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martes, marzo 01, 2005

* Interview with Pedro Eusse, leader of the CUTV *

Last Friday I had my first interview! (More of a discussion than an interview, really.) I talked with Pedro Eusse, secretary general of the national union confederation CUTV. We met in the lobby of the Caracas Hilton, where a Latin America-wide conference on the “social debt” was being held. Leaders from a dozen counties mingled with Caraqeños and media, and I’m told that President Chavez was there, though I didn’t see him. We couldn’t find a place to sit, so we stood in a relatively quiet corner or the hotel overlooking a sort of waterfall (this was a *big* hotel).

The big news is CUTV’s plan to join forces with the UNT…but first, some background:

The Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CUTV) is a national confederation of labor unions, the third largest after the UNT and the CTV. It was founded in 1963 when a group of unions broke off from the nation's major union confederation, the Confederación de los Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV). As is usual for Venezuela's labor movement, the split was rooted in the unions' relations with political parties.

The politics of the period goes back to the 1958 Pact of Punto Fijo, an agreement between the three leading political parties Acción Democrática (AD), Copei and URD to share power. This agreement excluded other parties, notably the then-popular Venezuelan Communist Party; prevented new political organizations from gaining influence; and marginalized the leftists within AD. URD shortly became defunct and Punto Fijo became an agreement between the leaders of AD and Copei to alternate terms in office, passing the reins of power back and forth while making sure no one else could grab hold. In Pedro's words, AD was aiming for total control over Venezuelan society, primarily for the benefit of U.S. multinationals.

AD essentially took control of the CTV, and leftist unionists (along with many other Venezuelans) suffered intense persecution. In March 1963, when the new AD-controlled CTV directorate formally took power, a substantial portion of CTV unions broke away and formed the CUTV. The following year (I think), the Fifth Congress of the CTV solidified AD's hold on the confederation, allocating 9 seats on the CTV's Executive Committee to the CTV, along with 2 to Copei, 2 to URD, and one each to FND and FDP.

The CUTV's foundations are "classist," that is, based in a theory and practice of class struggle. It’s sometimes spoken of as the communist union central, though in practice it includes members from many different leftist/progressive/independent political tendencies. When the CUTV first formed it had a considerable amount of power, especially in the private sector. But it has steadily lost ground. Its membership losses can be attributed in large part (according to Pedro) to its historical exclusion from the public sector, a [severe limitation] in a nation where the State is the major employer. AD and Copei controlled the dispensation of public jobs, and the CTV was principally a creature of AD, so any public employee found to support the CUTV would have been immediately fired.

CUTV was also excluded from the oil industry, even (or especially?) after the industry's nationalization in 1976. According to Pedro, although the industry was nominally nationalized, multinational oil companies maintained control and even kept their seats on the oil company's board. An historical mural in Caracas describes the nationalization thusly: "Now those who steal our oil will be 100% Venezuelan." (Today the situation is rather different, as a substantial portion of oil profits go to fund social programs.) Finally, CUTV had little access to workers in the heavily industrial city of Guyana (I'm not clear why.)

Today, the sectors where the CUTV is strong include textiles, confectionary, chemicals/plastics, auto parts, universities, construction, elevator construction and repair, and agricultural inputs, among others. But overall it comes in a distant third in membership and power to the old-guard CTV and the newly forming, progressive UNT. Though it has sharp differences with some UNT leaders, on the whole the CUTV supports the nascent federation, believing it to be the best opportunity to transform the nation's labor movement into a powerful force that will fight for the interests of the working class.

In pursuit of this goal, the CUTV is negotiating to join the UNT! If the current proposal goes through, CUTV unions will become UNT unions, and the CUTV will transform itself into a "current" within the UNT, where it will continue to advocate for its principles. Its (highly provisional) name will be the Corriente Clasista Unitaria de Trabajadores, which I can best translate as the Current of Workers United in Class Struggle.

Members of present CUTV unions will vote in the upcoming UNT elections, once the CUTV has integrated into the UNT. On the subject of election procedures they stand firmly with the Orlando Chirinos et al faction within the UNT which has been advocating (apparently successfully) for the electoral base to consist only of workers belonging to UNT-affiliated unions.

This is, of course, the usual procedure for union elections. But another faction led by Ramón Machuca, Franklin Rondón and Francisco Torrealba has called for all workers enrolled in the Venezuelan Social Security System (IVSS) to take part in the elections, arguing that this would give the UNT true legitimacy as representatives of the nation's workers.

According to Pedro, CUTV rejects this concept for four reasons. First, it excludes the very large group of workers who are not enrolled in IVSS. Second, many workers who are in IVSS but are not union members simply aren’t interested in unions. Third, not all IVSS enrollees are workers; employers are also on the lists, particularly small businesspeople, and why should they be permitted to vote in a union election? And fourth, this method would allow CTV members to vote in UNT elections, leaving the door wide open to sabotage or manipulation by the CTV,

Another possible reason, albeit not one that Pedro included in his list, for CUTV's rejection using the IVSS list as the electoral base is simply the principle that that's not how union or organizational elections are done; the purpose of the elections is to allow UNT union members to choose their leaders. From Pedro's perspective, Rondón and Machuca make up the center-right faction of the UNT, opposing Chirinos' leftist faction, and the principal motive behind the formers' call for throwing the elections open to IVSS enrollees is simply that they think it would enable them to win.

Although Machuca has thus far kept his steelworkers' union, Sutiss, out of the UNT, it's no secret that he aims to become the first UNT president. To paraphrase Pedro, "Machuca doesn't belong to the UNT, but he wants to enter it and become president, that easy." He says that Machuca and Rondón are masters at projecting a popular image; Machuca in particular is always all over the news, even the private (virulently anti-Chavez) stations. But, he says, those workers who actually know Machuca and allies, particularly union workers in the industrial city of Guyana where Sutiss is based, don't like them so well. Therefore Machuca's group is pushing for elections with a broader base because, according to Pedro, it will enable them to campaign on image rather than on their actual records of leadership. (Hmm, sound like anyone we know?)

Of course, this is just one perspective. Hopefully in the coming months I'll be able to interview people from all sides of the movement.

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