[Marxism] On those trade union homicides in Venezuela

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 5 10:29:25 MDT 2010

Counterpunch August 5, 2010
The Big Lie
Venezuela and Labor


The biggest obstacle to the attempt first by the Bush 
Administration, and now by the Obama Administration, to achieve 
passage of the long-stalled Free Trade Agreement with Colombia is 
that country’s long-standing shameful reality as “the most 
dangerous country in the world for trade unionists,” to use the 
words of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the 
largest union confederation in the world, representing 176 million 
workers in 156 countries and territories.

Since 1986, over 2800 unionists have been assassinated in 
Colombia. The clear and ever-present danger to organized labor in 
Colombia is the most salient and undeniable fact about the U.S.’ 
favorite nation in the region.

Incredibly, it appears that adherents of the FTA may have 
commenced an effort to smear Venezuela with the same “danger to 
labor” brush in order to advance the prospects of the Colombia 
agreement by using bare statistics without elaboration or 
explanation to suggest that Colombia is no different. Nothing 
could be further from the truth.

According to the ITUC’s 2010 Annual Survey, of the 101 unionists 
assassinated in the world last year (2009), 48 (almost half) were 
Colombian. And, a recent, July 8, 2010 press release from the 
AFL-CI0 indicates that another 29 Colombian unionists were 
assassinated in the first half of 2010.

It is well-known that the assassination of unionists in Colombia 
is largely carried out by right-wing paramilitary groups linked to 
the Colombian government or by Colombian security forces 
themselves. Indeed, according to a 2007 report by Amnesty 
International on Colombia, “around 49 percent of human rights 
abuses against trade unionists were committed by paramilitaries 
[themselves linked to the Colombian state] and some 43 percent 
directly by the security forces.” And, the Colombian government up 
to its highest reaches, including President Alvaro Uribe himself, 
regularly (and quite falsely) stigmatizes unionists as 
“guerillas,” thereby knowingly setting up union leaders for 
paramilitary murder. Indeed, when I personally met with President 
Uribe as part of an AFL-CIO delegation in February 2008 at the 
Presidential Palace in Bogota and confronted him about this 
stigmatization, his proffered “defense” was that, when he was a 
student (presumably decades ago) his experience was that union 
leaders, student leaders and members of the press were in fact 
“guerillas.” In other words, in trying to fend off the claims that 
he stigmatized trade unionists, he merely repeated the stigmatization.

In light of all of this, the ITUC concluded in its 2010 Annual 
Survey that “[t]he historical and structural violence against the 
Colombian trade union movement remains firmly in place, 
manifesting itself in the form of systematic human and trade union 
rights violations. On average, men and women trade unionists in 
Colombia have been killed at the rate of one every three days over 
the last 23 years.”

This conclusion is in stark contrast to its conclusion about what 
is happening in Venezuela. Thus, while hardly uncritical of the 
situation confronting unionists in Venezuela, the ITUC, in its 
2010 Annual Survey, concluded nonetheless that “[v]iolence linked 
to the fight for jobs continued to be the main reason behind the 
killing of trade unionists.” The ITUC explains this phenomenon in 
more detail in its 2009 Annual Survey. There, it states that “[a] 
delicate issue for the labour world in Venezuela is the persistent 
disputes over the right to work, which have cost the lives of at 
least 19 trade unionists and 10 other workers . . . . The 
situation is particularly acute in the construction and oil 
industries, where various interest groups and mafias have clashed 
over the negotiation and sale of jobs, which is affecting trade 
union activity per se.” The 2009 report goes on to note that 
“there has been a fall in the number of murders to the fight over 
jobs in comparison with the previous year (from 48 to 29 for the 
period from October 2007 to September 2008….”

In other words, the ITUC, which is recognized as the foremost 
authority on anti-union violence, views the killings of unionists 
in Colombia and Venezuela very differently – with the violence 
against unionists in Colombia being “structural” and “systematic,” 
almost invariably with government sanction; and the violence in 
Venezuela, on the other hand, stemming from mafia-like corruption 
largely within the union movement itself. This is a distinction 
with a huge difference. As the ITUC itself reported in 2008, the 
trade union movement in Colombia has been brought to the point of 
near extinction by violence specifically designed to wipe out the 
union movement as a whole, with only 4% of workers represented by 
unions; while in Venezuela, approximately 11% of workers are 
represented by unions – just under the rate of unionization in 
theUnited States (12.3%).

Now enters Juan Forero in the Washington Post (and in a condensed 
piece for NPR), who, in a very misleading and many times 
self-contradictory story, is claiming that Venezuela should now be 
considered “the most dangerous country in the world for trade 
unionists,” pushing Colombia out of the number one spot. This 
piece, which is getting a lot of attention, could not be better 
timed as far as policy-makers in the U.S. and Colombia are 
concerned. Thus, it came out just as Obama has announced a renewed 
interest in the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (despite his 
campaign pledge to oppose it based upon trade union 
considerations) as well as the recent attempt by Colombia to 
censure Venezuela at the OAS for allegedly harboring FARC 
guerillas on its territory.

In his July 15, 2010 Washington Post piece entitled, “Venezuelan 
union clashes are on the rise as Chavez fosters new unions at odds 
with older ones,” Forero first acknowledges the fact that 
Venezuela considers itself “the most labor-friendly government in 
Latin America,” having “repeatedly increased the minimum wage, 
turned over the management of some nationalized companies to 
workers and fostered the creation of new unions.” In regard to the 
latter, Forero explains later in his piece that there are now 
“4,000 new unions, up from 1,300 in 2001” – a fact supporting 
Venezuela’s claim of being labor friendly.

However, the meat of Forero’s piece is to say that there is a 
sinister side to all of this – the killing of unionists, albeit by 
rival unions [as opposed to state or quazi-state forces as in the 
case of Colombia]. According to Forero, 75 unionists lost their 
lives in the past two years to such violence, 34 in the 12 months 
ending in May. Of course, in Colombia, 77 unionists have been 
killed in merely the past 1.5 years with 29 killed in the past 6 
months, and this in the context of a country with much lower union 
density that Venezuela.

Still, Forero presses on, attempting to suggest that the killings 
in Venezuela are in fact politically motivated, and somehow the 
fault of the Chavez administration.

A close examination of Forero’s own piece, however, belies this 
claim. The most concrete example Forero gives of these 
“intra-union killings” is by way of an interview with Emilio 
Bastidas, a leader of the UNT, who talks of the murder of 8 union 
activists from the UNT in recent years. Bastidas himself is quoted 
in the story as saying that “We believe it is political to 
debilitate the UNT and cut us off from projecting ourselves.” 
While Forero explains that the UNT represents 80 unions, what he 
fails to tell the reader is that the UNT is a pro-Chavez union 
formed after the coup against Chavez in 2002. This is an 
incredible omission, for this obviously cuts against Forero’s 
premise that Chavez is somehow responsible for the violence. After 
all, why would Chavez want to interfere with the growth of a 
pro-Chavez labor federation?

 From my own discussions with unionists in Venezuela, which I 
visited at the end of July and where I attended the third annual 
“Encuentro Sindical de Nuestra America” (Union Meeting of Our 
America) pro-Chavez unionists are much more often the target of 
the violence described in Forero’s piece than anti-Chavista 
unionists. As Jacobo Torres de Leon, Political Coordinator of the 
Fuerza Bolivariana de Trabajadores Dirrecion Nacional, responded 
to my questioning of him about the Forero piece, “there are no 
political killings like in Colombia.” Jacobo further emphasized 
that the unionists recently killed were his (pro-Chavez) comrades 
– a fact inconvenient to Forero’s well-publicized thesis. I should 
also note that President Chavez addressed the Union Meeting of Our 
America and was well received by the over 300 unionists in 
attendance from almost every country of the Western Hemisphere. At 
this meeting, Chavez called on workers to take control of the 
factories in which they work – good advice for us all.

There is an old saying, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” It 
seems an appropriate prism through which to view this most current 
attempt to rescue the Colombia FTA from that nation’s own 
continuing and indisputable status as the number 1 country in the 
world for anti-union killings.

Daniel Kovalik is a graduate of the Columbia University School of 
Law and Senior Associate General Counsel of the United 
Steelworkers, AFL-CIO, where he has worked for over 17 years.

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