|Left to Right: Richard O'Brien (Amicus), Joni McDougall (GMB), Gordon Hutchison (Trade Union Committee for Venezuela) and Bob Abberley (UNISON). Rodney Bickerstaffe (not pictured) was also on the delegation.|
A TUC conference motion passed this September pledging support and solidarity for the Latin American country provided the backdrop for a visit which proved priceless both in terms of finding out about the situation in the country and in countering disinformation on the Chavez government. It established for the first time an official TUC policy towards Venezuela and included a call for a trade union mission.
An August meeting of the Trade Union Committee for Venezuela agreed to stage a fact-finding trip to lay the groundwork for a planned TUC general council delegation early next year.
The timing was important. The US has become increasingly belligerent towards the Venezuelan government in recent times. It has already been implicated in a 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez.The British visitors aimed to convey an early message of solidarity and to learn for themselves about the sweeping political and economic developments there.
The delegation had to work with a tight five-day timeframe. But it was still able to meet the two major trade union confederations in Venezuela - the new trade union confederation the Nation Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT) and the long-established Confederation of Venezuelan workers (CTV). The latter is the sister body of the TUC in Venezuela.
It also managed meetings with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions' Americas office -- the Inter American Regional Workers¹ Association (ORIT).
But the visit wasn¹t just about contact with overarching trade union bodies. Representatives from UNISON, Amicus and the GMB were keen to establish contact with sister unions. They also wanted to meet government officials and see for themselves the government-sponsored social programmes known locally as misiones.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shared his government¹s gratitude at the TUC declaration of solidarity when he welcomed the delegation onto his weekly Alo Presidente television programme. He invited them to speak live on the programme, which is beamed to millions of viewers across Latin America via Telesur and on the Venezuelan national television channel.
It was interesting to observe Chavez first-hand. He provided an impressive hard-hitting analysis of the recent Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where the US proposals for a Free Trade Area of the Americas was defeated.
Chavez¹s delivery was peppered with humour as he showed his credentials as a great communicator with serious charisma. It is easy to understand his popular appeal. The TUC resolution is particularly significant to Venezuelans because it is the first of its kind from any labour confederation in Europe.
It not only expressed solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution and noted the achievements of the misiones but emphasised support for Venezuela¹s sovereignty and right to self-determination and rejected external -- ie US -- interference in its internal affairs.
Vice-President Jose Vincente Rangel and Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez both gave unqualified backing to the broad-based solidarity campaign being built by trade unions and other sympathetic organisations in the UK. They also stressed their desire for Venezuela to strengthen its links with the British government.
There is a strong chance that President Chavez will visit Britain in 2006 following successful trips to France, Spain and Italy this year. The delegation was able to witness first hand the tremendous impact that the misiones are making on underprivileged sections of society.
It witnessed the Barrio Adentro health-care programmes in Valencia and Caracas and the Mision Sucre and Mision Ribas educational programmes in the capital.The 20,000 Cuban doctors brought to the country under Barrio Adentro have achieved significant progress for the most vulnerable and those previously without access to health-care facilities.
The programme is not a series of isolated neighbourhood projects, but part of a nationwide project to establish a national health service. The primary health-care stage of this project has already been accomplished.
The group also learned about Mision Milagro. It is a truly impressive programme through which poor Venezuelans are being sent to Cuba to receive eye operations for complaints like cataracts. Over 100,000 Venezuelans have benefited this year.
Mision Ribas has taught 1.5 million of the country¹s citizens to read since 2003. Fifty per cent of Venezuelans --- 12 million people -- are enrolled in Bolivarian educational programmes. But this in itself presents a challenge -- how to structure the economy to employ these newly educated citizens.
Nora Castaneda is president of Banmujer, the women¹s development bank. It is the only government-supported bank of its kind in the world and operates in all 23 states and the capital. It is making a valuable contribution towards making poverty history in Venezuela. Since its creation, the bank has granted over 70,000 micro credits which, in turn, have generated 145,000 jobs.Nora emphasised that the bank¹s biggest achievements are social and cultural.
Their policies aim to change how women are viewed in society and how they view themselves -- striking at the root of gender inequality. Castaneda said: "We are not building a bank, we are building a different way of life".
Trade unionists in the country face their own challenges. Labour Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias said that one of the biggest challenges facing trade unionists in the country is for the UNT and the CTV, the main trade union confederations, to build membership.
Only 18 per cent of the Venezuelan workforce is unionised. This is largely because up to 60 per cent of the workforce is active in the informal sector. The majority of unionised workers are employed by the government. It is the country¹s biggest employer.
The UNT and CTV both claim to have the larger membership, but it is not possible to validate either of these claims at present. It will only become clear when the two confederations hold elections at the beginning of next year. The UNT is currently going through a profound process of internal debate in preparation for its first national constitutional congress and national elections for a leadership < at present, there is a provisional leadership, composed of a 21-member national co-ordinating committee.
It is a relatively new organisation. It was founded in 2003 when many trade unionists abandoned the CTV in opposition to its participation in the April 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez and its support for the bosses¹ national strike/lockout.
This was aimed at bringing down the Chavez government through crippling the economy, particularly the oil industry. The CTV allied itself with employers¹ organisation Fedecamaras -- the Venezuelan equivalent of the CBI -- on both occasions.
The delegation was able to meet representatives of the different "currents" within the UNT.They were united in emphasising that their vision for the UNT is one of an independent and autonomous trade union confederation -- independent of party political and governmental control.
The youthful, enthusiastic nature of its representatives was impressive. They reported that many unions are disaffiliating from the CTV and joining the UNT.This process is taking place on the shop floor, where workers are organising ballots -- a right enshrined in the new constitution.
The UNT is currently closely supporting the setting up of workers¹ co-management. A nationwide census of closed factories is under way to establish which ones can be reopened under co-management schemes.
The government is offering credit facilities to these factories where workers are involved in co-management. Many factories and enterprises have recently been abandoned by their owners or simply closed down.The government is keen to ensure that such enterprises are kept going, maintaining employment levels and necessary production.
The UNT congress and elections are scheduled to take place next February. The CTV is also holding elections early next year. However, through its connections with Accion Democratica (AD), the former governing party, it continues to be part of the political opposition to President Chavez and is unlikely to win widespread support from most workers. When the delegation met CTV leaders, its members asked them about the reasons for their organisation¹s support for the 2002 coup against President Chavez and the national strike/lockout in 2002-3. It was felt that their responses were, at best, ambiguous and unclear.
As the first-ever British trade union delegation to Venezuela, it broke new ground. It will help facilitate future reciprocal visits and exchanges between the two countries.Hopefully, individual British trade unions that have not yet adopted policies on Venezuela will now be encouraged to do so at their conferences next year.
A broad-based campaign of solidarity with Venezuela needs to be built in support Venezuelan sovereignty and self-determination and to combat foreign interference in Venezuela¹s internal affairs. The trade unions need to be at the core of such a movement.
WHAT THEY SAID:
"The visit had the blessing of the TUC and was an excellent pilot for their visit next year. At UNT headquarters we found a group of young and dynamic activists who were fully behind what is taking place. It is very much involved in the social movements now transforming the country.
"The CTV, allied to the opposition political party, Accion Democratica, was much more critical of the Chavez government and could find nothing positive to say. They didn’t deny that their role in the "oil strike" had been political and its aim had been to oust Chavez."
"You really feel they know what they (the government) are doing, that they have a blueprint for the future -- and Chavez, who we met, is a very bright and courageous leader."
UNISON assistant general secretary
"Being in Venezuela was to witness an exciting process about to take off. If you come here to try and weigh up what is best for the ordinary people, then there is no doubt it is Chavez.
I saw a high level of optimism and hope in the country. I was particularly impressed by the new clinics in the deprived areas, staffed 24 hours a day and 7 days a week by Cuban doctors, but administered and run by the local communities -- it is their clinic to address their needs.
It is laughable to accuse the Chavez government of being a rogue state -- all the people are demanding, is what we have in Britain : a national health service, access to education and employment."
GMB international solidarity officer
"It is amazing that this oil-rich country has such overwhelming poverty and for all the past years nothing happened -- the poor stayed poor. Now things are happening -- Chavez is using the money to build up a necessary infrastructure and almost everyone we met was full of optimism. It seemed a bit like the New Deal period in America, but more so -- lots of money going into social services and local people being involved in the running of these in their own communities"
Amicus communications director