Pedro Eusse, the 40-year-old General Secretary of Venezuela’s United Confederation of Workers (CUTV), is a man with a mission. “For us trade unionists it is very important to meet with leaders and members of unions in the United States, so we can tell them the truth about what’s happening in our country,” he told me during an hour-long interview on Sept. 19. The CUTV is one of Venezuela’s five main labor federations.

Getting the truth out is particularly difficult, he said, because the privately-owned mass media in Venezuela is so hostile to the workers and the mass democratic movement there. The wealthy, right-wing elements are especially vicious in their attacks on Venezuela President Hugo Chavez.

The CUTV is made up mainly of industrial unions: metal, textile, construction, chemical, and auto parts. It also includes some service workers and public workers.

Eusse spoke to the World during a visit to Chicago, a stopover in a multi-city tour of the U.S. We asked him to describe conditions in Venezuela today, three years into the Chavez administration.

“The Chavez government has inherited many problems from the previous administration that followed neoliberal policies,” he said. “We have lots of unemployment, marginalization, poverty, and insecurity – problems common to all of Latin America. The Chavez government is doing all that it can to get to the root of these problems, but it hasn’t been easy.”

Complicating matters, Eusse said, has been the “resistance of capital.”

“Politically and socially powerful forces are trying to put the brakes on what’s happening in our country,” he said. “They are continuously destabilizing the situation, engaging in economic sabotage, and are otherwise trying to wreck the economy.”

Two prime examples of this sabotage, he said, were the right-wing coup attempt in April 2002 and the general lockout (“not a strike,” Eusse emphasized) by the employers’ association, Fedecamaras, in December 2002 through January 2003.

The coup attempt against Chavez, while successfully blocked by the people and democratic forces in the military, resulted in serious economic disruptions. The lockout at the end of 2002 took the form of big plant managers actively blocking production or abandoning their posts altogether, he said. This maneuver was particularly disruptive to the oil industry.

“Petroleum accounts for 80 percent of our export earnings,” Eusse said. “The managers sabotaged production for 60 days, resulting in economic losses of $7 billion to $8 billion. The action not only hurt us in oil and natural gas revenues, but it disrupted many other sectors of the economy, too, including food production.”

As a consequence, he said, these disruptions have caused unemployment to increase from 11 percent in 2001 to 20 percent in 2003.

Furthermore, Eusse said, “Lots of businesses have been closing so as to put pressure on the Chavez government, to bring it down. But this has been met by workers taking over enterprises when they’re abandoned, often doing so with the support of local communities. The workers then transform the enterprise into a cooperative, owned by the workers and the community. More and more of these are being organized.”

Despite the economic challenges, however, the Chavez government has been able to increase spending on social programs that benefit the workers and poor.

“Chavez has greatly increased the amount of the money spent on education, for example,” Eusse said. “He eliminated school fees for elementary and secondary schools, so now hundreds of thousands of students are in school who otherwise would not have been because they’re poor.” Such initiatives have included the setting up of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, which has opened its doors to children of working-class and poor families for the first time.

“Or take the question of people’s health,” Eusse said. “Many poor neighborhoods in Caracas and other cities now have health care, where previously they had none. Chavez appealed to our medical community to help provide health care for the poor, but got only about 50 volunteers. A big number of Cuban doctors have come to our country as volunteers and they have been a big help.”

We asked Eusse to comment on the state of the trade union movement in Venezuela.

“About 16 percent of the working class is organized into unions,” Eusse said. “It’s a modest percentage, but that’s the case almost everywhere.”

“There are three factors that have given rise to this low percentage,” he said. “First, the high level of unemployment. Second, our level of economic development is less than it could be, especially because ‘free trade’ has caused the deindustrialization of a good part of our economy. As a result, there are many people, over 50 percent of the population, who are self-employed or otherwise working in the ‘informal’ sector of the economy.”

The third factor contributing to the low level of unionization, Eusse said, is the negative example of the dominant trade union federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV).

“The CTV is now dominated by corrupt and sell-out elements. The leadership supported the coup, and now they go around with the right-wing parties against Chavez. Many workers think that this is what all unions are like. They see it as a bosses’ union. As a result, they don’t want anything to do with unions.”

Eusse said that as a result of the leadership’s anti-worker policies, the CTV has been badly discredited over the past couple of years, and, as a result, “hundreds of local unions have left it and newly-organized unions have not been affiliating with it.”

Further, “Venezuela is one of the very few governments in Latin America, maybe with the sole exception of Cuba, that has unambiguously stated its opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA),” Eusee said, referring to the Bush administration’s economic scheme for dominating the hemisphere. “Yet the CTV supports the FTAA.”

Eusse stresses that the rank-and-file members of the CTV are largely in support of the changes underway in Venezuela. “Some of the member unions, even those who don’t support Chavez, don’t support the right, either.”

Eusse is troubled by the AFL-CIO’s continued support for the CTV. “We want to influence the AFL-CIO leadership to change its position and to cease its support for the CTV. It’s in the best interests of U.S. labor that it do so, too.”

We asked Eusse about the Chavez government’s attitude towards unions.

“The Chavez government has been facilitating all sorts of initiatives for grassroots organization among women and youth, for instance. This attitude applies to workers and their unions, too. For example, the new Bolivarian Constitution (adopted under Chavez), guarantees the right to organize. This was true before, but now these rights are more specifically guaranteed.”

“There is a new law that says employers can’t fire an employee for organizing. This gives workers much more freedom to organize into unions. Now any group of workers who have signed authorization cards can get recognized. The process is much easier,” he said.

As a result, Eusse said, there’s been a big increase in union membership.

We asked him about other forms of workers’ and people’s organizations.

“The government has helped in setting up thousands of cooperatives, both urban and rural. It has given them help of various kinds – with financial credit, technical advice, and information. It’s also made it easier for the co-ops to sell their products to the state and get fair compensation.”

Sometimes that compensation has taken the form of in-kind payments in the form of oil, he said. “One of the most important things that workers got when the state petroleum company locked out its workers is this: when they failed and when their managers were ousted, the workers got real access and control to the company. Before it was almost like a state within a state. Now the workers know what’s going on. They can also do things like make petroleum accessible to the co-ops on reasonable terms. This helps our economic development.”

What about the role of women?

“There is a very high participation of women in the revolutionary process and in political life, and there’s been a fight to extend their rights in every area. The Constitution clearly expresses this. For example, it uses ‘he’ and ‘she’ throughout when referring to our citizens. Many women’s organizations are involved in the process,” he said.

Eusse noted that the Chavez government had set up a National Institute for Women, the purpose of which is to promote women’s participation in unions, politics, and the development of economic policies. The government even set up a Women’s Bank, which more readily gives loans to women.

We asked Pedro Eusse if there is anything else he’d like to say.

“If there is one country where we need solidarity, it is here in the United States,” he said. “The best way to confront imperialism and the multinationals is through the unity of workers, within Latin America and between North and South. North American workers are suffering from the same policies, especially job loss. We face a common enemy. We have a common cause.”

The author can be reached at malmberg@pww.org. Thanks to Megan Marshall for her assistance in translation.

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