Big Labor’s Tool of Empire
Just before the April 14 Presidential elections in Venezuela, RT News reported on a Wikileaks Cable from 2006 in which, in the words of RT, then “ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, outlines a comprehensive plan to infiltrate and destabilize former President Hugo Chavez’ government,” including through programs of the USAID and its Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). On May Day, Bolivian President Evo Morales informed the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia that he wanted USAID to leave Bolivia because he (quite reasonably) suspected USAID of trying to subvert his own government as well.
The 2006 Wikileaks cable makes for fascinating reading. (1) In the cable, Ambassador Brownfield explains that, among its many goals, the destabilization “program fosters confusion within the Bolivarian ranks . . . .” And, he describes a key component of this program as follows:
OTI supports local NGOs who work in Chavista strongholds and with Chavista leaders, using those spaces to counter this [Chavista] rhetoric and promote alliances through working together on issues of importance to the entire community. OTI has directly reached approximately 238,000 adults through over 3000 forums, workshops and training sessions delivering alternative values and providing opportunities for opposition activists to interact with hard-core Chavistas, with the desired effect of pulling them slowly away from Chavismo. We have supported this initiative with 50 grants totaling over $1.1 million.
Brownfield concludes the cable by stating: “Through carrying out positive activities, working in a non-partisan way across the ideological landscape, OTI has been able to achieve levels of success in carrying out the country team strategy in Venezuela. These successes have come with increasing opposition by different sectors of Venezuelan society and the Venezuelan government.”
One of the major recipients of USAID monies in the Andean Region, which includes Venezuela, is the AFL-CIO’s international wing, the Solidarity Center. The Solidarity Center was quite embarrassed in 2002 when the union it was working with and funding in Venezuela — the anti-Chavez CTV — actively participated in the coup against President Hugo Chavez. However, the Solidarity Center was not embarrassed enough to relent from continuing to support the CTV and to even support the management-led strike against the Venezuelan oil company (PDVSA) which greatly damaged the Venezuelan economy.
And, the Solidarity Center is still working in Venezuela, thanks to a recent grant of $3 million from the USAID for its work in both Venezuela and Colombia. While seemingly innocuous in isolation, the Solidarity Center’s own description of its work in Venezuela, when read in light of the above-described Wikileaks cable, is revealing of the Solidarity Center’s imperial role.
Thus, the current description of this work on the Solidarity Center website is as follows:
Over the past 13 years, the Solidarity Center has worked with a broad range of national labor centers and unaffiliated worker organizations in Venezuela. . . . Given 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. This emphasis on core union rights such as freedom of association and collective bargaining helps unions transcend their political fissures to address the basic needs of working people in Venezuela. (2)
Sound familiar? The program of the Solidarity Center in Venezuela is exactly that of the U.S. State Department and USAID; that is, to bring Chavistas together with non-Chavistas into alliance over a common cause — a process which the U.S. hopes will dilute Chavismo, or, in the words of former Ambassador Brownfield, to have “the desired effect of pulling them [the Chavistas] slowly away from Chavismo.”
That the Solidarity Center is following the State Department and USAID program exactly should not be surprising given that the Solidarity Center receives nearly all its funding from the USAID and other funders directly linked to the State Department and U.S. foreign policy interests (e.g., the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)).
In response to this assertion of mine, the folks of the Solidarity Center will undoubtedly engage in collective eye-rolling followed by passionate denials of the claim that they continue to serve as a tool of U.S. foreign policy in countries like Venezuela. The fact that they happen to receive funding from the USAID and the fact that their program matches perfectly with the USAID program to destabilize the Chavista government and movement in Venezuela are mere coincidences, they will claim.
Their defense will be that they do not possess the intent of subversion and regime change of their financial backers, and that they are not the same organization they once were which intentionally helped the CIA overthrow progressive governments abroad, such as that of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.
The best analysis I have seen to rebut such Solidarity Center denials – if much rebutting is needed — is that set forth in the doctorate dissertation of George Bass which is making the rounds within the labor left in the U.S. (3) Bass’s thesis, and it is well-supported, is that, regardless of the Solidarity Center’s intentions, it continues to objectively serve the U.S. foreign policy interests which continue to fund its activities abroad. In a nutshell, Bass explains:
the evidence indicates continuity with past AFL-CIO foreign policy practices whereby the Solidarity Center follows the lead of the U.S. state.
It has been found that the patterns of NED funding indicate that the Solidarity Center closely tailors its operations abroad in areas of importance to the U.S. state, that it is heavily reliant on state funding via the NED for its operations, and that the Solidarity Center works closely with U.S. allies and coalitions in these regions.
In the case of Venezuela, which he analyses in detail, Bass explains that the Solidarity Center’s foray into Venezuela corresponded with the election of Hugo Chavez to the Presidency and to the effort thereafter of the U.S. State Department and NED to destabilize Chavez.
Of course, according to the Solidarity Center’s own website, it has been working in Venezuela for the past 13 years – or, just after Chavez took office for the first time in 1999. And, it has been working there with NED funding – funding which, as Bass explains, ballooned for both the Solidarity Center, as well as other groups like the International Republic Institute, after Chavez was first elected — and with USAID funding. Moreover, the Solidarity Center has been partnering with unions, especially the CTV, which are openly anti-Chavez and which ultimately participated in the coup which briefly ousted Chavez from power.
As Bass astutely opines, whether or not the Solidarity Center (aka, “ACILS”) has actually possessed the intention to overthrow the Chavista government in Venezuela, the Solidarity Center has and continues to carry out activities which objectively serve the destabilization goals of the U.S. foreign policy interests which fund those activities. As Bass concludes, “it is clear that the ACILS activity in Venezuela was largely a product of the U.S. state, if not simply because of the sudden and drastic shift in funding flows, then by the choice of partnering with the CTV at the exclusion of other labor organizations even after the CTV leadership had clearly aligned with FEDECAMARAS [the business association] and engaged in strikes and lockouts aimed at destabilizing the Chavez regime.” The very same can be said of the Solidarity Center’s current program which aligns so perfectly with that of the State Department and USAID.
All of this is truly disturbing, and indeed, reprehensible.
The Venezuelan people, with the significant help of organized labor in Venezuela, have just elected a former union bus driver to the Presidency. The U.S. labor movement should be supporting this new President, and indeed rejoicing in his election. Instead, the foreign policy wing of U.S. labor is engaged in conduct which is objectively undermining that President and the movement which brought him to power. This conduct must end.
The only redemption for the AFL-CIO, and its Solidarity Center, is to cease all activities in Venezuela immediately and refuse all funding for any of its program from U.S. foreign policy concerns. In addition, the Solidarity Center must make a public accounting of all of its crimes against Third World liberation movements and governments, as well as that of its predecessor AIFLD; apologize for those crimes; and make amends, through monetary compensation, to the literally hundreds of thousands of people in the Global South it has injured, and even killed, through its complicity with U.S. imperialism. This is the only way the AFL-CIO can hope to save its own soul.
Alberto C. Ruiz is a long-time labor activist and anti-imperialist.
(3) Bass, George Nelson III. 2012. “Organized Labor and US Foreign Policy: The Solidarity Center in Historical Context.” Department of Political Science, Florida International University. On-line (and free) at http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/etd/752