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(DV) Sustar: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Venezuela







Revolution and Counter-revolution in Venezuela:
Assessing the Role of the AFL-CIO

by Lee Sustar with a rejoinder by Stan Gacek
July 28, 2005

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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. [1] A few months later, contract employees at the plant organized to demand equal pay for equal work. [2]

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. [3] Estimates put the poverty level as high as 80 percent. [4]

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 as well.

“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.” [5] 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 weeks later. [6]

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.” [7] 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.” [8] 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. [9] 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. [10] 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. [11] The AFL-CIO’s support for the CTV continued through the devastating oil industry lockout, and the strike that followed.

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. [12] 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. [13] The CTV leadership reflected this arrangement, as political cronyism and corruption permeated the political system. [14]

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. [15] AIFLD chief Serafino Romualdi, later alleged to have been a CIA agent [16], called his relationship with Betancourt “the most fruitful political collaboration of my life.” [17] 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. [18]

The CTV-AIFLD-CIA connection apparently continued in the 1970s under AFILD’s Caracas operative, Mike Hammer. [19] 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.” [20] 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. [21]

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.” [22] 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.” [23] 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 coup.

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.) [24]

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. [25] 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.” [26] 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. [27] 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.” [28]

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. [29] 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.” [30] 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. [31] Yet, NED documents show that the program covered considerable travel costs and expenses for CTV activities -- crucial resources in a poor country like Venezuela. [32]

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. “But…the 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. [33] “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. [34]

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. [35] 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. [36] A major influence on the UNT is the experience of the “new unionism” in Ciudad Guyana’s steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s. [37]

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. [38]

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. [39] “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. [40]

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. [41] (It’s worth noting that the practice of arbitrary registration of unions under previous governments benefited the CTV at the expense of its rivals.) [42]

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. [43] 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. [44] 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. [45]

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. [46] 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.” [47] 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. [48] 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. [49]

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.” [50] 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 status quo.

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, AFL-CIO International Affairs Assistant Director

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 labor movement.

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 ludicrous.

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 standards.

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 2003.

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 employment.

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 conflicts.”  

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 demanded.

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, and overhead.

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 tendencies.

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 rights.

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 indisputable…is 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 the strike-lockout.

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 its past.

Lee Sustar writes regularly for Socialist Worker. He can be contacted at: This article first appeared in New Labor Forum, Vol. 14 Issue 3, September 2005. New Labor Forum is published by the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Labor, Community, and Policy Studies, part of the City University of New York, and Taylor & Francis. The journal is online at:

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Other Articles by Lee Sustar

* The Hawks in Liberals’ Clothing
* Social Security “Reform”: A Smokescreen for Benefit Cuts
* Social Security Con Job
* Why John Kerry Lost
* How the Democrats Moved to the Right to Cater to Business
* What’s Driving the Attack on Pensions?
* What the US Has in Store for Iraq
* The Roots of the Resistance
* What’s to Blame for Lost Jobs?
* Bush’s Right-Wing Allies in Spain Defeated after Madrid Bombing
* How Washington Set the Stage for Haiti’s Uprising


[1] “Venezuelan Aluminum Workers Suspend Slowdown,” Reuters, Dec 28, 2004.

[2] Pablo Vidoza, “Trabajadores de Contratistas de Alcasa Exigen Homologación de Salaries,” Correo del Coroní (Ciudad Guyana), April 22, 2005.

[3] The World Bank, “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela: Investing in Human Capital for Growth, Prosperity and Poverty Reduction,” March 30, 2001. For an overview of contemporary Venezuelan politics and society, see Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger (eds.), Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2003).

[4] Economist Intelligence Unit, “Executive Briefing: Venezuela.”

[5] Interview with José Gil, Ciudad Guyana, Venezuela, August 22, 2004.

[6] Jonah Gindin, “Refounding Venezuelan Labor, Part II: Political Fault Lines in Venezuelan Labor,” January 27, 2005.

[7] Interview with the AFL-CIO representative in the Andes, Caracas, August 12, 2004; interview with Frólian Barrios, Caracas, August 25, 2004.

[8] SUTG was excluded from oil industry negotiations in the fall of 2004 after pro-Chávez leaders of the main oil workers unions insisted that the new union was too small and unrepresentative to participate. The Venezuelan ministry of labor’s summary of oil industry bargaining is available here.

[9] Julia Buxton, The Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing, 2001), 142.

[10] Daniel Hellinger, Venezuela: Tarnished Democracy (Boulder, Colorado: 1991), 184.

[11] Juan Forero, “Documents Show C.I.A. Knew of a Coup Plot in Venezuela,” New York Times, December 3, 2004.

[12] For an overview, see Tim Shorrock’s articles “Labor’s Cold War,” The Nation, May 19, 2003, and “Toeing the Line: Sweeney and U.S. Foreign Policy,” New Labor Forum, Fall/Winter 2002. Kim Scipes has focused on the AFL-CIO’s relationship with the NED in several articles, including “AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Déja Vu All Over Again,” Labor Notes, April 2004. Stan Gacek of the AFL-CIO responded to critics in a statement widely distributed via email, “The AFL-CIO and Worker Rights in Venezuela” and in an article, “Brazil and Venezuela: Differing Responses to the Washington Consensus,” New Labor Forum, Vol 13, no. 1 (2004). Robert Collier replied in “Old Relationships Die Hard: A Response to Stan Gacek’s Defense of the AFL-CIO’s Position on Venezuela” New Labor Forum, Vol 13, no. 2 (2004). Gacek responded in the same issue. Venezuelan-based labor historian Steve Ellner then published a comment on Gacek’s article.

[13] Steve Ellner, Organized Labor in Venezuela, 1958-1991: Behavior and Concerns in a Democratic Setting (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1993), 13-24.

[14] Luis Salamanca, Obreros, Movimiento Social y Democracia en Venezuela (Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1998), 204-207; see also Hellinger, Venezuela: Tarnished Democracy, 155-159.

[15] Ellner, Organized Labor in Venezuela, p. 15, 38, 127.

[16] Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland and the Tragedy of American Labor (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), 143.

[17] Serafino Romauldi, Presidents and Peons: Recollections of a Labor Ambassador in Latin America (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1967), 417, 434, 486-511.

[18] For an overview, see Scipes, “It's Time to Come Clean: Open the AFL-CIO Archives on International Labor Operations,” Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 25, No.2 (Summer 2000): 4-25. For background, see Ronald Radosh, American Labor and United States Foreign Policy (New York: Vintage, 1969).

[19] U.S. Embassy in Caracas confidential telegram to the secretary of state,  January 11, 1975; letter from Michael Hammer, AIFLD representative in Caracas to Andrew C. McLellan, AFL-CIO Inter-American Representative, Washington, D.C., March 21, 1975.  Venezuela file, George Meany Memorial Archives, Silver Spring, Md.

[20] Judith Miller, “Solicitor General Calls 2 Americans Killed in El Salvador ‘Under Cover,’” New York Times, January 15, 1981; Hobart A. Spaulding Jr., “U.S. Labor Intervention in Latin America: The Care of the American Institute for Free Labor Development” in Roger Southall (ed.), Trade Unions and the New Industrialization of the Third World (London: Zed Books, 1988), 271.

[21] Jay Perkins, “American Slain in El Salvador is Buried,” Associated Press, January 9, 1981.

[22] Ellner, “The Emergence of a New Trade Unionism in Venezuela with Vestiges of the Past,” Latin American Perspectives (March-April, 2005).

[23] International Labor Organization, “Venezuela”. The UNT’s reply, “The Truth About Trade Union Freedom in Venezuela,” is available here.

[24] Juan Forero, “Venezuela: Labor Chief Who Led Crippling Strike Is Arrested,” New York Times, March 2, 2005.

[25] Solidarity Center, “Venezuela: Quarterly Report 2001-045” January-March 2002.

[26] National Endowment for Democracy, “Grant Agreement No. 2002-433.0,” 6.

[27] See Luis E. Lander, “La Insurrección De Los Gerentes: PDVSA y el Gobierno de Chávez,” Revista Venezolano de Economia y Ciencias Sociales, Vol. 10, No. 2 (May-August, 2004). Available at

[28] Interview with Stan Gacek, Washington, D.C., September 23, 2004.

[29] Headed by prominent neoconservative Carl Gershman, the NED is comprised of four core institutes -- labor’s Solidarity Center, the two main parties’ National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for International Private Enterprise -- to which it provides grant money for projects abroad. Ever since it helped finance the Nicaraguan opposition victory in that country’s 1990 elections, the NED has been criticized on both the left and the right as an unaccountable instrument for U.S. government intervention in several countries. For details, see Barbara Conry, “Loose Cannon: The National Endowment for Democracy,” Cato Foreign Policy Briefing No. 27, November 8, 1993. An overview of NED structure and funding can be found in Colin S. Cavell, Exporting “Made-in-America” Democracy: The National Endowment for Democracy and U.S. Foreign Policy (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002), 87-113. For a summary of NED involvement in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, see Ian Traynor, “U.S. Campaign Behind the Turmoil in Kiev,The Guardian, November 26, 2004. President George W. Bush chose an NED event to give a major foreign policy speech: see “Remarks by the President at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy,” United States Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C., November 6, 2003.

[30] Available at

[31] Interviews with the CTV’s Alfredo Padilla, Caracas, August 19, 2004, and Chris Sabatini, senior program officer at the NED for Latin America, Washington, D.C., September 23, 2004.

[32] The budget for the informal sector organizing project included $3,750 for 25 round trips for CTV participants, and $1,250 in per diem expenses for 25 days. FUNDAMPLOE, the CTV-connected NGO, was allocated $39,000 for 260 round trips, $13,400 for per diem expenses for 268 days, and $6,000 in training supplies. To put these numbers in perspective, consider that annual personal disposable income in Venezuela fell to just US$2,662 in 2003, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

[33] Ellner, “Tendencias Recientes en el Movimiento Laboral Venezolano: Autonomía vs. Controlo Politico,” Revista Venezolano de Economia y Ciencias Sociales, Vol. 9, No. 3 (September-December, 2003), 159-163. Available at

[34] Interview with Ellner, Washington, D.C., September 24, 2004.

[35] Ellner, “Tendencias Recientes en el Movimiento Laboral Venezolano,” 171-174.

[36] Gindin, “Reorganizing Venezuelan Labor,” October 18, 2004. “Unity in Unété? Venezuelan Rival Labor Leaders Meet,” December 16, 2004.

[37] Salamanca, Obreros y Movimento Social, 229-250.

[38] UNT national organizers’ meeting, Caracas, August 25, 2004.

[39] Interviews in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, August 20, 2004.

[40] Miguel Angel Hernández Arvelo, “PDVSA aún no es del pueblo (primera parte): Entrevista a José Bodas, dirigente sindical petrolero,” October 10, 2004.

[41] Electronic mail to the author from Franklin Rondón, December 20, 2004.

[42] Buxton, p. 148.

[43] G. Gómez, “‘Revolución Dentro de la Revolución’ con la Renovación Sindical de FENTRASEP (Empleados Públicos), Afiliada a la UNT,” June 19, 2004. For the metro workers, see Círculos Bolivarianos del Metro, “Denuncian Irregularidades en Elecciones del Sindicato del Metro de Caracas,” July 1, 2003. Torrealba’s reponse is available here.

[44] Interview with José Melendez, Ciudad Guyana, August 22, 2004. See also Melendez, “Trabajadores de Sidor Aprueban Continuar Discusión de Contrato Colectivo en Contra de la Voluntad de Machuca,” September 23, 2004.

[45] Interview with Stalin Pérez, Caracas, August 18, 2004.

[46] Gindin, “Refounding Venezuelan Labor, Part II.”

[47] “Chávez Llama a la Construcción del Nuevo Socialismo a Través de la Discusión y El Debate,” February 27, 2005.

[48] Stalin Pérez Borges, “UNT Lanza Campaña Nacional de Afiliación,” March 7, 2005. See also “Declaración Final del Encuentro Zonal de Trabajadores de la UNT en Carabobo,” March 14, 2005.  

[49] “SINTRAELECTRIC y SINTRAELEM Plantean Una Constituyente en el Sector Eléctrico,” Correo del Caroní, April 6, 2005. See also “Petroleros Crean Opción Clasista de los Trabajadores para “Dar la Batalla al Interior de PDVSA Contra la Nueva Burocracia,” April 4, 2005.

[50] Buhle, Taking Care of Business, 145.