Alfonso Larrea, a law graduate, is commercial director for Scenius, the first urban cooperative in Cuba.
“We always dreamt of some entrepreneurial scheme that might serve us to develop our concerns. Then, the Law Decree No. 305 was issued and we seized the opportunity in terms of an enterprise with cooperativism as an associated form,” he explains, speaking in plural.
Although Scenius is not the only one of its kind in Cuba, it is the best recognized by the island’s institutions.
As a result of an exchange of opinions generated by an article in Progreso Weekly in which people debated over the compliance (or noncompliance) with the principle of volunteerism in the process of cooperativization of state-run businesses, Larrea agreed to answer our questions.
Scenius was born after three projects were submitted by a group of its current members. Today, it is a leader in the furnishing of services such as training, creation of forms, presentation of projects, and counsel given to groups that become urban cooperatives nationwide.
“In the early days, nobody knew how that system worked, what should be done or how. Municipal governments were not prepared; many times they mistook the cooperatives for projects for local development initiatives. All that slowed down a lot of people, because nobody moved forward,” Larrea says.
Nor was it clear how organizers would present a cooperative.
“I come from the field of international cooperation,” he explains, “and realized that this type of proposal is very similar to what we were doing. At first, we focused on those models, because a guide that explains the information that must be collected, the data that must be furnished, etc., didn’t exist — and still doesn’t.”
In Scenius, they established a methodology, so that the organizations related to the process could identify them and send them clients they could help to speed up the paperwork.
“We began operations under a bookkeeping license, because our cooperative had not been approved yet. To that service we added training and in the process we realized that that attracted clients.
“We became emboldened and began to look in the organizations for companies that were going to begin the process. We went to those places and staged workshops and lectures. We set up their applications in advance, that is, what many of these groups did — as soon as they became cooperatives — was to pay us for our services.”
— You said that the process of conversion from state-run businesses to cooperatives does not violate the principle of volunteerism. How so?
— “Many people say that the Cuban government is converting state-run businesses into cooperatives. But we say that the government is giving up the management of production and services. That happens because it decided to follow another strategy, because there are economic problems, etc.
“When that point is reached, someone must manage the business and that opportunity is given first to the workers in it. Because that process is carried out through a legal structure, the workers are given the option of forming a cooperative. But — and this is important — those workers can say that they don’t want to manage it. They can always refuse.”
— What other options do they have?
— “In case the personnel is not willing to form a cooperative, the business is auctioned off and the workers become available. That doesn’t mean that they become unemployed, because the government guarantees them another job. If that offer doesn’t please you, that’s another matter. Then you have the choice of going out on your own and looking for another job.
“Yes, the choices are grim, that’s clear. And the workers cannot be relocated in the same sector, because food service will no longer be managed by the government. On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake to assume that everybody can be an entrepreneur or will want to be one.
“When you start a cooperative, you’re creating a collective of owners and there are people who don’t want to own anything; they just want to be told how much they’ll be paid for their work every month, and that’s all.
“Our of 100 percent of the workers, the entrepreneurs and merchants can be 10 percent maybe, but not the totality. And I’m not talking about unqualified people, no. It might be a hydraulics engineer who wants to draw up plans but doesn’t want to direct a business. He doesn’t want to be an owner, as theoretically can happen in that form of association.
“The option of remaining as a worker paid for his labor no longer exists, because, even though cooperatives can hire workers, the limitations are incredible.”
— So, what’s the role of the labor unions?
— “Something we have discussed a lot is the process of negotiation, which begins as soon as it’s decided that an establishment will cease to be managed by the government. And that includes the process of training.
“One of the big problems with labor unions today is that everybody in a cooperative is an owner, so labor unions are meaningless in a place without workers. The union has no space there. But, until the cooperative is formed, those people continue to be paid and that’s why training should be their main objective at the moment. Because it’s a question of a group of workers negotiating with an administration. In that process, the labor union is lost, it has no role.
“The announcement was made that the government would cease to manage those businesses, I repeat, not that it would turn them into cooperatives. If the workers agree, because they can’t manage the services on a personal basis, they have to form an enterprise. Which is the only enterprise authorized for them in Cuba? The cooperative. And that’s where the negotiation begins, which must be conducted by the labor unions.
“The first legal obstacle is that there is no law on cooperatives. What we have is a Law-Decree. That’s an instrument of the Council of State that, at some point, has to be placed before the National Assembly of the People’s Power, which has the legislative power to approve it (or not). That’s the way it is. The process is long.”