In 2002, the AFL-CIO’s international arm known as the “Solidarity Center” was greatly embarrassed when it came to light that it had been supporting actors in Venezuela that participated in the short-lived coup against President Hugo Chavez. As a number of authors and publications noted at the time, the Solidarity Center, with money donated from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), gave support to the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (“CTV”) which in turn was instrumental in the coup against Chavez which, as the reader may recall, involved the kidnapping of Hugo Chavez.
For example, the New York Times explained in an article entitled, “U.S. Bankrolling Is Under Scrutiny for Ties to Chavez Ouster,” that”[o]f particular concern is $154,377 given by the endowment to the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the international arm of the AFL-CIO, to assist the main Venezuelan labor union in advancing labor rights.” As the Times noted, “The Venezuelan union, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, led the work stoppages that galvanized the opposition to Mr. Chavez. The union’s leader, Carlos Ortega, worked closely with Pedro Carmona Estanga, the businessman who briefly took over from Mr. Chavez, in challenging the government.”
And what’s more, it turns out that the Solidarity Center played a critical role, just before the coup, in bringing the CTV together with FEDECAMARAS (the Venezuelan chamber of commerce). This is important because the CTV and FEDECAMARAS went on to plan and carry out the coup together. However, quite curiously, the Solidarity Center did not stick around long enough to see how the coup ended up. This is because it moved its office (which is in charge of the entire Andean Region) from Caracas, Venezuela to Bogota, Colombia just three weeks before the coup took place.
The Solidarity Center attempted to defend itself against charges that it was up to its old Cold War tricks of working with the U.S. government to overthrow progressive, nationalist governments in the Third World – e.g., in the overthrow of Allende in Chile and Arbenz in Guatemala – by denying that the CTV, which it supported up to and indeed through the time of the coup, had anything to do with the coup. As the Boston Globe later noted in an article entitled, “US Tax Dollars Helped Finance Some Chavez Foes, Review Finds,” this denial had a hollow ring to it in light of the fact that “the Venezuelan media broadcast a recorded telephone conversation between [exiled former president Carlos Andres] Perez and Carlos Ortega, president of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers [CTV], in which the pair plotted against Chavez.” In the end, the AFL-CIO later privately conceded that the CTV leadership did actively participate in the coup against Chavez. The same Boston Globe story concluded that the Solidarity Center’s other defense – that it was merely helping the CTV with matters of internal democratization – were also proven to be false.
This brings us to today. If one concerned over such bad practices goes to the Solidarity Center website and clicks on the “Where We Work” link, one might feel relieved to see that Venezuela is notably absent from the list of countries in which the Solidarity Center does business. Similarly, the Solidarity Center mentions nothing about Venezuela in its most recent Annual Report. However, if one goes to the website of one of the Solidarity Center’s biggest patrons, the NED, one will find that this is misleading. Thus, the NED, in a section entitled, “Latin America Regional,” explains that it recently gave $400,000 to the Solidarity Center to carry out work both in Colombia and Venezuela. I note that this amount is in addition to another $2 million the NED — which on its website openly expresses contempt for “21st Century Socialism” — gave to the Solidarity Center for other Latin American work. And, as the NED explains, “in Venezuela, the SC will build on its ongoing work with partners . . . .” – quite ominous words given the nature of the work and partners the Solidarity Center has hitherto been involved with in Venezuela.
It is not publicly known what the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center – which receives nearly all of its funding from federal grants ($28 million out of its total annual budget of $30 million), including from such sources as the NED, the U.S. State Department and the USAID – is currently doing in Venezuela. Sources in the Venezuelan Embassy in D.C. are aware that the AFL-CIO is in Venezuela and suspect that it is actively helping opposition groups in their attempt to unseat President Chavez in the upcoming elections for President. Again, the truth is uncertain, but given the AFL-CIO’s horrendous track record in Latin America, and in Venezuela in the very recent past; given that it is intentionally concealing the fact that it is even working in Venezuela in the first place; and given that it continues to be heavily dependent upon funding from the U.S. government and NED — two sources openly hostile to the current government in Venezuela – it is fair to have suspicions that the AFL-CIO is up to questionable deeds in Venezuela.
In the end, the only way to quell such suspicions is for the AFL-CIO to come clean to its membership and to the public by giving an accounting for its current activities in Venezuela and all 60 countries in which it is involved. The problem all along has been that the AFL-CIO has refused calls to be accountable for its Third World activities, and instead has preferred to operate in the shadows internationally – many times on behalf of U.S. foreign policy interests.
The time for such secrecy must end. Yet, I am not optimistic that it will, mostly because there is much for the AFL-CIO to hide about its international dealings. Indeed, the best explanation of this fact came from a former staff member of AIFLD (the predecessor of the Solidarity Center) who addressed calls for the AFL-CIO to “clear the air” about its international affairs. This individual, who gave this statement on the promise of anonymity, explained the following about the AFL-CIO’s policies of labor imperialism:
In reality the AFL-CIO has a lot to hide about the late 70’s and 80’s in relation to their international institutes. . . . The AFL always fared better in getting grants from republican presidents during this period because of communist insurgencies around the world or, at least, perceived communist insurgencies. As you are aware, I was part of the most active period for three years in Central America and the Caribbean. Some things I can relate and some things I can’t because of the potential for prosecution. I can say that there is a lot of dirty laundry. Some of the funding was related to what I would call covert operations though this was a very small part of the total operation globally. Most of the activity was related to telling embassies and the State Department what they wanted to hear and that was the labor unions in all developing economies were under threat of communist and extreme left subversion even though in most instances it was nothing more that [sic.] extreme nationalism and not communist inspired. In any event, that was how you got operating program grants and that is how the institutes built their power, with money and staff. Each country program director did the same thing, money, prestige, power, influence mover and shaker.
There is [sic] obvious reasons for not dealing with the past, classified information, loss of grants and, some people are still on staff though most were cleaned out. . . .
And, while the AFL-CIO’s international trajectory was supposed to have changed upon the succession of John Sweeney to the presidency in 1995, this same source made it clear that this was not altogether the case because of the very nature of the AFL-CIO’s international work and those who sponsor it. As he explained:
Some people at the AFL were co-opted by the process. John Sweeney was one of the favorites for being on these high-level delegations that participated in fact finding and solidarity missions all over the world. And, I might add, stayed in the best hotels and it was sort of like a high class tour group. . . . The positions themselves though can corrupt and are high profile internationally.
I write this article with the hope that the AFL-CIO might take a good hard look at itself and its role in the world; that it might re-evaluate the corrupting influence of taking millions of dollars from the NED and U.S. State Department – money which inevitably makes them captive to U.S. foreign policy interests even while the AFL-CIO, in the height of irony and hypocrisy, purports to fight what it perceives to be “government-dominated” unions in such countries as China and Cuba. And, in the short term, I hope that by calling into question its current, covert activities in Venezuela, the AFL-CIO will simply decide to leave that country for good, or at least until it decides to help countries like Venezuela in their struggle against U.S. dominance.
Alberto C. Ruiz is a long-time unionist and peace activist.