November 29, 2004

AFL-CIO’s Dark Past (4)

U.S. Labor Reps. Conspired to Overthrow
Elected Governments in Latin America

By Harry Kelber

The fourth in a series of six articles

Having emerged victorious in World War II, the United States turned its attention to its neglected “back yard,” some two-dozen mostly impoverished countries in the Western Hemisphere. Resentment against the United States had grown in many of these countries, fueled by the fact that the U.S. had been generous in its financial assistance to Western Europe, while all but ignoring the dire needs of its neighbors to the South.

The widespread poverty in these countries resulted in the rise and growth of indigenous labor unions and nationalist political parties, often led by young radicals who, to the alarm of the American government and business interests, were attracted to Communism. There was serious concern that the Soviet Union would find favorable conditions for expanding its influence and territory not too far from our southern borders.

From the outset, the AFL decided to boycott the organization of Latin American Workers Confederation, better know by its Spanish language initials, CTAL, because the call for its first convention in September 1939 was issued by the leader of the Mexican labor movement, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, a follower of the Communist Party line, who had visited the Soviet Union only two years before. Lombardo Toledano’s election as CTAL’s president provided him with leverage to influence the policies of many Latin American governments, as well as their trade unions.

To counteract the spread of communist ideology throughout the hemisphere, the AFL Executive Council in January 1946 appointed Serafino Romualdi as its official representative in Latin America, who would work for the eventual establishment of an anti-communist labor federation to rival the CTAL

Romualdi was an Italian anti-fascist, who had fled Mussolini’s Italy to come to the United States and join ILGWU’s Italian local 99 as editor of its publications. He came under the approving eye of ILGWU David Dubinsky, who felt Romualdi was well suited to take on the role of anti-communist roving ambassador for the AFL throughout Latin America, since he had traveled to most of the countries and was knowledgeable about their unions and leaders.

In April 1947, Romualdi met with Spruille Braden, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin Affairs, who fully agreed that “increasing dangers that Communist influence in Latin American labor unions represents to the security of the democratic institutions in the Western Hemisphere and specifically to the security of the United States.”

Braden said that the attitude of the State Department toward the AFL’s efforts to combat Communist aggression “will from now on be not only sympathetic but cooperative.” It was clear that the State Department, for reasons of its own, would be an ample source of funding and assistance for whatever campaign Romualdi would undertake.

With the urging of the AFL, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) created the Inter-American Regional Labor Organization (ORIT) in January 1951, with a provision that unions identified as being under the direct or indirect influence of the Communist Party would be excluded. To ensure that U.S. labor would dominate ORIT, Romauldi, the AFL’s representative in Latin America, was chosen as its director.

At the founding convention, AFL’s George Meany, who was elected as a vice president, strongly asserted that no economic help would be given to any government that supported Communism or sympathized with the Soviet Union.

AFL’s Romauldi Was Long-Time CIA Agent

Romauldi, it turned out, was “the principal CIA agent for labor operations in Latin America,” says Philip Agee in his book, “CIA Diary.” Agee worked for the Central Intelligence Agency as a field officer in Latin America for most of a dozen years. Romauldi had ties with the CIA even before he became the ORIT director and continued to serve the spy agency into the early 1960’s.

In 1950, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was elected president of Guatemala on a program of agrarian reform in a country where wealthy families controlled most of the land and its resources. What angered Meany was that Arbenz, no Communist himself, had included several Communists in his government and supported the left-leaning Guatemalan trade unions. But his anger boiled over, as did the State Department’s, when Arbenz began expropriating the land holdings of the United Fruit Company.

A military coup, organized and financed by the CIA with Meany’s blessing, toppled Arbenz in June 1954 and replaced him with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, who issued a decree outlawing all trade unions, not only leftist organizations.

Romualdi, who was in Guatemala during and after the coup, concedes that employers, with the connivance of the government authorities, had resorted to wholesale dismissals of every active trade unionist whom they classified as “agitators.” He says, “I found out that in the Ixcan region, workers were being paid 50 cents a day and were forced to work 81 hours a week.”

Despite the torture and death of thousands of Guatemalans by right wing terrorists in the two years following Col. Armas’ takeover of the government, Romauldi still insisted that “the President himself meant well and was at heart favoring the rebirth of a healthy, free and independent trade union movement.”

AIFLD Linked to Big Business and Military in Latin America

AFL-CIO President George Meany became unhappy with ORIT; there was too much squabbling among its member countries and not much was being accomplished. After nine years, ORIT ceased to exist, and in 1962 Meany set up a new international labor organization that he could control, the American Institute of Free Labor Development (AIFLD).

The new organization invited some of the most powerful American businessmen with heavy investments in Latin America to sit on its board, including representatives of Exxon and Shell oil corporations, IBM, Koppers and Gillette. It even made J. Peter Grace, head of the United Fruit Company, the biggest foreign landowner in Latin America, as its chairman.

AIFLD was now obviously committed to making the hemisphere’s impoverished countries safe for U.S. investors, with whatever means, not excluding support for military coups. It selected William C. Doherty, Jr., as its executive director, whose father had been a long-time president of the National Association of Letter Carriers and who was said to have been a CIA conduit for passing agency funds to foreign labor leaders. In his book, “CIA Diary,” Philip Agee describes the younger Doherty as a “CIA agent in labor operations.”

In 1963, only a year after it was founded, AIFLD sponsored and funded a strike in the tiny country of British Guiana, spending over a million dollars to disrupt the local labor movement, laying the groundwork for the overthrow of the elected Cheddi Jagan government by a British military invasion

In that same year, AIFLD supplied substantial funding, strategic planning and publicity to the opponents of Juan Bosch, the legally elected president of the Dominican Republic. Two years later, 20,000 Marines landed on the island and restored power to conservative generals, with the full approval of the AIFLD.

The 1964 military coup in Brazil was backed by the CIA and supported by Brazilian unions trained by the AIFLD. Shortly after, the AFL-CIO encouraged Brazilian workers to accept a wage freeze “to bring about stability.”

Appearing before Congress, Doherty explained AIFLD’s mission to the lawmakers: “Our collaboration [with business] takes the form of trying to make the investment climate more attractive and inviting.” Peter Grace, head of the W.R. Grace conglomerate and then chairman of AIFLD’s board of trustees, explained bluntly that the institute “teaches workers to increase their company’s business.”

AIFLD had a variety of programs to build loyalty among workers in foreign countries, which could later be exploited in the interests of American multinational corporations. With the help of CIA funding, it was able to build housing projects for workers in Uruguay that cost several million dollars and provide other AIFLD enticements to get workers to oppose the mainstream labor federation. In Ecuador, it “trained’ thousands of workers in the principles of labor-management relations and the free market economy, offering money for attending classes.

In the course of its career, AIFLD is said to have “trained” 243,668 actual and potential trade union officers in virtually every Latin American and Caribbean country. Of those, more than 1,600 received special training and pay at installations in the United States.

One of AIFLD’s dirtiest covert operations was conducted in Chile in 1973, where it played a supporting role to a military junta and the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the elected government of Salvator Allende, who had earned the enmity of American business by threatening to nationalize Chile’s copper industry and institute a series of radical reforms. The Allende government was accused of showing sympathy for the Soviet Union.

Two years earlier, AIFLD had channeled millions of dollars to Chile’s right-wing union leaders and political parties opposed to Allende. It focused especially on developing operatives in the communications and transportation industries so that on the day the coup occurred (it happened to be Sept. 11), communication lines were left open and free for the military junta to move swiftly into action.

So pleased was AIFLD with the overthrow of Allende, that its representative in Chile, Robert O’Neill, proudly wrote to AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington that Chile had become “the first large-scale middle class movement against government attempts to impose, slowly but surely, a Marxist-Leninist system.”

The AFL-CIO’s rejoicing was brief. General Augusto Pinochet, who replaced Allende, outlawed trade unions, eliminated long-established worker protections, and jailed, abducted and killed many hundreds of unionists.

Article 5: Lane Kirkland and the Empire He Built. (December 6, 2004)

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