The Venezuelan National Cooperative Superintendence (SUNACOOP) celebrated its 40th anniversary last week with a two-day meeting attended by representatives from across the wide spectrum of Venezuela’s cooperatives- both old and new. SUNACOOP National Coordinator of the Cooperative Community Program, Jose Negron, declared that the event was “more than a celebration,” it was a walk in time through the past, present and future of the Venezuelan cooperative movement and the government institution. SUNACOOP additionally announced its new institutionality, which they hope will support the education and consolidation of the Venezuelan cooperative movement and its members.
The meeting was attended by various former SUNACOOP directors including Carlos Molina Camacho (director from 1971- 1974); Current Vice-Minister of Popular Economy, Carlos Luis Rivero; Venezuelan National Assembly Representative and head of the Commission for the Strengthening of Coops, Gonzalo Gualdron; Central University of Venezuela (UCV) Cooperative Professor and head of the CEPAC, Center for Cooperative Studies, Oscar Bastidas Delgado; President of Venezuela’s Women’s Bank, Nora Castaneda; current SUNACOOP director, Carlos Molina Graterol; and members and leaders from both Venezuela’s traditional and new “Bolivarian” cooperatives.
Above all, the event was marked by the diversity of varying perspectives within the Venezuelan cooperative movement, which has been fairly divided between the traditional cooperatives and the new “Bolivarian” cooperatives since the passage of the 2001 Cooperative Law, which allowed for an impressive boom in Venezuela’s coops. According to SUNACOOP, there are currently 153,000 registered cooperatives in Venezuela – the largest number of any country in the world.
“Above all, I liked the plurality and participation,” said Teofilo Ugalde, long-time member of the 38-year old cooperative, CECOSESOLA. “Everything went really well, especially with the inclusiveness and the dialogue which Carlos [Molina Graterol] generates.”
The division between the traditional and new cooperatives is often blamed on the former SUNACOOP director who ran the organization until 2004 and reportedly condemned all coops formed before Chavez as capitalistic and “4th Republic” (referring to the political period before the passage of the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution).
The current head of SUNACOOP, Carlos Molina Graterol, who has been in the office for nearly two years, has been applauded for his work to unite the two groups. Molina Graterol went so far as to invite long-time cooperative professor, Oscar Bastidas-Delgado, to balance his closing talk last Thursday. Bastidas is a critic of the massive cooperative boom under Chavez, which he believes is unsustainable and has created the largest cooperative “graveyard” in the world.
Although the first Venezuelan cooperatives were formed around the turn of the 20th century, most disappeared during the Marcos Perez Jimenez dictatorship of the 1950s and the military junta that preceded it. With the fall of Jimenez in 1958, Cooperatives in Venezuela again began to gain strength and a new cooperative law was passed in 1966, which allowed for the creation of SUNACOOP.
Three former SUNCOOP directors spoke on the first day of last week’s meeting and highlighted the various changes in the cooperative movement and the government body since its inception in 1966. Long-time Venezuelan cooperative member, Luis Delgado Bello commented on Wednesday, that in the beginning, SUNACOOP functioned merely as a regulatory body for a growing cooperative movement, which was kept in check by the government agency.
According to Delgado, a large impetus for the Venezuelan cooperative push in the 1960s came from the US initiative Alliance for Progress, which attempted to promote the alternative road of cooperativism in order to pull the rug of support out from under the guerrilla and revolutionary movements taking place across Latin America. As a result, he explained, the cooperative movement of SUNACOOP’s early years did not fully break from the hierarchy of the state.
“The interest was not a profound fact of the society, truly trying to build change,” said Delgado, “but rather were attending only to the cooperative itself... the interest was not based in the community.”
Former SUNACOOP director, Carlos Molina Camacho, explained that during the 1970s, a cooperative needed to pass through a trial period of one year before it was granted cooperative status. He and others explained that in order to register a cooperative with SUNACOOP, it was almost imperative that it be a member of the National Venezuelan Cooperative Central (CECONAVE), which encompassed approximately 85% of the cooperatives in the country. This, they stated, at the time, stinted the autonomy of Venezuela´s traditional cooperatives. Traditionally cooperatives in Venezuela have been organized in to Federations according to trade or cooperative type, and since the passage of the 1966 Coop law, Centrals according to region.
Before Chavez was elected to office there were 762 coops in Venezuela (also referred to as Venezuela’s “traditional” cooperatives), the majority being consumer, savings and loan, funeral, transportation, and health cooperatives, or mixtures of all of the above. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the cooperatives formed under President Chavez are worker collectives of five members or more. SUNACOOP stated during the event that over 60% of Venezuela’s registered coops are in the service sector, while just over 20% are in production.
During the event, lecturers made it a point to remind those in attendance that members from the traditional coops played a large role in the creation of the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution and the formation of the 2001 Cooperative Law.
Delgado explained that the 2001 Coop Law was absolutely necessary in order to allow for the great boom of Venezuela’s coops. It eased the process of cooperative formation and allowed for greater sovereignty to be given to the cooperatives themselves.
“[Under the 2001 Coop Law] it was understood that autonomy was fundamental,” said Delgado.
Present and Future
SUNACOOP director, Molina Graterol, concluded the second day with a discussion of the government agency since the new Constitution and into the future. He stated that from the period of 1999 to 2004, SUNACOOP was very fragile and had been “reduced to a supervisory figure” or a “ticket-office,” where people brought their paperwork.
Molina Graterol announced that SUNACOOP will soon be moving to a six-story building in the middle of Caracas, and has been taking many steps in an effort to tackle SUNACOOP’s “institutional crisis” of earlier this decade.
Some of those steps include a process of new “institutionalization” and “re-structuralization” with plans for cooperative integration; strategic communication; national cooperative education; national cooperative audit and supervision; and a cooperative census to “determine the socio-economic reality of Venezuelan cooperativism.”
Regarding the education plan, Molina Graterol announced that SUNACOOP has created an education department and the National Education Plan will attempt “to strengthen the capacity of productive management and the principles and values of cooperatives”, both inside and outside the movement.
“Why are we proposing a new institution for SUNACOOP on this 40th anniversary?” asked Molina Graterol, “To convert SUNACOOP in to something different than just a type of controller or policing institution, to give force to the educational vision… and we are anticipating this step with the National Education Plan.”
“SUNACOOP is celebrating its 40th birthday, and it is practically the same institution it was 40 years ago,” continued Molina Graterol, “but it should convert itself in to a space of concentration and coordination of public policies of promotion, with the goal of accompanying the whole project of construction and consolidation… of a self-determined cooperative movement that is truly sovereign and is fundamentally independent and is an historic subject of transformation of the process that is occurring now in Venezuela.”
Molina Graterol declared that because of the necessity to attend to the massive increase in cooperatives in recent years, SUNACOOP’s budget per cooperative went from approximately $160 per cooperative in 2001 (with 1,154 Venezuelan cooperatives) to only $14 per cooperative in 2004. They have been able to increase the budget now to over $50 per cooperative.
In order to solve some of the problems created by SUNACOOP’s lack of resources to be able to be able to supervise, support and audit all of Venezuela’s coops, the government body has recently been encouraging the consolidation and integration of the Venezuelan cooperative movement. SUNACOOP additionally helped to organize the state and local
Cooperative Councils and the first meeting of the National Cooperative Council (CENCOOP) was held in May.
However, Molina Graterol declared that one of the greatest problems with the Venezuelan cooperative movement is the fact that there is “less than 1% integration” of Venezuela’s cooperatives.
Molina Graterol further declared that 1,634 accusations have been received against Venezuela’s cooperatives and that not all of coops are legitimate, that some supposed coops only use the laws to evade social responsibility and taxes, and that cooperative members do not always understand the principles of cooperativism.
“There is a difference between cooperatives and cooperativistas,” stated Molina Graterol.
At the conclusion of the event, Teofilo Ugalde agreed with the “new institutionalization” of the government institution, but stated his fears that the plans may not be followed through.
“I hope that Carlos Molina remains in the Superintendence a few more years so that he can carry out his ideas. The problem is that in public administration in Venezuela, as always, these policies have always been identified with one government official. You change the official, and everything changes again. I hope that they don’t change Carlos now that there is a new Minister of Popular Economy,” said Ugalde.
On the first day of last week’s event, Morejón Carrillo replaced Oly Millán as the Minister of Popular Economy. The two-year old, Ministry of Popular Economy (MINEP), oversees SUNACOOP.
Claudia De Lisio, Coordinator of Public Policy of the MERCOSUR Cooperatives, was invited from Uruguay to participate in the event. She stated that she believes that SUNACOOP is walking in the right direction, but it has a way to go.“I think it needs to have autonomy from the Ministry [of Popular Economy], which makes the dynamics different, and I think it needs to have a strong line of education almost like a preventative supervision,” said De Lisio, “and this was very present during this forum. Over the last few days, they proposed an institute of education, separated from the supervision, which is another theme being debated within the movement.”