Politics

Venezuelan CUPE members demand changes to union’s controversial statement backing Maduro

OTTAWA — Some Venezuelan members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees are demanding the union retract or amend its controversial statement about Venezuela’s political situation, which they say contains “patently false” claims.

But in an internal memo, obtained by the National Post, CUPE’s national president Mark Hancock has doubled down on the union’s position “publicly objecting to the Trudeau government’s interventions in Venezuela,” saying last week that the union stands by its previous statement and won’t be saying anything new.

Two teaching assistants at the University of Toronto, Daniel Indacochea and Giancarlo Fiorella, are among those raising concerns with their local union reps. “I have no reason to think that our local executives were even aware that this statement was even being made,” Fiorella told the Post.

CUPE’s statement said President Nicolas Maduro was “duly elected by the people,” despite the jailing of much of his political opposition ahead of elections last May. The union took issue with the Canadian government’s support for an interim president in Juan Guaido, the leader of the country’s opposition-controlled legislative assembly, and instead advocated Canada engage with the international community “to foster dialogue and peace between the elected government and the opposition.”


Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro touches his forehead during a press conference at Miraflore’s Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019.

Rodrigo Abd/AP

Hancock’s memo called it “a real stretch,” however, to draw from the statement that CUPE supports the Maduro government. “We have certainly received emails and phone calls expressing some anger with our position, but it’s worth noting that the vast majority of them have been from non-members (and many have been from outside of Canada),” the memo said. It clarified that “CUPE does not support Maduro,” and said it supports the Canadian government’s decision to increase humanitarian aid funding for the people of Venezuela.

Maduro has been blockading a bridge at the country’s land border with Colombia in an apparent attempt to prevent humanitarian shipments from entering the country. Other abuses of power, including the murder and imprisonment of political opponents, have been documented by international observers including a panel of human rights experts who investigated Maduro’s regime for the Organization of American States. Canada joined a group of countries in September who are referring Maduro’s government to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

That Maduro is the legitimate president of the country is “patently false,” opined Fiorella, who has relatives in Venezuela. “And anybody who has even sort of a cursory understanding and knowledge of what’s happening in Venezuela would be able to tell you that. So we’re afraid that whoever wrote that statement has no idea about the history of the country over the past few years.”

We’re afraid that whoever wrote that statement has no idea about the history of the country over the past few years

Francisco Ortiz, a flight attendant with Air Canada, is a member of CUPE Local 4092. He, too, is Venezuelan — he’s taken to walking around Toronto on days off with a sign that says, “Thanks for your support of Venezuela” — and disputes that there was ever a legitimate election.
“The situation’s getting worse. I haven’t been able to go home for two years,” said Ortiz. He said the union’s statement undermines Canada’s efforts to restore democracy in his country. He wrote to Hancock with his concerns, but didn’t receive a reply.

“I pay my union dues for the union to represent me, not to screw me around,” he said.

Indacochea said he believes if the union was trying to present the issue fairly, it would not have claimed Maduro was the legitimate elected president without mentioning that his popular opponents had been jailed or barred from running against him. “The lack of objectivity really bothered me. And also, I thought the letter had a political tinge. For instance, it would say well, Trump thinks this, and now the Liberals do too, therefore the position is bad,” he said. “Trump may think two and two is four. That doesn’t invalidate arithmetic.”


A demonstrator displays a flag of Venezuela during a protest against the government of Nicolás Maduro in the streets of Caracas on February 2, 2019 in Caracas, Venezuela.

Marco Bello/Getty Images

Indacochea added he was “shocked” to read that CUPE was providing funding to an organization called Common Frontiers, which sent labour and ecumenical representatives to Venezuela last year to observe its elections. The group came back reporting that Venezuela had exhibited a “gold standard” for democracy, glossing over Maduro’s abuses of power. A spokesman told the Post CUPE provides funding to Common Frontiers, but said the groups worked together primarily on North American trade issues.

Still, Fiorella called into question why union dues would be put towards international advocacy in the first place. “I don’t want my money going into, like, weird trips to authoritarian countries. It’s just so outrageous,” Fiorella said. “It’s such an absurd use of our union dues.”

Indacochea and Fiorella, who are in CUPE local 3902, wrote to local executives last week asking for the union to rescind its statement or “amend it to include an accurate picture of the state of Venezuelan democracy.” They also asked for the views of Venezuelan CUPE members to be incorporated in future statements, and sought clarification on whether union dues were going towards groups like Common Frontiers, which have “spread misinformation” about Venezuela.

Local executives said they planned to bring the latter two points to CUPE national, Fiorella said Monday, but they suggested the issue of the statement itself could be brought to the local’s annual general meeting in March. If the whole membership was supportive, demands to rescind or amend the position could then be brought to the national union.

The Post asked CUPE about complaints from its membership, details on funding for Common Frontiers and its rationale for conducting advocacy on international politics in the first place. “We won’t be making any comment beyond the memo you already have,” said spokesman Hugh Pouliot.

In the memo, which was distributed to local executives at the end of last week, Hancock said CUPE’s position was “similar to that of the NDP.”

Beyond the general idea that Venezuelans should decide their future with “free and fair elections,” there has been some confusion about whether all in the federal NDP, including its leader, are on the same page. Foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere said earlier last week the party is “comfortable” with the Canadian government recognizing Guaido, although she disagreed with its approach. Leader Jagmeet Singh wouldn’t go so far as to say that, when questioned by reporters, but a party spokesman later said the two are “in lockstep.”

It was amid ongoing coverage of the Canadian labour movement’s positions on Venezuela that Laverdiere spoke with the Post and tried to distance the NDP from “people close to the party, or associated to the party one way or another, who may have taken different positions.”

• Email: mdsmith@postmedia.com | Twitter: mariedanielles

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