During the Cold War, the United States sought to defeat communism. Key to that effort was the United States’ attempt to match and defeat the Soviet Union’s influence around the world. In many locations, though, communist and socialist movements developed not as puppet movements of Moscow, but organically — particularly student, labor, and peasant organizations.
As a result, the United States worked on multiple fronts, usually clandestinely, to stop the rise of leftist movements, often with zero concern for democracy or basic human rights. A key part of that effort included confronting and marginalizing leftist labor groups.
Across much of the world, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) acted as an international arm of US foreign policy, both before and during the Cold War. In doing so, the AFL-CIO sought to undermine left-leaning and communist groups, labor unions, and governments — with little concern for democracy and often with no compunction about using or supporting brutal violence — in Italy and France in the 1940s, Guatemala in the 1950s, Brazil in the 1960s, Chile in the 1970s, and many other countries.
The union federation also aligned with repressive right-wing dictatorships supportive of US anticommunist foreign policy efforts by working with and funding groups aligned with such regimes. Kim Scipes and William Robinson, for example, have each offered a thorough account of how the AFL-CIO aligned with labor groups affiliated with the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a regime which regularly repressed, murdered, and disappeared trade unionists and activists.
With the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 1983, the AFL-CIO began to work in tandem with this newfound quasi-governmental agency on advancing US foreign policy interests abroad under the auspices of “democracy promotion.” Into the present, the AFL-CIO has retained this partnership and “promoted democracy” through the Solidarity Center (SC), formerly named the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.
On its website, the SC describes itself as “[e]mpowering workers to raise their voice for dignity on the job, justice in their communities and greater equality in the global economy.” In recent years, the AFL-CIO has explicitly sought to shed its Cold Warrior image and portray itself as solely interested in the nonpartisan promotion of workers’ rights. In particular, former president John Sweeney, who was elected AFL-CIO leader in 1995 as part of a new progressive slate in the federation, “forced several of the AFL-CIO’s most notorious cold warriors into retirement,” and at the outset of his presidency, “saw unimpeded neo-liberalism a greater threat to American workers than ‘communism.’”
But despite such invocations, the AFL-CIO through the SC has continued to confront leftist governments abroad, particularly in South America, by funding and supporting groups opposed to Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and their United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) allies.
The AFL-CIO argues that it operates independently of the US foreign policy establishment. But documents on the federation’s recent activities in Venezuela I obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests indicate otherwise. These documents suggest that whatever changes have taken place in the AFL-CIO since the end of the Cold War, in recent years, the federation did not entirely give up on attempting to undermine those same governments that US state leadership has also opposed — regardless of whether or not those governments truly respect workers’ rights.
Working Alongside the Golpistas
Many scholars have detailed how the SC provided considerable support for the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), a labor confederation historically affiliated with the opposition party Acción Democrática and opposed to the Chávez government. In 2001 and 2002, the SC provided funding for CTV as it planned protests against the Chávez government, designed to induce a military coup d’état. Indeed, in April 2002, CTV leadership marched alongside the business community leadership, headed by the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce (Fedecámaras), and opposition politicians and activists to call for the end of the Chávez government.
Although a group of military members detained Chávez for nearly two days, mass counterprotests by poor and working-class Venezuelans and internal disunity among the coup plotters overturned these efforts. For nearly the duration of the interim government, CTV leadership demanded the removal of Chávez. In the immediate years following the coup, the AFL-CIO continued to work with CTV — all with funding from the NED, the same group that largely funded the AFL-CIO’s Cold War meddling in the 1980s. Eva Golinger has detailed these relations in her work on how the coup against Chávez unfolded with plotting and assistance from CTV leader Carlos Ortega.
Following the failed coup, CTV — once again alongside Fedecámaras — engaged in a lockout in the petroleum industry. This effectively paralyzed the country, which is entirely reliant on energy to maintain its economy and garner foreign currency for imports. Workers opposed to these efforts and the broader anti-Chávez sentiment being stoked in the country formed a new confederation of unions with government support: Unión Nacional de Trabajadores de Venezuela (“National Workers’ Union of Venezuela”). To a large extent, these efforts neutralized CTV’s capacity to undermine the Chávez government, particularly within the formal labor sector.
Still, the AFL-CIO continued to support CTV efforts to confront the Venezuelan government. In recently released documents garnered from a FOIA request, it is clear that the SC continued its challenge to the Chávez government and actively sought to undermine labor efforts pursued by the socialists — as recently as 2014.
In these documents, the SC portrays the Chávez government as a brutally authoritarian regime that limited freedom of expression and cracked down on opposition activities. In many of its program descriptions, the SC asserts that the Chávez “government has increased measures to limit political opposition activities, curb freedom of expression, and increase control over popular organization and participation.” Still, the SC seemed to recognize the reality that Chávez did indeed retain much support, writing that he had “come to command such control over the institutions of the country precisely because his message keys into the deep resentment of many of the poor and marginalized working people of the country.”
Under the Chávez government, opposition members routinely decried and condemned him and his view of socialism within multiple media outlets, and they continually participated in elections and won electoral contests (that is, when they actually decided to participate in elections rather than boycott them).
For instance, though the opposition pulled out of the 2005 legislative elections in an attempt to demonstrate how authoritarian the Chávez government was — a move even discouraged by many US state functionaries — elections went forward with international monitors guaranteeing that the elections were free and fair.
Nonetheless, the SC in its reporting during this period depicts the Chávez government as rigging the vote and as systematically destroying any opposition movement, writing that “the presence of opposition parties was completely eliminated from the National Assembly,” and then claiming in a footnote that “opposition parties pulled out of the parliamentary elections . . . due to unfair elections conditions.” In later legislative elections in 2010, though, when the opposition chose to participate, they won 65 out of 165 seats. In response to questions about these documents, the Solidarity Center said the following:
We are disappointed that, to fit your predisposed assumptions, you ignored explicit program information regarding our work with a broad coalition of politically diverse unions, academics, human rights organizations and other civil society groups who convened to address egregious worker rights violations in the country. That is the fundamental work of the global labor movement and central to our work everywhere.
Clearly Wrong Justifications
How has the AFL-CIO specifically confronted Venezuelan socialists in recent years?
Throughout the period 2006–2014, for which I received documents from the NED detailing SC activities in Venezuela, the SC generally sought to combat two efforts pursued by the Chávez government: the building of workplace cooperatives and the move toward workers’ councils.
From the SC perspective, these moves were designed to displace the power of traditional unions, such as CTV, and to exercise control over labor in a top-down manner. For instance, the SC claims that while councils were “meant to ‘empower’ . . . they are actually tied to the government and political parties.” Councils often were tied to the PSUV, but it’s hard to understand why the SC decided that meant it should support efforts to oppose them.
Much of this information presented within SC program descriptions remains replete with inaccuracies. In particular, their rationale for their involvement in the country in the first place is justified with plainly false information.
The group, for instance, references legislation titled the “Law of Popular Participation” that allegedly mandates that only PSUV party members or socialist supporters may participate in and found community councils throughout the country. Throughout several years, SC documents report that as “defined in the Law of Popular Participation, community councils cannot be formed by or include general assembly participants that are not members of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or who are not ‘known members’ of ‘Twentieth Century Socialism.’” It also alleges that the labor legislation was also modeled after this piece of legislation — allowing only PSUV members to form workers’ councils.
There are a couple of problems with this. First, Venezuela never saw the introduction of any legislation titled the “Law of Popular Participation.”
It’s possible the group is making reference to the Law of Community Councils, which formalized the existence of neighborhood community councils. Indeed, Chávez viewed the councils as the engine of Venezuelan democracy, wherein community members could propose projects, discuss community efforts, and request funding from the state.
However, and second, the SC alleges that only PSUV members or known supporters of socialism can participate in the community councils. This is absolutely false.
As Gabriel Hetland’s work has shown, opposition supporters routinely formed community councils within areas wherein the opposition retained support, and they, like chavistas, recognized the importance of these groups. Should Maduro leave office in Venezuela any time soon, few expects that community councils will evaporate.
SC reports reveal that their efforts were primarily directed at hosting conferences and workshops wherein they might train individuals to directly challenge the Chávez government’s proposed activities. Indeed, in their 2012–13 report, for instance, the SC describes how the group “will support industrial unions’ efforts to resist the imposition of undemocratic workplace organizations.” Within their training workshops, they pledged to help individuals confront “the imposition of ‘worker councils’ charged with usurping representation functions and subjugating workers to politicized, undemocratic organizational structures.”
Specifically, the group describes how their workshops would help to “coordinat[e] concerted resistance actions” to the government’s move toward workers’ councils and cooperatives, as well as helping raise “basic awareness of these issues among rank and file membership, mounting legal defense strategies . . . building coalitions among unions and broader civil society where possible, advocating policies [to] political leaders in government and National Assembly, and developing broader community support.”
In their development and hosting of workshops and conferences, the SC bused in Venezuelan oppositionists-in-training from throughout the country for events funded, catered, and rented with US taxpayer funding. They also funded legal and technical advisors who, in some cases, helped their allies in their confrontations with the Chavez government
In particular, their programs focused on workers within the formal sector, including the petroleum industry and mining and metals manufacturing, as well as support for journalists. They also funded the “maintenance and improvement” of a website for Venezuelans interested in pushing back against Chávez government efforts and “to allow ongoing discussion and dissemination of information on how to defend basic labor rights and labor code reform.”
In coordination with their allies in the country, the SC sought to provide the infrastructure to bring local allies from across Venezuela together in order to devise and implement strategies to combat Chávez’s move toward workers’ councils and cooperatives. With taxpayer funding, the SC “cover[ed] catering, venue rental, training supplies and transportation for participants from Caracas and immediate surrounding areas, as well as travel costs and per diem for participants from other parts of Venezuela.”
While it appears that the SC continued to work with CTV, they also began to work with the Movimiento Solidaridad Laboral (MSL), which formed in 2009 as a seemingly nonpartisan labor group opposed to Chávez’s labor policies and devoid of any of the former anti-Chavista baggage associated with CTV and Fedecámaras. While the SC redacted most of the areas where its recipients were listed in the documents they released, they failed to redact in all locations, confirming its work with MSL in one area where it failed to redact their name.
In its 2010 program description, the SC bluntly states that it helped form the coordinating body, which was “launched in an [SC]-supported national conference in July 2009,” and that it would continue to help the group in the “development of . . . its labor rights platform.”
Still, while setting out to appear nonpartisan, many of its main figures, including Rodrigo Penso and Froilán Barrios, formerly held positions within CTV and/or remained formally affiliated with them. Its national leader and spokesperson, Orlando Chirino, had been recently fired from his position within Venezuela’s state oil company and had become a vocal opponent of former president Chávez from the left, even running against him in the 2012 presidential election.
After its formation, the SC appears to have continually funded MSL meetings and training sessions, as well as conferences in which they devised their approaches to combating Chávez’s labor policies. The group’s largest effort included a march with CTV against the Chávez government in 2011. Was such a strategy discussed, devised, and planned at one of the SC’s conferences that it put together on behalf of these groups? The explicit purpose of SC events was to assist these organizations to “coordinat[e] concerted resistance actions” against the Chávez government.
Yet while the SC remained exuberant about the group in its infancy, the organization seems to have fizzled out within a few years of its formation and shortly after its 2011 march alongside CTV, with little public presence to speak of thereafter. This is not surprising given that the organization’s leader, Orlando Chirino, sought to run against Chávez in the 2012 presidential elections under the Partido Socialismo y Libertad.
With the seeming dissolution of MSL, it appears that the international arm of the AFL-CIO has continued its work with CTV and sections of the labor movement expressly opposed to Chávez and now Maduro. As documents from the years beyond 2011 show, the SC continues to condemn Venezuelan government policies and notes its efforts with a large anti-Chávez labor group.
In the end, while the AFL-CIO has sought to reinvent itself in the post–Cold War world, it appears that much of its work remains similar to its efforts during the Cold War. Since the inception of the Chávez government and into the recent past, the group worked with actors clearly in opposition to it. For its part, CTV continually worked to democratically and undemocratically unseat Chávez — both by supporting a coup d’état and, after that failed, working with opposition politicians to defeat Chávez, such as presidential candidate Manuel Rosales in 2006.
The US state has played many angles in its two-decades-long attempt to topple the Chávez and now Maduro governments. This has included support for opposition politicians, support for opposition NGOs, support for anti-Chávez rock bands, support for pro-business groups, support for labor groups opposed to Chávez — even a zany Keystone Cops–esque caper involving private mercenaries.
Despite this multipronged approach, though, the United States has yet to overthrow Venezuela’s leadership. Amid economic hardship and increased US aggression under the Trump administration, the Maduro government has undoubtedly grown more authoritarian. But long before Maduro reached office and as Chávez repeatedly won elections, US state functionaries under both Republic and Democratic administrations aimed to unseat the democratically elected government of Hugo Chávez — further confirmation that US interest in democracy in Venezuela has long remained subordinate to the United States’ geopolitical interests above all else.
The SC remains the foreign policy arm of the AFL-CIO, and it has historically played a regressive role in many countries throughout the world, siding with US foreign policy against democratic politics and labor movements. The group remains conscious of its Cold War image, though, and many of its recent leaders have claimed that such nefarious meddling ended with the Cold War. Barbara Shailor, the AFL-CIO’s director of international affairs, for instance, told the Nation in 2003, “We won’t ignore questions about the past, but we’re really going to focus on what we’re doing now.”
The documents I obtained indicate this is far from the case. The SC has continued to intervene in countries in order to impede, for example, Venezuelan socialist measures, including the use of worker cooperatives and workers’ councils, within the last decade. Just as US state leaders have worked to undermine leftist leaders in Honduras and Bolivia, we can be sure that the SC has additionally worked with actors who, too, have sought to displace their governments.