One of Venezuela’s major trade union confederations published an open letter to Labor Minister Nestor Ovalles Thursday demanding the release of a state electrical worker leader detained by authorities last month.
A union leader employed in Venezuela’s state electric company, CORPOELEC, Elio Palacios was detained by the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) on February 14. Accused of spreading “false information” that could cause “panic and anxiety” in the population, Palacios is still in state custody.
In its letter to Minister Ovalles, the National Front of Working Class Struggle (FNLCT) demands the “immediate release” of Palacios as well as other labor leaders facing prosecution “without having committed a crime”. Himself a long time Chavista militant, Palacios is secretary general of the Working Class Electrical Sector Union for the Capital Region, which is a member of FNLCT.
The leftist labor confederation likewise calls on the government to end its “repression, criminalization, and labor litigation against workers for defending their labor rights or for denouncing irregular situations that affect the working class.”
Palacios was arrested just days after releasing an audio recording on social networks claiming that the state electrical company was short on personnel and equipment and warning of the system’s imminent collapse.
In the recording, the union leader denied any sabotage by workers, as alleged by CORPOELEC spokespeople. Instead, the Palacios claimed that the state electric company has seen “a stampede” of skilled employees emigrating from the country, leaving those who remain seriously overworked, with key technical decisions left to “neophytes” in electrical engineering. Scheduled maintenance, the worker said, has also been neglected.
One week after Palacios was detained, a massive blackout hit nine states in the western part of the Caribbean nation. In early March, seven western states were similarly hit with a further round of scattered blackouts, and electricity rationing continues to be implemented in many western states. While these incidents were taken by many as evidence bolstering the jailed unionist’s warnings, Electrical Energy Minister Luis Motta Dominguez has maintained that the current shortages are due mainly to a drought.
Although conflicts between unions and both private and public sector companies are nothing new in Venezuela, recent months have seen SEBIN and other state security organs play an increasingly prominent role in labor cases, such as in state-run dairy company Lacteos Los Andes in Lara State in February.
The state has argued that Palacios’ claims are without proof, contending there is no technical basis for them. The worker will not only be prosecuted for violating the Electrical Systems and Services Law but also slapped with charges based on anti-terror legislation.
The Venezuelan Communist Party has stepped up to defend Palacios, saying the arrest was illegal and calling for a thorough review of Motta Dominguez’s administration. In an interview given to Venezuela Analysis, the party’s union liaison, Pedro Eusse, said, “Nobody can be put in jail for giving their opinions,” adding, “what Palacios said is an opinion, not a crime.”
In a February 15 press conference, PCV Secretary General Oscar Figuera urged the government to listen not just to business managers and owners, but also to workers. Last week, spokespeople for the party have urged Palacios’ immediate release due to his ill health, as he has experienced two hypertension crises while in detention. He is now hospitalized under police custody.
Nevertheless, according to Eusse, Palacios has not suffered mistreatment while in jail.