Calling itself the most labor-friendly government in Latin America, President Hugo Chávez's socialist administration has repeatedly increased the minimum wage, turned over the management of some nationalized companies to workers and fostered the creation of new unions.
But labor leaders and human rights groups say the
government's efforts have had a dark side. About 75 union members have been
shot dead in the past two years as the new unions -- many of them pro-Chávez --
and traditional unions battle it out, making Venezuela among the world's most
dangerous countries for labor activists.
"The state is responsible for all these
deaths," said Orlando Chirinos, a former Chávez ally who helps lead a
labor federation that has seen several members killed in this northern city.
"When union leaders from parallel unions know of job sites, they sit there
and wait -- and they are all armed. Everyone knows. Why doesn't the government
Union leaders and the respected Provea rights group in
Caracas say newly formed unions have turned to paid killers, targeting
low-level activists and union chiefs alike.
Pedro Perez, a union activist here who was shot in March,
said the violence stems from new unions trying to sideline old ones like his.
"They have already killed several friends,"
said Perez, who now walks with a limp. "You can't be a unionist in this
Most of the deaths have taken place in the lucrative
construction industry. In exchange for jobs, workers are forced to pay
kickbacks to union bosses.
With big profits at stake, and the state doing little to
control the violence, the number of killings has tripled from 12 four years ago
to 34 recorded in the 12 months ending in May, according to the Catholic
Church's human rights unit. Though Colombia, with its slow-burning conflict,
has historically recorded the most union slayings in the world, Venezuela
appears to have surpassed its neighbor in the past two years and registered
And unlike Colombia, where teams of prosecutors,
investigators and judges have been deployed to resolve cases, Venezuela's
judicial system has brought only a handful of killers to justice, according to
the human rights arm of the Organization of American States. The killings have
also failed to garner much attention in Venezuela or with international labor
"There is great indifference, combined with great
impunity," said Marino Alvarado, an investigator with Provea who is
compiling information about the killings, including three more this month.
Calls to the attorney general's office and the Labor
Ministry were not returned. But Francisco Torrealba, a deputy in Venezuela's
congress and president of a subcommittee on labor issues, acknowledged the
problem and said government officials have met with labor federations to stem
Torrealba said the killings spring from a culture of
violence at unions long tied to Venezuela's two traditional anti-Chávez
parties. "It's about intra-union violence and has to do with the culture
of doing things in this country in a violent way," he said, disputing
assertions that the violence has picked up dramatically under Chávez.
Torrealba, president of a pro-government federation
representing railway workers, also said that through wage increases and the job
security offered at state companies, the Chávez government has "proven
itself to be a workers' government."
But Human Rights Watch, which carried out a study of
Venezuelan labor, says the government intervenes in union elections and favors
pro-government unions in negotiations, sometimes sidestepping larger,
established unions for smaller organizations that support Chávez.
Union leaders here say the government is trying to ensure
that unions are solidly pro-government, thus bringing practically all important
institutions in Venezuela, save for the Catholic Church, under the state's
Already, the Venezuelan Workers Confederation, a
decades-old umbrella for most unionized workers, has suffered a dramatic loss
of influence since it participated in anti-government marches that led to
Chávez's brief ouster in 2002.
The newcomers include several federations and 4,000 new
unions, up from 1,300 in 2001, said Froilan Barrios, among the directors of the
Workers Confederation and a labor scholar.
In this city of 1.3 million just west of Caracas, the
leaders of UNT, a federation representing 80 unions, contend that the killings
of eight union activists in the past five years is designed to weaken their
"We believe it is political, to debilitate UNT and
cut us off from projecting ourselves," said Emilio Bastidas, a regional
coordinator for the federation.
The killings, he and other union leaders said, have the
makings of professional hits. One union activist was shot in his home. Three
others died at a roadside stand in 2008 when two men calmly emptied their
weapons into them and then fled.
Among the most recent victims was Jerry Diaz, 35, who was
shot twice on April 25, moments after he got into his car at his home.
His twin brother, Cherry Diaz, also a union activist,
found him bleeding to death. He is not sure why his brother was killed, but he
recounted how a new union has tried to muscle in on their longtime union at a
"This is becoming like a hobby here in Aragua
state," Diaz said of the violence. "What we are sure about is that
they are now turning to hit men, to assassinate."