The weekend of May 19 to 20, cooperative members from across Venezuela celebrated the first meeting of the National Executive Cooperative Council (CENCOOP). The Cooperative Councils have the difficult task of attempting to articulate and integrate Venezuela’s thousands of cooperatives into a united cooperative movement.
The weekend meeting was held in Caracas at the Catia offices of the Frente Francisco Miranda and was attended by approximately 140 cooperative representatives from across Venezuela; Cooperative Superintendent (SUNACOOP), Carlos Molina; Minister of Popular Economy, Oly Millan; Technical Secretary of the Specialized Reunion of Cooperatives of MERCOSUR, Daniel Bentancur; Executive Director of the Americas office of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), Manuel Mariño; various SUNACOOP state facilitators and employees of the Ministry of Popular Economy.
CENCOOP is composed of a council of 5 cooperative members from each of Venezuela's 25 states, elected from their State Cooperative Council to represent their region. Members of the State Cooperative Council are elected by the Municipal Councils, which are composed of any cooperative member from that municipality interested in participating. Over the past year, SUNACOOP facilitators have been working with cooperative members across the country to organize the cooperatives from each state and to elect their state councils in preparation for this event.
According to SUNACOOP, the Cooperative Councils have two "complementary goals":
"1) Ethical-Political goal of integrating and recuperating the direction of the cooperative community. 2) Political-Technical goal of planning future projects of the cooperative movement."
At the plenary talk on the Cooperative Councils, SUNACOOP Superintendent Carlos Molina explained, "The cooperative councils are a methodology for the construction of participatory democracy that is utilized by the people organized in cooperatives in order to achieve the autonomy and consolidate Venezuelan cooperativism as a social movement, capable of transforming the socio-economic reality."
"CENCOOP is the Executive Branch of the Cooperative Councils" he continued, "and this, of course, is subordinated to the Assembly in the same way that the State Cooperative Councils are subordinated to their State Assemblies. It is a relationship of an inverted pyramid. It is a process of networking and it has given a very particular characteristic to the integration of cooperativism in Venezuela."
The first National assembly of Cooperative Councils was held in the State of Cojedes in January, where more than 600 cooperative members from across the country met to discuss the first steps in the creation of the embryonic Venezuela cooperative movement.
Although SUNACOOP has, until now, been involved in the organization and promotion of the Cooperative Councils, Molina was explicit in explaining that each step of the way, they will be taking more of a hands-off approach, in order to give more autonomy to the cooperative movement.
"In this moment, the creation of CENCOOP is the transfer of the power to the people themselves" said Antonio Galiffa, representative from the state of Falcon, and member of a worker-cooperative, which is initiating the steps to manufacture corn-flour pasta which will be entirely produced in Venezuela. "This step that we are taking today is historic for the cooperative movement in Venezuela, because it is going to assume its own control, and its own destiny, and we are going to know who we are and where we are headed."
On the second day of the meetings, CENCOOP members broke into five "work commissions," through which various proposals were (at times intensely) debated. Among the proposals, were the possibility of a national cooperative bank, a national cooperative education plan, and further involvement in international conferences, such as the ICA reunion in Peru this summer. Members of the Commission on Institutional Relations expressed interest in building ties with foreign cooperative movements, particularly with cooperatives in the United States.
The CENCOOP meetings ended without a signed document, but with the election of a "provisional commission" that will meet next weekend in the state of Aragua to discuss the proposals from the various work commissions. It is still unknown when the next general CENCOOP meeting will be held, but according to various representatives it will most likely take place within the next three months.
"Look, we achieved something absolutely important, which is a national and international organizational structure," said Elba Torres, a representative from Lara state, who was elected to the provisional commission. "We are going to continue working with this proposal, and this 'intermediary commission,' which is going to work in function for the states."
The presence of two members from international organizations of cooperative integration highlighted the international importance of the event and the possibilities for building "bridges" between Venezuela and other cooperative movements.
"CENCOOP is the bridge of communication- of relation- with the rest of Latin America and the world," explained Molina, "that"s why the weight and the significance that we give to the National Executive Cooperative Council, is so important, because it is the extension of cooperativism in Venezuela with the rest of the world... and it is a structure that is formed by the cooperativistas themselves ... and we hope that Venezuelan cooperativism is a valuable force of integration of Latin America and in particular MERCOSUR."
Manuel Mariño is based out of Costa Rica and is the director of the Americas office of the International Cooperative Alliance, which reports to have "700 million individual members worldwide organized in hundreds of thousands of cooperatives in 95 countries." Mariño attended the meetings and expressed that he was impressed by the "great participation" from the cooperative members, but he still has a lot of questions and it appears that the councils still have a long way to go.
"What is going to be the role of the cooperative councils and CENCOOP" he asked, "How are you going to finance the cooperative councils? Are they going to be financed from the State, or are the cooperatives themselves going to finance this institution? If they are going to finance it, but they don't have any judicial standing, well what do you do with the money? And afterwards, it's important to define what are going to be the functions [of the councils] in order not to duplicate or interfere... so they still need to do a lot of work. It appears that the cooperatives councils can be good, but you have to define a lot more."
Mariño also expressed his doubts for the sustainability of the present Venezuelan Cooperative boom, because of the "huge capacity" necessary to attend to all of the cooperatives.
According to SUNACOOPs last official count, there are 108,000 cooperatives in Venezuela, and this number is growing by the hundreds per week. In fact, Venezuela can now boast of being the country with the most coops in the world and over 99% of these coops have been formed since President Hugo Chavez took office 7 years ago. SUNACOOP director, Carlos Molina, declared on Friday that because of this cooperative boom, 6% of the employment in the country is now within the cooperative sector, with an approximate 600,000 individuals.
The present cooperative boom is largely as a result of a very clear Venezuelan state policy of cooperative promotion in the form of financing, preferential taxation, state-contracting, and cooperative education and job-training programs.
"Why cooperativism?" asked Molina in an interview with Venezuelanalysis in March, "because cooperativism is a means of social and economic organization that posses some values and principles that interpret very adequately and very close to the spirit of this [Bolivarian] project."
However, with overwhelming government support mostly going to the new cooperatives and largely ignoring the traditional Venezuelan cooperative sector, this has created tension between the traditional and “Bolivarian” cooperatives. Fortunately, the CENCOOP members at this weekend's meetings constituted a fairly well represented cross-section of the Venezuelan cooperative movement (traditional and Bolivarian), in what appears to be a new era of cooperation among Venezuela's cooperatives.