For over a decade, an abandoned refilling station owned by Venezuelan oil company PDVSA in western Caracas was a place of death. Community residents said it was a place where women were raped, murdered bodies dumped and drugs used and dealt.

This multi-acre space embodied the fear and hopelessness gripping the surrounding communities during the early and mid-1990s — a time when so-called Venezuelan leaders conspired with the “Washington Consensus” to push neoliberal policies to maintain the continued prosperity of the few at the expense of the masses of Venezuela’s poor.

Since 2004, this space has been transformed from a hopeless wasteland to a place of production, art, sustenance and health. It now represents the hope of a community that has been reborn.

In April 2006 and August 2007, I visited this place, now the Fabricio Ojeda cooperative complex, with other U.S. educators, students and activists interested in experiencing Venezuela’s revolution firsthand.

The Fabricio Ojeda complex includes construction and agricultural cooperatives, a shoemaking factory, a textile cooperative employing some 150 women, and a cooperative producing tourist items that is operated by people with mental and physical disabilities. It also contains a community health clinic and pharmacy developed through Venezuela’s health care mission, Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighborhood), and a low-cost subsidized grocery store developed through Mision Mercal.

The complex serves the surrounding community and provides hundreds of jobs where the workers control the means of production and profits. Plans for more services are in the works, including a Bolivarian school, a day care center and expanded health services.

Since Hugo Chavez came to power he has emphasized developing programs and policies that re-integrate the poor into the country’s social, political and economic fabric. Many programs, or missions, have been developed to enhance access to education, health care, food and work for Venezuela’s poor.

In 2004, through Mision Vuelvan Caras (Mission About Face), Venezuela began creating community cooperatives by providing communities with space or land, low-interest or no-interest loans for equipment, tax breaks and technical assistance. Since then, tens of thousands of cooperatives have developed. The goal is to empower communities by creating sustainable economic and political power through collective community ownership of resources and the means of production.

We also visited a women’s co-op in the town of Monte Carmelo run by Gaudi Garcia. This co-op uses sustainable, organic agriculture to produce organic crops, breads, canned preserves, and also artwork, to sell. The co-op receives additional crops from surrounding agricultural co-ops, with local communities controlling every aspect of production. As Garcia said, “Because this is owned and operated by and for the community, the decisions reflect community values and are thus natural.” For instance, she said, “in 1998 we started a long struggle, we fought and we got a high school constructed in our community so our young people wouldn’t have to leave from here.”

The cooperatives also help in the spiritual transformation of individuals and groups. “These co-ops are a universal call to love and a way of cooperating socially,” Garcia said, adding that her cooperative has enabled women to organize for more rights and develop a stronger voice in the community. “We are not here to produce children, but ideas. Women have been discriminated against and marginalized and the time has come to make our voices heard.”

The cooperative movement has also experienced difficulties. It has been hard for the government to monitor all the cooperatives that have come online since the explosion of this form of ownership began. Many are poorly designed and quickly fail, while others claiming to be cooperatives do not meet the government’s standards. Instances of fraud leading to theft of government funds have also been reported. But while the system to ensure quality control needs to be addressed, the potential these cooperatives have to transform individuals and communities cannot be denied.

In the run-up to Venezuela’s Dec. 2 vote on constitutional reforms proposed by President Hugo Chavez and the National Assembly, which were defeated by the narrowest of margins, the corporate media largely ignored the proposed reforms like decentralizing power to communal councils, social missions, and other community organizations; shortening the workday from eight to six hours; enabling local municipalities to establish common land and property for their own use; and promoting a diverse and independent mixed economy.

These and other proposed changes, had they been adopted, would have moved Venezuela more firmly toward what Chavez has called “Socialism for the 21st century,” including elements of both socialism and capitalism.

Regardless of the outcome, this transformation has already begun in the hearts and minds of many of the Venezuelan poor as they have found their voice and developed their power during the last decade of change.

Michael A. Mancini is an assistant professor at St. Louis University’s School of Social Work, and a local leader of Jobs with Justice.