afternoon, I did just that, fascinated by a group of ants moving along what seemed to be an intricate system of roads and highways that were all but invisible to my human eyes. I remained for several hours watching through the frame of a camera lens. At one point, I called out to my children who came to lie beside me. I asked them to watch, pointing to one little ant that was intent on moving a lifeless beetle twice its size. It tried several different angles of approach to get under and lift the large beetle, but to no avail. When the ant turned, heading down the viaduct for the main road back to town center, my children let out a disappointed sigh. Having already watched such a feat, I implored them to wait and see what the ant would do. It is hard to say if it had a specific destination in mind or was just looking for another able body because it stopped as soon as the path crossed with another ant. It took a mere second to recruit some help and off they went, running back in the direction of the beetle. When they reached the large insect, each took a side and easily hoisted it up above their bodies. We watched them move flawlessly together as they took the nearest exit and headed to the north side. My children were enamored with the simple success they had just witnessed. I agreed, indeed it was remarkable. This moment, which lingered in my mind, challenging me to understand why we found it so remarkable was in time, accompanied by an uneasy feeling that somewhere along the path of my life I had missed the training session: How to work cooperatively. If ants can do it, why couldn’t I?

Even before I set out to find my first job, I felt hardwired against the punch-in-punch-out industry that loomed in the future and was drawn to seek a different way of making a living. I chalked it up to a personal quirk of not working well under authority and thought perhaps I lacked the ability to work well with others in general. For years, I owned a successful business as a massage practitioner and worked alone, creating an environment that I enjoyed while admittedly missing the camaraderie of working with others. When I reached physical burn out, I returned to school in search of an alternative that wouldn’t lead me down the path of corporatism that I had thus far avoided. The values I hold and the passion I have for equality in the work place, as globally, provoked me to explore alternatives to climbing the capitalist ladder or selling my labor for less than it is worth. Yet, I remained concerned with the level of dysfunctional communication, glaring individualism, and subsequent alienation that I continued to encounter even in collective work. In this context, I pursued documentary story telling through writing and film as a means to unearth the origin of what seemed to be deep-rooted ideologies preventing community from being community and collective work from being truly collective.

Following the summer afternoon spent filming the microcosmic world of ants in my backyard I took up doing film interviews with children ages six to thirteen, digging down to discover where individualism and alienation first sprout. Of each child, I asked for an articulation of the dreams they held for their future. A good job, big house, nice car, swimming pool, private plane…were among the answers I received. Having three children of my own, ranging in ages from nine to twenty, I understand the development process of self-awareness in the context of the greater picture and these self-focused answers didn’t surprise me. They weren’t what I was after either, so I probed further, asking if they would still want those same things if it meant that someone else had nothing. I implored them to imagine that there exists only a finite amount of resources and that everyone can have an equal share or a handful can have more, others less and for some, there won’t be enough to have any. The most immediate responses came from younger interviewees with certainty that everyone should have a share and no, they would not want to have a big house if it meant that some one else had to live on the street. Those who were older, approaching or already in middle school, were hesitant in their responses, struggled with the need for moral judgment proposed by the question, and made justifications for why they ultimately would be more entitled to have luxuries when others couldn’t get their basic needs met. What if they were to be the ones who lived without? No, I was told, this would not happen to them. This kind of thing only happened to other people through fault of their own. What I witnessed in this small collection of opinions alluded to an influence that was serving to create gapping holes in the possibility of community. At best, I was disturbed and at worst, I wanted to pack up my kids and head for the hills, isolating them from whatever monster was out there seeking to distort their innate individuality into individualism.

To further understand the breakdown of community, I began utilizing my academic path to delve into the study of history written outside the dominant narrative with a focus on current and historical economic politics and human rights issues across the globe. I was introduced to key concepts that brought the reality of institutional brainwashing into focus, solidified my position on equality, validated my desire to make a living within community and illuminated cooperatives as a tangible option to link the latter two in a workplace environment. The work of Carl Marx is well known, speaks volumes to the inevitable failure of a capitalist society and gives a framework to understand the ground we stand on so that we may begin to imagine where we might like to go. Antonio Gramsci, a twentieth century political philosopher, made valuable contributions to Marxist theory from a specific focus on how culture and belief are formed and the ways in which this shapes individual and collective action. Gramsci theorized that individuals, despite differences in backgrounds, are socialized through the institutions of society to accept a capitalist view of the world. John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, states that among these institutions, the most prevailing are school, media, and business. What Gramsci understood and Perkins discovered through the life path he chose, is that a social class can dominate by imposing it’s world view on societal culture, manipulating beliefs, perceptions, values and explanations so that its ruling class world view becomes the societal norm, or in other terms, the status quo. Simultaneously, it rejects ideas of class analysis and collective action for structural change. This is cultural hegemony and this nearly global worldview is called capitalism. Capitalism embeds the idea of individualism, aspiration to consumerism, and a middle class lifestyle, and the ‘natural’ leadership role of the ruling elites, the political mainstream and churches (Beck, Purcell). In business, this reflects as a hierarchal structured workplace where workers sell their labor to make money for the capitalists who own the corporations or small businesses, (as well as the big house, fancy car, pool and private plane) in exchange for a wage. With the bottom line always the top priority, the capitalist is not concerned with whether the workers wages will provide for their necessities. A 2011 census reports that over ninety-seven (97.3) million fall into the low-income category while ten and a half (10.5) million workers brought in incomes below the national poverty level (usatoday), ( Additionally, a worker has no control over the products they are making, selling or representing which could fall severely out of line with the workers values. With twelve and a half (12.5) million people unemployed at the time of this writing and under four (4) million jobs currently available, choosing to sell one’s labor to a corporation that is best in line with personal values is an unlikely option ( Instead, millions of workers punch in each day to trudge through the status quo, be pit against their cohorts in an effort to climb up a rung and receive a better wage, or quietly go about their work and return home without enough to sustain their living needs; all of which is overwhelmingly accepted as “just the way it is.” In Freirean terms, we know this as naive consciousness, the process by which people recognize their personal problems but do not make the connection to wider social or structural issues (Beck, Purcell). Alienation from each other, community, and society are a natural byproduct.

In the heat of a mid-March, Venezuelan afternoon, I walked into the air-conditioned office of the Tulipan cooperative to take part in my first lunch meeting with a handful of other associates. I was given a seat at the counter and a box full of Chinese food from a local restaurant. I was not pioneering an experience with cooperatives here, as I had spent several years in the past working with a member owned co-op as both a member and a seat holder on the board of directors. I was, however, for the first time, about take part in a worker-owned cooperative, one that would revolutionize my understanding of cooperativsm and the space they can create for a counter-hegemonic work environment. As lunch got underway, I tried to keep up with the banter and friendly jabs filling the room. The more that everyone talked at once, the more undistinguishable the heavy accented Spanish became for my unseasoned ears and I began looking around the ample office, reading signs and taking in the atmosphere. I spotted on a shelf, a group of ant figurines holding up a bottle of Tulipan floor polish above their heads. I must have smiled audibly, as one of the others noticed my joy and commented on the similarity between ant community and how this small cooperative has structured their way of work. Oh really, I thought, and knew I had arrived at the right place.

A small co-op in the city of Barquisimeto, Tulipan, officially known as Cooperativa Unidad de Produccion el Tulipan, began fourteen years ago as a family operated vanilla extract production. Back then it was just a few people processing the vanilla under a tree in the back yard of one of their homes and bottling up a small amount to sell locally. Now, with roughly 11 or so associates, they run production out of two locations, an expanded shop in back of the original home where vanilla is still produced and one located on the property of the infamous Cecosesola cooperative, where they have taken up producing floor polishes and household disinfectants. When asked how the business expanded and grew, I was told, “poco a poco.” A common phrase among Venezuelan co-ops, poco a poco, literally means little by little and sums up the necessary ingredients to creating and sustaining a co-op: hard work and determination. Oscar, Sr., one of the founding members of Tulipan was always quick to remind me that these cannot be separated from a spirit of cooperativism, the combination of all three being the determining factor of success. This is a conversation we had several times as I tried to understand why many of the cooperatives developed under the Chavez government have long since crumbled and why Tulipan, Cecosesola, which began in 1967, and other co-ops in it’s expanding network are thriving with a history of pre-Chavez longevity. Multiple members told me that without one of the key ingredients a co-op is like a chair without sufficient legs to stand on. Although there are various other opinions in the political arena, I’m inclined to believe this simple formula, having been a part of a co-op that had lost a leg or two and nearly came crashing to it’s end. The Tulipanians suggest, while well intended, the multitudes who rushed to create co-ops at the prompting and support of the Chavez government lacked the spirit of cooperativsm that is built on trust, equality and everyone showing up to do their part. What’s more, they told me, a cooperative can’t be built overnight but must happen, poco a poco.

Tulipan, however, did not begin as a cooperative, but rather as a business in Oscar’s name. Before venturing into his own business he worked for his brother who owns a vanilla extract company. There he learned the process of extraction and production, putting in time daily for a paycheck each week. One day he decided to leave and start his own business with his wife and a couple other family members. His motivation was to spend more time with his wife and children, have determination over his living wage, and work in an environment that embraced equality. Although they were a business and not a cooperative, they naturally formed a horizontal structure giving everyone a voice in the product and production. Nevertheless, legally in Oscar’s name, the consequences of all the business responsibilities fell squarely on his shoulders. Along the way, Tulipan connected with Cecosesola who ushered them in to a new beginning. They began to sell their vanilla at the weekend public markets and little by little were able to make a bigger space in the house for producing the vanilla and purchase some equipment, negating the need and time that they originally spent making each batch by hand. One day Oscar was approached by Cecosesola and asked if his business would be interested in producing disinfectants, as there was a market need for an economical non-brand name household cleaner. Additionally, they were offered a production space on the Cecosesola property but would need to first form into a cooperative. I can only imagine the excitement they must have felt during the process that ensued as everyone’s faces lit up with pride as they relayed the story to me. Oscar told me that at the moment when they signed the documents legitimizing them as a cooperative the weight of carrying the business was lifted from his shoulders and spread equally between all the members, the load of responsibility suddenly become one that they could bear together. We were discussing this over lunch, one afternoon – always lunching, always talking – when Oscar pointing to his son sitting next to him saying that yes, he is my son, but he is also my equal in the cooperative, my associate. Knowledge is not owned in a cooperative, but shared. Each person has experience and understanding of how to do every job that their organization needs. When one person learns something new, time is set aside for teaching it to the others. In this way, each person is qualified to contribute to and share equal responsibility and voice. By contrast, his brother’s sons are employees of their father’s business with no personal investment other than a paycheck. If they want to succeed, they will need to climb the ladder just like anyone else, stepping on heads along the way. At that moment, listening to the two associates, father and son, talk about the differences between hierarchal business and cooperatives, a clarity reached me that I had been unable to grasp before. It was all suddenly cut and dry. In the cooperative mentality, all have equal investment in the health and success of the organization, share ownership of the means of production and have a voice in determining the values it will imbibe. In a capitalist business mentality, a few are in control and benefit from production while the rest are labor hands to be purchased at a rate that benefits the bottom line.

The shift to a cooperative mentality, while clearly a necessity for community endeavors, seemed daunting to me when considering how much we have all been institutionally and societally schooled in individualism. In the gap between the understandings forming in my consciousness and the actuality of taking action, lay the glaring obstacle of, how? As my prior experience had attested, when members of a co-op do not wish to be directly involved, the responsibilities and decisions fall unequally on those who do. I became interested to understand how Tulipan cultivated a spirit of cooperativsm that kept everyone involved and engaged. There had not been a specific person in charge who could resolve my questions nor a specific business model I could refer to and although the answer was simple, it took a couple months of reflecting on my experience to pinpoint it. Tulipan and the cooperative network, of which they are affiliated, had poco a poco created a culture of leaderless communication through meetings, which I was told, are the cornerstones of their all-member consensus framework. To be a participant in those meetings and witness consensus happen with such fluidity and openness was as impressionable as it had been to watch those little ants in my backyard. The first lunch meeting I had taken part in had been my introduction to their methodology. This time, set aside in the afternoon is for poking fun at each other, laughing, and coming together over a meal, but also serves as mid-day briefings, exchanges of information and catching up with associates that are unable to attend morning meetings. In addition to the many meetings within Tulipan alone, there are network meetings held at Cecosesola every week, which all cooperatives attend. While Tulipan is a small organization, Cecosesola has over a thousand associates, and nearly twenty thousand members in the network, who all work to reach total consensus. Not everyone can attend every meeting and thus information is passed through the network in a way that Gustavo, one of Cecosesola’s founders, said is patterned after the communication chain of women who prepared food on the streets from carts. He said that the women would chat during their work, moving amongst the carts nearest them. News and issues of concern would travel through the community this way bringing new perspectives and insights with each pass. Hence, during one lunch meeting we all gave our attention to an associate who had traveled to the up country the day prior to attend a meeting of cooperatives there and was reporting back on the topics, concerns and decisions up for consensus. Although each co-op operates individually, the collective investment in the well being of all creates a net that no one will slip through.

Marx theorized that for a society to be revolutionized the ideas and values of that said society would have to change. This seems like a catch twenty-two and until I had challenged the roots of hegemonic ideologies and immersed myself in an experience of true participatory democracy I could not begin to imagine how these changes could come about in me or anyone else. Cooperatives are places where we can make the path to revolution by re-writing ideology that says we must vie for the right to have our needs met and the right to determine exactly what those needs are. Cooperatives, by nature do not foster individualism or competition and in fact, foster just the opposite. Paulo Freire, influential, late twentieth century thinker on education and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, identified three processes of mentality, the last of which is cultivated in cooperativsm. These three processes are: magical consciousness, passivity in which people are accepting of their lot in life, believing that the situation is inevitable and therefore unchangeable. In this state exists the unchallenged acceptance of the status quo; naive consciousness, as I wrote about earlier, is the recognition of personal problems without connecting them to wider social or structural issues. This is the mentality I nourished the majority of my life, impassioned to create change, enraged by injustice, but rendered powerless by the belief that I couldn’t fit into existing society; and lastly, critical consciousness, a broader recognition in which people see the unjustness of societies structures and that the discrimination they produce affects them, the way they think and feel about their lives and the opportunities that are open or closed to them (Beck,Purcell). Gramsci believed that a workers revolution had not yet occurred because society had not shifted towards critical consciousness where collective action for revolutionary change can take place. Cooperatives cultivate individuals who collectively imagine and create economic endeavors to meet the needs of their communities and themselves. They recognize equality through horizontal structures of consensus, bringing class analysis to the forefront. Moreover, they build a new option to the capitalist institution of business, countering the status quo by delegitimizing rhetoric that says there is no alternative. Like ant communities, they provide a system in which no one has power over the other but all work together to make a community that thrives.

Heidi Barta, 25, May 2012

Works Cited

Beck, Dave, and Rod Purcell. Popular Education Practice for Youth and Community             Development Work. Southernhay East, Exeter: Learning Matters, 2010. Print.

“Census Shows 1 in 2 People Are Poor or Low-income.” USA Today. Gannett, 15 Dec.             2011. Web. 25 May 2012. <            15/poor-census-low-income/51944034/1>.

Gordon, Deborah M. Ants at Work: How an Insect Society Is Organized. [S.l.]: Free, 2011.             Print.

Perkins, John. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. London [u.a.: Ebury, 2006. Print.

“U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor             Statistics. Web. 25 May 2012. <;.

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