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martes, enero 03, 2006

Debate over the role of the AFL-CIO in Venezuela

If you care about U.S. involvement in Venezuela...

Or about the direction of the AFL-CIO...

Then I highly recommend reading "Revolution and Counter-revolution in Venezuela: Assessing the Role of the AFL-CIO", an article forthcoming from the New Labor Forum.

It's actually three pieces. The primary author, Lee Sustar, writes about the birth and growth of the UNT and the history of AFL-CIO involvement in Venezuela, going back to its cozy relationship with the CTV since the 1960s and forward to the present-day operations of the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center (also known as ACILS). Following Sustar's piece is a rejoinder from Stan Gacek, AFL-CIO Assistant Director of International Affairs for Latin America. And finally, Sustar responds briefly to Gacek.

Sustar's piece provides some good general background. But Gacek attacks it on the ground that it promotes what he claims are four falsehoods:

  • 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.
  • 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 labor movement.
  • 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.
  • 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.


I tend to agree with Gacek that these four points are, if not definitively false, at least highly questionable. The first point in particular is unproven, despite many attempts to do so.

Sustar gets at least one very important fact wrong when he tries to argue for the CTV's direct involvement in the April 2002 coup by saying that "Ortega was ultimately arrested for his role in the coup nearly three years later." Ortega was not arrested for involvement in the coup, but for his role in the national oil industry stoppage in winter 2002-2003. Reading any of the recent news articles about Ortega's arrest, trial and conviction quickly reveals this fact.

Yet in his response to Gacek's rejoinder, Sustar avoids addressing most of the alleged factual errors raised by Gacek. Sustar needs to do his homework.

But while Sustar's analysis of what's happening on the ground is shaky in places, and may be flawed, his central point remains valid: "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."

Gacek says not. But does he really expect us to rely upon the AFL-CIO's word, especially when the Federation still has not come clean on its Cold-War era dealings in Latin America?

Sustar's initial article concludes, "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."

I wholeheartedly agree that the AFL-CIO needs to open the books on the AIFLD and ACILS. But the fact that they're keeping secrets, while disturbing, is not proof of their involvement in the April 2002 coup. I find it remarkable that no CTV leader or member signed the Carmona decree. If that's true (and I have never heard anyone offer a counterexample, while CTV leaders I've met insist strenuously upon this point), then considering how many opposition luminaries did sign, it seems to me to weigh strongly in favor of the argument that CTV membership and leadership largely were not in on the coup.

Carlos Ortega helped lead the anti-Chávez protests -- no one can dispute that. But engaging in nonviolent street protests (which is the CTV's right, even if we don't agree with their reasons) is very different from inciting violence as part of an attempt to overthrow the government or participating in a military coup.

In general, this vitriol against ACILS' involvement in Venezuela strikes me in part as an expression of much of the international left's unwillingness to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of opposition to Chavez's policies, or in general, that there are shades of gray in the Venezuelan political situation.

But the sentiments expressed by Sustar, shared by many rank-and-file U.S. unionists, can't be written off that simply. Workers' view of the Solidarity Center's activities is heavily influenced by quite justifiable fears that the AFL-CIO's involvement in Venezuela is heading towards a replay of its involvement in (for example) Chile, where AIFLD actively helped bring about the overthrow of the democratic government of Salvador Allende.

The AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center leaders say the new ACILS is a break from the past, that it no longer does such things. That may be so, but rank-and-file unionists are understandably reluctant to believe this claim solely on the say-so of ACILS spokespeople. If the Solidarity Center wants to win back trust, it needs to open its books, past and present.

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