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David Raby wrote a review on Alan Woods' book The Venezuelan Revolution: a Marxist Perspective for Hands Off Venezuela. David Raby is an Honourary Research Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool.


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Although many Marxists and progressive activists in general are still reluctant to recognise it, a real social revolution is under way in Venezuela, and this places the country at the centre of the international political struggle between capitalist globalisation (or imperialism, as it used to be called) and popular movements throughout the world. Moreover the unquestioned leader of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution”, President Hugo Chávez, is already (and deservedly) an international figure of comparable stature to Fidel Castro or Che Guevara.

The great virtue of this book, and of Alan Woods as a leader of the Revolutionary Marxist Tendency, is to have recognised this fact at an early stage and to have acted accordingly by promoting the Hands Off Venezuela (HOV) campaign. Like this reviewer, but unlike legions of sectarian dogmatists and wishful idealists, Woods understood that revolutions do not develop according to a preconceived formula, and that the people (or the working class) cannot sit around for ever waiting for a perfect Marxist-Leninist party to appear, any more than they can make revolution as a spontaneous and unorganised mass (as some dreamers in the international anti-globalisation movement seem to believe). From my perspective Woods is still hampered by a somewhat doctrinaire view of the revolutionary party and the nature of revolution and socialism in our times, but any deficiencies in this respect are more than compensated for by his understanding of and support for the Venezuelan revolution.

In Venezuela, at least since the time of Chávez’ first election in December 1998, and more especially since the failed coup of April 2002, the masses have burst on to the scene and become leading protagonists of the political process. Indeed, as argued by retired General Jacinto Pérez Arcay, in a sense the people took to the streets during the Caracazo riots of 27 February-5 March 1989 (against an IMF deflationary package imposed by the social-democratic President Carlos Andrés Pérez), and have never looked back (Rosa Miriam Elizalde & Luis Báez, Chávez Nuestro, Havana 2004, p. 84). But the people involved in this spontaneous and directionless popular revolt (brutally put down on orders from Pérez with hundreds, indeed possibly thousands, of dead) found the leadership they lacked with the unsuccessful military-civilian uprising led by Lt-Col. Hugo Chávez on 4 February 1992. In the absence of an effective revolutionary party, it was Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR-200) who became in effect the vanguard of a popular revolutionary process which is still continuing, and the crucial point is that this vanguard role is recognised and accepted by the masses. It is no use lamenting that this is not the type of vanguard party conceived by Marx, Lenin or Trotsky; as Woods points out, what many self-proclaimed Marxists have failed to understand is ‘the dialectical relation between Chávez and the masses’. They mumble about ‘populism’, but ‘show their complete inability to connect with the real movement of the masses’ (p. 69).

It is this same blindness to the real dynamics of popular movements which leads many sectarians to condemn participation in the Bolivarian Movement and call for building a revolutionary party outside it; as Woods comments ironically, ‘So three men and a dog (or a drunken parrot) gather in a café in Caracas and proclaim the Revolutionary Party’ (p. 83). This is precisely what many dogmatists in Venezuela were doing for years before the Bolivarian movement developed, and some of them like Bandera Roja (Red Flag) have ended up as counter-revolutionary provocateurs, which is the logical conclusion of such arrogance.

Woods and the Revolutionary Marxist Tendency are taken seriously in Venezuela, including by President Chávez himself, precisely because they have shown an understanding of the real situation in the country and of the practical leadership provided by Chávez and the Bolivarian Movement. Woods also correctly stresses throughout the need for the revolution to be further radicalised and to take more decisive measures against the bourgeois oligarchy and imperialism. But where I part company with Woods is in his assessment of Chávez as a representative of ‘petty-bourgeois revolutionary democracy’ who, while being supported in his progressive actions, must be pushed to the left by building ‘an independent revolutionary proletarian current’ (p. 93). This in my view is to underestimate the political capacity of Chávez and his intimate bond with the popular classes; it is this bond which is the real motive force of the Venezuelan revolution and which is driving it forward to take ever more radical actions. Just as with Fidel Castro and the 26th July Movement in Cuba in 1959-61, so in Venezuela it is Chávez and the Bolivarian Movement who are leading the process forward together with the people. It was after all Chávez who surprised everyone in December 2004 by declaring, in his closing speech at the World Congress of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity, that ‘we have to reclaim the legacy of socialism’ and ‘find the way forward to build the socialism of the twenty-first century’. Since then he has repeatedly returned to the theme of socialism, while taking measures such as the expropriation of the Venepal and National Valve factories and their conversion to a combination of state management and workers’ control, the acceleration of the agrarian reform and the signing of the ALBA agreement with Cuba which strengthens ties between the public sectors of the two economies. Of course popular pressure was also involved in these decisions - Chávez cannot do things alone - but this popular pressure takes place primarily within and through the Bolivarian Movement, which is as Chávez has explained nothing else than the organised expression of the social movements themselves: the Circles, the Urban Land Committees, the Local Public Planning Committees, the UBEs (Units of Electoral Battle, now converted into Units of Endogenous Battle, i.e. grass-roots committees for the promotion of self-sufficient development). The people in the barrios have made it abundantly clear that they believe in Chávez and the MBR-200, but not in political parties of any kind. In Cuba, the old Communist Party and the Directorio Revolucionario ended up uniting with the 26th July Movement under the leadership of Fidel Castro, and other parties and organisations disappeared or became irrelevant; I predict that something similar will happen in Venezuela. Unlike Cuba, however, Venezuela will not be subject to the geopolitical pressures which led Cuba to adopt the Soviet model of socialism, leading to distortions of the Cuban process.

But these disagreements are part of the ongoing debate in Venezuela and outside about the future path of the first triumphant revolution of the twenty-first century. What is most important about this book is its contribution to the understanding and defence of the Bolivarian Revolution. As Woods himself recognises, ‘The greatest danger for the Venezuelan Marxists is impatience, sectarian and ultraleft moods. The revolutionary Marxist current is at present a minority of the mass movement. We cannot impose our solutions on it...’ (p. 132). And outside Venezuela, while being analytical and critical, our main duty is to build solidarity with the process through HOV and other organisations.

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Venezuela received a favorable ruling at the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland this week, when the group rejected a request to investigate Venezuela for allegedly violating workers’ rights.  The accusation against the Venezuelan government was made by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV)—Venezuela’s traditional labor federation—along with the country’s largest employer’s federation, Fedecamaras.

In this year’s ILO general assembly meeting the CTV was not invited as a member of the group’s administrative council.  This means that, “for the first time in many years … the administrative council will be able to act with increased objectivity when it comes to cases related to Venezuela,” said ILO delegate Marcela Maspero. 

Maspero is a leader of the National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT), which is a new Venezuelan union federation that was formed in May 2003, in the wake of the two-month 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown, when disaffected union leaders unhappy with the CTV’s prioritization of anti-Chávez politics over workers’ interests broke away.

“The CTV will no longer be able to use this space as a springboard to launch political attacks against the revolutionary government of Venezuela,” she added, reported Venezuela’s state news agency ABN.

For the last two years, the CTV has been forced to lobby ILO delegates from outside of the meetings, using Fedecamaras to submit proposals on their behalf.  This year, however, Fedecamaras/CTV requests to sanction the Venezuelan government fell on deaf ears.  Fedecamaras’ only delegate to the meeting, Bingen De Arbeloa, left early in protest.

“I did not receive a report from workers, nor from governments participating in the conference, in our attempts to hold sanctions against the Government of Venezuela,” said De Arbeloa.

In the view of the ILO general assembly, the Venezuelan government has demonstrated considerable progress in terms of trade union freedoms, according to Venezuela’s Vice-Minister of Labor Ricardo Dorado who is in Geneva.

Dorado noted that over the past 8 months Venezuela has made significant advances in labor policy, including the extension of a freeze on lay-offs, increases in the minimum wage, and a reform of the labor law.  Furthermore, the ILO recognized that Venezuela has consolidated a democratic dialogue with various groups representing workers in Venezuelan society, said Dorado.

Referring to the decades-long monopoly on labor issues held by Fedecamaras and the CTV, Dorado argued that Venezuela has “advanced in the idea that social dialogue is not exclusive or excluding.  On the contrary, we are promoting a dialogue in which all social actors can participate, in which the Government is the interlocutor of the interests of a pluralistic society.”  “As a consequence, we cannot endorse a mono-political position like what we have seen here in the past,” said the Vice-Minister.

Fedecamaras and the CTV have developed close links since the election of President Hugo Chávez in 1998, who signaled a shift away from the neoliberal policies pursued by previous governments with the approval and complicity of both Fedecamaras and the CTV.  In April 2002 a general strike called by both employers and CTV union leaders resulted in a short-lived coup against Chávez in which Fedecamaras President Pedro Carmona was named “Transitional President.”  Carmona’s first act was to abolish the Constitution, and dissolve Congress and the Supreme Court, and to order the Metropolitan Police to conduct a series of violent raids against Chávez-supporters in the shanty-towns around the capital, Caracas.

Since its inception in 2003, the UNT has competed with the CTV for affiliates, sometimes fighting pitched electoral battles in divided factories, thanks to a formerly little-used provision in Venezuela’s labor law allowing workers to call a referendum if two parallel unions are competing to represent a given factory.  The UNT has won nearly every such referendum, gaining considerable momentum for a national syndicalist project that prioritizes resistance to neoliberalism and support for workers’ control of factories.

Both the UNT and the CTV claim to represent the majority of Venezuelan workers.  Last year Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled that the CTV was no longer the most representative labor federation in Venezuela.  Yet since the ruling did not say that the UNT was the most representative federation, the question remains open for debate. 

Another key to answering this question has been representation at the ILO.  Since its formation in 2003 the UNT has sent a delegation to the United Nations labor body, though until last year, the CTV did too.

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Last month, the National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT) turned two. Since its inception in May 2003, the UNT has been at the center of debates surrounding the advances of Venezuela’s revolution in the labor arena. At root, these debates turn on issues of worker control: over their factories and over their unions. Democracy is at the heart of the attempt by Venezuelan workers to reinvent a labor movement long characterized by corruption and class collaboration.

When Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, inaugurating a process of radical political and social changes, it looked as though labor might be left behind. The main labor federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), was one of his most avid critics, and Chávez in turn lashed out regularly against the CTV. But the image of “Chávez versus labor,” repeated incessantly by the mainstream media, is precisely intended to mislead. The truth is that the CTV has not adequately represented Venezuelan workers since the 1970s, if not before. The reality of Chávez versus the CTV, then, does not exclude the active and enthusiastic participation of a large proportion of Venezuelan workers in his “Bolívarian Revolution”—named after Latin American Independence leader Simón Bolívar.

In an era of accelerating globalization, fed by the trailblazing violence of American empire, Chávez’s loud rejection of the neoliberal model is particularly resonant. And this rejection has proven to be more than mere rhetoric. After surviving both the coup and the business-led oil industry shutdown in 2002–03, and consolidating his legitimacy through the dramatic referendum victory and the near-sweep in the regional elections, Chávez’s movement has, as the Economist recently put it, “beg[u]n turning words into deeds.” In direct contradiction to the neoliberal playbook, Venezuela has begun experimenting with an alternative model of development based on an unapologetic prioritization of social welfare.

At root, the Venezuelan revolution is about democracy, but not the “thin democracy” that so often limits the imagination in the North. In Venezuela the term has incorporated social and economic dimensions, as well as political and even geographic. Popular participation means the difficult development of local planning councils that debate community budgets, but it also means a shift in some areas from production for the world market to production for the Venezuelan people. Thus, a trend that has had Venezuela importing 70 percent of its food is slowly being reversed in the interest of “food sovereignty.” Food sovereignty, in turn, requires the democratization of land, reversing the distribution of land in rural Venezuela where the top 5 percent of landowners control 75 percent of private agricultural land, while the bottom 75 percent hold only 6 percent.1

Bolívar is a revered figure all over the region, and Chávez has taken advantage of this to encourage solidarity between and among South American countries. His rhetoric of regional—and indeed “South-South”—unity is based on Bolívar’s life’s project to unify Latin America. Far from merely a useful rhetorical flourish, Chávez has taken up that call, promoting a regional union that will have the strength to oppose the violence of global capital.

In a late January edition of his weekly Sunday television address, Aló Presidente, President Chávez announced a new direction for economic development, centered on the slogan “made in Venezuela.” Chávez made the announcement from an enormous paper factory (Invepal), recently expropriated by the government after a hard-fought battle by 350 paper workers. The announcement reflects the battle cry of the two-year-old UNT: “Without co-management, there is no revolution!” Yet wary of the pitfalls of previous experiences with co-management in Venezuela and elsewhere, the current Venezuelan experiment demands genuine worker control and rejects the creation of workers as property owners, or of a technocratic worker-manager class.

This process of social and political changes has come a long way since 1998, but it has much further still to go. Land reform is plagued by a lack of organization among campesinos; the informal sector remains largely unorganized and impoverished; and the shift toward worker management and a new unionism has been slow and fraught with difficulties and setbacks. It is necessary to look at Venezuela with a clear mind and an accurate picture of the forces (within Chavismo and without) aligned against the revolution. It is, of course, equally necessary to appreciate how far the revolution has come, against all odds. The following is a brief discussion of the state of Venezuelan labor, its advances and setbacks, and above all, its possibilities.

A New Venezuela

For the forty years prior to Hugo Chávez’s election in 1998, two traditional parties shared power and competed for control over the country’s most important institutions. Inheriting an oil economy from dictator Perez Jiménez in 1958, the social-democratic Acción Democratica and the social-Christian Copei kept oil wealth circulating in elite circles, while feeding the country a powerful nationalist rhetoric of “sowing the oil.”

Though it began as a progressive organization heavily engaged in the fight against the Jiménez dictatorship, the CTV was quickly subordinated to party interests. Furthermore, the CTV was long a collaborator with U.S.-directed anticommunist activity in the region, receiving considerable funding from the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD).2 With the advent of neoliberal government in the 1980s, this cost workers dearly. During this period they laid the groundwork for the current promotion of worker management, when the CTV joined tripartite “co-management” commissions along with members of the Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Labor. By the mid-1990s, CTV leaders had cut a deal with President Rafael Caldera, unleashing a barrage of reforms and privatizations that proved devastating to working people and further delegitimized the CTV. With a recent example of co-management as co-optation behind them, Venezuelan workers are now militating for the creation of real worker-participation in management.

The nationwide demand for change that swept Chávez to power in 1998 did not pass quietly over the labor movement. Existing criticisms multiplied and new ones were articulated by workers who were increasingly disenchanted with the lazy corruption of their supposed “leaders.” The larger commitment to profound social change aimed at raising the standard of living of the 80 percent of Venezuela’s population living below the poverty line inspired workers to join the process, putting labor reform on the agenda too.3

The net result has been a dramatic split within the labor movement, with a large portion of unions and federations affiliated to the CTV now gone for good. In 2003, these unions formed the National Union of Venezuela Workers (UNT) and set up an interim leadership, which has become the national voice of a proposed new unionism. The UNT is still embryonic, and until formal elections—tentatively scheduled for fall 2005—it will continue to lack the internal structures essential for trade unionism. Furthermore, with its own democratic structure as yet undefined, it risks appearing hypocritical in their promotion of democratization at the level of local unions and in their critiques of the authoritarian CTV. But the broader transformations in Venezuelan society over the past six years have inspired workers to go far with relatively little, and the UNT’s close ties to the government have ensured that it has become a national player.

While it is not yet possible to tell exactly how representative either organization is, the UNT has grown astonishingly fast in the first two years of its existence. One way of estimating this momentum is to count the percentage of collective agreements signed with each confederation. According to the Ministry of Labor, 76.5 percent of collective agreements signed in 2003–04 were with unions affiliated with the UNT, and only 20.2 percent with the CTV. This is due in large part to the UNT’s hegemony in the public sector, for which official preference is certainly a factor. However, even in the private sector, the UNT represented 50.3 percent of all collective agreements signed in 2003–04, compared to the CTV’s 45.2 percent.4

Nonetheless, societies are not transformed overnight with the declaration of a new stage, a new government, or a new union. Organized labor was a crucial foundation of Venezuela’s old system, the Fourth Republic (1958–99), and replacing it requires the articulation of a concrete and wide-ranging economic as well as social and political strategy, of which the emphasis on democracy is only a beginning.

Workers’ Rights, Human Rights: Coca-Cola Femsa

Venezuelan unions have historically been organized by factory rather than by industry. Even within the same company, each plant has its own union. Thus, for each of Coca-Cola Femsa’s eight bottling plants in Venezuela, there is a different union. In at least one case there are two. Fed up with the ineffectiveness of the old CTV-affiliated union, several activists at the Valencia-branch formed a parallel union, steadily gaining support until they challenged the established union.

Coca-Cola Femsa bottles, distributes, and sells Coca-Cola products (including beer, water, and other beverages) in Latin America, with operations in Mexico, Central, and South America. While Venezuela only represents 7.1 percent of total revenues (Mexico accounts for 66.7 percent), it is slightly more than Colombia’s 6.5 percent. According to the international Campaign to Stop Killer Coke (http://www.killercoke.org/), in Colombia that’s enough for the company to be collaborating with paramilitaries responsible for the intimidation, torture, and murder of trade union activists.

“In Venezuela, they are not killing union leaders like in Colombia,” notes José Cardenal, secretary general of the new union at the company’s Valencia, Venezuela branch. “But they have argued legally and judicially to drown those union leaders who are really fighting for workers’ rights. They find a way to legally intimidate, threaten, pressure workers when they try to organize, or when they try to claim their legal rights.”

In May 2004, after months of tireless organizing, Cardenal and other activists launched a parallel union that challenged the existing one in a factory-wide referendum. Administered by the Valencia office of the labor inspector, with representatives from both unions and the company in attendance, the new union won 301 votes to 234. Worker participation was over 80 percent.

“The workers at Coca-Cola Femsa have never had a dignified salary,” explains Freddy Contreras, secretary of culture in the new union. According to Contreras, Coca-Cola Femsa workers could not count on the old union to advance their rights. “Before, any worker fighting for his rights quickly found himself on the street,” he said angrily. “The old union leadership was corporate, they were allied to the company, they were bought-off by the company. Workers never felt they could open their mouths against the union, because they knew the union could have them fired. The company paid these union leaders’ salaries, they gave them an office in the factory, they kept them in their pocket, away from the workers.”

In the year since the new union’s referendum victory in May 2004, they have made some small but important advances. “Before the company owed us Cesta tickets [food stamps] and we weren’t receiving them,” notes assembly-line bottler Julio Llepes, “but since the new union came in we have been.” Llepes also noted an increased openness in the new union and felt confident that if he had any concerns with their leadership in future he could raise them without fear of persecution.

Luis Ferrero, who has worked at the plant for seven years, notes that the new union has secured retroactive pay, covering the last four years for workers who have been forced to eat their lunch on the line. And in an important political victory, the new union has also successfully pressured the company to pay wages lost during the two months that Coca-Cola Femsa shut its doors during the December 2002–February 2003 general strike aimed at ousting Chávez. Workers were told they would be paid during the shutdown, but had not received those wages until now.

Coca-Cola Femsa is just one of a growing number of factories where workers have begun fighting to retake their unions from corrupt leaders on excessively friendly terms with the employers. In 2000, Ford set the precedent, becoming the first factory in the region to have a union referendum. The new union won easily, fueling a growing movement to democratize local unions that has exploded in 2004. Over the past year, Venezuela’s twin cities of Valencia and Maracay, the country’s manufacturing base, have witnessed eight union referenda, all with new unions coming out on top.

The exponential increase in union referenda and in the organization of parallel unions in 2004 owes a great deal to the role of the state. While the Ministry of Labor appears to have avoided taking sides in these disputes, a remarkable moratorium on lay-offs for lower-paid workers declared in April 2003 appears to have made all the difference. “The company could not fire the workers organizing new unions and organizing the workers to start fighting for their rights, because there is currently a moratorium on lay-offs,” notes regional director of the UNT for Carabobo, José Joaquín Barreto. “Thanks to the government, these workers had the breathing room they needed to organize the new union, hold the referendum, and now have some of the tools necessary to take the fight to the bargaining table and make some concrete gains.”

The moratorium, since extended by the Ministry of Labor twice, is a radical reversal for the transnational corporations that have multiplied their investments in Venezuela of late. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Venezuelan government moved away from its history of state-run enterprises, privatizing the country’s steel and telecommunications sectors, the national airline, and all the country’s port facilities, among others. Changes for workers in these factories went far beyond a new management. The cult of efficiency and productivity saw the ratio of employees to contract workers shrink rapidly, to the point where non-union contract workers now outnumber unionized employees in most cases.

Such tactics are not, of course, unique to recently privatized companies, but are rather part of a general neoliberal trend.

Three Tales of Co-management in Venezuela

At the level of local-union democracy, the UNT has played a key role organizing workers, providing new unions with legal and strategic advice, and acting as a liaison with the state. But its leaders are also promoting democracy in the workplace, centered on the promotion of worker control over production. Venezuela’s embryonic new unionism is fundamentally based on a somewhat ragtag collection of theoretical streams, much like the Bolívarian revolution itself, but foremost among them is worker-state co-management. Still in its most preliminary stages both as an official government policy (a very recent development) and in the factories currently run by, struggling for, or experimenting with co-management, three distinct models have emerged, each with its pros and cons, its lessons, and examples.

Electricity

“What is co-management?” thunders Joaquín Osorio to the assembled workers at the Olympic Villa in Valencia, Carabobo. Osorio is the president of the Disciplinary Tribunal of the electrical workers union Fetraelec, and one of the union’s primary ideologues. He is addressing a workshop on co-management, part of the Third International Encounter in Solidarity with the Bolívarian Revolution, which includes workers and delegates from around the country, as well as a small group of international guests including a delegation from Canada’s Vancouver District Labor Council and a Babson College (United States) economics professor, among others. “For us, co-management is power in the hands of workers,” continues Osorio. “It’s the right and the need for workers to participate in the administration of the company. It’s a system of management and administration that includes the state, workers, and (in our case) the users, in equal conditions. Co-management is the alternative to the old failed vertical, corrupt, and bureaucratic system that brought state-run enterprises to the crisis in which they now find themselves.”

Workers at Cadafe, the state electric company that provides 60 percent of the electricity in Venezuela, began a push for co-management soon after Chávez was elected in 1998. In 2002, shortly after the April coup, Cadafe officially began the transition to co-management. But three years later, workers’ role in the decision-making process is still limited to two positions on a five-member coordinating committee—a group that can make recommendations to the president of the company, but he has no obligation to heed. After giving the state management a chance to implement real co-management, Cadafe workers, led by the union federation Fetraelec, have staged a series of protests articulating their impatience. It’s a tricky strategy, because the majority of these workers are staunch supporters of President Chávez, but their protests are necessarily directed against the Ministry of Energy—the state entity in charge of Cadafe.

“We understand that in the past three years there was a whole series of strikes, lockouts, coups, guarimbas5, that necessitated a state with a strong character that would prevent these types of actions—coups etc.—from taking power away from the government,” says Angel Navas, president of Fetraelec, the federation linking Cadafe unions. “But that phase is now passed, and now is the moment to begin democratizing the state, because workers and the people are demanding a larger role in the decision-making process.”6

“There is a degree of resistance to the consolidation and application of the revolutionary process,” notes Navas. “When we began pushing for the concrete elaboration of co-management in Cadafe, we provoked the rejection of supposed representatives of the state who refused to share power with the workers.”

The one exception is Cadela—the Andean arm of Cadafe—which has been a trailblazer in the implementation of co-management; their example of effective symbiosis between workers and management is being held up by the rest of the federation as a model for the future. Cadafe represents Venezuela’s most well-organized and longest push for co-management from below.

Paper

Speaking to a local newspaper in the manufacturing state of Carabobo, where the paper factory Venepal (now state-owned Invepal) is located, ex-president of Fedecamaras, Venezuela’s main Chamber of Commerce federation, Carlos Fernández Pérez, warned, “If both sides don’t come to a satisfactory agreement, if they do not do justice, we will see within a short period of time installations destroyed without the workers having any income and as a consequence of this we will see how they are going to destroy the productive fabric of the country until there’s nothing left.” It is fair to assume that Fernández was representing the views of the owners of Venepal, and of Venezuela’s property-owning class in general, in his diatribe against worker-control.

The struggle at Venepal has been in the hearts of workers all over the country since the company went bankrupt, laying off 900 workers and provoking them to occupy the factory and demand its nationalization. After a long battle with the company’s owners, including legal action, the government paid market value for the bankrupt firm and handed half of it over to workers to be run in conjunction with the state.

But the business of worker-management is complex, and as a Venezuelan trailblazer, the pressure on Invepal to feed the hopes of workers at factories throughout the country is high. While it remains unclear exactly what is going on at Invepal, recent developments suggest a deviation from workers’ earlier goals.

According to President Chávez, the renamed company, Invepal, will produce paper notebooks made of Venezuelan primary material. Wood produced in the Venezuelan states of Monagas and Anzoátegui, southeast of the capital Caracas, will be made into pulp at a new factory to be purchased by the state. The pulp will then provide Invepal with its own entirely domestic raw material. According to Invepal union leader Edgar Peña, Invepal currently must import pulp from Chile, with a shipment of 600 tons now over a month late.

A workers’ assembly, representing the maximum authority of the company, will eliminate bureaucracy and merge production and administration, said Chávez. “This structure will be put to the test, and we’ll adjust it as necessary, because here we are inventing our own model,” he added.

On the first day of the co-management workshop in Valencia, that is exactly what happened. Alexix Ornevo, former member of the executive of Venepal’s now defunct union and current member of the directorate of Invepal, noted that since they no longer had any bosses, they no longer needed a union, as workers were now grouped into a cooperative (Covimpa) to run the company. And as a cooperative, Ornevo was quick to point out, they got several benefits including constitutional relief from paying taxes. Also, thanks to the 1999 Bolívarian Constitution, Covimpa—which now owns a 49 percent share in Invepal—is legally entitled to increase that share up to 95 percent.

Ornevo’s presentation caused serious concern among his audience, who worried that the model of co-management and worker agency in the country was setting the stage to become a model of a capitalist cooperative. “As we saw in yesterday’s presentation on Invepal,” said Navas in private, “they are having some serious problems, they seem to be thinking as managers. According to what we heard yesterday, they want to own all of the company’s shares. Eight-hundred workers will be owners of a company. And if it becomes profitable, are these workers going to get rich? This is a company that is supposed to belong to the entire country; my company can’t only belong to the workers, if we make profits they belong to the entire population. This is a responsibility that we all have—workers in the oil industry, those who make the most: how do we spread this to the rest of the country? These profits are not for me. It doesn’t make sense that just because I work in the oil industry, for example, I can make 90 million bolivares [us$42,000] when the minimum wage is [4 million bolivares or us$1,900].”

Whether or not Invepal does indeed focus on the well-being of a small group of workers, or return to earlier goals of running the company in the interest of the community and the whole country, remains to be seen. Either way, their experience continues to inspire crucial debates within the UNT on the pitfalls of a strategy of co-management without a concurrent wider economic strategy.

“I think that [the co-management workshop] is something that we should repeat, to increase discussion...within the labor movement,” said Navas. “It requires us to speak of wages, productivity, and efficiency; of what is the administrative mechanism of a company, and of the socialization of the means of production. There were workers here yesterday who began asking, after hearing the presentation by Invepal, What is co-management? The elimination of unions? We don’t agree with that, so we’ll continue to debate these issues.”

Aluminum

The state-owned aluminum processing plant Alcasa is a third example of Venezuela’s experience with co-management. Along with Chávez’s announcement last January that co-management will form a key part of Venezuela’s emerging strategy of “endogenous development” came the appointment of a special task force charged with devising a strategy for the implementation of co-management in all state-run industries. Acting out of the newly established Ministry of Basic Industry headed by Victor Alvarez, a strong supporter of co-management, this new task force has chosen Alcasa as its guinea pig. In an article originally published on http://www.venezuelanalysis.com, and reproduced in these pages last month, Marta Harnecker described some of the key features of Alcasa’s development of co-management.

Carlos Lanz, newly appointed president of the company, has begun implementing a series of democratizing measures bringing workers into the factory’s decision-making process. Trino Silva, secretary-general of the Alcasa union, has long denounced the inefficiency and corruption that has prevented Alcasa from realizing its profitable potential.

“What we need first is a factory that is productive,” said Silva in an interview last November at Alcasa. “Today the company is becoming productive, but it must not only be productive, but also profitable. And if we’re not profitable and we are bankrupt, why is the same management still here?” That management has since been replaced by workers, elected by workers, which both Lanz and Silva believe will likely increase productivity and reduce corruption, while also laying the foundation for a nation-wide government strategy of co-management.

Chavista Unionism versus Autonomy

One debate in particular has characterized divisions within the UNT since its inception: how to balance support for Chávez with the autonomy from government that has historically eluded Venezuelan unions? And this debate has been intertwined with another, regarding different visions of the UNT’s democratic structures. In the context of the onslaught of illegal and legal attacks by the opposition against President Chávez, these debates have taken on added emotional intensity. While there are many streams within and outside the UNT, the most visible debates have generally been reduced to dichotomies personified by the two most prominent likely candidates for the UNT presidency: Ramón Machuca and Orlando Chirinos.

The “Chavista unionism” current is represented by the Bolívarian Workers Force (FBT), a pre-UNT federation of pro-Chávez unions. It is nearly impossible to estimate the FBT’s membership, for no one (least of all the FBT) is currently compiling such statistics. However, of the seven most visible coordinators of the UNT (of a total of twenty), four come from the FBT, including Orlando Chirinos.

The “autonomous unionism” group is led by Ramón Machuca who has the support of the remaining three of the seven UNT coordinators mentioned above. With a membership of nearly four thousand, Machuca’s steelworkers’ union Sutiss is one of the country’s biggest and most well-known unions, due in particular to a tradition of radical unionism going back to the 1970s.

What has complicated this debate is that both sides ostensibly support union autonomy. Yet the FBT is widely reported (including by FBT sources) to have close relations to the Ministry of Labor. The Machuca wing, on the other hand, has been accused of having its own links to government through Franklin Rondón, president of one of the largest public-sector unions. It is here that the debate seeps into a broader, less easily definable one on democracy. Given the current correlation of forces, goes one argument, a new federation must be firmly established to replace the CTV, even if this slightly curtails the new body’s democratic nature. The opposing position argues that for the new confederation to succeed in making a comprehensive break with the old unionism, the emphasis must be entirely on building democratic foundations.

A prime example is the controversy over who will be permitted to vote in the UNT’s upcoming elections. Machuca and several UNT coordinators argue that all workers inside or outside the UNT should be allowed to vote, since the UNT’s first election will likely influence all workers. Chirinos and his allies argue that while they agree with the sentiment of this strategy, it opens the door for sabotage since it would mean that members of the CTV could vote in the UNT elections. CTV leaders could, in theory, mobilize their members to support a candidate that more closely reflects the CTV’s interests than those of workers. Neither of these arguments address the participation of informal workers in the UNT elections, despite the fact that 50 percent of Venezuelan workers are self-employed or employed in the informal sector.7

Unity in UNT?

The animosities piqued locally and nationally by the internal battles within local unions and the UNT have by no means disappeared. Yet, as time drags on, both sides are increasingly aware of the rank and file’s impatience with their lack of unity.

In mid-November, while in Brazil for the twelfth congress of the Latin American Workers’ Central (CLAT), Ramón Machuca and Marcela Maspero (UNT coordinator and member of the FBT) met in private, taking an important step in the conciliation between the rival UNT factions. Both Maspero and Machuca referred to the ad hoc meeting in Brazil as groundbreaking. “Both sides were able to reflect on past mistakes, on the atmosphere that we are all equally responsible for creating [within the UNT],” said Maspero. Machuca added that the strategy of character assassination, previously employed by both sides, was rejected, and that the meeting fostered the kind of constructive ideological debates the UNT needs. In Brazil, the decision was made to call UNT coordinators to Caracas for a meeting held in early December to “build on the greatly improved relations [between the two sides].”8

Such cooperation is absolutely necessary if the upcoming elections are to win over the large swath of Venezuelan unions that currently have a foot in each of the rival labor federations. This as yet undecided sector is well aware of the potential of the new federation, but all too conscious of the powerful sectarian roots that have ravaged Venezuelan labor in the past. While political disagreements will certainly persist, if Machuca and Chirinos—or, more importantly, their supporters—can unite, as they appear to be doing, the UNT will be a dynamic and diverse pillar of progressive politics in Venezuela. Their timing could not be better, for the rival CTV will also be holding elections in the coming months, bringing the two labor federations to perhaps their most important face-off.

Conclusion

Breaking with Venezuelan labor’s collaborationist past, even with the support of a progressive Venezuelan government, has required a self-conscious re-education on the part of labor leaders and the rank and file. To even get to the point where workers and shop stewards can imagine a different kind of unionism and a different kind of union is a drawn-out process; one that has required open debates, conflicts, and above all, a sense of history. Workers have had to salvage a culture of struggle from the wreckage of CTV lethargy, while simultaneously developing a new one from scratch.

Over the two years of the UNT’s existence, some debates have turned into conflicts. A variety of factors end up informing the decisions of union leaders, not all of them ideological. As in the old-unionism of the CTV, power and egos often influence decisions, and as with the old Venezuelan left, vicious sectarianism represents a very real barrier to unity. But the allure of the UNT, what has allowed it to present such a devastating challenge to the CTV in just two years, is that these conflicts have not overshadowed crucial ideological debates. How can the new federation balance cooperation with the government and union autonomy? How can they achieve worker control that is rooted in the agency of workers, rather than in the benevolence of the state? How can local leaders adequately balance workers’ interests with community interests as well as with local and national issues? These debates are ongoing—the UNT has by no means reached a consensus. But the very presence of these debates represents the concrete advances of the UNT over the authoritarian past of organized labor in Venezuela.

Wresting Venezuelan labor from this “muck of ages” is not a clean process, and the UNT has suffered setbacks as well as achieved some very powerful victories. Scratching the surface of both advances and reversals reveals the critical process of rethinking and reimagining that is gripping the trade union movement, and it is clear that these setbacks and tangents are as necessary as they are cathartic. The serious rifts within the UNT at the local and national levels, the ties between them, and the destructive and constructive effects of these divisions on the labor movement as an imagined whole shed light on the grit of the process of raising a new confederation out of the rubble of the old. Debates on politics and policy are building an open forum for discussion—and dissension—into the basic structure of the UNT.

Postscript

The co-management workshop closed on Saturday, April 16, 2005, with a series of clear resolutions, aimed at leaving no question as to the role of workers in the continuous development of Venezuela’s revolution. I have translated and included some of them here.

  • The direct and democratic participation of workers in the management or co-management of productive and distributive processes is the only mechanism to guarantee and consolidate the Bolívarian Revolution.
  • The experiences that we have had up to now tell us that it is only possible to develop worker participation in state-owned companies. We reject any idea of converting workers into small property owners in co-managed or self-managed enterprises.
  • The participation of the community is fundamental to the entire process of co-management and self-management in order to break with social exclusion in the development of an alternative model of production. Co- and self-management are political acts that concretize the alliance between the people who should be in control of the state and the working classes. It is not a corporatist economic pact between state, factory-owner, and a privileged caste of worker-functionaries.
  • The participants unanimously express their absolute solidarity with the Cuban people and the Cuban Revolution...and extend their solidarity to all the peoples who suffer aggression in the anti-imperialist struggle, in particular to the heroic peoples of Iraq and Haiti, confronting the U.S. invasion of their territory.

Notes

  1. Gregory Wilpert, “Collision in Venezuela,” New Left Review, May–June 2003.
  2. The Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores (Regional InterAmerican Organization of Workers—ORIT) head offices are located in the CTV building in downtown Caracas. See Steve Ellner, Organized Labor in Venezuela 1958–1991: Behaviour and Concerns in a Democratic Setting (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1993). For details of the CIA’s use of the CTV and ORIT in operations against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the late 1980s, see William I. Robinson, A Faustian Bargain: US Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1992).
  3. It is worth noting that while many organized workers may not be among this 80 percent, they are likely to have extended family members who are unemployed, or precariously self-employed in the informal economy. Furthermore, whole communities, where the majority of the population lives below the poverty line, often depend on the trickle-down effect of having some good jobs in their community. Finally, while very little documentation actually exists, the informal economy is widely perceived to be dominated by women. This interrelationship between formal and informal workers has sometimes resulted in a powerful solidarity that transcends the factory.
  4. http://www.mintra.gov.ve
  5. The guarimbas were violent street protests in late February–early March 2004 featuring barricades, Molotov-cocktail and stone throwing encapuchados (hooded-ones), as part of deliberately provoked confrontations with the police and the National Guard (GN). The guarimbas began as street demonstrations egged-on by the grossly irresponsible leadership of the opposition to Chávez to protest the expected ruling of the National Electoral Council on the signature petition for a referendum to recall President Chávez. Many of the encapuchados were directly paid by members of the opposition to throw Molotov-cocktails at the GN in order to provoke them into repressing the demonstrations.
  6. Interviewed in Valencia, April 13, 2005.
  7. Interview with Ricardo Dorado, vice-minister of labor, Caracas, October 9, 2004.
  8. Interviews in Caracas, December 15, 2004.

Original source / relevant link:
Monthly Review

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One of the international guests at the Annual General Meeting of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union, was Ruben Dario Linares Silva, national coordinator of the Venezuelan National Workers' Union (UNT) and vice-president of the United Transport Federation in Venezuela. The RMT congress took place in Exeter in South West England from June 26 to Friday July 1.

ruben_linares.jpg
Ruben Linares

The RMT has been very supportive of the Venezuelan revolution for a number of years and is also affiliated to the Hands Off Venezuela campaign. A delegation from the RMT, including general secretary Bob Crow and president Tony Donaghey, was present at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre earlier this year when Chavez made the speech in which he said that the Bolivarian revolution had to go towards socialism. A whole number of RMT branches have also affiliated to the campaign and the union's president spoke at the recent public meeting in London with UNT representative Anastacio Rodriguez.

Speaking to the RMT conference on Monday, June 27, Ruben Linares thanked the RMT for having invited him to attend their conference and explained the basic aims of the Venezuelan Revolution and how they have improved the conditions of working people and trade unionists. He explained how the new Bolivarian constitution had become a weapon of struggle: "Our revolution is armed, it is armed with this constitution," he said, showing the delegates one of the pocket size editions everybody in Venezuela carries. Ruben also described how the policies of Thatcherism, "which started in your country 25 years ago, also hurt our peoples, the policies of privatisation and neoliberalism". The Bolivarian Revolution "has put an end to privatisations, no more privatisations," he emphasised, describing this move as part of a continent-wide rejection of Thatcherism in Latin America, including the uprising in Arequipa, Peru, "which defeated the privatisation of electricity".

Ruben Linares, a very powerful speaker, described how Chavez has said that the only way forward is socialism "and socialism is what we are building in Venezuela, taking into account the local conditions". The mood in the conference was electric as delegates identified with the revolutionary spirit he was bringing from Venezuela. Ruben Linares ended his speech paraphrasing Che Guevara: "Let those who are born know, let those who are yet to be born know, the workers are on struggle, and we were born to be victorious, we were not born to be defeated"! The whole conference exploded in a heartfelt standing ovation.

Three quarters of all delegates signed the Hands Off Venezuela petition, and many took information and leaflets from the campaign and were generally very enthusiastic to get involved. By the end of the day, most delegates were wearing the distinctive Hands Off Venezuela stickers and pledged to take the message back to their branches and regions.

The visit by Ruben Linares, a national coordinator of the UNT, who also met with the TUC International Department, is an important step forward in the struggle to get the UNT recognised by the international trade union movement.

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On the occasion of the National Conference of UNISON (public sector workers union) the Hands Off Venezuela and the Colombia Solidarity Campaign supporters in UNISON organised a meeting on the evening of June 22 to catch the attention of the delegates attending the conference of the biggest trade union in Britain. The appeal of the meeting went beyond the UNISON conference and there were several students from the University of Glasgow, some Labour party members as well as Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) members who were responsible for organising the meeting.

Andy Higginbottom, Colombia Solidarity Campaign Secretary, opened the meeting. Andy explained the relationship between paramilitaries, government and multinational companies in Colombia who are right behind the onslaught that the social and trade union movement has suffered over 20 years. This repression has worsened since Uribe Velez was elected as president of Colombia in 2003. Andy illustrated the level of collaboration of the Colombian army and the paramilitaries by saying that the same soldiers wear the armbands of the Colombian army and the AUC (the main far right paramilitary group), depending of the actions they are going to execute. He also presented the Coca-Cola boycott as a tactic to denounce the violence that this company is employing against their workers in Colombia.

Ramon Samblas, Hands Off Venezuela spokesperson, followed on by explaining the improvements that the Venezuelan Revolution has brought about. It was really inspiring to hear that four new universities had opened their door with the aim of providing education to these layers in society that had never had this chance before.

“But all of that [the social programmes on housing, education and healthcare] has not been free from harassment and attacks from the US administration and the Venezuelan oligarchy. They can see that their power is slipping through their fingers and they have organised reactionary attempts to defeat this movement,” Ramon said to the audience. He went on explaining the different attacks on the part of US imperialism against Venezuela: coup d’etats, lock-outs, terrorism, diplomatic harassment, amongst other. The HOV activist reported on the experiences of workers’ co-management and finished up his contribution explaining the need for “going all the way through”, completing the process and install socialism in the country. The debate that Hugo Chavez has sparked about the need of the Venezuelan Revolution to follow a socialist path will help for sure.

Rosie Kane, SSP Member of the Scottish Parliament reported on her trip to Cuba where she had the chance to meet Fidel Castro. The MSP was invited to Cuba to attend an international event where people from all over Latin America and beyond denounced the crimes of imperialism. During three days, hundreds of people gave accounts of the abuse and violence they had suffered because of the terrorist methods of US imperialism. All these accounts were broadcast by Cuban TV which reaches the neighbouring islands and some Latin American countries. While in Cuba, Rosie spoke on Western hypocrisy and the need of tackling it together with the system that sustains it, capitalism. In her contribution, she despised British media because of the lack of interest in the struggle of the Cuban people against US imperialism. She illustrated this with an anecdote that happened to her the day after she came back from Cuba. A Guardian journalist phoned her and asked her, “What do you think about the architecture of Scottish Parliament building?” Her answer was “For Christ’s sake, I have met the leader of the Cuban Revolution and you are asking me about the Scottish Parliament Building!” She finished her contribution by saying that we have to support all the revolutionary movements that are taking in Latin America and the groups that are developing solidarity with these movements from Britain.

When the main speaker, Colombian trade unionist Juan Carlos Galvis started his speech there were 80 people packed in the room. Extra chairs had to be brought in to accommodate everybody. Some people had to stay outside because there was not enough space for them all. Juan Carlos spoke on behalf of SINALTRAINAL (Colombian beverages and food workers union) about the actions that the trade union had taken at a worldwide level against the abuse and violence that his trade union had suffered by Coca-Cola. Juan Carlos has been working for this company for 16 years.

He explained how SINALTRAINAL had opened four court cases against this company in the United States with the help of one of the US trade union that organise workers in the food and beverages industry. Horrifying examples were given of the level of violence against them by Coca-Cola altogether with the Colombian paramilitaries. The only “crime” they had committed was to organise workers and stand up for their rights. Amongst the methods used is the hiring of paramilitaries to kidnap, threaten and assassinate his trade union colleagues and the accusations of “rebellion”. In Colombia this is the first step to be accused of colluding with the guerrilla groups to “justify” the assassination of trade union, student or peasant activists. Jorge Humberto Bernal is one of Juan Carlos comrades. He was kidnapped by the paramilitaries in Cucuta. He was abducted, blindfolded and thrown into the back of a van. After he was driven around the city of Cucuta for 45 minutes, he was brought to a room where he was shown pictures of a SINALTRAINAL protest outside Coca-Cola bottling plant. He was told that if SINALTRAINAL carried out more protests, he and his comrades would be killed. Juan Carlos himself had suffered the threats of the paramilitaries.

The Colombian brother also explained the origins of the World campaign against Coke. After the company refused to even respond a document with basic demands to stop the violence against their own workforce SINALTRAINAL decided to launch a worldwide boycott against Coca-Cola in July 2003. After two years, the boycott has supporters in Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, Switzerland, US, Canada, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela and many more countries. Juan Carlos finished his speech vowing to fight against multinationals and therefore against capitalist globalisation. His speech was welcome with a standing ovation. Juan Carlos replied saying that the applause must go to all these that have shown solidarity with his Colombian fellow trade unionists.

A lively debate developed with some UNISON delegates asking other UNISON delegates to support the Hands Off Venezuela motion due to be debated at the Conference the very next day. Others asked for practical ways to implement the boycott and the question what to do to stop imperialist intervention against Cuba and Venezuela was raised. There were also people from the audience that highlighted the revolutionary movements in Bolivia and Ecuador. Above all, there was a feeling in the audience to go out and build solidarity with the movements that will expel imperialism from the continent and build a socialist society.

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The country of Venezuela is a startling paradox of immense suffering and extreme wealth. According to a private Caracas-based polling company, Datanalisis, over 58% of the 25 million people in Venezuela live on less than $253 (Cdn) a month. The level of poverty becomes all the more damning when factoring in that Venezuela is also the world’s fourth largest oil exporter. This glaring contradiction remained unchallenged until the election of Hugo Chavez as Venezuelan President.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected Venezuelan President with an approval of 56%. His electoral success came about because if elected he promised to immediately instigate land reform and to put the countries oil revenues back into public services like education and health care. Since his Presidential victory Chavez has made good on his promises. The government under his leadership has:

a)      built 657 new schools, created four universities, hired 36,000 teachers and given the opportunity for a formal education to three million new people

b)      distributed 5.5 million acres of land to 116,000 families organized in cooperatives

c)      traded oil to Cuba in exchange for 13,000 doctors in an effort to expand health care to 1.2 million more people

These are just some of the many things President Chavez has done in order to combat poverty in Venezuela. Unfortunately for Venezuelans these social programs aimed at giving the 15 million previously neglected people a decent standard of living comes into direct conflict with national and international business interests.

Before the election of Chavez, Venezuela was just another waypoint for the United States to get below market-value oil without having to give anything significant back. According to the Energy Information Administration of the US governmental department, in 1997, approximately 17.4% (1.773 million barrels a day) of all American oil imports came from Venezuela, making it the largest and most reliable oil source for the US in the world. This also accounts for over half of all Venezuelan oil exports.

By Chavez’s second year in power in 2000, Venezuela dropped from being the largest oil exporter to the United States to being their 3rd largest, sending over approximately 400,000 less barrels a day. Chavez, by actually enforcing OPEC quotas through decreasing oil production while maintaining the same level of profitability meant financial benefits for Venezuela at the expense of cheap oil prices. This was not a conscious effort by the Chavez government to undermine the United States but a means for Venezuela to redistribute oil revenue into social spending. In addition to this and putting heavier regulations on the public oil sector, Chavez raised taxation on the private oil sector to an average of 25% from the previous average of

7% as well as giving the state oil company, the PDVSA, a 51% stake in all new private oil developments. Once again, all the extra revenue generated by the Venezuelan State went back into social spending instead of private business subsidies. Under previous US-friendly governments this would have been unheard-of.

The wealth had always been in Venezuela, and now, under a more planned out economy, it was genuinely being used to benefit the whole of Venezuelan society instead of just acting as corporate welfare or private sector investment. All of these accomplishments were done through legal means and without violating the sovereignty of any other countries. Regardless of this, Chavez became the victim of imperialist manoeuvring and domestic sabotage.

It is no secret that in April 2002 a coup was orchestrated by the CIA to be carried out by the Venezuelan business congress and right-wing elements within the Venezuelan military. Chavez was kidnapped and many of his cabinet ministers were put under arrest. The head of the business congress, Pedro Carmona, was named President, the Constitutional Assembly was dissolved and the Supreme Court was virtually fired. The next day, the New York Times and Washington Post ran articles claiming that popular mass anti-government protests forced Chavez from power. No mention of a coup was made.

Meanwhile, private media outlets, which make up 90% of all Venezuelan media, were hailing the coup as a “triumph for democracy” and the “defeat of the dictator”. The majority of the Venezuelan populace had no idea what was going on because the one state-owned television station and all state run radio was ‘mysteriously’ cut. Long story short, within a couple of days the word spread throughout Venezuela and millions marched on the Presidential palace in opposition to the new illegitimate government. At that moment, palace guards sympathetic to Chavez stormed the palace and placed under arrest any members of the new government who had not yet fled. By the end of the day Chavez was returned safely and sworn back in as President.

The political intrigue did not end there. Less than 8 months later a lockout was organized by anti-Chavez high-level government bureaucrats to shut down the national oil company, the PDVSA. The concept was that if the economy was sabotaged Chavez would be forced from power. What the lockout organizers didn’t take into account was just how much the workers supported Chavez -- so much so, that they actually broke the lockout and ran the facilities themselves, without management, to keep the economy alive.

The list goes on.

Later still in August 2004 a national referendum was held on Chavez’s Presidency. The Carter Center, who helped monitor the vote, reported that over 90% of the eligible voting public voted, of which approximately 60% were in favour of keeping Chavez in power. This was yet another example of how the people of Venezuela have never failed to defend Chavez with their mass support whenever he has come under attack, legal or otherwise.

Despite his continual victories over local capitalists and US imperialism, the struggle is far from over for the President and people of Venezuela. The CIA is still, to this day, going on record making completely unfounded claims that Chavez is a threat to stability in South America and that Chavez is “aiding and abiding” terrorists and the drug trade in Columbia. The US state department has even invented a new set of terms just for Chavez by referring to his government as an “elected dictatorship” or an “authoritarian democracy”.

Anyone following the political situation in Venezuela should not be tricked by the unfounded rhetoric of the United States. Interested parties should also be aware that the anti-Chavez forces will not rest until he is defeated by whatever means necessary; the US conducted assassination of the democratically elected leftist President of Chile, Allende, in 1973 is just an example of how far the US has been willing to go in the past to enforce their agenda. It is for this reason as well as others that supporters of the reforms being made in Venezuela must be diligent in helping build international solidarity to support Chavez and the Venezuelan people against foreign intervention and to make any extreme actions on the part of the United States government an impossibility.

The New Democratic Youth of Canada is doing its part by endorsing the “Hands off Venezuela!” campaign, which is organized in almost 50 countries. The campaign is endorsed by Chavez himself and is so far operating in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Peterborough, Waterloo, Toronto and Montreal. The campaign aims to educate people on the history of Venezuela and the current political situation. Raising awareness on the plight of Venezuela acts as a means to expose the not-so-hidden agenda of the US, the corruption of the Venezuelan oligarchy as well as provides a forum by which to promote the legitimacy of the struggle for participatory democracy in Venezuela.

Against imperialist intervention in Venezuela! For the defence of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela! For the victory of democratic socialism in Latin America!

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On Monday, June 20th the Edmonton and District Labour Council (EDLC) set an exciting example for the Canadian Labour movement, donating $500 to build the Hands Off Venezuela campaign in Alberta and Canada. Following a brief presentation by young representatives of the campaign, a motion was passed to affiliate to Hands Off Venezuela and encourage all of their affiliated union locals to do the same. Significantly, they have offered to distribute our affiliation materials to their mailing list.

There has been much discussion recently in the Canadian Labour movement, about the Bolivarian Revolution and the importance of defending it. At the EDLC meeting on Monday evening, discussion focused on connecting the struggles of Venezuelan workers to the struggles of workers in Alberta and Canada – since they are the same struggles, against privatization, for quality healthcare and education, and against domination by American multinationals. At the regional level, the Alberta Federation of Labour Convention passed a resolution in May, calling for the support of the progressive reforms being put forward by Chavez, the denunciation of foreign aggression against Venezuela, and for solidarity to be established between the Canadian labour movement and the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela. Many of the EDLC meeting delegates had recently returned from the Convention of the Canadian Labour Congress, which took place last week in Montreal, and at which there was an educational focus on Venezuela and extensive discussion urging affiliates to follow events and show their support. This recent discussion and the Edmonton and District Labour Council’s affiliation signal an increasing awareness and sense of urgency. This is clearly just the beginning for the Canadian campaign.

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[Speech made at a Labor Assembly in Geneva, June 12, 2005]

Brothers, Sisters, Friends and Comrades in the unending struggle for the rights of workers, equality, peace and democracy,

Thank you for this great honor of speaking here today with such a working class international assembly. I come to you with letters of representation from my own union, Plumbers and Fitters Local 393 in San Jose, California, the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council in San Jose, and the San Francisco Labor Council. I am pleased beyond words to have been invited to participate here by leaders of the Union Nacional de Trabajadores de Venezuela (UNT) (Venezuelas’ National Workers Union) - to join them in their struggle against the complaint raised by the joint voice of FEDECAMARAS, the Federation of Chambers of Commerce in Venezuela and the CTV, that nation’s old labor federation. Their boss-union collaboration is a marriage that could never be heaven blessed and can only be consummated in a warmer, subterranean climate.

I am Vice President of a 2500 member local union of pipe trades workers. I’m a plumber by trade, retired after thirty eight years as a rank-and-file worker in construction. I’m not a scholar. I have no university degrees, but for many years I have and worked on the issue of AFL-CIO intervention in the political and trade union life of sovereign nations, with most attention to the effect on workers and their organizations in Latin America. Whatever other factors may be involved, the FEDECAMARAS-CTV collusion against the UNT and the Bolivarian Republic, led President Hugo Chavez, is an ugly outgrowth of intervention by ACILS, the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity subsidized by the Bush administration, whose policy, in Venezuela, it parallels.
 
For over fifty years the interventionist work of the AFL-CIO has been financed by agencies of the U.S. Government. Among those agencies are the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, the Department of Labor, the U.S. Agency for International Development and some other agencies. In recent years, most ACILS funding comes from U.S. taxpayers through NED, the National Endowment for Democracy. Formerly, Latin American labor intervention operations were manipulated by AIFLD, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, which worked hand-in-hand with ORIT, the InterAmerican Regional Labor Organization. Three other AFL-CIO “institutes” operated on other continents. AIFLD operations, strengthened sellout unions and attacked militant unions, paving the way for transnational corporate globalization and influencing regime changes with disastrous results for workers.

An AFL operative, Serafino Romualdi, was a founder of ORIT. His clandestine work in Guatemala, fifty one years ago, was pivotal in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. It resulted, through ensuing decades, in the deaths of uncounted tens of thousands of workers. Romualdi later set up AIFLD, whose work under his protege, William C. Doherty Jr., was critical to the Pinochet putch against democracy in Chile, unleashing terror, torture and death for seventeen years. Over three thousand lives were taken. I fear that US. government manipulations in Venezuela duplicate its work in Chile in 1973.

These issues have been on my mind many years. It began in 1973 when I learned that the AFL-CIO was part of what happened to democracy in Chile. I was outraged - simply outraged. As the facts came clear, I saw that our Federation’s role was fundamental to that coup. It could not have happened without us! In my city, we organized and welcomed hundreds of Chileans from Pinochet concentration camps. They had suffered torture and lost husbands, wives, children and lovers - their lives torn asunder. I told them though their tears that when the U.S. workers learn the grief our AFL-CIO collaboration causes, we would end that treason to the workers and to what we stand for. We’re still working on it and our California resolution against such collaboration may strike a blow at the July AFL-CIO convention.

I mention this hsitory because AIFLD had the same boss-labor collaboration as we see with FEDECAMARAS and the CTV. Bosses from the biggest U.S. corporations with interests in Latin America sat on AIFLD’s Board of Directors. Representatives of the CTV, already a client of AIFLD in the sixties, sat on that same Board with the bosses. A CIA whistle blower identified both Romualdi and Doherty as CIA agents who funneled U.S. federal money into their so-called “solidarity” operations. Of AIFLD’s work, Doherty said: “Our collaboration (with business) takes the form of trying to make the investment climate more attractive and inviting.”

Though discussion of this history has never been welcome in the AFL-CIO, delegates to the 2004 Convention of the California Labor Federation, representing 2.4 million workers demanded unanimously that the AFL-CIO “fully account for what was done in Chile and Venezuela and other countries where similar roles may have been played in our name, and to describe, country by country, exactly what activities it may still be engaged in abroad with funds paid by government agencies and renounce any such ties that could compromise our authentic credibility and the trust of workers here and abroad and that would make us paid agents of government or of the forces of corporate economic globalization.”

Full accountability will be difficult. For example, they’ve ransacked the Chile file. In 1975 Luis Figueroa, head of Chile’s Labor Federation, blamed AIFLD for “fourteen years of treason” in Chile. The record of that fourteen years in the AFL-CIO archives amounts to twenty-four pages of disparate letters and notes.

We had new hope when John Sweeney became AFL-CIO President in 1995. Stanley Gacek, of his International Affairs Department, flatly told us in San Francisco on November 15, 1997 that AFL-CIO work abroad “does not follow a corporate or government agenda.” Today AIFLD and the other institutes are gone, but ACILS still relies on the Bush administration, receiving its cash mostly through NED, the National Endowment for Democracy, for its work, in 40 countriues, including Venezuela. Allen Weinstein, who helped draft the law establishing NED admitted in 1991: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” (“Rogue State” Bill Blum)

It’s ironic that the word “Solidarity” is in ACILS’ name. Our South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council says: “We believe that international labor solidarity must come from the heart of the workers in one country to the heart of workers in another country - a...reciprocal relationship.” There’s no solidarity when labor becomes a go-between, laundering funds and resources from the Bush administration and passing them to groups abroad. That role is more appropriate for government agents - agents of empire.

In Venezuela, ACILS reflects the policies of George W. Bush and his union busting neoconservative cronies. My union says it is dishonest that “ACILS received a 2002 grant of $116,001, awarded by the NED under 'the authority contained in P.L. 98-164, as amended...and Grant No. S-L MAOM-02-H-0054 between the United States Department of State and the National Endowment for Democracy..,’ part of $703,927 that had been granted by NED to ACILS between 1997 and 2002 for ACILS’ work in Venezuela. During 2001 NED granted $154,377 to ACILS as part of a massive increase in NED funding that year to $877,000 for activities which coincide directly with the efforts of the Bush administration leading toward the April 11, 2002 coup in oil rich Venezuela”

It shames us that: “according to ACILS’ VENEZUELA: QUARTERLY REPORT 2001-045 January to March 2002, 'The CTV and FEDECAMARAS...held a national conference on March 5...to identify common objectives as well as areas of cooperation...the culminating event of some two months of meetings and planning...during which the two organizations announced a Œnational accord’...The joint action further established the CTV and FEDECAMARAS as the flagship organizations leading the growing opposition to the Chavez government’” - THIRTY SIX DAYS PRIOR TO THE APRIL 11, 2002 COUP!

My union is offended that ACILS boasts that they “helped to 'support the event in planning stages, organizing the initial meetings with...FEDECAMARAS... Solidarity Center (ACILS) provided assistance for the five regional preparatory meetings ...held between January 22nd and March 1st... The March 5 national conference was financed primarily by counterpart funds,’” ACILS money. Our Labor Council wants to know why “ACILS...is operating...as part of the Bush administration’s drive for regime change in Venezuela, a replay of the Nixon administration’s bloody collusion in crimes in Chile over 30 years ago.”

With this background, there should be no surprise when we learn that AFL-CIO representatives use their influence, in line with the Bush strategy, to promote the false complaint of FEDECAMARAS and their historic ally, the CTV, which went fifty years without a democratic election of leadership.

Bush strategy is to isolate, demonize and destroy the government of Hugo Chavez . They supported and lost the coup, the oil lockout, the Referendum. Now they claim denial of workers' rights. They do what they can to undercut the support given the Chavez government by the Venezuelan working class, led by the UNT. It is the same pattern cut by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and AIFLD in Chile.

FEDECAMARAS’ complaint diverts attention from its criminal and treasonous role in shutting down the oil industry and in the aborted 2002 coup d’etat against an administration which has won the overwhelming support of the people through six faultlessly democratic elections. FEDECAMARAS must hunger to regain lost control of oil and government favors, and CTV must grieve its lost ability to broker the needs of the workers to management and government.

We are heartened that their complaint failed at the March ILO meeting and was postponed. After March, ACILS worked to squeeze the following words from ORIT: "The Congress of CIOSL/ORIT reaffirms its concerns with the complaint against the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela insofar as its practices violate trade union freedoms.” The fact that ORIT’s presiding officer is a Vice President of the AFL-CIO did not hamper ACIL’s efforts to elicit ORIT’s support for the FEDECAMARAS-CTV complaint. Another fact: the President of ORIT along with John Sweeney and various top officers of the AFL-CIO and ACILS take their place in the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Committee on Labor Diplomacy (ACLD). The “Labor Diplomacy” leader is Tom Donahue, formerly President of the AFL-CIO. The role of the State Department and its committees is solely support of the Bush foreign policy - a collaboration as unjustifiable as ORIT’s backup to the FEDECAMARAS’ attack.

My local union twice sent me to Colombia, where I saw our brothers and sisters going about their daily union business in the face of death threats. In 2004 the ILO reported 186 murdered Colombian union leaders. They were assassinated with impunity by paramilitary death squads that work hand-in-glove with the military which receives billions from Bush. I saw desperate fear in the eyes of a Coca Cola worker when he learned his family was menaced by paramilitaries in Bogota. I consoled a woman in Barrancabermeja whose husband, son and son-in-law were cut down in a soccer field massacre a block from her home. A poster on her wall said “make love to fear.” I interviewed a television union representative in Bogota who lost six members of his family.

I have also been part of a solidarity delegation to Caracas and mixed among the members of the UNT to find the most exuberant rank-and-file expressions of democracy and loyalty to unionism that I have ever encountered. Last May Day proved one difference between the UNT and the CTV. While only a few hundred people attended the CTV event, joining in jubilant celebration of International Workers’ Day, the Chicago Martyrs, their own Federation and the Bolivarian Revolution.

The explosion of democracy I witnessed in Venezuela the day of the Referendum last August resonates worldwide. It is an insult to reason that the ILO even considers disciplining Venezuela with a Commission of Inquiry, while the need for ILO attention cries out in bleeding pain from our sisters and brothers in Colombia.

And in the San Francisco Labor Council AFL-CIO, where the delegates meet, with calloused hands and in sweaty work clothes , unlike the calloused souls and fine suits of the AFL-CIO’s foreign service staff, the workers proudly declare that their Council:
“...Opposes the complaint initiated by...FEDECAMARAS...This Complaint has been endorsed and supported by employers' associations in 23 countries, including the United States...Convening of an ILO Commission of Inquiry is designed to undermine the very progress of the labor movement within present-day Venezuela.

“Today in Venezuela, workers are participating in a democratic, transparent and inclusive process to strengthen the organization of labor groups. The Venezuelan Constitution protects a worker's right to organize, the freedom of association and collective bargaining.

'We recognize and respect the right of Venezuelan workers to determine their own processes and procedures in accordance with the ILO mission to promote social justice, human and labor rights.'

The workers in San Francisco note that: “the California Federation of Labor adopted a resolution opposing NED funding by the national AFL-CIO for the purpose of promoting U.S. government policy in Venezuela. Opposition to the ILO Commission of Inquiry on Venezuela by the U.S. labor movement is part of the same struggle to promote a new foreign policy by labor that is independent from U.S. State Department objectives.”

My brothers and sisters, this struggle is not just for Venezuela. The Bush strategy advanced by FEDECAMARAS and the CTV could lead to a new Chile,new Iraq - or worse. It is part of a struggle for our own peace and security and the rights of workers and our families everywhere. When they touch Venezuela, they touch us all.

This false complaint deserves full hearted denunciation by workers and unions worldwide.

BURY THE COMPLAINT!
AN INJURY TO VENEZUELA IS AN INJURY TO ALL!
AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL!
HANDS OFF VENEZUELA!

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Yet another move forward has been made in the trade union movement in support of the
Bolivarian revolution.

A motion calling on trade unionists to support and promote the reforms in Venezuela, was agreed at the Trades Union Councils’ Conference Liverpool (UK) 10-12 June 2005.

In addition to the unanimous support by the Trades Union Councils across the country, numerous copies of the DVD The Revolution Will Not Be Televised were distributed. This has proven to be one of the most effective tools at proving the lies and corruption of the opposition.

Yvonne Washbourne moved the motion on behalf of the West Midlands CATUC and informed the delegates of the significant reforms made in Venezuela and the illegal pressure of the US.

Nick Kelleher W-Ton TUC spoke in support of the motion and urged all people to raise the issue within their international committees and co-ordinate work through the VSUK. A full copy of the motion is available on Venezuelasolidarity.org.uk and the action points included

1) Express its solidarity to the trade unionists of the UNT.

2) Support the Venezuelan people in their effort to extend social and economic freedom.

3) Support and promote Solidarity campaigns within Britain that support the popular reforms.

4) Encourage solidarity activities to be co-ordinated via the newly established Venezuela Solidarity Campaign at venezuelasolidarity.org.uk.

Andy Goodall of VSUK stated: “At this moment when there is a real threat of assassination by the fascist and US supported big business of president Chavez. It is critical that workers in Venezuela are supported worldwide and we put pressure on our national governments to resist illegal US interference. Anybody interested in finding out more about the campaign then visit Venezuelasolidarity.org.uk.

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