Building Autonomy, One Co-op at a Time


Vicente Addiego in front of his home in the BANREP cooperative, where he has lived for 35 years. Photo by Silvia Leindecker
Vicente Addiego in front of his home in the BANREP cooperative, where he has lived for 35 years.
Photo by Silvia Leindecker

It's a social movement and a housing cooperative. A massive self-help program for the poor and a new way of life for thousands. With 20,000 member-families living in cooperatively owned homes in 400 communities across the country, it is one of the largest and most radical housing cooperative federations in the Americas.

The Uruguayan Federation of Housing for Mutual-Support Cooperatives (FUCVAM) is also one of the most organized social movements in Uruguay. Last March, Federation members led the demonstrations against President George W. Bush's visit to the country, marching for five days to cover the nearly 125 miles from the nation's capital, Montevideo, to the presidential estate where the U.S. President met with his Uruguayan counterpart, President Tabaré Vázquez.

The two concepts—housing and political activism—may not seem like natural partners. But FUCVAM's principle of promoting autonomy in its member organizations translates into broader social engagement.


The Cooperative Experience

Fabian Ramirez, 31, extends his hand to help us up the makeshift stairs to the second floor of a nearly finished three-bedroom home.

Many co-op members had no prior building experience before they started work on their homes, but everyone works together and puts in the same number of hours. “If you know a little about construction, even better,” Ramirez says. Whatever your background, “there's a job for everyone.”

Ramirez, his wife, and their young child are members of a housing cooperative of 40 families in one of Montevideo's working-class barrios. Like other Federation affiliates, they are building their homes with their own hands. For the last 30 months, each family has put in over 20 hours a week on the construction, and their labor is finally paying off.

Ramirez proudly shows off the newly laid wooden floors, which they put in themselves. He points out the window at a nearby cluster of buildings, their roofs inlaid with pools of water which Ramirez says will act as insulation against extreme temperatures, keeping the buildings cool in the hot summer and warm in the chilly Uruguayan winter.

Although the co-op is just a month away from completion, Ramirez doesn't yet know which home he and his family will live in; that will be decided by lottery next month. The system is set up to ensure that everyone works equally hard on every house.

Once they are done with the homes, co-op members plan to build a common room and a daycare center for use, free of charge, by the cooperative members.

The homes are owned by the cooperative, not by individuals or families, but each family has the legal right to use their home. That right can be passed down to future generations, or exchanged for the money and work hours they put into the community, but it cannot be sold.

Cooperative members aren't just workers and residents. They are also administrators and organizers. All decisions are made in democratic weekly meetings that continue even after construction has finished.

The idea of cooperative housing might seem unusual elsewhere, but not here in Uruguay. Ramirez lived in the same co-op since he was seven. Now that he's starting his own family, he's building a home in the Housing & Family Cooperative (COVIFAM), a cooperative not unlike the one he lived in as a child. Both co-ops are members of FUCVAM, which is at the heart of one of the most important, democratic, and autonomous housing cooperative experiences in the Western Hemisphere.

Co-op members work on building their homes in the Housing and Family Cooperative. Photo by Silvia Leindecker

Co-op members work on building their homes in the Housing and Family Cooperative.
Photo by Silvia Leindecker

Building a Movement

The cooperative housing movement got a start in Uruguay in reaction to a growing housing crisis. Grassroots pressure resulted in the passage of the 1968 National Housing Plan, which opened new housing opportunities for Uruguayan citizens. The plan provided the legal framework for cooperative ownership of property, and created the National Housing and Urbanization Fund by taking 1 percent out of every Uruguayan paycheck, with a mandate for employers to match the figure.

The new fund opened the door for some workers to get loans to purchase their own homes. But with unsteady employment during difficult economic times raising the threat of default, many Uruguayans risked losing their newly-acquired homes and ending up right back where they started. The answer: housing cooperatives, that could take out loans collectively, minimizing the individual risk while building solidarity among members.

“Collective property functions as an umbrella under which members can take cover in stormy weather,” says FUCVAM President Mario Fígoli metaphorically. “If I lose my job, and for a few months I don't have the funds to pay off my monthly share of the loan, … my fellow cooperativistas will pay for me until I have a job again. Then I will pay them back.”

FUCVAM was born less than two years after the passage of the Housing Plan. It grew out of a well-organized Uruguayan labor movement and a quickly growing cooperative movement, in order to help provide the means for low-income, working-class families to acquire their own homes.

Each affiliated cooperative receives support from the Federation and a technical advisory team. “No co--op has ever failed,” says Fígoli. “It is not easy for a group of humans who have just met each other to develop a project through autogestión, because we are taught to value individualism. … But that is the richness of the housing cooperative model, to transform the individual into a citizen.” (The term “autogestión” has no direct English counterpart. It embodies self--management through autonomous, grassroots, and demo-cratic decision-making.)

“We each come to the co-op for just one reason. We need housing,” says Fígoli, who has himself been a resident of a Federation-affiliated cooperative since the late 1970s. “But once we get involved in the process, the dynamics of autogestión create a cultural change in people.”

The change is evident when you visit one of the cooperatives.

“Everyone here knows each other?” I ask as we wander through a large FUCVAM-affiliated cooperative apartment complex of nearly 200 families just down the street from COVIFAM.

“Of course,” says our guide, Vicente Addiego, who is well into his 70s and has lived in a housing cooperative on the other side of town for nearly 35 years. “They all have to meet fre-quently. They have to administer all of this.”

A neighbor passes and waves hello. Someone else stops to help us with directions. You get the feeling that they look out for each other.

We pass the gymnasium, recreation center, daycare center, common room, library, sports fields and playgrounds. They are all built by the residents, run by the residents, and free of charge to cooperative members. Some larger cooperatives even have their own free health clinics.

Perhaps this habit of community sharing is why FUCVAM continues to be one of the most active social movements in Uruguay.

Co-op members work on building their homes in the Housing and Family Cooperative. Photo by Silvia Leindecker

Photo by Silvia Leindecker

Decades of Struggle

FUCVAM's political activism may seem risky for a group whose funding depends almost entirely on the government. But Uruguay's housing loan program has weathered political storms, in part because, as housing activists point out, the loans are financed out of workers' pay.

The true autonomy of the Federation was put to the test only two years after its founding, when Uruguay was thrust into a repressive 12-year dictatorship. Tens of thousands were jailed and tortured, and FUCVAM was not spared. Hundreds of Federation activists were persecuted, and the government tried to outlaw co-op assemblies, while decreasing loans to new co-ops and increasing interest rates from 2 percent to as high as 9 percent. In spite of the repression, FUCVAM´s members soon emerged as the vanguard of the struggle against the dictatorship, as organizing erupted throughout FUCVAM's tight-knit communities.

“You can shut the door on a union, but you can't kick 7,000 families out of their homes,” says Fígoli with a smile.

After the fall of the dictatorship in 1984, FUCVAM faced government threats to outlaw cooperative style ownership. In the 1990s, they opposed a loan restructuring. The Federation is now conducting “a pay strike,” with its affiliated cooperatives withholding repayment on all outstanding loans. The strike is intended to force the government to agree to restructure previous loans based on worker salaries and to throw out the exorbitant interest rates imposed on Federation co-ops during the dictatorship. As a result, according to Addiego, Uruguay's current leftist government, Frente Amplio, is giving out only a pittance of the loans to new co-ops compared to past governments.


Learning from the Past

Not everything is perfect at the Federation. Not every member likes FUCVAM's political activism, and the Federation found that children were resenting their cooperative because of the long hours of construction and meetings in which their parents had to participate. As a result, FUCVAM now encourages the whole family—from the youngest child to the oldest grandparent—to get involved in their cooperative from the very beginning, whether through helping out with construction, taking care of younger children, or attending a daycare or adolescents' program. FUCVAM has a training center where they hold workshops on social politics and cooperative management, organization and administration for their members. They have just recently launched a training program for community teachers based on the teachings of Paulo Freire, author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, who is best known for his groundbreaking work on popular education to combat illiteracy.

“We believe our model is one of the many expressions of Paulo Freire´s work” says Fígoli, “and that it is completely replicable anywhere in the world.”

It would appear that Fígoli is not far off. With the support of the Swedish Cooperative Center, FUCVAM is collaborating with grassroots housing movements across the Americas. Representatives of the Federation are currently in Venezuela to exchange experiences and expertise with the Urban Land Committees. Throughout Central America, the Federation has supported local struggles with workshops on FUCVAM's unique style of cooperative housing. Elsewhere, such as in Bolivia, FUCVAM has helped local groups to directly form their own housing cooperatives.

Addiego takes us across town to show us his cooperative, BANREP, where an impressive 90 percent of the original 40 member families still live.

“When we got here, this was all sand,” he says pointing at the green yard and thick trees in front of his house. His passion is contagious, and we ask him to sum up his three and a half decades of cooperativism with FUCVAM.

“It's not easy,” he answers quickly, “but it's worth it.”

Michael Fox wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Michael is a freelance journalist based in South America. In 2006, he was a staff writer with Venezuelanalysis () and a correspondent with Free Speech Radio News.

Photo of Michael Fox
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