AFL-CIO: WASHINGTON OR WORKERS?
In "Labor's Cold War" [May 19], Tim Shorrock does an excellent job of showing how and why the AFL-CIO has failed to break with its cold war legacy of placing Washington's interests ahead of those of the workers. However, in his discussion of the AFL-CIO's disgraceful support for coup plotters against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Shorrock leaves out one relevant detail. He quotes the AFL-CIO as justifying its backing of the totally discredited Venezuelan Confederation of Workers (CTV) on grounds that "we assisted a process that actually brought more of the left, and including some elements sympathetic to [Chávez's] redistributive rhetoric...to the leadership of the CTV."
In fact, there is no current in the CTV at the national level that has questioned the confederation's obsession with overthrowing Chávez by any means possible--even to the detriment of worker objectives. Who were these CTV "leftists" whose efforts the AFL-CIO assisted?
Tim Shorrock's article is welcome and timely. John Sweeney is following in another Lane Kirkland tradition by reaffirming labor's unconditional support for Israel. Last year he spoke at a major right-wing Israel Day rally in Washington and pledged to continue the AFL-CIO's unqualified support for the Jewish state. Many if not most of the largest unions have invested millions of dollars of their members' dues in State of Israel bonds, which they bought at low interest as political favors to the Israel lobby. (Many states and cities have done the same.) In essence, they have bet the future retirement of their workers on the health of the Israeli economy, thereby forcing the AFL-CIO and Congress to make sure that the US taxpayers keep Israel afloat.
Tim Shorrock's piece is so poorly conceived and misleading on the international role of the AFL-CIO in the cold war era, that one is tempted to dismiss it. Yet I can't resist responding to one example of Shorrock's caricature of reality, his approving citation of Ambassador Robert White's statement that AIFLD--the arm of the AFL-CIO in Latin America--"became a total instrument of US foreign policy" in El Salvador.
I was director of AIFLD's Agrarian Affairs in the 1980s during the Salvadoran land reform programs, which AIFLD supported at the cost of lives and unceasing attacks from right and left extremes. AIFLD was at odds with the US Mission in El Salvador on these programs. We received financial assistance from Congress, which provided support to the agrarian unions that led the reform struggle. But that this made AIFLD a "total instrument" of US foreign policy in El Salvador is fiction. US Embassy/AID backing of land reform was at best lukewarm. AIFLD was confronted with questions concerning the too-radical character of the program by "country team" members, expressing reservations concerning economic viability, radicalizing the countryside and victimizing small landlords. US officers weakened the programs by criticizing them with GOES [Government of El Salvador] officials. The GOES, with explicit US approval, cut back the number of land-to-the-tiller beneficiaries by almost 25 percent toward the end of land distribution.
AIFLD was in fact out front seeking to ameliorate rank injustices, encourage campesino political participation and further noncommunist left movements in El Salvador. In any case, AIFLD was not an auxiliary of the US government.
RICHARD LEE HOUGH
Silver Spring, Md.
Readers might be interested in the access policy of the George Meany Memorial Archives, which houses the records of the AFL-CIO, including those of its international affairs department. That policy states that it is "the consistent practice of the Archives" to make "all AFL-CIO records in its possession...available to qualified researchers after being processed and not before 20 years from the date of their creation."
These restrictions have nothing to do with the control of sensitive information, as Shorrock seems to imply. None of the material is "classified." Archives restrict access to private documents until a decent interval has passed in order to protect the right to privacy of those who created them or who are their subjects, "especially," as stipulated in the Code of Ethics of the Society of American Archivists, "those that had no voice in the disposition of the materials."
I have no idea why the files relating to Brazil in 1964 or to Chile in 1973 in the archives are, in Shorrock's words, "remarkably thin." It could have been the case, as he quotes me saying, that the files were systematically culled. Or perhaps they had little in them to begin with. I really don't know. All I do know is that whatever did (or did not) happen took place before the records ever arrived at the archives. Our collections management practices closely adhere to the highest standards of the archival profession.
MICHAEL MERRILL, director
The George Meany Memorial Archives
Silver Spring, Md.
Thanks to Nation readers for all the e-mail about "Labor's Cold War." I agree with Steve Ellner, with whom I spoke several times during my reporting, that the AFL-CIO still has a lot to explain about its relationship with the CTV, particularly during the months leading up to the 2002 coup. But Ellner's question about the "leftists" elected to the CTV board (which the AFL-CIO's Stan Gacek told me included representatives from Chávez's "Bolivariano" labor front) would best be answered by Gacek himself, and will, I hope, be part of the badly needed dialogue on foreign policy between the AFL-CIO and its rank and file. That discussion should also include the issues raised by Jeff Blankfort about the AFL-CIO's longstanding ties to Israel.
Richard Hough's hostile letter deserves some background. AIFLD, unlike the AFL-CIO's other institutes, was a joint venture with the government and big business, sponsored by more than sixty corporations, including Gulf Oil, Johnson & Johnson, Owens-Illinois and Nelson Rockefeller's International Basic Economy Corporation. AIFLD's mission was to convince Latin American trade unionists to avoid the issues of class and US intervention popularized by broad sectors of the left, including Communists and Social Democrats, and embrace private-sector development. "All of us associated with AIFLD have been impressed with its dedication and success in combating Communist infiltration of the Latin American labor movement," J. Peter Grace, AIFLD's longtime chairman and one of the largest US investors in Latin America, wrote President Nixon in a 1969 letter I found in the files.
When Hough was in El Salvador, the country was embroiled in a civil war stemming from social inequities and the violent repression by death squads sponsored by the Salvadoran military and wealthy landowners. After nearly 30,000 activists were murdered, thousands of desperate students, trade unionists, farmers and other opponents of the US-supported government gave up any hope of democratic change and took up arms with the left-wing FMLN. During this time, AIFLD did indeed champion a "land to the tiller" program, based on earlier US campaigns to defeat rural-based leftist insurgencies in Vietnam and the Philippines. AIFLD's attempts to "further noncommunist" movements--Hough's code for weakening popular support for the FMLN--was precisely why it was funded by Congress and embraced by the Reagan Administration.
I don't doubt that AIFLD had differences with embassy bureaucrats and Salvadoran officials about the pace of the program. But Hough doesn't seem to understand that critics of US policy, like Ambassador White and many labor leaders, objected to AIFLD's dogmatic and simplistic insistence that El Salvador's crisis was part of a Communist conspiracy to take over Latin America. In a February 2, 1982, debate on PBS with AIFLD director Bill Doherty, White stated that "90 percent of the people who are fighting are fighting because they either fight or they get killed by the security forces. Those are the alternatives." Doherty replied, "I'm much more concerned that the people with the guns are Marxist-Leninist, and they've got to lay down those guns or we're going to have another Cuban or Nicaraguan type solution." White's comments, then and now, are much closer to the truth than Hough's version of events.
Finally, I didn't mean to imply that the papers in the AFL-CIO archives are "classified" in the same sense as government documents. The Meany Center's archivists have done a magnificent job in cataloguing what is available to them, and I wouldn't have run across half of what I found without their help. Yet Merrill's doubts about the possibility of missing or culled documents underscores the importance of making certain that all records about the AFL-CIO's actions overseas--including those covered by the twenty-year rule--are carefully preserved. Policy decisions about the archives, of course, are up to the AFL-CIO. But so far, John Sweeney has refused every request for a full and honest airing of their contents, let alone apologize for the harm done to workers, here and abroad, by the actions of his predecessors. And that's a crying shame.
LETTER ON ZIMBABWE
Gabrielle Menezes provided a compelling view of rural suffering caused by government corruption and a savage drought ["Letter From Zimbabwe," May 12]. The breakdown of civil society under the harsh regime of Robert Mugabe was accelerated by the strictures imposed by the World Bank's structural adjustment programs. Zimbabwean misery over the past fifteen years was the result of local mismanagement and gross inequities in the region's political economy. Having recently worked in rural South Africa in similarly dire conditions, I assure you that perhaps the last thing on most Africans' minds is sexual activity. It is no accident that the clinical symptoms that define a so-called AIDS case (fever, diarrhea, weight loss and persistent cough) are actually manifestations of protein anemia, unsanitary living conditions, tuberculosis, unclean drinking water and parasitic infections. People are hurting in Zimbabwe because of an impoverished political economy, food shortages and untreated illnesses, not because of sexual promiscuity. Once we stop the "medicalization of poverty" and the racist "sexualization of everyday life" in southern Africa, we will recognize what is really making people sick there.
Professor of African history