Saturday, August 17, 2013


The following story is a personal testimony and not a historical record of what happened at the end of the last century and the beginning of the new millennium in the international trade union movement, in particular in CLAT and the WCL.

On the 18th of June 1979 in Hotel Irazu, San José, Costa Rica, the so called Junta de Gobierno de Reconstruccion Nacaional de Nicaragua was presented by the Sandinist priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal. We see from left to right Alfonso Robelo, bussiness man and founder of the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement MDN. Violeta Chamorro wife of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro who was assasinated in 1978. Violeta Chamorro took over his newspaper La Prensa and continued his struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. Sergio Ramirez writer and leader of the so called group of 12, a group of leftist intellectuals that supported the Sandinistas. The other 2 memebers of the Junta, Daniel Ortega and Moises Hassan, both from the Sandinist Guerrilla Forces fighting in Nicaragua, were not present on the press conference. TheJunta took power in the city of Leon, Nicargua on the 18th of July 1979. The Junta was immediately recognized internationally. (photo Petrus Nelissen)

So far we have looked from a Dutch perspective to world history, but what was really going on in the big world? There was a lot of commotion in Latin America, North America and Western Europe and also the Netherlands because of a revolution in a small Central American country. I mean the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua (1979) that I witnessed more or less while I was living in Costa Rica, and to some extent even participated in it.

It was a leftist revolution that got broad support against the right-wing dictator Somoza (traditionally supported by the U.S.) after the Sandinistas had succeeded to unite its 3 fractions, there had been held much (international) political deliberations and a lot of international pressure for example of the Organization of American States (OAS) with a major role of US President Carter. After the victory (July 1979) the Sandinistas got most credits for the revolution and they considered themselves as the real owners of the revolution. Instead the Sandinistas established a democratic regime like for example in their neighbouring country Costa Rica, they started copying the Cuban model with the traditional support of Russia and Communist Europe. The recent elected, traditional anti-Communist U.S. President Reagan (1981) was firmly against it. The result was a civil war with the help of the U.S. between the Sandinista leaders and Contra's (including disappointed Sandinistas) with a high price paid by the population: new deaths and injuries, no peace and especially no economic recovery.

What astonished me was the ease with which European leftist intellectuals left their critical attitude towards the Sandinista leaders. Renowned journalists from leading newspapers and TV defended for example censureship of the Sandinistas against the newspaper La Prensa. The key issue for them was to be anti-North American and especially anti-Reagan, who was always called scornfully a former Hollywood B- actor. At that time communism was rather commonplace in circles of the European democratic left, to a certain extent tolerated by the Socialist International.

More surprising was what happened in almost the same period in Communist Europe. A trade union called Solidarnosc, supported by the Catholic Church and its Polish Pope Paul II challenged the supremacy of the Polish Communist party. No one ever could imagine that something like this would ever be possible. The world held its breath. Would the Soviet Union not retaliate?

Not so initially. The Polish Jaruzelski government (Jaruzelski was considered to be a moderate nationalist) signed an agreement with Solidarnosc that was led by the brilliant former electrician Lech Walesa surrounded by keen advisers. But the recognition of Solidarnosc did only last until december 1981. Moscow forced the government to announce martial law. Solidarity was banned to become illegal. Many members were arrested or went underground. The underground struggle was supported by US President Reagan, the North American union AFL-CIO (member of the world trade union ICFTU) and the WCL, that thanks to its general secretary Jan Kulakowski of Polish descent, had special relations with Solidarnosc.

European political leaders on the other hand did not know what to do. Of course, there was much sympathy for Solidarnosc but it was feared that it would end as did the Hungarian uprising (1956) and the Prague Spring (1968), that is to say beaten down by Russian tanks. In 1988 the Polish government was forced by strikes to start again negotiations with Solidarnosc. In 1989 Solidarnosc was legalized and participated in the first free elections held under a Communist regime in Europe. It was the beginning of the end of Communism in Europe and the Soviet Union.

The Latin American CLAT was downright enthusiastic about Solidarnosc. A union that was able to achieve a political revolution was for decades the dream of CLAT. CLAT also recognized in the anti-communist struggle of Solidarnosc its own anti-communism . This anti-Communism made that CLAT had a very critical attitude towards the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, the Marxist guerrilla groups in El Salvador and Guatemala and all other groups that used Marxist oriented violence as an instrument for change. For this reason in the Netherlands leftist progressive circles turned away from CLAT and the Dutch association CLAT Netherlands that supported CLAT in Latin America since 1969.

In September 1993 a delegation of the WCL led by General Secretary Carlos Custer visited the Polish President Lech Walesa, former leader of Solidarnosc. At the head of the table you see President Lech Walesa. Beside him a government interpreter. On her left WCL secretary general Carlos Custer. Next to him an interpreter of Solidarnosc and myself. On the back you see Kristoff Dowgiałło. At his left Teresa Szabza from the International Department of Solidarnosc.

CLAT sent in 1981 a message to the first legal Congress of Solidarnosc: "The Latin American Workers Central CLAT, together with all its member organizations, feels related from the outset with the values​​, interests and aspirations of the independent trade union movement Solidarnosc. Despite the different political circumstances in which both organizations find themselves, CLAT and Solidarnosc are inspired by the same ideas about man and society, labor and worker, dignity and freedom, justice and solidarity." In 1982 CLAT invited six leaders of Solidarnosc to a meeting on its training institute UTAL in Venezuela.

On the occasion of that meeting CLAT General Secretary Emilio Maspero wrote an introduction titled "The struggle of the free trade union movement in Poland and Latin America." Maspero signals that two irreconcilable models opposed. On the one hand, the totalitarian models advocated by fascist right (eg the Pinochet regime in Chile) and Marxist-Leninist left (eg the Cuban regime of Fidel Castro) and on the other hand, the democratic-humanistic model itself stands for. Maspero defined the relationship between CLAT and Solidarnosc as the common struggle for democratization: in Poland against communism in Latin America against capitalism.

How great the enthusiasm was for Solidarnosc could one see during the visit of Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa to the 22th WCL Congress, held in Caracas, Venezuela (november 1989). To confirm friendship between WCL and Solidarnosc, Kristoff Dowgiałło from Solidarnosc was elected vice-president of the WVA. Also for the first time in the history of the WCL a general secretary from Latin America was elected,  Carlos Custer from Argentine and a member of the CLAT board who previously had been already confederal secretary of the WCL. CLAT was now more than ever committed to the WCL. ACV President Willy Peirens was elected President of WCL. The future looked bright for the WCL.

To be continued...

No comments:

Post a Comment