In Venezuela, Rise Of Labor Unions Turns Deadly President Hugo Chavez calls his country a workers' paradise. But trade union activists are being murdered at an alarming rate in Venezuela, making it one of the world's most dangerous countries for union organizers.
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In Venezuela, Rise Of Labor Unions Turns Deadly

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In Venezuela, Rise Of Labor Unions Turns Deadly

In Venezuela, Rise Of Labor Unions Turns Deadly

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez frequently touts his country as a socialist paradise, where workers run nationalized companies, and oligarchs are kept in check. But Venezuela is fast becoming one of the world's most dangerous countries for union organizers, and a number of recent murders has some union chiefs accusing the government of stirring up violence.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Maracay, Venezuela.

JUAN FORERO: One after another, union members are being killed in this historic city along Venezuela's northern fringe. One union leader was shot dead in his home. Three others died when two gunmen unloaded their handguns in the roadside restaurant where they were eating.

The latest victim was Jerry Diaz, a union activist killed by two gunmen in April. He was shot moments after getting into his car outside his house, says his brother, Cherry Diaz.

Mr. CHERRY DIAZ: (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: He says he was half a block away, ran to his brother and found him dying on the street. The murder remains unresolved. Diaz says he doesn't know why his brother was killed. But he says that a renegade union had been trying to oust his brother's established union in the paper-making company where he worked.

Under Chavez, unions have multiplied exponentially, promoted by the government to counter what officials here call stridently anti-Chavez unions.

The government calls itself solidly pro-labor. It's repeatedly hiked the minimum wage.

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: And it's handed once-private companies to workers to run, as celebrated in this pro-Chavez rap song. But some union leaders describe a dark side, saying the new, pro-Chavez unions go head to head with established ones.

The objective is to control work sites. That's because in Venezuela, workers often pay union leaders kickbacks for their jobs. Marino Alvarado is an investigator for the Provea human rights group in Caracas. He's been looking into the murders.

Mr. MARINO ALVARADO (Investigator, Provea): (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: Having a union has become a business, he says, and that's led to a mafia-like atmosphere where union leaders end up dead.

The violence has left 75 victims in the last two years, according to figures compiled by the Catholic Church. That's more than even Colombia, which over the years has been known as the most dangerous country for union organizing.

Emilio Bastidas is a regional leader of the UNETE confederation of unions here in Maracay. UNETE has already lost eight members, the latest Jerry Diaz.

Mr. EMILIO BASTIDAS (Regional Leader, UNETE): (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: Bastidas says using hit men to kill off union leaders is a tactic designed to weaken unions opposed to Chavez. He blames the government, saying that most of the slayings are unsolved. He says that sends the message that killing union members will go unpunished.

But he doesn't know if anyone in the government is giving the orders or if it's simply renegade unions taking advantage of the general impunity in Venezuela.

Calls to the attorney general's office and to the Labor Ministry to discuss the problem were not returned.

Anair Medina is Jerry Diaz's wife, and she says she raised the question of safety with her husband shortly before he was killed.

Ms. ANAIR MEDINA: (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: But he told her that he had to keep fighting for his workers, she recalls. Now, she says, she is all alone, left only with the memories of her husband.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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