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Diatribes and Curious Silences

Democrats and U.S. Labor Delusional About Latin America

by ALBERTO C. RUIZ

The Democrats just put out their platform on Latin America, and it demonstrates only the loosest connection to reality.   Thus, while praising the “vibrant democracies in countries from Mexico to Brazil and Costa Rica to Chile,” as well as “historic peaceful transfers of power in places like El Salvador and Uruguay,” the Democrats continue to point to Cuba and Venezuela as outliers in the region in which the Democrats plan “to press for more transparent and accountable governance” and for “greater freedom.”   Of course, it is their Platform’s deafening silence on critical developments in the region which says the most about their position vis a vis the Region.

Not surprising, the Democrats say nothing about the recent coups in Honduras and Paraguay (both taking place during Obama’s first term) which unseated popular and progressive governments.   They also say nothing about the fact that President Obama, against the tide of the other democratic countries in Latin America, quickly recognized the coup governments in both of these countries.   Also omitted from the platform is any discussion of the horrendous human rights situation in post-coup Honduras where journalists, human rights advocates and labor leaders have been threatened, harassed and even killed at alarming rates.

As Reporters Without Borders (RWR) explained on August 16, 25 journalists have been murdered in Honduras since the 2009 coup, making Honduras the journalist murder capital of the world.   In this same story, RWR mentions Honduras in the same breath as Mexico (a country the Democrats hold out as one of the “vibrant democracies” in the region) when speaking of the oppression of journalists and social activists, as well as the general climate of violence which plagues both countries.   As RWR stated, “Like their Mexican colleagues, Honduran journalists – along with human rights workers, civil society representatives, lawyers and academics who provide information – will not break free of the spiral of violent crime and censorship until the way the police and judicial apparatus functions is completely overhauled.”   And indeed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 38 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 1992, and it has been confirmed in 27 of these cases that the journalists were killed precisely because they were journalists.   Meanwhile, in Mexico, over 40,000 individuals have been killed due to the U.S.-sponsored drug war – hardly a laudable figure.

Of course, in the case of Honduras, and Paraguay as well, things are going fine for U.S. interests post-coup, with Honduras maintaining the U.S. military base which President Manuel Zelaya, overthrown in the coup, had threatened to close.  Similarly, in Paraguay, one of the first acts of the new coup government was agreeing to open a new U.S. military base – a base opposed by Fernando Lugo, the President (and former liberation Bishop) overthrown in the coup.   The other act of the new coup government in Paraguay was its agreement to allow Rio Tinto to open a new mine in that country, again in contravention of the deposed President’s position.   The Democrats simply do not speak of either Honduras or Paraguay in their Platform.

Instead, the Democrats mostly focus on their alleged desire to bring freedom to Cuba, saying nothing about the strides already made by Cuba itself where, according to a January 27, 2012 story in the Financial Times, entitled, “Freedom comes slowly to Cuba,” “there are currently no prisoners of conscience.”  This is to be contrasted with Colombia, the chief U.S. ally in the region, which houses around 10,000 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.   The Democrats, shy about such unpleasant facts, simply say nothing about Colombia – this despite the fact that Colombia just announced historic peace talks with the guerillas which have been engaged in a 50-year insurgency in that country.   Apparently, this does not deserve a mention amongst the Democrats’ anti-Cuba diatribe.

Meanwhile, the Democrats also single out Venezuela as a country in which it is hoping to free from its alleged chains.   What the Democrats fail to note is that Venezuela already has a popular, democratically President in Hugo Chavez who is making life better for the vast majority of Venezuelans, and who appears poised to receive the majority of the votes of the Venezuelan people in the upcoming October elections as a consequence.  Thus, according to Oxfam, “Venezuela certainly seems to be getting something right on inequality. According to the highly reputable UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, it now has the most equal distribution of income in the region, and has improved rapidly since 1990.”  Again, contrast this with the U.S.’s chief ally Colombia and with Mexico, the two countries with the worst problems of inequality in the region.  As the Council on Hemispheric Affairs noted earlier this year, “both Colombia and Mexico suffer from some of the world’s most unequal distributions of wealth. In 1995, Colombia was ranked the fifth most unequal country (of those with available statistics), with a Gini coefficient of 0.57, while Mexico was ranked the eighth worst with a Gini coefficient of 0.52.  Between 2006 and 2010, Colombia’s inequality ranked 0.58, while Mexico’s coefficient was 0.52, qualifying them as two of the lowest ranked countries in the world.”   The Democrats, uninterested in such trivialities as social equality, simply ignore such inconvenient data.

For its part, U.S. labor, as represented (albeit very poorly) by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, continue to march in step with the U.S. government and the Democrats in their imperial delusions about the Region.  Thus, while for some time simply hiding the fact that it has been working in Venezuela at all, the Solidarity Center, in response to pressure about this issue, has recently admitted on its website that it has been continuously working in Venezuela these past 13 years – i.e., to and through the coup in 2002 which the Solidarity Center aided and abetted by funneling monies from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to the anti-Chavez CTV union which was a major player in the coup.

Stinging from the just criticism over this, the Solidarity Center now claims — reminiscent of George W. Bush who fancied himself a “uniter” as opposed to a “divider” – claims that it is in Venezuela to unite the divided labor movement.    Thus, the Solidarity Center states:  “[g]iven the political fragmentation and divisions between unions in Venezuela, Solidarity Center activities work to help unions from all political tendencies overcome their divisions in order to jointly advocate for and defend policies for increased protection of fundamental rights at the workplace and industry levels. The Solidarity Center currently supports efforts to unite unions from diverse political orientations (including chavista and non-chavista, left and center) to promote fundamental labor rights in the face of anti-labor actions that threaten both pro-government unions and traditionally independent unions.”    In its statement, the Solidarity Center says nothing about the progressive labor law which President Chavez just recently signed into law without any help from U.S. labor.   This law, among other things, outlaws outsourcing and subcontracting, shortens the work week, increases minimum vacation time, increases maternity leave and requires employers to provide retirement benefits.

The Solidarity Center statement about Venezuela is laden with irony as well as hubris.  The U.S. labor movement is itself greatly fragmented, with two competing houses of labor (the AFL-CIO and Change to Win) as well as divisions even within these two confederations.   That the Solidarity Center would presume to be able to unite any union movement outside its borders is laughable.   Indeed, only imagine the reception from the labor movement in this country if China’s labor confederation purported to intervene in the U.S. to help unite the labor movement here.  Aside from wondering how exactly the Chinese unionists planned to do this, many would wonder about the ends to which such unity, once miraculously created, would be applied.    And, one must wonder the very same about this in regard to the Solidarity Center’s role in Venezuela.   First of all, the so-called “chavista” unions want nothing to do with the Solidarity Center, funded as it is by the NED and U.S.-AID, especially after the 2002 coup.    Again, they would have to question what the Solidarity Center, which just received a massive grant of $3 million for its work in Venezuela and Colombia, would want to “unify” the Venezuelan union movement to do.   The question appears to answer itself, and it is not a pretty one.

A modest proposal for the AFL-CIO and its Solidarity Center is to focus on uniting the labor movement at home in the U.S. to challenge the power that capital has on our political system; pressing for better U.S. labor law (on this score it could learn a lot from Venezuela and its labor movement); abandoning its labor paternalism (if not imperialism) and leaving it to the Venezuelans to unite their own labor movement.    Similarly, the Democrats, instead of worrying about ostensibly bringing U.S.-style democracy (more like social inequality and militarism) to other countries in the Region, should spend more time trying to make this country less beholden to corporate and monied interests, and thereby more democratic in the process.  But again, this is not what the Democrats are about.   What the AFL-CIO is about, aside from blindly supporting the Democrats, is anyone’s guess.

Alberto C. Ruiz is a long-time labor and peace activist.