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How an Argentine cooperative is empowering workers and entrepreneurs

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Community bakery "La Masa Critica", near La Juanita cooperative, Laferrere, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
(AtlasNetwork.org Photo / Rodrigo Abd)

Despite the once promising election of President Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s first non-Perónist leader in 13 years, the country has largely returned to its embrace of leftist economic policies, including recently imposed capital controls and interventionist price fixing. The results have not been positive.

Yet amid the constant meddling by legislators and government officials, everyday Argentinians are forging new paths of economic opportunity. While the top-down planners continue to tinker, the bottom-up searchers continue to innovate and serve, create and exchange.

In a short film from the Atlas Network, we get a small taste of that activity through Cooperativa La Juanita, a private community-based cooperative focused on practical, trades-based education and entrepreneurship.

Located in Buenos Aires’ La Matanza neighborhood, the cooperative was originally formed in resistance to a series of crisis-era government handouts—a way for workers and their families to maintain independence while creating new pathways for creative service in their communities.

“What I love about the people of Cooperativa La Juanita is that these people want to get out of poverty with their own work. They did not accept subsidies,” explains Agustín Etchebarne, general director of Libertad y Progreso, a Buenos Aires think tank. “They want to train and see how productive work is achieved, and be included in society by their own efforts. What you see in La Juanita is something very unique in Argentina, and it is very inspiring.”

Daniel Anthony summarizes the story:

With a full slate of educational programming and growing business enterprises, the cooperative, which is located in a busy urban neighborhood about 5 miles outside of Argentina’s capital city, is filled with people of all ages, many of them actively engaged in learning new trades or skills.

The cooperative’s roots reflect a commitment to entrepreneurship that is evident in the range of services, programs, and classes that residents can access. Begun in 2001, after a group of locals decided that they did not want to rely on government welfare handouts, today La Juanita features a bakery, a call center, a mechanical repair shop, catering services, and classes that teach people English, computing and animation techniques, beautician and barbering skills, music and dance, and even personal finance.

“We started as a cooperative formed by a group of unemployed workers who rejected the government cash transfers in the 2001 crisis, because we wanted to generate our own source of work and provide local people with a quality education,” said Silvia Flores, who was one of the founders of the cooperative and now serves as its executive director.

For some, La Juanita’s philosophical rejection of government assistance may seem excessive or unnecessary, but such independence has allowed workers to take more ownership and, as a result, find more meaning and purpose in the various enterprises.

For example, at La Masa Crítica, La Juanita’s onsite bakery, the founders were initially told by local officials that the business was doomed to fail. “When La Juanita was in its infancy, regional government administrators told La Juanita’s organizers that they couldn’t form a cooperative without a critical mass of support—and they openly doubted that the neighborhood could support the founders’ vision,” writes Anthony. “Fortunately, the bureaucrats were wrong.”

The bakery has instead seen great success, serving high-quality Argentine specialties at lower prices than local competitors. But again, beyond any material fruits, bakery employees have discovered a new framework of work as service and the community has experienced a wide range of social benefits:

Today, the bakery is part of a strong and vibrant community that serves the needs of thousands of local residents every year. “They come in at 4 am to bake the best bread in the neighborhood,” said Fabián Hamed, the cooperative’s president.

“It’s more than just a salary. Our colleagues know they are helping others—and because they are also earning money, they see the possibility of getting ahead.” Hamed, who also runs Potrero Digital, La Juanita’s technology and digital design management program, speaks proudly of one of his former students, Carlos, who now teaches baking skills to others. Hamed sees firsthand what a difference Carlos’s impact has on his peers in the neighborhood. “Thanks to Carlos, these guys have a future. They are not on the corner drinking alcohol or using drugs—they have skills and can get jobs.”

But while La Juanita has managed to cultivate a community that’s largely free from government interference, they have still faced their share of challenges that stem from poor policy decisions.

After the government imposed a 35 percent tariff on laptops and small electronics, for example, computer products cost nearly three times as much in Argentina as they would in the United States, or 50% more than in neighboring Chile, according to Reuters. This caused a significant strain on the country’s consumers and businesses alike. Given La Juanita’s reliance on computers for its educational programming and call center business, the tariff had created several obstacles.

Fortunately, it was recently removed, allowing La Juanita to move farther faster in creating new opportunities for its students and workers. According to Etchebarne, whose think tank was instrumental in changing the policy, freer trade has already bolstered opportunity for many Argentinians. “Many people believe that public policy that makes computers cheaper is an abstract achievement,” he says. “But there is nothing abstract about creating new jobs for poor people.”

Here, even as we are inspired by the bottom-up initiative of those at La Juanita and other on-the-ground enterprises, we are reminded that the political dysfunction at the top still matters. One small price-fixing scheme can make life extremely difficult for a specific enterprises and institutions—just as removing it can bring plenty of new life.

La Juanita reminds us of the God-given dignity and abounding creative capacity of the human person—features that endure despite government abuse and interference. But it also reminds us to stay mindful that the fight for economic freedom matters, and not just for the material gain that’s bound to bring.

“In Juanita, lives are saved and, above all, souls are saved, through work and education, that always go hand in hand,” says Hamed. “The only thing we want is to be free, and that our children have opportunities that we could not have.”

Image: Used with Permission; Bakers of Panadería Comunitaria “La Masa Critica” in Cooperativa La Juanita (AtlasNetwork.org Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.