Revolution and Counter-revolution
Assessing the Role of the AFL-CIO
by Lee Sustar
ZNet, July 22, 2005
José Gil's walk across the shop
floor would appear familiar to trade unionists across the United
States. As a local union official at the vast CVG Alcasa aluminum
plant in Venezuela's Ciudad Guyana, he made the rounds on a short
Sunday shift in August 2004-catching up on family news and listening
to concerns and complaints, as molten metal pushed temperatures
on an already scorching south-central Venezuelan afternoon to
skin-searing levels. The plant's production was on the increase,
thanks to Venezuela's booming oil economy and Chinese industry's
demand for aluminum. Workers' expectations of their union were
rising too; the union would soon launch a slowdown in a fight
over pay. A few months later, contract employees at the plant
organized to demand equal pay for equal work.
As one of the national coordinators for
the labor central known as the National Union of Workers (Unión
Nacional de Trabajadores, or UNT) Gil provides a connection between
the aluminum workers and the leadership of the fledgling labor
central. The UNT seeks to displace the Confederation of Venezuelan
Labor (CTV), historically the dominant union body in the country.
It aims to undo decades of decline by organized labor: Gil estimated
that real wages in his plant haven't risen in 18 years.
Even so, Gil's job has allowed him to
buy a Ford F-150 pickup truck. He's also been able to purchase
a new house, thanks to special loans available to employees of
Alcasa and other companies in the industrial CVG state enterprises
that dominate Ciudad Guyana. However, workers at CVG and other
state enterprises have a standard of living that is increasingly
removed from the majority of Venezuelan workers. Overall, real
wages fell 23 percent during the 1990s as 60 percent of the population
was forced to turn to the informal sector of the economy. Estimates
put the poverty level as high as 80 percent.
That division is palpable in Ciudad Guyana,
where a wide river separates a planned city of big metalworking
plants and comfortable homes from the impoverished barrios where
Gil grew up. He's also a member of the Bolivarian Workers Force
(Fuerza Bolivariana de Trabajadores, or FBT), which supports the
"revolutionary process" of President Hugo Chávez
and the government "missions" that have given the poor
access to medical care, higher education, land reform, subsidized
food markets and more. Now Gil, a member of the union Sindicato
de Trabajadores de Alcasa, or SINTRALCASA, wants to help build
a labor movement capable of fighting for those workers' interests
"Here in Venezuela, the situation
in the unions is similar to all the countries in Latin America
and, I would say, the greater part of the world," Gil said
in an interview last August. "The number of unionized workers
isn't more than 12 percent. That means we can't win." Therefore,
he said, the UNT demands "universal unionization," in
which "workers in every enterprise, economic sector, and
branch of work can vote for a union in a way that's massive, plural,
and in a representative [labor] central." Gil's perspectives
on unions put him squarely on the left wing of the UNT, which
is contending with more moderate forces for leadership of the
new federation. In October 2004, Gil, who had previously served
as the general secretary of SINTRALCASA, recaptured his old post
in a recall election that ousted his rival, Trino Silva. But the
Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled the election to be illegal, several
The internal struggle in the UNT reflects
the pressures on organized labor in a highly polarized society.
Yet, for both the AFL-CIO representative in the Andes and the
CTV executive board member Froilán Barrios, the UNT is
an "arm of the state." An example, said Barrios,
is the recently launched gas workers union, Sindicato Unitario
de Trabajadores del Gas (SUTG). "Every day this union seems
more like the unions of the ex-USSR and Cuba-a type of commissariat
of the Communist Party, where they are more repressive organs
against the workers." Barrios acknowledged that there
are clasista (class-conscious) leaders in the UNT. But others,
he said, "are using their relationship with the state, well,
to enrich themselves."
There is a history of union corruption
in Venezuela-overwhelmingly within the CTV. In her book The Failure
of Political Reform in Venezuela, the British academic Julia Buxton
describes it as one of the "richest and most powerful union
confederations in the world" in its heyday. The CTV's
intimate ties with the political establishment allowed "for
the illicit enrichment of union leaders, who acquired a personal
interest for maintaining the model of [political] party control,"
she wrote. In fact, the Venezuelan state provided 90 percent of
the funding for the CTV in the 1960s and 1970s. The AFL-CIO's
ties to the CTV, moreover, have been among its closest with any
foreign labor federation. This relationship has continued despite
the CTV's alliance with the forces that mounted the April 2002
coup-of which the CIA had foreknowledge-that was embraced by the
Bush administration. The AFL-CIO's support for the CTV continued
through the devastating oil industry lockout, and the strike that
There are in fact serious criticisms
to be made about the Chávez government from a trade union
standpoint. Yet, by rejecting the legitimacy of the UNT out of
hand, and backing the CTV, the AFL-CIO has lent political credibility
to the conservative Venezuelan opposition. This, in turn, has
revived debate over the AFL-CIO's involvement in U.S. foreign
policy. Indeed, a look at the AFL-CIO's past and present in
Venezuela points to two conclusions: that the files on organized
labor's collaboration with U.S. foreign policy should be opened,
and that the AFL-CIO's reliance on government funds for international
work should end.
The AFL-CIO and Venezuela: a brief history
The CTV emerged from underground work
in a military dictatorship in 1958 to play a central role in the
Acción Democrática (AD) party of President Rómulo
Betancourt. The AD, nominally a social democratic party, made
a power-sharing deal with the conservative Catholic party, the
Comité de Organización Política Electoral
Independiente (Catholic Committee for Political Organization and
Independent Election-COPEI), to exclude political rivals-most
importantly the Communist Party. The CTV leadership reflected
this arrangement, as political cronyism and corruption permeated
the political system.
Venezuela, a key focus of U.S. foreign
policy since the oil boom of the 1920s, became Washington's counterweight
to the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The headquarters of the AFL-CIO-initiated
Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores (ORIT,
the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers) was moved
to Caracas. In 1962, Venezuela was the linchpin of the AFL-CIO's
newly launched American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD);
the AIFLD board included both the AD leader Betancourt and his
COPEI counterpart, Rafael Caldera. Next, in the mid-1960s, the
AFL-CIO even provided funding for a CTV-owned bank. AIFLD
chief Serafino Romualdi, later alleged to have been a CIA agent,
called his relationship with Betancourt "the most fruitful
political collaboration of my life." Romualdi helped
engineer the expulsion of the Communist Party and other leftists
from the CTV; elsewhere, AIFLD collaborated with the CIA and the
State Department to undermine or overthrow Latin American governments
opposed to the U.S.
The CTV-AIFLD-CIA connection apparently
continued in the 1970s under AFILD's Caracas operative, Mike Hammer.
Following his assassination by an army officer in El Salvador
in 1981, Hammer and a colleague were described by the U.S. Solicitor
General as "some kind of undercover persons working under
the cover of a labor organization." Among those attending
his funeral were outgoing vice president Walter Mondale, and Jean
Kirkpatrick, who was soon to become ambassador to the United Nations
for the incoming administration of Ronald Reagan.
In recent years, the AFL-CIO's representative
in Caracas has covered the five Andean countries for the American
Center for International Labor Solidarity-known as the Solidarity
Center-the federation's international arm that replaced AIFLD
and other regional institutes. The Solidarity Center's representative-who
asked to remain anonymous because of his work with Colombian trade
unionists facing death threats-is highly critical of Chávez's
record on organized labor. The situation for Venezuelan labor,
he said, "is closer to Colombia than anything else"
in Latin America. "You have a government that is systematically
and consistently violating fundamental labor rights in an attempt
to eliminate independent labor."
In an interview in Caracas, the Solidarity
Center representative contended that the Chávez government
has been angling for control of the labor movement since taking
office in 1999. According to Steve Ellner, the leading historian
of the Venezuelan labor movement, early anti-union measures under
Chávez at Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA),
the state oil company, revealed "a convergence between neoliberals
and some Chavistas." Next, legislation imposed direct
elections on the CTV in 2000 that were open to the general public.
This obvious violation of labor rights was condemned by the International
Labor Organization (ILO) as "a dangerous precedent with respect
to a policy of state intervention." For the AFL-CIO representative
in the Andes, the CTV elections reflected the AFL-CIO role in
what he called the federation's "renovation," as some
60 percent of the victors had never held union office before.
Several CTV executive board members, including Frolián
Barrios, came from historically left-wing parties previously marginalized
in, or excluded from, the CTV leadership. Yet, under Ortega, the
CTV quickly swung further to the right into an alliance with the
business chamber of commerce, the Federación de Cámaras
y Asociaciones de Comercio y Producción (FEDECAMARAS),
calling four general strikes with the backing of the employers.
The general strike of April 2002 became the pretext for the unsuccessful
The representative dismissed as absurd
the charge that, through its support for the CTV, the AFL-CIO
gave de facto backing for the coup. He acknowledged that the CTV
"is far from perfect," but defended the CTV-FEDECAMARAS
alliance and their meetings on the eve of the coup attempt. "They
[the CTV] were meeting regularly with civil society organizations,
looking for strategies to confront Chavismo," together, he
said. "But these meetings were open, they were public."
He pointed out that Ortega and other CTV leaders didn't sign the
dictatorial decree issued by FEDECAMARAS chief Pedro Carmona.
Rather, Ortega was "utilized" by Carmona, he added.
(Ortega was ultimately arrested for his role in the coup nearly
three years later.)
What is indisputable, however, is that
Ortega joined with FEDECAMARAS to call the strike and march that
set the stage for the coup. This alliance was facilitated by the
Solidarity Center, which funded five regional meetings to promote
labor-business collaboration, capped by a national CTV-FEDECAMARAS
gathering on March 5, 2002-a month prior to the coup. "The
joint action further established the CTV and FEDECAMARAS as the
flagship organizations leading the growing opposition to the Chávez
government," concluded a Solidarity Center report about the
effort, which was funded by a National Endowment for Democracy
(NED) grant for $125,7114 in 2001-2002. This direct support
for the opposition's mobilization appears to go far beyond the
Solidarity Center's stated aim of "building capacity"
in the CTV.
After the failed coup, the tone of Solidarity
Center reports on Venezuela changed. A grant proposal to the NED
noted that within the CTV, the "ardent declarations by the
president [Ortega] of the organization have overshadowed the more
moderate and constructive positions of the organization."
Still, in late 2002, Ortega was able to use his authority as CTV
president to lead a lockout by top management and a walkout by
technical personnel at PDVSA. Stan Gacek, AFL-CIO Assistant
Director of International Affairs for Latin America, criticized
the lockout-strike, but argued that it raised "legitimate
issues of freedom of association."
Leaving aside the AFL-CIO's support for
Ortega, the controversy over the AFL-CIO's role in Venezuela stems
from the fact that the Solidarity Center, like AIFLD before it,
relies on government funding directly through the State Department's
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department
of Labor, or indirectly, through the NED. According to documents
obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the NED provided
some $2.2 million in training and funding opposition groups between
2000 and 2003-the period of the coup attempt and oil strike-lockout.
For these reasons, Venezuela was cited by key activists who successfully
passed a resolution at the 2004 convention of the California Labor
Federation, that both called on the AFL-CIO to open the books
on its cold war collaboration with U.S. government foreign policy.
It further condemned the NED for its role in overthrowing democratically
elected governments and interfering in the internal affairs of
the labor movements of other countries." The critics
charged that funding from the NED and USAID keeps the AFL-CIO
entrenched in the foreign policy apparatus of the U.S. state.
The AFL-CIO representative in Venezuela
argued that NED funds used by the CTV are carefully targeted and
monitored. When the political situation became too hot prior to
the April 2002 coup, the representative said, he suspended a Solidarity
Center program that trained organizers for work in the informal
sector. This, he said, explains the discrepancy-widely questioned
by critics-between NED funds that were allocated and the money
that was actually spent. CTV and NED officials gave similar accounts.
Yet, NED documents show that the program covered considerable
travel costs and expenses for CTV activities-crucial resources
in a poor country like Venezuela.
The AFL-CIO's Gacek said that the federation
supported the Chávez government wherever its policies are
"pro-labor" and "reflect a pro-social agenda."
"Really, the only area where we are in disagreement has been
with regard to the incursions against freedom of association,"
he said. Assumptions about the nature of Solidarity Center activities
in Venezuela today are based on a mistaken comparison with AIFLD's
role in the past, Gacek continued. "I'm not saying in any
way these things were done," he said, about criticisms of
AIFLD's past role. "Butthe premise was that there was a pro-U.S.
government position that was assumed by the institutes in the
past in the Cold War period." The critics' arguments, he
said, boiled down to this: "There was a coup, ergo the AFL-CIO
was involved in making the coup. [It's] basically using a certain
syllogistic reasoning where the premises are totally faulty."
Gacek insisted that acceptance of U.S.
government funds doesn't dictate Solidarity Center policy. "In
fact, we are extremely selective about what we do and what we
don't do," he said. "Certainly, if the U.S. government
were to say, 'we're going to give you $500,000 in grants because
we want you to support privatization in the hemisphere, and we
want you to go and convince the Latin American counterparts to
promote privatization,' in no way, shape or form can we take it."
Steve Ellner, the labor historian, disputed
this, pointing to the CTV's support for the regressive "reform"
of Social Security in the 1990s, and the termination of the severance
payment system for laid-off workers. "The argument that
the AFL-CIO was supporting the good guys in the CTV, the leftists
and the moderates who were anti-Chavista but also anti-Ortega,
doesn't explain the fact that the CTV joined hands with FEDECAMARAS
to oppose [land reform] legislation," he said.
A new Venezuelan labor movement?
If the CTV and AFL-CIO are correct, Hugo
Chávez will create an "oficialista" labor movement
of the sort that's all too familiar in the history of Latin America.
The AFL-CIO representative in Caracas pointed to the Chávez
government's decision to give the UNT an office in the Ministry
of Labor, and then space in a (rather run-down) building as evidence
of such a move.
Such policies give pause to trade unionists
wary of government interference in organized labor. Yet, the picture
is far more complex than the CTV, the AFL-CIO-and for that matter,
the Chávez government-have acknowledged. The UNT isn't
a creation of the state, but the result of a break by some union
leaders from the CTV after the oil lockout-strike, to form a bloc
with pro-Chávez leftists and dissident social Christians
in 2003. Alliances with the UNT's 21-member interim coordinating
committee have been shifting ever since, with the Left calling
for a more aggressive stance towards employers, and emphasizing
workers' self-management. A major influence on the UNT is
the experience of the "new unionism" in Ciudad Guyana's
steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s.
The challenge for the UNT is how to support
the "revolutionary process"-known as "el proceso"-yet
independently assert the interests of workers. Pressure for change
is building: five years since Chávez took office, the main
beneficiaries of his social programs have been the mass of urban
poor, not the organized working class. And a meeting of UNT leaders
and organizers following the August 2004 presidential referendum
was hardly a pro-Chávez victory rally. Several leading
activists complained that the government had sidelined the UNT
during the referendum campaign.
Nevertheless, criticism of the government
within the UNT takes place from within the framework of "el
proceso," as workers at the massive PDVSA complex in the
eastern oil center of Puerto La Cruz made clear. In a series of
interviews, pipeline workers, dockworkers, tugboat operators,
refinery workers, and cooks described how they slowly organized
themselves to rebuild production during the oil strike-lockout
of 2002-2003, while military personnel distributed the fuel across
the country.  "The coup of April 2002 was supported by
all the top line and most of the second line management,"
said Maribel Bordero, a 16-year oil worker at the facility. "They
then prepared clandestinely for the oil coup," she said,
referring to the strike-lockout.
Since the oil-strike-lockout, claims the
AFL-CIO representative, the Chávez government has taken
control of the main oil workers union Federación de Trabajadores
Petroleros, or FEDEPETROL, through its leader, Rafael Rosales.
His evidence: Rosales' seat on the PDVSA board. Rosales, however,
won his office in the 2001 CTV elections, and FEDEPETROL remained
affiliated with the CTV even though Rosales is aligned with the
UNT. And Rosales hardly exerts ironclad control: rank-and-file
oil workers in the UNT are sharply critical of PDVSA's longstanding
use of outsourcing and temporary contracts. These militants oppose
PDVSA's creation of "cooperatives" that employ ancillary
workers without union contracts or benefits-and criticized union
leaders for excluding the rank and file from union negotiations.
There are two other UNT unions that the
AFL-CIO representative pointed to as evidence of state domination
of the UNT. One is the public sector union Federación Nacional
de Trabajadores del Sector Público (FENTRASEP), headed
by Franklin Rondón, which was, he argued, illegally registered
by the government, replacing a CTV union. Rondón disputes
the charge. "To create FENTRASEP we met with a number of
important public sector unions with the aim of building an instrument
that can fight for the workers," he replied, when questioned
about the allegations. (It's worth noting that the practice
of arbitrary registration of unions under previous governments
benefited the CTV at the expense of its rivals.)
Another example the AFL-CIO representative
gave, of government intervention in the UNT, is the case of Francisco
Torreabla, a Chávez ally who remained head of the main
union in the Caracas metro following a disputed union election.
But neither union is a monolith. Both Torrealba and Rondón
have faced rank-and-file rebellions.  The same is true of
their ally, Ramón Machuca, head of the important steelworkers
union (Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores Siderúrgico) SUTISS;
members of the union voted to reject their contract in referendum
in late 2004. For his part, UNT national coordinating committee
member Stalin Pérez views Rondón and Torrealba as
part of the "bureaucratic sector" of the federation,
and anticipates an internal struggle in which those leaders bloc
with Machuca in a bid for leadership.
Rondón acknowledged the differences
in the UNT but predicted unity at the UNT congress scheduled for
2005. The event was delayed, however, in a dispute over how delegates
should be selected. Machuca and his allies called for allowing
anyone on the government's Social Security list to vote, in order
to broaden the base of the federation. The Left in the UNT, led
by Orlando Chirino and Marcela Maspero, argued that such a method
was undemocratic, and that voting should be restricted to groups
of workers that have already affiliated to the central. The
debate within the UNT coincided with the government's nationalization
of a worker-occupied paper plant, and a call for "co-management"
in state-owned enterprises as a step towards what Chávez
called "socialism for the 21st century." A conference
of 400 left-wing UNT activists in February 2005 embraced the call
for self-management and socialism, but criticized government policies
such as a currency devaluation that cut workers' purchasing power.
UNT members sharpened the debate within the key oil and electrical
power unions by launching "constituent assemblies" to
unify the unions and formulate their own demands for self-management.
This freewheeling debate within the UNT
has little in common with the centralized pronouncements of a
state-controlled union. Even Gacek conceded that the UNT had won
legitimate elections at the "sindicato" level-that is,
within individual local unions, most importantly at the Ford Motor
Company assembly plant in Valencia, a key industrial city near
Caracas. While there are undeniable efforts by the government
to shape the UNT, these don't compare with the party control exercised
by the AD over the CTV in the past. And extensive discussions
with union activists show that the impulse to form a new federation
comes not from state intervention from above, but a rejection
of the CTV from below.
In summarizing U.S. labor's
cold war collaboration with the government, historian Paul Buhle
observed that even a key operative in such efforts concluded that
"the AFL and AFL-CIO deceived themselves about their own
influence 'promoting democracy' across Latin America and the Caribbean;
U.S. support of military forces had the central role, with the
role of U.S.-friendly trade unions a public relations role at
best." The question today is whether the AFL-CIO and
the Solidarity Center are still playing "a public relations
role" for U.S. foreign policy-intentionally or not.
It's telling that the NED grants often
allocate equal amounts to the Solidarity Center and its counterpart
institutes run by the Republican and Democratic parties and business.
This allows U.S. unions to project political weight abroad that
they never had at home, even in the long-gone days of "Big
Labor." The reality is that the Solidarity Center's clout
is based not on the strength of U.S. unions, but on government
funds from the world's only superpower.
Where does this leave AFL-CIO policy
in Venezuela? The Solidarity Center's focus on trade union independence
is necessary, but far from sufficient. The CTV was, after all,
formally free from state domination, but in practice was subsidized
and controlled by a corrupt party duopoly that ruled Venezuela
for more than 40 years. Therefore, the Solidarity Center's attempt
to shore up the CTV-FEDECAMARAS alliance in the name of "dialogue"
inevitably meant aiding the effort to re-impose a discredited
Finally, there's the question of the AFL-CIO's
deep involvement in the inner workings of the CTV. While the Solidarity
Center's policies certainly differ from Romualdi's AIFLD anticommunist
crusades, they start from the same assumption-that the AFL-CIO
has the right to use its influence and U.S. government funds to
restructure the labor unions of a far smaller country overshadowed
by Washington's power.
Genuine international solidarity efforts
must be rooted in joint struggles against common adversaries.
To fully rebuild trust in the labor movement across Latin America,
therefore, the AFL-CIO must disclose its role in cold war foreign
policy and end its reliance on U.S. government funds. It's time
for a change-and Venezuela is an excellent place to begin.
A Rejoinder to "Revolution and Counter-revolution"
By Stan Gacek
Lee Sustar draws his conclusions
about the AFL-CIO's current role in Venezuela from unfounded premises.
Regrettably, he is not alone in this exercise, if we look at other
articles accusing us of supporting the opprobrious coup attempt
of April 2002.
The falsehoods contained in Sustar's
article (and in others) can be summarized as follows:
1. The entire CTV assumed an active
and premeditated role in designing and executing the coup against
Hugo Chávez, as well as all other antidemocratic attempts
to overthrow the Venezuelan president by force.
2. The AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center
provided unconditional assistance to the CTV in all of these efforts,
but has refused to work with any other sector of the Venezuelan
3. The AFL-CIO's program underwrites
the right-wing backlash against Hugo Chávez. The choice
can only be the following: either you are 100 percent for Chávez,
or you are 100 percent against him.
4. The fact that U.S. government sources
fund the Solidarity Center program means that the Bush administration's
foreign policy controls the AFL-CIO agenda in Venezuela.
Unfortunately, the word limit imposed
on my response does not permit me to answer all of the fallacies
in Sustar's essay. I will respond to the most glaring.
Sustar refers to an "AIFLD
Caracas operative" cultivating a "CTV-AIFLD-CIA connection"
in the 1970s. And in the paragraph immediately following this
assertion, the author mentions the current Solidarity Center representative
for the Andean region, leaving the impression of an unbroken historical
chain linking us to what AIFLD allegedly did in the past. Such
innuendo might otherwise be defamatory if it were not so patently
Although I certainly was not involved
in AIFLD's hiring practices, part of my modest contribution to
the AFL-CIO's relations with Latin America since 1997 has been
to recommend candidates for Solidarity Center field positions
who have genuine and direct experience with the labor movement,
along with a truly progressive perspective on Inter-American relations,
free of cold war baggage. All of our current staff in Latin America,
including the representative for the Andean region, meets these
Reinforcing the impression that
fallacies 1, 2, and 3 are realities, Sustar writes that CTV President
Carlos Ortega "joined with FEDECAMARAS (a Venezuelan business
federation) to call the strike and march that set the stage for
the coup," and that "this alliance was facilitated by
the Solidarity Center, which funded five regional meetings to
promote labor-business collaboration, capped by a national CTV-FEDECAMARAS
gathering on March 5, 2002-a month prior to the coup."
The coup was exclusively a military
action, and it took place unbeknownst to the civil society organizations
planning entirely legal and legitimate opposition actions (including
a referendum on the Government) at exactly the same time.
The CTV did not participate in the
forced detention and imprisonment of President Chávez.
The Confederation did not participate in the public announcement
that Chávez had resigned. (General Lucas Rincon actually
made that announcement, and then, curiously, was named minister
of defense immediately following Chávez's return to power.)
The CTV executive refused to sign
the infamous decree of the short-lived Carmona regime that dissolved
the National Assembly. The CTV refused any and all offers to serve
in the coup-installed government, and made a point of not being
present at the inauguration of Carmona's cabinet.
There exists an unfortunate conventional
wisdom which depicts a socially progressive, thoroughly incorruptible,
and perfectly democratic Chávez administration pitted against
an opposition that is 100 percent corrupt, putschist, antidemocratic,
and fascist. Yet, the thousands of CTV members who marched to
Miraflores to protest Chávez's violations of freedom of
association and collective bargaining rights were not demanding
his ouster by means of military force.
Sustar gets several things dead wrong
in the months prior to the coup. In the first place, he says that
NED financing "used by the CTV" was "monitored,"
implying that our funds were delivered to the Confederation. On
the contrary, we always controlled program financing, inviting
organizations to participate.
Our program certainly involved the
CTV, but not "support for Ortega," as Sustar alleges.
Nonetheless, Ortega has never been convicted for responsibility
in the coup. Unlike the hundreds of other opposition activists
charged with conspiracy for the events of April 2002, the Venezuelan
attorney general never included Ortega on the list. As a matter
of fact, the latest effort by the Venezuelan authorities to charge
and arrest him pertains to his involvement in the PDVSA strike,
not in the coup attempt.
Sustar's statement that "NED
documents showed that the program covered considerable travel
costs and expenses for CTV activities" in the few days preceding
the coup is totally baseless. The Solidarity Center made the independent
decision to suspend all financing more than six weeks before April
11, given the general insecurity and social confrontation being
generated from every corner of Venezuelan government and civil
society. And Sustar confuses this suspended project with the informal
sector organizing program, which did not begin until March of
As for the "CTV-FEDECAMARAS
alliance," Sustar purposely leaves out key facts provided
to him by our representative in the Andean region. The five events
financed by the Solidarity Center involved the participation of
organized labor only, not the national business federation. These
workshops dealt with the democratic consolidation of dispersed
labor organizations into national industrial unions to enhance
collective bargaining capacity. They also addressed the building
of alliances with local government and local business to generate
We did not finance the March 5 event.
However, the symposium produced a constructive, joint CTV-FEDECAMARAS
proposal calling for direct negotiation with the Chávez
administration on job creation and poverty abatement. The statement
expressly rejected "all forms of violence and military coups,"
reaffirming "dialogue and discussion as the path to resolve
In fact, Chavez's own representatives
in the National Assembly recognized and praised the CTV-FEDECAMARAS
proposal. The Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) representative Roberto
Quintero called the proposal "highly positive," and
said it would "strengthen the image of the country and of
the nation's public institutions." Nicolas Maduro, then chief
of the MVR bloc, said that "the suggestions in the proposal
would be evaluated, and elements that could advance economic and
social policy would be considered."
Sustar parrots the Venezuelan government's
line that the shutdown of PDVSA's operations in December 2002
was basically a management lockout engineered by the CTV's leadership.
Then why did the government fire nearly 20,000 workers in retaliation?
There are only 35,000 PDVSA employees, so the idea that all of
the fired employees were "management" is absolute nonsense.
In fact, the unions representing PDVSA
workers (including those of FEDEPETROL, with its pro-Chávez
President Rafael Rosales) joined the job action to demand a change
in the Company's overall public policy, planning, investment,
and labor relations practices. Both the Venezuelan judiciary
and the ILO's Freedom of Association Commission concluded that
the shutdown was a legitimate strike, ordering the reinstatement
of the fired workers. (Upon receiving the news from Geneva, Chávez
retorted that the ILO could "go fry monkeys.")
Notwithstanding the legality of the
collective action at PDVSA, the Venezuelan labor movement did
not request, nor did the Solidarity Center offer, any funding
to support it. This critical fact needs to be emphasized, as Sustar
has jumped to the false conclusion that the AFL-CIO rendered aid
to this particular strike, and to all other CTV labor actions
characterized as anti-Chávez.
Since 1999, our program has focused
exclusively on collective bargaining, freedom of association,
and labor rights in relation to trade. Our project has included
support to the democratization and direct election process in
Venezuelan unions-something, incidentally, that Chávez
We have rigidly managed and controlled
all of our financing. In other words, the Solidarity Center did
not underwrite street demonstrations demanding Chávez's
resignation, general strikes and industrial actions, civic opposition
mobilizations, union slush funds, opposition slush funds, or any
other such extracurricular activities.
Sustar has tried to exploit what he
claims is an inconsistency between our 2001-2002 Venezuelan NED
grant of $125,711 and the program just described. However, the
"discrepancy" evaporates, if one takes into consideration
all of the other demands: office rental and expenses, local staff
salaries and benefits, a travel budget for the local representative,
The internal CTV elections of 2001
were never conducted outside the government authority. To the
contrary, they were run under National Electoral Council (CNE)-imposed
rules, under direct CNE supervision, and on a CNE timetable. The
CNE never certified the results of the CTV's national executive
elections, because of a finding that a substantial minority of
the local voting records (actas) was never delivered.
Interestingly enough, Maria Cristina
Iglesias, the current Labor Minister, is personally responsible
for a good portion of the missing records. Although she was never
a union member, the CTV was forced to include her on its internal
electoral board. Enlisting armed police guards, she removed a
full box of actas in order to prove alleged fraud in the election
of the Confederation's national leadership. The courts threw out
the fraud allegations for lack of evidence, but Iglesias never
returned the materials.
Nevertheless, the CNE concluded that
all the local union and federation elections in the CTV were valid.
Curiously, the certified results at the sindicato and federation
levels involving 1.2 million voters closely approximated the final
vote tally for the national executive: 12 percent for the pro-Chávez
Government candidates, and 88 percent for all other political
One of Sustar's most misleading statements
is the following: "Yet, by rejecting the legitimacy of the
UNT out of hand, and backing the CTV, the AFL-CIO has lent political
credibility to the conservative Venezuelan opposition."
We have included non-CTV and pro-Chávez
labor organizations in our programs since 1999, and continue to
do so, a fact quite inconvenient to Sustar with his "either
or" view of reality.
Nonetheless, saying that the AFL-CIO
should never have worked with an internally democratic national
labor central of 1.2 million (2001 CNE census of CTV membership),
representing well over 80 percent of Venezuela's organized workforce,
is the functional equivalent of saying we should not have a relationship
with the Venezuelan labor movement.
Although the Solidarity Center is
actively engaged with unions that have affiliated freely and democratically
with the UNT (in spite of Sustar's mischaracterization), we have
also expressed our concern over the Venezuelan government's campaign
("Mission Cruz Viegas"), that will force 80 percent
of the nation's workers into the UNT's jurisdiction. President
Chávez left no doubt about this in his nationwide radio
and television broadcast of April 17, 2004, the first anniversary
of the UNT's founding. He announced that the smaller Confederation
of United Venezuelan Workers (CUTV) had merged with the UNT, even
though CUTV leaders were never consulted. And he publicly ordered
Labor Minister Iglesias "to organize workers" into the
newly merged labor central, for the express purpose of "turning
the CTV into cosmic dust."
We have praised Chávez for
agrarian reform, public health and education, and his advocacy
of social justice. We have joined him in its criticism of the
FTAA. We have publicly condemned the coup attempt against him.
But we will continue to denounce his systematic and reprehensible
violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining
So is the AFL-CIO position identical
to Bush's policy in Venezuela? Has our accessing of funds from
the NED (which, by the way, is also financed by the tax dollars
of U.S. workers and union members) put us in lockstep with all
of the U.S. government's policy designs in that country? Any thinking
person truly open to the facts and the truth can only answer these
questions in the negative.
Even if our work in Venezuela had
been funded entirely from affiliate contributions or private foundations,
we still should have done precisely what we did to support our
authentic labor and solidarity agenda since 1999. Contrary to
Sustar's ridiculous charge, we have not interfered with the "inner
workings of the CTV," using our "influence and U.S.
government funds to restructure the labor unions of a far smaller
country overshadowed by Washington's power."
Sustar should also ask our progressive
and left-wing trade union partners in the hemisphere, such as
the CUT of Brazil, the CUT of Colombia, the CGTP of Peru, the
PIT-CNT of Uruguay, the UNT of Mexico, and the CST (Confederation
of Sandinista Workers) of Nicaragua, to name just a few, whether
the AFL-CIO's Latin American policy since 1997 has tried to "restructure
them," or is a continuation of cold war imperialist ventures
and the advancement of U.S. geopolitical interests. He would receive
an answer that is in stark contrast to his perverse caricature.
Lee Sustar Responds to Stan Gacek
Stan Gacek systematically avoids
addressing the central thrust of my article: that social polarization
and class conflict in Venezuela has led to the revival of militancy
in that country's labor movement, expressed through the creation
of the UNT.
First, let's dispense with Gacek's mischaracterizations
of my article. I do not argue that "the entire CTV"
was behind the coup. In fact, I wrote, "what is indisputableis
that [CTV head] Ortega joined with FEDECAMARAS to call the strike
and march that set the stage for the coup." And far from
lining up "100 percent for Chávez," I summarize
the reasons why trade unionists have criticized his policies.
Nowhere did I write that the Solidarity
Center provided "unconditional assistance to the CTV,"
as Gacek would have it. Indeed, I cited the Solidarity Center
representative's claim to have suspended his programs prior to
the coup. I use the word "claim," because the Solidarity
Center has not publicly released documentation of such of a decision.
If there is "confusion" about the timing of the Solidarity
Center's Venezuela programs, it's because the only details accessible
to the public are in the Solidarity Center's opaque reports to
the NED, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Further, Gacek states that "our
program certainly involved the CTV, but not 'support for Ortega,'
as Sustar alleges." This is hard to take seriously. In February
2002, two months before the coup, the AFL-CIO and the Solidarity
Center facilitated meetings between Ortega and U.S. labor leaders
in Washington with NED involvement. Ortega also met with then
U.S. assistant secretary of state Otto Reich.
We've learned since that the U.S. government
had prior knowledge of the coup. I don't claim that the AFL-CIO
and Solidarity Center staff shared this knowledge. There's no
denying, however, that they lent crucial political credibility
to the CTV and Ortega, and, in turn, the CTV-FEDECAMARAS alliance.
Also, while the March 5, 2002 opposition meeting wasn't funded
by the Solidarity Center, it was underwritten by "counterpart
funds"-that is, other recipients of government funds funneled
through the unaccountable NED. Far from making grants with no
strings attached, the NED channeled funds to Venezuelan opposition
groups. How can Gacek, and the Solidarity Center which gets more
than 80 percent of its funding from the NED and USAID, claim that
its own grants had no connection with that agenda? And with the
recent abolition of the AFL-CIO's International Affairs Department,
the federation's international work will be almost entirely run
with government money.
What's more, in February 2003, the AFL-CIO
Executive Council passed a resolution criticizing the Venezuelan
government's prosecution of "brother Ortega" for his
role in the oil lockout-strike. If this isn't "support"
for Ortega, then what is it? (As for Ortega's current predicament,
he's been charged so far only with his role in the lockout-strike,
but still faces possible charges in connection with the coup,
according to the website of Venezuela's Panorama newspaper.)
It's telling that Gacek chooses to rehash
old news rather than provide evidence for a comment made by the
AFL-CIO Solidarity Center's Andean representative-that the new
UNT is an "arm of the state." That's because the UNT,
as I tried to show, is full of tension and debate on issues ranging
from organizational structures to relations to the government,
and from contract negotiations to socialism. Moreover, extensive
interviews with Venezuelan workers highlighted the way in which
the CTV leaders' alliance with business shattered its little remaining
credibility with union members-particularly in the oil industry,
where the rank and file effectively ran the refineries during
I don't claim that the UNT is immune
to government influence or manipulation-no union federation can
be. I do, however, argue that the UNT is not a creation of the
Venezuelan state, but is a product of workers' struggle and is
worthy of international solidarity. Gacek gives a nod in that
direction with his stated willingness to "work with"
the UNT. But that doesn't mean much in view of his attempts to
justify the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center's support for the CTV-with
U.S. government funds-during the period of the coup and oil lockout-strike.
If Gacek really wants to dispel the notion
that there's an "unbroken chain" in the AFL-CIO's 50-year
role in Venezuela, the federation must cease relying on government
funds to support its international work-and open the books on
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