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The “Solidarity Economy” in Venezuela: Questions and Answers

A translation of the questions and answers session from the panel: “Solidarity Economy in Latin America: Lessons and Possibilities from Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba", held at the first global PROUT conference in Caracas at the end of July.

A translation of Panel 1, “The Solidarity Economy in Latin America: Lessons and Possibilities from Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba”, questions and answers at the First Global Prout Conference in Venezuela, “Building a Solidarity Economy based on Ethics and Ecology”, July 7-9, 2011, Caracas. Listen to the audio file in English or audio file in Spanish. – Read the original Spanish presentation.

Leopoldo Cook: It’s now time for the questions. I will read some general ones , and two for each participant. This is a common question for every panelist: “What is the definition for the word ‘ethics’?” And for the organizers: “Is it possible to do a meditation exercise together during the conference?” And, “What is ‘spirit’?” Maybe during the afternoon workshops we could go deeper into this.

For Nora Castañeda: “First, congratulations from the women of the People´s Power Ministry for your presentation and the work you are doing. Does the Women´s Bank develop policies or act as consultant for other government ministries regarding equality and gender equity?” And “What are the indicators to effectively evaluate the comprehensive socio–economic performance of local communities? What methodology is used to define the economic growth and development of women in Venezuela?” We remind you that you have only two minutes to answer. Any additional comments can be made during the afternoon workshops.

Nora Castañeda: Regarding the first question whether the Women´s Development Bank does consulting for other government ministries in terms of equality and gender equity. Actually, it is not the Bank´s responsibility, rather by law that is the work of the People´s Power Ministry for Women and Gender Equality. However, the Women´s Development Bank was created long before – we just had our tenth anniversay – whereas this Ministry was founded only three years ago. As a consequence, the bank has signed agreements with other government ministries on this matter. It’s about alliances and agreements based on the fact that there is only one country, and only one project in this country which has diversity. According to this diversity, the Women´s Development Bank has the obligation to work with other government institutions as well as with others entities like universities, for example. It has the obligation to work with these other institutions and also to obtain support from them. We have worked for example with: Corporación Venezolana de Guayana, PDVSA, Edelca, Electrificación del Caroní , and with municipal governments, state governments, various institutions and communal councils. Because to build socialism from the beginning with a vision that encompasses gender, ethnicity and social class, we have articulated in an important way the communal councils at their various stages of development, because not everyone is alike. However, we have done it. We have a special agreement with the Agriculture and Land Ministry because three years ago we decided that 50% of the bank loans should go for agriculture, both in the countryside and in cities. We agreed to achieve a better economic development together with the Ministry of Agriculture and Land as members of the Regional Communal Councils.

The answer to the second question on how and what methodology is used to define economic growth and development in Venezuela, is through a dialogue of people and their knowledge, through participative community analysis, through the way our communities use their intuition. You know intuition is a way women find knowledge. If you don´t, imagine that tonight you give a bouquet of roses to your wife, for the first time after 40 years of marriage. What do you think she is going to think? “Something is happening to him, I will stay alert because something is going on with him” . I mean, intuition is a way to know. We work next to groups of women that use methodologies not always rational. Sometimes they come rather from intuition, from popular wisdom, from walking in the other´s shoes, from our dialogue.

Leopoldo Cook: Next questions are for Camila: “How or what can we do to encourage cooperatives again? Can we regain trust in cooperatives that have shown inefficiency after being promoted by the Venezuelan Government?” And, “What risks do cooperatives represent for the construction of socialism? Are they a model of self-sustained socialism, of authentic democratic participation?”

Camila Piñeiro Harnecker: Regarding the first question on how to retake the cooperative model and what to do so those that don’t work become successful or to create new successful ones, I think Elvy can provide better ideas than me. We are talking about policies that promote cooperatives, which we are hoping are implemented in Cuba. As I said, we have to focus more on quality. It is better to move ahead little by little with solid steps than trying to create many cooperatives that are not really cooperatives. Cooperatives are different from other businesses in the way people relate to each other. This is a cultural change that takes time. There are experiences of cultivating cooperatives in three stages. In the first stage they are not even called cooperatives, it takes that they get to the third stage, which requires time, so that they are prepared and can be considered cooperatives. I cannot add anything else because I have less than a minute left.

Regarding the risk of cooperatives: it is indispensable, in my opinion, for any socialist project, that there are many cooperatives. But they have to be real cooperatives, and we have to consider if we want to expand them towards those activities that satisfy people’s basic needs. We have to think in terms of transformative cooperatives, innovative cooperatives, revolutionary cooperatives, which have a social commitment. This is not easy because there has to be coordination with communities and other social groups they should benefit. (I do not have more time. Tomorrow in the workshop we can talk more).

Leopoldo Cook: Thank you. A question for Claudio Nascimento: “Capitalism as a model of development turns man, women, nature and even the weather into merchandise. How can we change this very evil relation?” And another question, “Tell us about the progress of doctoral scientific research, perspectives, weaknesses or failures. It is said that it is not adaptive for development.”

Claudio Nascimiento:
These are two difficult questions to answer because we do not have any model. I believe we have to experiment facing the future but analyzing part experiences. For example, that first question, merchandising nature. When we talk about communal power, I think it is a source of strength to search the past and look for experiences in the present and make projections to the future. The people of these communities have a relationship with nature. As it has been said, we are part of nature, and nature is not something outside of our bodies that suffers exploitation or is transformed into merchandise to be traded. There are important sources of inspiration relating to the first question. I believe that popular, participative education about the solidarity economy is very important. How to articulate the knowledge of work experiences and combine it with academic research may be the main challenge we have in the education field to create a wider perspective of the solidarity and participative economy. Avoiding this is to break up the knowledge coming from the people’s experiences with academic knowledge that is also being merchandised. Thank you.

Leopoldo Cook: For Dada Maheshvarananda, two questions. “How to build a society according to cardinal human values?” And “What is the role of ethics in cooperatives? Because without ethics, there is no human or social transformation.”

Dada Maheshvarananda: Ethics is fundamental. For example, when we were conducting our survey of 40 cooperatives in Barlovento, in the state of Miranda, some were suffering because one, two or three of their original cooperative members stole the money and ran away. Of course honesty is essential and transparency of accounts is fundamental for the success of cooperatives.

A mass campaign for ethics is also necessary. Some of the ethical principles that I mentioned in my presentation are quite popular. For example protecting the weak and fighting injustice, like Robin Hood, is a very popular movie formula in Hollywood. But emotional self-control and humility? These are very rare among the actors and actresses of Hollywood. We need an ethical campaign against corruption, which is common both in this country and throughout the world, to create a great force against any type of corruption, dishonesty or stealing money. And this mass strength can also create an internal force for every cooperative and every one of us.

Regarding ethical leadership, our friends in CECOCESOLA in Barquisimeto do not have any supervisors. All members are equal. Yet every one is a personal example of leadership in the group, and this positive example is essential. Thank you.

Leopoldo Cook: Thanks, Dada. And for Elvy Monzant several questions. The first one: “In which category are public transport cooperatives, those bus companies that are supposed to be cooperatives but act like capitalist enterprises that abuse their users?” And “What is the impact of cooperatives in the national economy? And which other countries have a similar model, and what have been the results?”

Elvy Monzant: We classified most transport cooperatives as classical cooperatives, those that already existed a long time ago. However there are also transport cooperatives that began by the direct promotion of the State. And some transport cooperatives began by their own initiative. So we do not classify them according to the type of production or service they do, but by their essential characteristics.

I suppose that the question refers mainly to those older cooperatives that certainly have an exclusive, pyramidical structure with very little participation, and that exploit workers. These experiences of course are against the fundamental essence of cooperatives.

I don’t remember the data on the economic impact of cooperatives, but it is in the conclusion of our research report. However I need to mention that it is very difficult to precisely determine this data, due to the large diversity of cooperatives. We have information about what some cooperatives produce, in some sectors, but a scientific measurement of the input of the social economy to the gross national product, to the economy in general, is still not available.

Leopoldo Cook: Thank you. We have seven minutes left. Unfortunately we do not have enough time to answer all the questions. But we will give an additional minute to each of the panelists to give their closing remarks.

Nora Castañeda: I personally experienced the development of the Vuelvan Caras job training cooperative movement because the Women’s Development Bank financed their cooperatives. I think that encouraging this cooperative movement is something important that the Bolivarian process has achieved. It is true there has been a graveyard of cooperatives here. But it is also true that the growth was very accelerated and there was little training. But I can tell you that many small and medium private enterprises also failed. The cemetery of cooperatives is huge because they had to face an economy that is monopolistic and oligopolistic and very hard to compete with.

Claudio Nascimento: I would like to talk about how to build a world based on socialism that is democratic, with popular participation, with participatory democracy. The popular solidarity economy, associations, cooperatives with all their diversity, bring elements and give elements to participation to happen. Finally conscious participation beyond popular participation is strategic and fundamental. Focused on the human being, so he or she develops autonomy of actions, thoughts and consciousness.

Elvy Monzant: I would like to share with you the essential characteristics that we have found not only in our research, but in our experience in cooperative life that are essential for cooperatives to succeed. First, they are made of women and men who through constructive educational processes live an authentic cultural transformation based on cooperative values and principles. Second, they are managed and controlled in a democratic and participative way with horizontal structures. They are productive, highly efficient, with innovative remuneration systems. They combine personal effort with solidarity and cooperative team achievements. And they are conscious of being part of a movement that is working for a new world full of justice, peace and freedom.

Camila Piñeiro Harnecker: I will focus on how to make cooperatives, which have to be autonomous –in order to be successful and to be democratically managed by the collective–, how to make them respond to social interests, to satisfy the needs of communities and of the groups affected by them. Here the importance of planning arises. But not the vertical, authoritarian, centralized planning process that has characterized socialist experiences in history. Instead a grassroots planning that is democratic, in order to articulate interests. Because social interests are not always obvious, that is- we have to build them, and therefore it is necessary to have a process that combines individual interests to create common interests. We have to accept that there ought to be horizontal relations amongst economic actors; they cannot be vertical relations because of all the problems of inefficiency and even of ineffectiveness, of not being able to achieve the stated goals through vertical relations. So, the matter is how to socialize these horizontal relations.

Dada Maheshvarananda: The message of Prout is that every one of you has a physical, mental and spiritual potential much more than you can imagine. Together we build a world in solidarity for the welfare of all.

Source: Prout Research Institute of Venezuela (PRIVEN)

Source: Prout Research Institute of Venezuela (PRIVEN)