Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 425 | Febrero 2017



A priest, a coop and a peasantry that regulates the elites

People become conscious and organize when they realize that their resources, however few they may possess, have value, and that they don’t have to live as either indentured servants or masters. People progress when they discover the strength of community and faith. People open their minds when inspired by examples of personal integrity. The women and men who belong to the Panamanian cooperative “La Esperanza de los Campesinos” (Peasants’ Beacon of Hope) have experienced this and the proof is in the pudding.

René Mendoza Vidaurre

Which peasant cooperative in Central America is the strongest in trade? Which one is in charge of all stages of coffee processing—removing the pulp, then drying, hulling, roasting and grinding the beans—then commercializing all its members’ coffee plus that bought from others? Which is the oldest one with Christian roots in our region? It’s the Esperanza de los Campesinos (Peasants’ Beacon of Hope) cooperative in the Santa Fe district of Panama’s Veraguas province. Although it was formed decades ago, I only learned about it recently.

Its initial development, the road it’s taken and its vision have lit the way for other Central American cooperatives for 47 years. I want to share something I learned of this important experience during a week I spent there talking with those who founded the cooperative, some of its members, the staff who work there and those running other cooperatives that work with it.

Santa Fe is rebel land

The rebellious history of the small town of Santa Fe, the seat of the district by the same name in Veraguas, is well known in the country. The Spanish founded it in 1557 under Christian banners—as attested to by its name and that of neighboring places: San José, San Francisco… The Quibián and Urracá indigenous chieftains fiercely defended their lands against Columbus’ grandson, who had been awarded Veracruz and launched several expeditions to subdue them. When he failed he sold his rights back to the Spanish Crown. A century later, in 1630, Santa Fe became the capital of the Veraguas province. And three centuries after that, in 1959, it witnessed an uprising of teacher training students on Mount El Tute against the soldiers of President Ernesto de la Guardia.

Today Santa Fe de Veraguas is known throughout Latin America for the work of Colombian missionary priest Jesús Héctor Gallego Herrera (1938-1971), who worked with the peasants there and helped found this cooperative starting in 1968. On June 9, 1971, after his organizing work and implicit challenge to the way the local large landowners and merchants operated earned him the accusation of being a communist, the National Guard under the Omar Torrijos government first deported him, and when he came back they detained, beat and killed him. His body has not yet been found, making him one of the continent’s first “disappeared” persons.

Father Héctor marked a before and after in the district’s history, changing the life of both it and its people forever. Serviliano Aguilar, one of the first who was “changed,” stated that Santa Fe is “holy land because Héctor was a martyr,” one of the first of a Church affirmed in social commitment following the Second Vatican Council concluded in Rome in 1965, and celebrated in the second Conference of the Latin American Episcopate in Medellín, Colombia, three years later.

Knowing his life was in danger, Gallego had exhorted the peasants to continue with their work no matter what: “You know they are pursuing me and they could do something to me at any time. You are responsible for conducting the evangelizing work that will channel the liberation of men in this world and especially in Santa Fe. For that reason I’m telling you that should I disappear don’t look for me but continue the struggle, because the important thing is the salvation of all men from exploitation and slavery caused by the exploiters and that may mean dying, if it is necessary. This is the ultimate commitment of a Christian.”

Everyone depended on the bosses

There were only dirt roads in Santa Fe when Héctor Gallego arrived there and they turned to mud in the rainy season. At that time the densely forested mountain was still “national land” and the microclimate was colder than it is today, making it a good area for growing coffee. It had some big coffee growers and cattle ranchers and some stores owned by wealthy Chinese, plus many small farmers and landless families living from selling their labor: men earned $0.60 for a 10-hour working day while women had to work four 10-hour days to earn that much. Most of the population was illiterate; only a few had reached third grade of primary school.

Father Héctor quickly perceived the enormous injustices that reigned in Santa Fe. “Everyone depends on a boss, with some exceptions,” he said in a radio broadcast a week before the government “disappeared” him. The future outlook for most of Santa Fe’s peasants was to live out their lives as indentured servants or, if they could work without a boss, their only model and reference was to follow the path that had made the big landowners wealthy.

“That day changed me forever”

Jacinto Peña, who soon became a disciple of Father Héctor and was the only witness to his kidnapping, remembers the day he met the newcomer: “One day in 1968, I was walking along and saw a stranger riding a mule. He reached out his hand to greet me: ‘I’m Santa Fe’s priest,’ he told me. ‘I don’t believe you, priests only greet rich people,’ I answered him. He said: ‘There’s always a first time…. I want to invite you to a meeting this Thursday.’ ‘I don’t have time for meetings,’ I said, lowering my head. ‘No? Those are the very people I’m looking for, people who don’t have time,’ he told me. And he left me bowled over. I went to the meeting. I saw him greeting children and that impressed me. We sat down in a circle. What I saw and heard that day, made me think differently. That day I changed forever.”

Father Héctor’s attitude generated changes. Rubén Rodríguez—”Chino”—remembers him this way: “One day I was talking with a friend wearing a dirty, torn shirt when Father Héctor came along. He greeted us and said to my friend: “You should love yourself. Going about clean and tidy is one way of doing that. Take off that shirt and put on this one of mine.” My friend was speechless. I felt ashamed and didn’t know what to say. From that time on, whenever I saw my friend he was always well-groomed. I think it sometimes takes a jolt to the brain to make us change.”

Those who attended the meeting to which Father Héctor invited Jacinto Peña were landless or had smallholdings but worked for the wealthy. They were fertile ground for the priest’s words, which awakened their consciousness and encouraged them to engage in joint community actions that went against the dominance of the most economically powerful.

They experienced five awakenings

How did Father Héctor Gallego awaken these peasants? They say they experienced five awakenings from listening to him. He showed them the opportunities available in Santa Fe: they weren’t so very poor because there was still “national land” they could take over and fence in. He made both women and men understand that they weren’t dependent on the rich who pay such low wages; rather it was the other way around: the wealth of the rich people depended on their work. He also showed them that they were being cheated in both prices and weights for the products they bought in the stores. He convinced them that everything can change when poor people unite and organize. And he taught them that Nature is a work of God and therefore is for everyone, not just a few.

He achieved all this by asking them questions. Jacinto Peña recalls how when people told him they had no land, Héctor asked them who owned the land they could see a little way away. “Nobody” they all replied. And he told them: “If it’s nobody’s, why don’t you take it and work it?” That’s how they realized that there was land, and that they could occupy it and could work it…

Whenever consciousness awakens, actions follow that challenge the status quo of both the peasant families and the wealthy. That awakening came to Santa Fe through the transforming ideas of Liberation Theology, which was already causing so many changes throughout Latin America.

Jacinto Peña told me some of the first actions that came from these ideas: “At the Thursday meeting in the community Héctor told us: ‘The road is dirty, your children walk on it and get to school with dirty uniforms. It has to be cleaned.’ We all agreed: one group would start cleaning from one end and another from the other and we would meet in the middle. We had eight days to do it in. Our group worked on Sunday but the other one didn’t. At the next meeting Father Héctor greeted us and asked the women: “What are you doing?” They said they were arranging flowers for the celebration of the Mass. The priest was emphatic: “No Mass will be held today because Mass is the culmination of community development. As long as there’s no notion of working and caring for the Lord’s work, there’ll be no Mass.” That day we felt punished. By the following week the road was clean and there was a Mass.”

And thus the coop was born

Very soon more and more peasants stopped working for the rich. They took over national land and began working it as their own. There was an immediate reaction: “that priest is crazy.” The stores didn’t want to sell anything to the peasants who had awakened.

The reaction of the rich expedited the reflection and motivated the decision to organize a cooperative. One of the cooperative’s founders explained: “In the weekly meeting the priest asked: What’s your most deeply felt problem? We replied that the stores, besides robbing us with the weights, now look askance at us for going along with Father Héctor and don’t want to sell to us. We discussed the issue and the conclusions that emerged included the need to create a cooperative. But we had doubts.”

Many witnesses remember that historic meeting. One of them, Jacinto Peña, described the precise moment in 1969 when the cooperative came into being: “We woke up to the unfairness of our wages, the way the stores were cheating us with the weights and prices for what we produced and they bought from us. We decided to form a cooperative. But how could we do it when we thought we didn’t have any money or anything? Then Father Héctor threw a five-cent coin into the middle of where we were sitting and asked us how many candies we could buy with it? ‘Five,’ we answered. Another of us searched in his pocket for another five-cent coin. And others put in more coins until there were ten. The priest picked up the coins and told us that now there was enough to buy fifty candies and sent a boy out to buy them. It was midday and we were all hungry. The boy shared out the candies to the fifty peasants who were there and the priest asked us again: ‘What do you think about that?’ And someone answered: ‘It’s wonderful!’ The priest told us that this is how cooperativism works. The following week a group from Pantanal bought a hundredweight of salt to sell retail and everyone in El Carmen began to save ten cents a week. That’s how the peasants’ beacon of hope was born, how our cooperative was born.”

And that’s how it was with other initiatives as well. “In another meeting Father Héctor asked us to bring along something to eat, but none of us brought anything. He asked us why we hadn’t and someone said that there wasn’t any food in the house. Soon “agricultural groups” were created in different communities. They were born out of necessity.”

They were called “responsible”

The cooperative arose from an awakening, from consciousness-raising and from the members’ own resources. It arose to turn adversity into opportunity, shattering the belief that peasants are poor and can’t save. But the cooperative wasn’t the only goal of Father Héctor and the peasant leaders he was meeting with. For the three years they worked together they formulated a strategy of inter-related tasks.

One task was to prepare “responsible” people from each community and for the whole Santa Fe district. They organized monthly meetings with thirty of them to analyze their reality and how to transform it. In a radio interview a week before he was disappeared, Father Héctor criticized the word “leader” as paternalistic. He preferred to talk of “those responsible.”

A second task was to organize community actions: cleaning the paths, supporting groups from other communities to work on national lands they had taken over, organizing agricultural groups...

A third task was to make the cooperative sustainable, manage it well and increase both the savings and the amount of products in the store. Those responsible met to plan and support the store, and the coop members were sent to take classes in cooperativism at Panama’s Cooperative Institute.

The fourth task was to send young people to complete their secondary school studies and finish their agricultural technician major in the Nazarene Agricultural Institute, administered by monks in Santiago de Veraguas.

And the fifth task was to give meaning to these four other tasks by reflecting on the Gospel and the meaning of being Christians, of being a Church as well as the meaning of the Mass. This evangelization catalyzed community organization and the tasks they undertook. Some recalled the day a devout lady approached Father Héctor protesting that he was neglecting the building of churches. His “advice” to her was this: “You all can take charge of building places of worship; I’m making the Church with peasant families.”

He taught us to think

This interwoven strategy used a reflective pedagogy and a horizontal model. They always sat in a circle, with no one in a more privileged place than anyone else.

Father Héctor tapped the strength he saw in the community and in religious faith. As he said: “Once they discover the strength of community, they can do anything. And in Latin America religious strength is very important. When it’s discovered, evangelism commits to change and to truly living a Christian commitment. When we analyze the reality we’re living, we discover that it’s against God. Religious strength reinforces human efforts. The Mass is the culmination of the work we do.” Through the community and religious strength Father Héctor enabled “responsible” persons to emerge at the cooperative, community and district levels, and in the productive, commercial, political and religious areas.

Serviliano Aguilar remembers how they analyzed reality: “The priest would meet with community leaders for a day and a half. It was a peasant meeting that ended with a Mass. The model community—of love, solidarity and unity—was in the Bible. We compared it with the reality we experienced and realized that the rich were oppressing us. Then we wondered what we were going to do. Father Héctor taught us to think. With or without studying, people can think. We learned this from him.”

No grassroots organization should steal from the poor

The cooperative began to grow based on the weekly meetings, each person’s savings of ten cents a week, and organizing to sell salt and other products, particularly the coffee they produced in the lands they had occupied.

The initial membership was nine peasants from El Pantanal and nine from El Carmen. They were the ones who set up the first store. Father Héctor helped them discover a goal—a horizon—and encouraged them to progress towards it, based on principles. The horizon: “One day you’ll have warehouses and will be able to buy a car; you’ll see.” The principles: “If you work in cooperation with each other and, unlike the merchants, give ‘generous measure’ as good business people do: you’ll increase those who buy salt from you instead of driving them away, because no grassroots organization should steal from the poor.”

Working with these principles affected the traditional stores, which always gave a little less for the same price and used two scales, one for buying and one for selling. It also affected the rich who paid low wages to make more profit. And it affected peasant conformism, fulfilling the words of Father Héctor: “If Christians conform, the Church dies.”

The training of leaders in the Cooperative Institute courses was vital to the cooperative’s evolution. They learned principles consistent with a cooperative, such as the one that says “The cheater sells dearer, but the one who wants to sell more and be successful has to sell cheaper and this is being a good businessperson.”

They kept branching out over the years

The peasants acquired experience when they opened their first store and as the number of associates increased and there were more savings, they set up another store and later, yet another. By the 1970s, when Father Héctor was no longer with them, five “branches” had emerged: stores in different communities. In 1983 the cooperative began to roast and grind coffee. In 1995 it built the “Héctor Gallego” supermarket. In 1996 it opened management offices. In 2010 it bought the land and building for the cooperative’s main warehouse. In 2013 it built the second floor of the Esperanza Cooperative supermarket. When I was there, they were finishing the building of a chicken processing plant.

Over the years they’ve faced crises and new challenges; sometimes they’ve fallen down but they always picked themselves up again. Their first great crisis was when Father Héctor went missing in 1971. Discouraged and frightened, many members withdrew from the cooperative, weakening it by also taking out their savings. They’ve also experienced corruption crises. The most serious and latest was in 2006-2007, when there was collusion between management and the board members of that time to take over the cooperative for themselves.

They shattered myths…

Along the way this cooperative has eroded myths; beliefs that are veritable devils when they take hold in the human mind and block change. Also along the way the cooperative has gathered knowledge; simple lessons that are applicable to other experiences.

The list of beliefs they’ve shattered is long: that God made some poor and others rich; that poor people are lazy; that poor people don’t know how to run a store or a cooperative because it takes professionals; that the children of peasants have no reason to study; that peasants can’t save and need money from outside agencies to progress; that indigenous people are a lost case because they only live from subsidies; that the cooperative will fail if it’s in the hands of old people; that only individual work leads to success…

…and accumulated experiences

There’s also a long list of what they’ve learned: that if poor people unite the cooperative will last and the store will be successful; that when the need is pressing ten cents is enough to start a cooperative; that good service attracts more clients; that industrializing the coffee chain stabilizes the price; that you don’t have to “put all your eggs in one basket”; that buying in larger amounts gives more bargaining power; that the best seed does what it says it will; that everything can change by learning to think because thinking finds answers…

And so, by destroying myths and accumulating knowledge, Santa Fe’s peasant farmers organized and the cooperative grew. They became associates, leaders, managers and directors. From these responsibilities they invested and with food, transport and as guarantors to the bank they supported people in difficulties and groups confronting big landowners in their struggle to have their own land.

But they began to lose something when they lost Héctor

Despite Father Héctor Gallego’s disappearance the cooperative remained and continued to develop and grow. However, the relationship with the parish priests who replaced Father Héctor was weaker, as those priests had another way of thinking. The practice of communal reflection and evangelization geared to social commitment began to be lost.

The cooperative focused on the training of leaders and it produced results. Lázaro became the district representative and the mayor of Santa Fe. Jacinto continued supporting peasant groups and advising cooperatives on how to resolve their crises. The cooperative received visits from priests and nuns from other countries who thought much as Father Héctor had. This linked it with Central American organizations such as El Salvador’s Mangrove Association and Honduras’ Alternative Community Marketing Network (COMAL). And, over the last 15 years the Gallego Foundation, the organic farmers’ association, the tourism cooperative and the group of women orchid producers all emerged…

Tension between a commercial role and social commitment

From the outset, Father Héctor established what the essence of the cooperative should be: both its commercial role and its social commitment.
Despite the passage of time and the difficulties, both aspects remain on the cooperative’s discussion agenda today. As Chon Rodríguez explained: “Commerce was central: to bring in what we don’t have and take out what we do have. So far it’s been like that, although production has dropped. The cooperative has been commercial but its main goal is social. Father Héctor didn’t eat a candy alone, there had to be one for everyone in order for him to eat his own. When Héctor disappeared we let the management side of the cooperative go downhill. We wanted everyone to grow economically equal, but we couldn’t maintain it. There’s been constant reflection over the cooperative’s history on how to maintain both the commercial and the social aspects. Now the commercial aspect has grown and expanded. While coffee production has dropped, other products have increased: citrus fruits, vegetables, livestock, organic agriculture, orchids…”

The social aspect was to share “the candy”’ and support other groups of people and communities. The cooperative’s best “responsible people” went to the communities to accompany and work with them until they could make it alone, and then withdrew. But physically going to organize, accompany and guide the communities was set aside over time and the social aspect turned into giving scholarships, social assistance and financial support to producers.

It often happens in organizations providing “technical assistance”: experts pqy a visit and leave technical formulas without understanding or accompanying the families and the communities. Today the cooperative is seriously thinking about the challenge of recovering that sense of combining the commercial with the social without paternalism or falling into that model of “technical assistance.”

The coop’s three great achievements

The people of Santa Fe have gone to almost impossible lengths to find Father Héctor’s body. Although his body has never been found, popular pressure on the Catholic Church to begin a process to beatify Gallegos, the first step to sainthood, has continued all these years even though church laws effectively require a body for sainthood. Meanwhile, the cooperative has continued the struggle by giving continuity to the mission he entrusted to them: to consolidate the cooperative as a means for most of Santa Fe’s population to live better. The cooperative has remained on its feet after all these years.

Canadian teachers Muirhead Cooper and Caitlin Ward, who were also visiting the cooperative when I was there, recognized this sense of mission: “There is human warmth and personalized relationships in this cooperative, while the relationships in the Canadian ones are depersonalized and the cooperatives are only businesses.”

The cooperative’s first great achievement was to grow from 18 associates from 2 communities in 1969 to 1,235 from 25 communities by last year. Of these, 852 (544 men, 286 women and 22 groups) are actively organized into 12 chapters with their own board and with 42 delegates (one for every 20 associates) making up the general assembly. Leadership posts are rotational and they have a permanent staff of 92 workers, called collaborators. They have dues and savings policies (a “social fund” made up of 5% of produce sales is retained as savings, which earn 3% interest and can only be withdrawn after five years). There are also loan services for growing vegetables at a 5% interest rate, coffee at 7% and housing at 12%.

The cooperative’s second great achievement is the investments it has made: a warehouse, two supermarkets and five community branch stores with an inventory totaling almost US$1 million, which means it has good wholesale bargaining capacity with companies that sell products. It’s the only cooperative in Central America with a coffee roasting machine, processing an estimated 4,000 hundredweight of green coffee beans a year and with two brands of coffee: the best quality is called Café Tute and that of lesser quality is Café Santa Fe. Unlike many organizations, it doesn’t export the best coffee leaving the poorer in the country, and that policy has stabilized coffee prices, at least in Santa Fe. It’s also the only cooperative that handles large-scale trade. One of the latest investments, now nearing completion, is the chicken processing plant.

The third achievement is in its social policies: 9.5% of the net income goes to its social security reserves (aid applications), 10% for scholarships, 10% for medical expenses and 10% for productive initiatives. The remaining 60% is distributed among the associates proportionate to their total purchases, which helps keep them loyal to buying from the cooperative.

The greatest achievement of all

The positive impact on the families of both the associates and non-associates, however, is the greatest achievement of all. The cooperative’s relatively low prices force the competition to reduce the prices of the products they sell. It generates significant employment in the district and injects a good amount of money into it, moving the local economy. It also contributes to the sustainability and leadership of other cooperatives in the district, with whom it collaborates commercially.

For all these reasons the cooperative has become an actor that no government or organization wanting to develop policies in the district can or should ignore.

The roots of its success

The basis of all these achievements is the cooperative’s origin, understood as a “mission.” A small group of 18 small-scale producers reacted to an adverse context by using their own resources. They decided to organize stores to sell their own products, challenging the existing markets in an area along the traditional agricultural frontier, a mountain gateway, as they are usually called in other countries in the region. The stores then grew into distributors and supermarkets. If they had only gambled on marketing coffee, they would only have had income to the end of the year because their volume was very small. Instead, the cooperative “put its eggs in different baskets” rather than rely on a single activity or single item, making commerce the fuel that drives the engine for all their activities.

At the root of their success are the rotation of managerial leadership; the fact that Father Héctor’s disciples and the coop’s founders are monitoring its progress; fidelity to the price and weight policies, which follow the priest’s key rule of giving “generous measure” to attract customers and keep the store staff from acquiring a swindler mentality; and the fact that everyone in the cooperative knows each other, thus ensuring personalized relationships, which is important social capital.

Their various tasks, including evangelization, and community training and organizing so as to continue awakening this consciousness in others has shown them the path that guarantees these achievements.

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