Latin American Cloak & Daggers: The AFL-CIO and the CIA


On April 25, The New York Times ran an article disclosing that the AFL-CIO’s international arm, the American Center for International Solidarity, had received $154,377 from a U.S. congressional conduit “to assist the main Venezuelan labor union in advancing labor rights.”

That union, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), was a principal player in the events that led to the short-lived military coup that removed the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, from office.

“The union’s leader, Carlos Ortega,” reported The Times, “worked closely with Pedro Carmona Estranga, the businessman who briefly took over from Mr. Chavez, in challenging the government.” Estranga heads the Venezuelan equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce.

For American workers the key question that The Times article didn’t answer is how closely is the AFL-CIO working with Carlos Ortega, the Venezuelan union’s top-gun? For now, American workers don’t know if the AFL-CIO had a role, however indirectly, in the coup or its planning.

But if the AFL-CIO is using the cover of union solidarity to aid the reactionary foreign policy aims of the U.S. government, American workers shouldn’t be surprised, because it wouldn’t be the first time. And if those aims have something to do with oil, it wouldn’t be the first time-and, unfortunately, most likely not the last time, right?

Undoubtedly, all the facts have yet to be revealed, but enough is known to conclude that the highest officials of the AFL-CIO during the George Meany-Lane Kirkland years worked hand-in-hand with one U.S. administration after another, Democratic or Republican, to oppose, subvert, and destroy democratic movements across the world, especially in Latin America.

The chief organization used by Meany and Kirk-land in Latin America was the AFL-CIO-created American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). The so-called institute “was especially notorious for its CIA connections and for siding with repressive governments, often against progressive unions,” wrote Simon Rodberg (American Prospect, Summer 2001).

“‘In the 1980s, during the reign of death squads in El Salvador, AIFLD threw money at the most conservative and most pro-government union factions,’ says the Reverend David Dyson, a longtime union activist. When the Reagan administration was supporting terror throughout Latin America, Dyson says, ‘we’d find AIFLD people sitting around the embassy drinking coffee like they were part of the team.'”

“A working agency of the United States”

The AIFLD came into being 18 months after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. By then it must have been obvious to U.S. ruling circles that the new Cuban government wasn’t some gangsters who had won a turf war with their rivals and were looking to receive some of the U.S. funding the ousted Cuban strongman had enjoyed. (President Roosevelt is reputed to have said that the Cuban despot was “a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.”)

In 1961, Meany and President Kennedy agreed that federal funds should be given the federation’s group “for union-sponsored projects in Latin America,” according to Meany. Furthermore, Meany said that the deal he struck with Kennedy made the AIFLD “a working agency of the United States government, working with its expenses paid by AID [the Federal Agency for International Development] under the Alliance [for Progress].”

Its leading officials, reports Rodberg, were Meany and J. Peter Grace, president of W. R. Grace & Co., along with Berent Friele, the “Rockefeller family’s house expert on Latin America.”

“Its mission was to ‘strengthen national labor federations and individual unions whose interests and methods run parallel to U.S. foreign policy needs. The U.S.-funded labor projects create patronage networks which enhance the appeal of allied unions and school up-and-coming union leaders in the principles and tactics of ‘business’ and ‘bread-and-butter’ unionism,” wrote Beth Sims in “Workers of the World Undermined” (South End Press, 1992).

Another specialist on AFL-CIO foreign policy, Kim Scipes, put the matter this way: “AIFLD’s approach was to support or create ‘free trade unions,’ and use these unions to split any labor movement that was critical of the United States or U.S. corporate investment, or even one that was critical of the government in their country for its policy of supporting the United States” (“It’s Time to Come Clean,” Labor Studies Journal, Summer 2000).

Defending United Fruit Company

The U.S. government funded AIFLD almost entirely, no matter which political party occupied the White House. There was some corporate funding, but it was slightly less than the AFL-CIO’s contribution. which varied from 2.5 to 4.5 percent.

Though the corporations might skimp on the financing, their presence on the AIFLD board gave them direct influence-not that Meany is known to have objected. But why should he? Even before the AFL’s merger with the CIO, Meany’s agents in 1954 backed the overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz by CIA-financed counter-revolutionaries led by the soon-to-be dictator Castillo Armas.

President Arbenz earlier had sealed his fate when he expropriated more than 400,000 acres of United Fruit holdings, as an indispensable part of a land reform program. Naturally, United Fruit objected, even though Guatemala offered to pay for the land with 25-year bonds at the corporation’s own assessed valuation. Meany publicly said that he “rejoices over the downfall of the Communist­controlled regime in Guatemala ”

Shortly after the government’s overthrow, Armas smashed the unions representing the United Fruit workers and announced a new labor law so draconian that even Meany’s right-hand agent in Guatemala lamented that it was “much more difficult for a trade union to operate and exist.”

In fact, Meany’s intervention into Brazilian politics closely resembled what had happened earlier in Guatemala. In March 1964 the nation’s president, Joao Goulart, ordered the nationalization of all private oil refineries. Sure enough on April 1 a military junta brought down the government. But the junta had some help-from the AIFLD.

Joseph C. Goulden, the author of “Meany,” quotes an AIFLD official, William Doherty Jr., as saying that the AFL-CIO group “became intimately involved in some of the clandestine operations of the revolution before it took place. … What happened in Brazil on April 1 did not just happen-it was planned, and planned months in advance. Many of the trade-union leaders-some of who were actually trained in our institute-were involved in the revolution.”

Goulden adds, “The generals imposed a repressive police state which took direct command of labor unions and gave short shrift to the ‘democratic trade union practices’ the AIFLD trainees had sought.”

Labor council tells what happened in Chile

In November 1970, Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile. Over a two-year period the Allende government initiated land reform, nationalized the banks, and took over mines and large industrial firms.

The U.S. government didn’t like what Allende was up to. Why? “U.S. and foreign corporations controlled almost all of the most dynamic and critical areas of the economy, machinery and equipment, 50 percent; iron, steel, and metal products, 60 percent; automotive assembly, 100 percent; tobacco, 100 percent; and advertising, 90 percent” (James Petras, 1975, testimony, House of Representatives).

On Sept. 11, 1973, the Chilean armed forces overthrew the government, killing Allende. Allende didn’t die alone. It’s been credibly estimated that as many as 30,000 people were killed by the military junta in a short time.

Years later, in a letter dated Nov. 8, 2000, Amy Dean, the executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council, situated in San Jose, California’s second largest city, sent Sweeney a resolution that “was the result of widespread discussion and debate, resulting ultimately in unanimous adoption.” Furthermore, Dean wrote, “let us agree on a common agenda-to distance ourselves from the past and create a new image of trust and unity. That is the goal of this resolution.”

The resolution cited articles that showed “that the AFL-CIO played a role leading to the bloody Pinochet overthrow of the democratically elected government in Chile, that its work was linked to corporate and CIA intervention ordered by Richard Nixon and led by Henry Kissinger (clearly against the best interests of the labor movement in Latin America and the United States), that the AFL-CIO engaged in similar activities in many countries on almost every continent and that such activities served corporate interests and were funded by the U.S. government.”

The labor council called on Sweeney “to clear the air” by revealing “exactly what activities [the AFL-CIO] 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 on corporate globalization.”

At the time, the labor council was supportive of Sweeney’s “New Voice” leadership, saying in Dean’s cover letter, that it was “proud of the new direction the AFL-CIO has taken under your leadership.” Whether the council is still in Sweeney’s corner isn’t clear.

One council source asks, “How far above the struggle are John Sweeney, Barbara Saylor, and Stan Gasek [Saylor and Gasek are Sweeney appointees at the Solidarity Center, successor to the AIFLD] that they think they can impersonate the leaders of the old AILFD and get away with dipping their hands in the blood of the people? What was their price?”

Sweeney on the defensive

On April 26, the federation issued a statement disclosing that it “has supported the CTV’s process of internal democratization and its freedom of association against attacks of the Chavez government.” It claimed that Chavez attempted “to weaken or eliminate the principal institutions of Venezuelan civil society, including unions.”

Further, “the Chavez-controlled Congress enacted a package of laws that eliminated collective bargaining in the public sector and the petroleum industry.” The federation also condemned “any and all coups and unilateral seizures of power which destroy and undermine democratic institutions, including in Venezuela.”

But given the AFL-CIO’s past in Latin America-and just as importantly, the current federal financing of at least $15,000,000 a year partly so that the AFL-CIO can carry out its Latin American activities-Sweeney is going to have a tough time convincing even some supporters that the federation’s hands are no longer dirty.

Those doubters may also begin to question Sweeney’s professed commitment to turning the U.S. labor movement around, as its numerical and political strength continues its decades-long decline.

Surely, it’s time for the scattered activists and militants to band together-not to plead with union bureaucrats to mobilize the ranks for democracy inside and outside the union movement-but to create a rank-and-file force powerful enough to threaten bureaucratic rule itself.

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