AFL-CIO and Venezuela: Return of Labor Imperialism, or a Mistaken Reaction?

There has been considerable debate and discussion recently on labor-related e-mail lists concerning possible AFL-CIO involvement in the recent attempted coup to overthrow President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The AFL-CIO has been supporting the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), the national labor center, and there have been concerns raised about the CTV’s national leadership’s possible participation in the attempted coup and, of course, the role the AFL-CIO might have played in any CTV leadership decision to participate.


This effort is an attempt to report what has been going on–admittedly by a partisan of one side–and to share developments to date. The intensity of response is due to a number of labor activists’ long-standing efforts to convince the AFL-CIO that it should not undermine radical unions in other (mostly “third world”) countries–amazingly and consistently paralleled to US Government efforts–and that instead, that the AFL-CIO should be building international labor solidarity with workers around the world. While this labor imperialism developed to the greatest extent during the AFL-CIO presidencies of George Meany and Lane Kirkland, especially between 1962-1995, the election of John Sweeney to the presidency in 1995 and his subsequent efforts to get rid of the worst of the International Affairs Department staff suggested that there might be significant change in their foreign operations of the AFL-CIO that actually might match the newly progressive rhetoric of President Sweeney One of the key changes was the creation of ACILS (American Center for International Labor Solidarity) and the centralization of foreign operations under its control, and the appointment of (long-time progressive) Barbara Shailor to head ACILS. Reports about labor participation in the coup in Venezuela, however, rekindled the fears of activists–including myself–that the “reforms” were not all suggested and that the AFL-CIO was back in its labor imperialist mode.


[I apologize for the length of this message, but I have been asked to present a single account of the overall debate/discussion of this issue. I include major parts of my original messages. For an annotated reference list of some of the most important writings on the subject, please go to the end of this message. Also, please excuse any cross-postings of this message, and any repostings.}


One should be careful in approaching this issue: quite frankly, there is still a lot unknown about what actually took place on the ground. But suggestions are not good. And, of course, as details become available, our understandings will be strengthened–this effort today is an effort to ascertain the situation today.


The recent discussion began when “Labor Notes” published in its May 2002 issue an article by Katherine Hoyt titled “Concerns Over Possible AFL-CIO Involvement in Venezuela Coup Led to February Picket.” Hoyt certainly suggested that the AFL-CIO had been involved, but did not have much evidence in her article, and she did not approach the AFL-CIO to get its side of a conference with CTV leaders that she had reported.


Leo Casey of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT, an AFL-CIO affiliated union) responded over various labor and solidarity lists to Hoyt’s article, criticizing her lack of evidence for her article. But then Casey went over the top, and argued that we should PRAISE the AFL-CIO for its efforts to support the CTV, claiming that it was an example of international labor solidarity.


After Casey’s e-mail posting, the New YorkTimes ran a piece by Christopher Marquis that discussed US involvement in the coup: “US Bankrolling Is Under Scrutiny for Ties to Chavez Ouster,” April 25, 2002: A-8. Using details provided by Marquis, I then responded to Casey, first extracting from the NYT article (indents) and then commenting myself (this has been slightly truncated from the original):


SCIPES’ Response to Leo Casey: e-mail posting of April 26, 2002:


[In this article] “we find some very interesting material, which is suggestive but not a smoking gun about labor, but IS a smoking gun about the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the connection which I will explain below. The article begins “In the past year, the United States channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to American and Venezuelan groups opposed to President Hugo Chavez, INCLUDING THE LABOR GROUP WHOSE PROTESTS LED TO THE VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT’S BRIEF OUSTER THIS MONTH (emphasis added).


“The funds were provided by the National Endowment for Democracy [NED], a nonprofit agency created and financed by Congress. As conditions deteriorated in Venezuela and Mr. Chavez clashed with various business, labor and media groups, the endowment stepped up its assistance, quadrupling its budget to more than $877,000.


“While the endowment’s expressed goal is to promote democracy around the world, the State Department’s human rights bureau is examining whether one or more recipients of the money may have actively plotted against Mr. Chavez. ***


“Of 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.


“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” (emphasis added).


That’s all the article says about ACILS or labor. It does, however, report that NED gave the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs–which the article identifies as being the foreign policy wing of the Democratic Party–a grant for $210,000 “to promote the accountability of local government.” And NED gave the International Republican Institute–the foreign policy wing of the Republican Party–$339,998 for “political party building.” The International Republican Institute’s Preisident, George A. Folsom, publicly endorsed the coup against Chavez. The article went on to say, “The institute has close ties to the Bush administration, which had also embraced the short-lived take over; Lorne Craner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, is a former president of the organization.”


The article later states “Mr Sabatini–it had earlier identified Chris Sabatini as “the endowments’s senior program officer for Latin America and the Caribbean”–acknowledged that THE ENDOWMENT [NED–KS] HAD HURRIEDLY INCREASED ITS OUTLAYS IN VENEZUELA IN THE LAST YEAR….”


The article continues, “The Bush administration, which has made no secret of its disdain for Mr. Chavez–and his warm relations with nations like Cuba and Iraq–HAS TURNED TO THE ENDOWMENT TO HELP THE OPPOSITION TO MR. CHAVEZ.”



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