Concerns Over Possible AFL-CIO Involvement in Venezuela Coup Led to February Picket
Could the bad old days be returning to the AFL-CIO’s operations in other countries? Fear that in Venezuela the AFL-CIO was supporting both a right-wing union federation and a U.S.-backed coup led some solidarity activists to mount a picket line at AFL-CIO headquarters in February.
The coup arrived in the early morning hours of April 19, when top military officers confronted President Hugo Chavez and demanded his resignation. Chavez’ position had eroded rapidly after 13 people were killed April 18 during a massive march on the presidential palace. Opposition to Chavez was led by top business leaders, along with leaders of the Venezuelan Labor Federation, the CTV. As part of a “general strike” organized by this coalition, executives of the state-owned oil company had cut production by half at the country’s main refinery and nearly halted oil exports.
Pedro Carmona, leader of Venezuela’s largest business federation, was named head of a provisional government after Chavez resigned.
COUP SUPPORT SOUGHT?
Throughout the Cold War the AFL-CIO’s international work was funded by the U.S. government and served to further the government’s goals. The AFL supported “good unions” or tried to undermine “bad unions” based on their enthusiasm for U. S. corporations. It labeled as “not free” or “communist” those unions that challenged U.S. domination of their countries.
When John Sweeney was elected in 1995, the federation seemed to be turning over a new leaf.
But on February 12 the AFL-CIO sponsored, with the National Endowment for Democracy, a closed forum featuring representatives of the CTV. The NED is an organization created by the Reagan administration to “promote democracy” abroad; the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center receives much of its funding from NED.
The forum was part of a tour funded by NED, and included meetings with several AFL-CIO leaders. According to one union member who participated in the meetings, the CTV representatives noted that they were here to discuss the chances for a coup in Venezuela.
As President of Venezuela, Chavez infuriated Washington by
attempting to restructure the oil industry to achieve greater national control of Venezuelan oil resources, criticizing the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and calling for an end to the Cuban embargo. Venezuela is the third most important source of oil for the United States.
Chavez was immensely popular with poor Venezuelans, but he aroused the ire of the better-off.
Rumors of a coup first arose after a November inter-agency meeting at which the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, and the State Department talked for two days about U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Similar meetings had been held before previous U.S.-organized coups in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Chile, and elsewhere.
Speaking before Congress in early February, CIA director William Tenet signaled Venezuela as one of the main concerns for U.S. foreign policy and noted that “measures” must be taken to rectify the volatile situation there.
In December business owners called a strike, sending millions of workers home, to protest the Chavez government. The invitation to the forum sent out by the AFL-CIO and NED proudly stated that the CTV played “a key role in the national strike on December 10” and joined with business and other groups in “a massive demonstration against the government on January 23.”
OIL AT THE ROOTS
The crisis was based on the government’s efforts to change management at the Venezuelan state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (Pvsa). Management orchestrated slow-downs and called for strikes in protest, with the support of the CTV union. Chavez had threatened to use the army to regain control of the company if workers carried out their strike threats.
Rhett Doumitt, the AFL-CIO’s representative in the Andean region, met with activists from the Nicaragua Network, hoping to dissuade them from picketing the forum. Doumitt acknowledged that the CTV was dominated by the two traditional (and corrupt) Venezuelan political parties opposed to Chavez, but insisted that the CTV was reforming. Chavez was not interested in renovation of the CTV, Doumitt said, “he wants to demolish it.”
The old guard unionists had opposed a December 2000 referendum that was passed by 67 percent of those who voted, and resulted in direct election of union leaders. But when the union elections were held, the old guard won -- and the Chavez government refused to recognize the results. Supporters of Chavez instead formed a new confederation, the Bolivarian Workers’ Force (FBT), which gained some limited support among workers.
FBT representatives were not allowed to attend the AFL-CIO forum. The CTV, say the Bolivarians, was part of a plan to destabilize the country.
Last year, unions on the West Coast passed resolutions calling on the AFL-CIO to open its books and come clean on its history of intervention in Latin America and elsewhere. It was to prevent adding another chapter to that sordid history that activists carried their “No U.S. Intervention in Venezuela!” signs in front of the AFL-CIO.
Katherine Hoyt is Co-coordinator of the Nicaragua Network.