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Opinion and Analysis: Labor and Workers' Control

The Question Remains: What Is the AFL-CIO doing in Venezuela?

On April 25, 2002, shortly after the short-lived coup which ousted President Hugo Chavez, the New York Times ran an article entitled, "U.S. Bankrolling Is Under Scrutiny for Ties to Chavez Ouster." In this article, which detailed numerous grants given by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to various pro-coup groups in Venezuela prior to the coup, Times writer Christopher Marquis wrote: "[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."

This Times article caused much embarassment for the AFL-CIO. In response to this article, Stan Gacek, AFL-CIO International Affairs Assistant Director, wrote an open letter explaining that the monies which went to the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers ["CTV"] were for internal union elections with the intent to democratize the CTV. He was adamant that the monies were not intended to assist the CTV in overthrowing Chavez. He also criticized the critics of the AFL-CIO's aid to the CTV for not contacting him directly about the wherefores of this monetary assistance. However, an August 18, 2002 article in the Boston Globe which received very little attention placed Gacek's claims about the money's purposes into doubt.

This article, entitled "US Tax Dollars Helped Finance Some Chavez Foes, Review Finds," reported that the CTV's claims about the aid's purposes conflicted with those of the AFL-CIO. As the article noted, "[p]art of the grant, distributed by the AFL-CIO's American Center for International Labor Solidarity . . . was supposed to have paid for union elections in November. But the money is being used for courses at the confederation's training institute, said institute director Jesus Urbieta." Even this claim by Urbieta was put into doubt by Alfredo Ramos, a member of the CTV executive committee and Chavez opponent, who quipped in the article that "the institute operates without financial oversight" and that "'[t]hey don't have to show their books.'" And, the Boston Globe reported that in the case of other monies sent by the NED to pro-coup groups in Venezuela, there is proof that the monies did not go for the purposes the other pass-throughs for the NED, such as the International Republican Institute, claimed. Curiously, while Gacek had complained that critics had failed to contact him for an explanation about the aid to the CTV, the Boston Globe reported that "[n]either the endowment nor the AFL-CIO's labor solidarity center responded to repeated requesests for interviews."

To deflect criticism about the aid to the CTV, the AFL-CIO has publicly claimed that the CTV did not have anything to do with the coup against Chavez. However, as the Boston Globe reported in the above-cited article, "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, in which the pair plotted against Chavez." Moreover, the AFL-CIO has privately conceded that the CTV leadership did have participation in the coup against Chavez. This brings us to current events.

The embarassment suffered by the AFL-CIO over its pre-coup assistance to the CTV has not deterred it from continuing to aid the CTV subsequent to the coup. In response to a FOIA request by the Venezuela Solidarity Committee, documents have surfaced which demonstrate the AFL-CIO has continued to support the CTV up through the year 2003 -- again with NED monies. See, www.venezuelafoia.info/NED/ACILS-CTV/pages/ACILS-B10.htm. Thus, the Venezuela Solidarity Committee has posted the grant agreement entered into between the NED and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center on April 1, 2003. This agreement shows that the Solidarity Center accepted $161,000 from the NED to continue programmatic work with the CTV, and some of this money was earmarked directly for CTV staff and travel expenses. Not surprisingly, Harry Kamberis, a former State Department employee himself and a holdover from the days in which the AFL-CIO was openly collaborating with the U.S. State Department and CIA abroad, signed this grant agreement in his capacity as Exective Director of the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center.

In this agreement, the Solidarity Center, making an obligue reference to the role of the CTV's collaboration with business interests in the April, 2002 coup against Chavez, acknowledges that the CTV's attempt to democratize itself and to defend labor rights continue to be "threatened by the attempts of some members of the CTV leadership to embark on a political agenda, and engage in political alliances, that have at best questionable support from the membership." Yet, the continued participation of "members of the CTV leadership" in the advancement of what is clearly a right-wing and militantly anti-Chavez agenda, even in the face of questionable support from the rank-n-file, does not deter the AFL-CIO from continuing to support the CTV with NED monies to the tune of $161,000.

The AFL-CIO's continued support for the CTV is disturbing, especially given the benefit of hindsight the AFL-CIO has from the events of April of 2002 when the CTV participated in the coup against President Chavez. After this coup, the AFL-CIO, which frankly was lucky the coup was not successful lest it forever be blamed for its at least perceived role in it, could have acknolweged an error in judgment and changed course. Yet, it continued to accept monies from the right-wing NED to continue its support for the CTV. The question is why. And, the answer depends upon what individuals you are talking about in the AFL. As for people like Stan Gacek, I truly believe that he is well-intentioned and would not willingly be involved in a coup attempt against a foreign sovereign. The same is true of many well-intentioned people at the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center. The worst you can say about such well-intentioned people is that they are unwittingly allowing themselves to be instruments of the State Department and NED in order to continue the good work they are doing elsewhere in the world -- at least 75% of the funding for the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center coming from the U.S. government, including the State Department.

However, the same cannot be said of people like Harry Kamberis who continues to head the Solidarity Center despite the fact that he was involved with AFL-CIO International Affairs in the days that it assisted U.S. covert operations abroad with tragic results. Kamberis presumably knows about the true wherefores of the monies the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center has been channeling from the NED to the CTV in Venezuela, and those associated withe labor movement must prevail upon Kamberis to provide explanations. At the moment, while it is Stan Gacek who continues to defend the AFL-CIO's policies in Venezuela, Kamberis remains silent about these policies.

In the final analysis, Harry Kamberis remains for the very reason that even well-intentioned individuals in the Solidarity Center tolerate the questionable role of the Solidarity Center in Venezuela -- the indemic relationship of the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center with the U.S. government which is a consequence of the government funding the Solidarity Center receives and believes it needs for its continued existence. Kamberis was kept on after the changes in the AFL-CIO amidst great controversy because the AFL-CIO believed that he could continue to secure government funding. The AFL-CIO was correct about this; he has helped to secure such funding. However, at what price?

Many of us in the labor movement believe the price of the AFL-CIO's credibility abroad as well as the price which has already been paid and might be paid in the future by Venezuelans for the AFL-CIO's continued support of an organization actively involved in the coup against Chavez and still involved in attempts to unseat this democratically-elected president, is simply too great. The AFL-CIO must end its deal with the devil, forego aid from the U.S. government and NED, rid itself of Harry Kamberis and thereby ensure an independent course in international affairs. If it does not take these actions, the good intentions of the vast majority of the Solidarity Center's staff will not mean a lick; they will have to pay back the U.S. government for its heavy assistance one way or another. For now, it appears that the Solidarity Center is making its payback in Venezuela.

Source: ZNet