Saturday, November 30, 2013


On the cover of the book a photo of his father August as a young man.On the backside we read the following: "My father was a great trade union man. From Europe he brought the Christian trade union movement to Africa, Asia and Latin America. My father was a great catholic.He was one of the first laymen who got access to the Second Vatican Council. And yet he pointed Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus towards his trade unions."
Geert van Istendael, son of the former secretary general of the International Christian Trade Union Confederation August Vanistendael (see previous blog), is a writer, poet and essayist. He wrote a book about his father, titled "Gesprekken met mijn dode god" (conversations with my dead god). It contains the following passage about his father's work in Latin America.

"Most he loved Latin America. There he had started with $ 300 and only one man. From Tijuana to Punta Arenas , from the pampas to the Popocatepetl he had to conjure out of nothing the trade union. The brave one has disappeared long ago into the past, the trade union federation even in this ultra- Catholic half- continent remained a minority , but fighting spirit it had, like no other one. They could tease him until his death, these Latinos , they conspired and intrigued as wild wood spiders. In a letter to his home, he calls the trade union there a pigsty . They like to live in disorder, they proclaim chaos as the fundamental principle of workers' struggle . But in 1954 the Confederacion Latinoamericana de Sindicalistas Cristianos (Latin American Confederation of Christian Trade Unionists CLASC) was founded, in 1968 it was renamed or should I say de-baptized into Central Latinoamericana de Trabajadores (Latin American Confederation of Workers CLAT) , which then again in 2008 has been absorbed by the broad social democratic trade union movement " ( Geert van Istendael, Amsterdam / Antwerp 2009 , p.158 )

Indeed, Latin America is chaos and disorder as a result of political instability, bureaucratic arbitrariness, corruption and poverty. You may become annoyed about this, but at the same time admire the talents of the common man to stay upright. Latin Americans are masters at improvising. Despite the political, economic and social chaos, they know to make the best of it. What a contrast with Europe, where enthusiasm and joy often perish between rules and bureaucracy.

It is very strange to see the image of Stalin in Mexico City on the 1 May Parade (1978) while former Soviet Leader Leon Trotsky during his exile in Mexico City was brutally murdered by  a secret agent of Stalin in 1940. 

But trade unions were not new in Latin America. Partly thanks to the European immigrants, trade unions have been around in Latin America since the 19th century, mostly anarchist or Marxist-oriented (see for example “Historia del Movimiento Obrero en America Latina” written by Victor Alba, Liberos Mexicanos Unidos 1964). New was the idea of a social-christian oriented trade union movement. The classic trade union movement preached class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat, some of them were political fundamentalists, or they were bribed by Government and political parties. It went so far that some trade unions had no problem to cooperate with a military or party-dictatorship in their country. The trade union was not so much a movement for the emancipation of workers as well an instrument of one or another political party. The gap between rich and poor stayed as it ever was. CLAT wanted to change this by giving back the trade union movement to the workers so they could decide for themselves about their destiny. That is why CLAT used the slogan “Solo el pueblo salva el pueblo” (only the people can save the people).

The Cuban Revolution (1959) and the subsequent revolutionary movements in Colombia like the ERLN with the priest Camilo Torres and the communist FARC (still existing and nowadays negotiating a peace agreement with the Colombian government in Cuba), the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the Montoneros in Argentina, and much later, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua (1979) brought no real change. The liberation theologians with their so-called grassroots groups and the labor movement generally proved powerless.

That the position of the new star trade union star CLASC would become difficult between the existing trade unions, governments and polictical parties including the leftist revoltionary, became already clear inmediately after the victory of the Cuban revolution (1959). CLASC secretary general Maspero went inmediately after the victory of the revolution to Cuba, where he gathered with young leaders from the Catholic Working Youth, an organisation to which he had belonged also. They had risked their lives by supporting the revolution in the cities. Together with these young men Maspero made a press statement in which the position of CLASC was explained (original text in Spanish).

José Gomez Cerda is a trade union leader from the Dominican Republic who has had also  some international positions like for example Secretary General of the World Federation of Agricultural and Food Workers (WFAFW) and nowadays he is Persident of the Latin American regional federation for retired workers CLATJUPAM. On his website "Accion del Movimiento de Trabajadores en Internet" ACMOTI you find a lot of data on the trade union movement in the Dominican Republic as well as Latin America and International. 

"We fully support all revolutionary intentions aimed to implement of agrarian reform, industrialization, economic development, tax reform, fair distribution of wealth, full employment, 
 economic independence, political sovereignty, provided that all these efforts will not be used to consolidate the revolution as an end in itself, but to allow more full and effective exercise of human freedom and the construction of a new and fair society.”

... We declare finally that the Social Doctrine of the Church, inspired by humanist and Christian values, human dignity, social justice, freedom and social solidarity, are strong and effective enough to serve as a foundation for all revolutionary efforts to
build a new and better economic, social and political order ... " (José Gomez Cerda, "Emilio Maspero:el dirigente syndical").

From left to right: Mercedes Barcha, Gabriel Marquez (Gabo), Teresita Gonzalez and Reinol Gonzalez Photograph taken during the visit of Gabo and his wife in Miami where Reinol and his wife Teresita live in exile.  Reinol wrote also a book on his time in jail on Cuba called "Y Fidel creo el Punto X, un testimonio revelador sobre el régimen de Castro",Saeta Ediciones, Miami-Caracas 1987.

But Castro had become communist. Democrats and former revolutionaries like Reinol Gonzalez were put aside and then eventually disappeared for years behind bars. Others, such as Jose de Jesus Plana and Eduardo Garcia Mouro, had fled the country. CLAT and August Vanistendael have worked a long time to get out of jail Reinol Gonzalez. With the help of the Colombian writer Gabriel Marquez (Gabo) he was released in 1977. He then had been in jail 16 of the 30 years for which he was convicted. Jesus Plana came to work at the UTAL, the workers' education and training centre of CLAT in Caracas. Eduardo Garcia was elected deputy general secretary of CLAT and became one of the main fellows and friends of Emilio Maspero.

Second from left Emilio Maspero during the opening of the UTAL in 1975. On his left Eduardo Garcia followed by Henry Molina, José Jesus Plana (first Director of UTAL) and Acacia Maspero.

Despite this setback in Cuba, Maspero continued following his own path for what he called the liberation of Latin America. He refused to accept the Cold War for Latin America and to stand at the side of the U.S. He did not succumb to the pressure of the North American State Department and the AFL-CIO. “In September 1960 Maspero was invited by the State Department of 
the United States and met with key leaders of the AFL-CIO, including George Meany (president of the AFL-CIO from 1955 until 1979), Rumualdi and Serafino. These meetings were conflictual and have not contributed anything positive to the relations between CLASC and the AFL-CIO." (idem José Gomez Cerda)

From left to right: Rangel Parra (Secretary General of the Federacion Campesino Latinoamericana FCL), Sjef Houthuys (President of the Belgium trade union confederation ACV, Emilio Maspero (Secretary General CLAT) and Eduardo Garcia (Deputy Secretary General of CLAT). UTAL was financed by European trade unions like the Belgium ACV and the Dutch CNV and for a large part also by the German Christian Democratic "Konrad Adenauer Stiftung" and the Dutch NGO "NOVIB". 
So Maspero was not the man to surrender whatever the situation may be. He refused to compromise or to moderate his positions even when this brought him a clash with August Vanistendael, the man who had stood also at the cradle of CLASC.
"Emilio Maspero had its own personality, and was always provocative, both with governments, employers, international organizations ... 
 as within his own organization, but always with his own positions and alternatives to problems. His first internal conflict, in early 1961, was with the President of CLASC (José Goldsack) and General secretary August Vanistendael of the International ChristianTrade Union Confederation ICTUC (predecessor of the WCL), about the positions of the Christian trade unions in Colombia. While Goldsack and the Secretary General of ICTUC advocated a prudent policy towards ORIT organizations in Colombia (
there existed already Christian trade unions before CLASC was born) Máspero faced the sectors with another trade union affiliation.” (idem José Gomez Cerda)

to be continued

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