Coup D’état in Venezuela’s Flagship Endogenous Development Center?

Fabricio Ojeda, Venezuela’s flagship Nucleus of Endogenous Development is undergoing an upheaval which could threaten the existence of this important community hub of cooperatives, social and educational programs, and community participation.

The entrance to the Fabricio Ojeda Nucleus of Endogenous Development (NUDE).
Credit: Silvia Leindecker

Fabricio Ojeda, Venezuela’s flagship Nucleus of Endogenous Development (NUDE)[1] and the pride of the “Bolivarian revolution,” is undergoing an upheaval that could threaten the existence of this community hub of participation, cooperatives, and social and educational programs.

The situation is tense and complex.  A group of construction cooperatives are upset over the possible contracting of an external mercantile business to construct the foundation of various buildings, and blames the NUDE coordinating team, known as the “social team,” for the situation and lack of cooperative values.  Meanwhile, according to other cooperative members, the social team is not to blame because the decision to contract the mercantile business was made by those higher up, and this group of construction cooperatives is using the issue as a pretext to expel the social team, move in to higher positions of power, and ensure themselves continued construction contracts.

“Here, what we are experiencing is a type of mini coup d’etat,” said Yadira Vasquez a cooperative member and spokesperson for the 10-person cooperative, Cotecon Reserva 5, one of the roughly 25 construction cooperatives at the NUDE.  According to Vasquez, the group of upset construction cooperative members is not representative of the rest of the cooperatives, and they have been calling for the removal of the current social team for months.

A call, which it appears they may now have won.  Last Wednesday afternoon, various representatives of the community; members of the upset cooperatives; Winkelman Angel, coordinator of the social team; and Ramón Mayordón, PDVSA representative in charge of Fabricio Ojeda, sat down at the negotiating table to discuss the deteriorating situation and try to bridge a resolution.  As a result, it appears that PDVSA, which is charge of the NUDE, may have acquiesced to the demands of the rebelling cooperatives (who had over a majority at the meeting because others were barred entrance) and agreed to fire the social team.  The future is now unsure for the social team, the rest of Fabricio Ojeda’s cooperatives, committees and projects, and above all else, the flagship NUDE itself.

Members of the Fabricio Ojeda NUDE argue with each other.
Credit: Silvia Leindecker

Community members have promised to continue to fight, but as Vasquez explained on Wednesday, “My future here in the NUDE doesn’t look marvelous… We hope that in the future this [project] consolidates, and that things don’t fall apart.”

The current troubles began three weeks ago when PDVSA presented the intention to hire an external company to lay the foundation and metal skeleton for various buildings in construction plans.  According to PDVSA, at the time, the company would be hired because Fabricio Ojeda’s construction cooperatives did not have the machinery or experience to carry out the construction of the technically complicated foundation.[2]

The following week, various construction cooperatives declared their rejection of PDVSA’s contracting of an external company, proclaiming this move to be against the principles of the NUDE.  According to Efrain Ruiz, member of the technical and social teams, an agreement was reached, whereby the cooperatives would draw up a counter proposal and present it to PDVSA.  It appeared that the problem had been partially resolved.

Early on Thursday morning, August 3rd, however, Fabricio Ojeda’s cooperativistas, doctors, nurses, patients and patrons arrived to the NUDE to find it’s front gate and offices locked with chains and padlocks.  The sector of construction cooperatives upset over the possibility that PDVSA would propose to contract an external enterprise had occupied the NUDE, and a group 50-strong was demanding the resignation of the social team.  Various cooperativistas, holding neutral positions or in support of the social team were, according to their testimony, verbally and physically attacked.  The locks were opened later that day, but troubles continued. 

After a week of tensions, and without a resolution in sight, a negotiation meeting was called for Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 9 in which the various sectors would discuss the differences and attempt to come to an agreement.  In an attempt to liven spirits, a day of cultural events was organized to coincide with the event. Various performances took place throughout the day and members from the surrounding community joined in the festivities, but tensions remained high.

That afternoon, community representatives began to file into the small room chosen for the meeting, but the attendance list, which was said to be open, was not as large as many had hoped.  Countless community members were barred from entering.  Of the social team, only Angel attended in representation.  According to testimony, various cooperative members, who had, days before, vocally stated their intention to attend the meeting and defended the social team, made the decision to stay home after being vocally and physically threatened by members of the group of construction cooperatives.  In the end, most of those sitting down at the negotiation table hailed from this camp.  The unofficial decision was of little surprise, as PDVSA appeared to have conceded to the demands of the group of construction cooperatives, that the social group be thrown out.  One Fabricio Ojeda member, who asked not to be identified, stated in response, directly following the meeting,

“It’s a sad thing that this small group, that was not only not representative, but also violent, and lacking even the principles of cooperativism, could manipulate PDVSA and the principles of the NUDE…  It’s a great contradiction.”

The construction cooperatives that may have just won the decision may not be as innocent as they might like others to believe.  According to various members of other cooperatives and the social team, the leaders of the group of dissident construction cooperatives run their cooperatives “like their own businesses” and, while professing cooperative values, contract employees outside of the cooperative thus replicating the same power structure of private businesses.  Although this is permitted under the 2001 Cooperative Law, for periods of 6 months or less, those interviewed pointed out that these laborers are treated “even worse than employees working for a regular company.”

Many of those interviewed believe the commotion created by the construction coops was, in the end, just a pretext used to oust the social team in a power grab to take over their positions and to ensure that they are awarded this fall’s contracts for the construction of phase two. 

This theory may not be far off.  Ivón Parra, one of the prominent leaders of the group of construction cooperatives that occupied the NUDE, admitted to El Universal that Angel and his social team are not to blame for the attempt to contract the external enterprise – a position that the social team has contended since the beginning of the disagreement. Nevertheless, the group has continued to call for the team’s removal, in a demand that seems to lack foundation.

Adding to the confusion, according to Vasquez, the contracts for this fall’s projects were divvied up on Monday, Aug. 7, leaving the majority of Fabricio Ojeda’s construction coops without a job. Vasquez explained that although there is more than enough work to go around, only eight construction companies received contracts (some of them, various), and all of the cooperatives that received contracts where composed of those who participated in the Aug. 3rd occupation of the NUDE.  Vasquez‘ s cooperative, Cotecon Reserva 5, which just joined Fabricio Ojeda last year, was left hanging on a waiting list with the rest of the 17 construction cooperatives.  

It may run even deeper.  Some members of Fabricio Ojeda, who asked to remain anonymous, questioned PDVSA’s role in the proceedings and theorized that, with construction contracts handed out on Monday, in the middle of the crisis; the ease with which PDVSA appeared to bend to the demands of the construction worker’s group; and the reaction of the PDVSA security force (PCP), which was complacent on the morning of the occupation, the state business may also not be as innocent as it may seem. 

Many believe that even though PDVSA has been reformed since the oil lockout of 2002-2003, there are still important sectors of the old PDVSA that remain in control and are either in the pockets of other interests or willing to do what is necessary to ensure that the projects of this Bolivarian process fail, especially in an election year.  Although there is no proof, there are those that further believe that the dissident group of construction cooperatives has been infiltrated by members of the opposition who are attempting to sabotage Fabricio Ojeda, because of the importance of the NUDE, both nationally and internationally.

Meanwhile, the national press coverage of the crisis has been small and fairly inaccurate.  El Universal published a number of smaller articles over the past week which seemed to give the impression that all of Fabricio Ojeda’s cooperatives were in support of the Aug. 3rd occupation of the NUDE.  But after various interviews this impression could not be further from the truth. 

Although the dissident group claims to have the support of all 25 construction cooperatives, members of the social team consider that they are no more than the 50 individuals who participated in the occupation, and the people they have “intimidated” or “manipulated” in to joining their cause.

Vasquez’s Cotecon Reserva 5 is one of the 25 construction coops in the NUDE.  Hers has taken a vocal position against the Aug. 3rd closure of the NUDE and the persecution of the social team.  “They say that they have 90% support,” she said referring to the group of dissident construction cooperatives, “but I have been talking with people and I know it’s not true.  There are construction cooperatives that aren’t in agreement with them, but they haven’t assumed the same position that we are taking because they are afraid of repercussions against them,” she said.

Mirta Molina is President of Venezuela Avanza, Fabricio Ojeda’s women’s textile cooperative, which has approximately 150 women associates.  While she and most of the members of both the textile and shoe-making cooperatives seem to hold fairly neutral positions, they are not in agreement with Thursday morning’s closure, because it meant that they could not get to work.  Molina, however, elaborated that she would be against any group of cooperatives that believed they had the right to “monopolize” the center.

“This is an endogenous center, it is product of the community, and the common good. Here, all of the community has the right to participate.” said Molina on Wednesday evening, “Not for one moment could we permit, if—god forbid—it were to occur, a group of cooperativistas to monopolize the NUDE, because they believe that they have that right as cooperatives.”

Which appears to be exactly what some in the community believes is happening.  On Aug. 9th, members of various urban land and health committees from the surrounding community distributed pamphlets in support of Fabricio Ojeda and the social team, in which they denounced “violent and unilateral” August 3rd closure of the NUDE by “contractual organizations dressed as cooperatives” and their attempt to prohibit the local community from participating in the nucleus government; “their attempt to monopolize all of the works and contracts”; and “the bad intention to harm the image of the President and the electoral campaign.”

An important point, alluded to above, may be playing a deeper role in the circumstances currently shaking the NUDE.  Recently, the social team has been attempting to break down the theoretical walls of Fabricio Ojeda and involve the surrounding community in this center of endogenous development, which is supposed to be by and for all 800,000 residents of the nearby region.  In doing so, various committees and assemblies have been formed under the Territory Development Plan, which are open to anyone who cares to participate. 

But there are those, such as the dissident group of construction coops, that may see this increasing community participation as a threat to their existence within the NUDE.  In fact, members of the group have denounced what they believe is the social team’s push to bring in others, such as the external construction companies, to take over not just the construction jobs, but also the textile and shoe-making cooperatives.  The accusations are hollow and un-substantiated, but they appear to have been used in order to galvanize support for the Aug. 3rd occupation of the NUDE and for the call to “throw out” the social team.

The situation in general, whether it is the result of a group of self-interested businesses and individuals looking to solidify their power within the NUDE or a misunderstanding that has mushroomed into unthinkable proportions, shows the difficulty of trying to build a new model based on the goals of cooperation and solidarity in a society that has been taught to struggle for its own self-interest and to defend itself against external attack.  This is difficult even for two groups that both profess to be strongly in support of President Chavez and working towards “ten million” votes in this December’s elections.

As Molina explained last week, “There are always problems that occur.  Not everything can be as good as one would hope… We just hope that they can come to the best resolution possible.” 

A hope that seems to resonate across Fabricio Ojeda, Gramoven, and the Venezuelan nation.

[1] NUDEs are centers, promoted by the Venezuelan government, with the goals of endogenously (“from within”) developing the local community and the nation.  NUDEs are based on the cardinal principles that all projects should be carried out by and for the surrounding community, and that all contracted businesses, unless absolutely unavoidable, should be cooperatives composed of members of the community. NUDEs form an important part of the Bolivarian government’s development strategy, by empowering local communities to develop themselves, rather than calling for international investment from abroad.  There are currently 125 NUDEs throughout the country.  Each NUDE is “adopted” by a different state body, which is supposed to care for it.  Unfortunately, this means that many NUDEs do not receive the support or training necessary in order to ensure their success and development. Fabricio Ojeda has been under the care of PDVSA since its creation in 2004, and since it is considered to be the flagship of Venezuela’s NUDEs, it has received sufficient support necessary to ensure its progress and success.  Located in the barrio of Catia, in Gramoven, Fabricio Ojeda was planned and constructed on top of a former PDVSA refilling station, which sat idle for 12 years before construction on the NUDE began, using and remodeling already existing structures to fit the NUDEs necessities. Construction began in 2004 and the first production cooperatives began to produce in early 2005.  Currently the Fabricio Ojeda complex totals 16 acres, serves a population of 800,000 people in the nearby community and employs nearly a thousand people.  In all it contains 39 cooperatives- the majority construction cooperatives, a textile women’s cooperative, a shoe-making coop, an organic agricultural coop, a worm-composting project, a Mercal (low-priced grocery story), a community pharmacy, Barrio Adentro II (a specialized community health clinic), and that’s just phase I.   PDVSA plans to begin construction on Phase II on September 1, 2006, which will include “an Integral Rehabilitation Room”, a café, public bathrooms, an industrial soup kitchen, the first phase of a Bolivarian school, a day care center, a preschool and more.  PDVSA hopes to finish construction on Phase II by this December, at an estimated cost of just under $7 million.

[2] In 2004, various construction cooperatives built the health clinic and a number of smaller structures, but it was carried out with the machinery and support of the Engineering Battalion of the Armed Forces, which is currently not at the disposal of the NUDE. See also: State-Financed Experiments in Venezuela’s Solidarity Economy