The largest electric cooperative in the world was nearly quashed by government leaders before it began. Sixty years later, Cooperativa Rural de Electrificación (CRE) has survived and thrived in Bolivia because of the power and persistence of its members.
“CRE cannot exist; the government said it was impossible!”
Luis Ruben Terrazas with this dramatic pronouncement to tell the story of CRE during an interview in August 2016, the room fell silent, as the first president of CRE paused for a few emotional moments
Then with a small smile, he added, “But we continued the fight.”
Terrazas is known as the father of what is now the largest electric co-op in the world. CRE was established in 1962 to meet the electric service needs of the people living in Santa Cruz, a large urban area in central Bolivia, that were not being satisfied by the government or the private sector. The city is now the most populous in Bolivia.
It was around this time that President John F. Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act into law and created the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by executive order. The Alliance for Progress initiative was launched to provide aid to Latin America and, soon after this, Terrazas received a call from Clyde T. Ellis, general manager for NRECA.
“Ellis advised me, Luis come and meet the director of USAID,” Terrazas said, continuing his story.
Terrazas met with Ellis and USAID Director David Bell in the capital, La Paz. There, he learned that the U.S. Government and NRECA were prepared to give full financial and technical support to him, and his small group of organizers to form an electric co-op
Electricity didn’t come overnight, but the people of Santa Cruz quickly showed how powerful communities can be if neighbors worked together. The Bolivian government at the time was unwilling to support this movement and was not convinced that a small group of people could make a difference.
“The Bolivian government said that we were only cuatro gatos — four cats, and we couldn’t do much,” Terazzas recalled. “But the four cats, we called for volunteers. With about 300 volunteers who came to help, in one day, we signed up 5,000 members for CRE. The people in Santa Cruz knew the issues and supported us.”
With a new government in place after a coup in 1964, CRE was finally recognized as a legal entity. And the work to operate a cooperative began with the help of NRECA and Cecil Viverette, the general manager of Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation, today known as Blue Ridge Energy.
“Without Ellis, and without NRECA, we could not exist,” said Terrazas. “NRECA sent us Cecil Viverette, and we worked together 100%. We learned that profits had to be returned to the members, and it was because of him that I could write the bylaws for CRE.”
Within CRE’s second year of operation, a formal sister cooperative agreement was established. Under Viverette’s leadership, CRE received deep insight into Blue Ridge’s operations, giving the Bolivian co-op the tools they needed to emulate the North Carolina co-op’s success.
Today, the impact of this early relationship is clear, and continues to influence Blue Ridge Energy’s culture of community and its vision to remain involved in NRECA International’s mission to bring power to developing nations.
Power to the people
In 1963, at the request of USAID, Ellis returned to Bolivia with several U.S. electric co-op leaders. This was part of a six-week trip to Latin America, to help stimulate the development of rural electric co-ops in the region.
“Thousands came to Santa Cruz to welcome Ellis. It was with his help, that the cooperative was formed,” said Terrazas.
Finally, in 1970, after long negotiations with the Bolivian government, CRE began to provide power to the people, using USAID funds to construct a distribution system. It began activities with 10,875 members, served through almost 400 miles of power lines. Today it serves more than 800,000 members.