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Venezuela’s government calls itself a friend to organized labor.

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 send troops?"

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 country anymore."

the OAS in February said

Venezuela routinely violates human rights, often intimidating or punishing citizens based on their political beliefs, an Organization of American States commission said in a report released Wednesday.
The 319-page report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says a lack of independence by Venezuela’s judiciary and legislature in their dealings with leftist President Hugo Chavez often leads to the abuses.

The OAS commission’s report also notes "the existence of a pattern of impunity in cases of violence, which particularly affects media workers, human rights defenders, trade unionists, participants in public demonstrations, people held in custody, ‘campesinos’ (small-scale and subsistence farmers), indigenous people, and women."

(emphasis added)

A Decade Under Chavez
SEPTEMBER 22, 2008

Human Rights Watch

V. Organized Labor

The Venezuelan government under President ChAvez has sought to remake the country’s labor movement in ways that violate basic principles of freedom of association. The government has systematically flouted its obligations under the conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) by promoting state interference in union elections, refusing to bargain collectively with established unions, and engaging in favoritism toward pro-government unions. It has also punished workers with job dismissals and blacklisting for legitimate strike activity. And it has supported the creation of alternative labor organizations that undercut the country’s labor laws, risk undermining established unions, and leave workers particularly vulnerable to political discrimination.

President ChAvez and his allies have attempted to justify these violations as part of a broader effort to "democratize" the labor movement by safeguarding workers’ rights against allegedly corrupt and co-opted union leaders. In particular, the government has argued that trade unions have failed to hold regular elections, thereby allowing union leaders to monopolize power and sacrifice workers’ interests to their own political agendas.

Yet there is nothing "democratic" about firing workers who exercise their right to strike, or denying workers their right to bargain collectively, or discriminating against workers because of their political beliefs.

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