Exceptional are those foreign trade union leaders who after an exhausting trip of twenty hours decide to go directly from the airport to the picket line of the striking Volkswagen workers. Ruben Linares is just such a trade unionist, one of those truly internationalist trade union leaders who have been steeled in the turbulent process of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. Ruben Linares is one of the national coordinators of the new trade union federation UNT and also the president of the transport federation, the FNTT.
He visited Belgium in the second week of December to take part in a national day of solidarity on December 9, but also to establish links with the Belgian trade unions. It was a short but quite intense visit between December 6 and 15.
From the heat of Caracas to the ice cold Volkswagen picket
| Linares with Moroccan workers from ISS
When we decided to go the Volkswagen picket line a little doubt entered our mind: how would these workers who had just been brutally treated and lost their jobs react to the presence of Ruben at their picket? The workers had organised a special activity for that afternoon, with the distribution of sweets and presents for their children, a traditional event that takes place in Belgium on December 6.
We were introducing Ruben to some of the workers when we came across a group of Moroccan workers from a subcontracting firm, ISS. They immediately "took charge" of looking after Ruben Linares. "You want a cup of hot chocolate?" "Yes, thanks," answered a freezing Ruben. None of those workers was a trade union activist or a shop steward but all of them were aware of what is happening in Venezuela.
Ruben was concerned that we should express the solidarity of Venezuelan workers, but he was then besieged with questions and words of support for the Venezuelan revolution! "Viva Chavez" was the spontaneous reaction of a group of workers. "Well done in Venezuela. Give Bush a kick up his ****."
"If we had a Chavez (in Morocco or the Arab world) we would never have been forced to emigrate looking for a job elsewhere. In Belgium as well as in our homeland we suffer. Redistribute the wealth, that is what is necessary". It is remarkable how quickly Chavez has become a hero for the Arab people. We got a photo taken with the whole group. By then we were getting noticed on the picket! Some trade union activists came up and congratulated Linares for Chavez's election victory in Venezuela.
A few moments later we were discussing with the shop stewards belonging to the socialist trade union confederation. They explained: "Believe it or not, but exactly this morning during a demonstration we were discussing what was going on in Venezuela. We concluded that the Bolivarian revolution is the one of the most important developments for the left internationally." Here again the workers didn't give Ruben a chance to express his solidarity with their struggle, but immediately expressed their solidarity with the struggle in Venezuela!
A former shop steward, Jacques Guillemot, immediately started giving his view of the world situation and the role of the Bolivarian revolution. Another one fired one question after the other. We distributed invitations for the national day of solidarity that were eagerly read. The cold was starting to really to bite by now. We warmed up near the fire, the ‘brasero,' and went back home.
From the university over Oxfam to Chile
|At the University
That same evening different comrades from the solidarity movement welcomed Ruben to Belgium. We discussed until late at night. The next day Ruben was expected to speak at the local university, where some student organisations had organised an activity for him, and despite the exam fever a group of 20 youth participated in the debate.
On the Friday afternoon Ruben Linares together with Gregory Wilpert, the co-founder of Venezuelanalysis.com, had been invited to speak to Oxfam Solidarity. Again some 20 cadres of the movement turned up for the meeting. Oxfam Solidarity is one of the few NGOs (non government organisations) in Belgium that has understood the importance of the Bolivarian Revolution. By spreading information and offering practical participation in solidarity events, Oxfam Solidarity helps in combating the stubborn prejudices against the Bolivarian revolution.
|Linares at Oxfam headquarters
The central and inspiring role of Ruben Linares during the national day of solidarity has been described in another article. The following day we heard of the death of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator. When Ruben took part in the celebrations of the Chilean community in the centre of town he stood out because of his typical Venezuelan humour. "Nobody really knows why Pinochet died this week, but I know why. It was the news of Chavez's mega victory last week that killed him". When Ruben and dozens of other Chileans enter a café later in the evening they get a great reception with the songs of the Unidad Popular government of Allende and extracts from speeches of Chavez and Che Guevara.
From the rank and file to the top
On Tuesday Ruben met the general secretary of the Flemish socialist union ABVV, Caroline Coopers. Following the discussion at the national congress of the socialist ABVV/FGTB in June 2006, the union had decided to establish contacts with the UNT. This was thanks to the intervention and the campaign launched by an important branch of the socialist union of Chemical, Oil and Building Workers in Antwerp. Last year this union affiliated to the Hands Off Venezuela campaign. The long meeting with Ruben Linares and Caroline Coopers is the concrete result of that decision. Ruben gave a panoramic view of the trade union situation, explained the scandalous role of the corrupt CTV leaders during the coup in 2002 against Chavez and during the bosses' lockout. Ruben also gave a lot of examples of the developments of the UNT and he answered also the reports of the International Labour Organisation rejecting the idea that there were any restrictions on trade union rights in Venezuela. At the end of this meeting, Ruben had no doubt that this first and important meeting will have a positive influence on the attitude of the socialist union towards the UNT and the Bolivarian revolution.
A few hours later we met another trade union leader, Hendrik Vermeersch, who organises the workers in the freight and delivery sector (DHL, Fedex, Airport etc). They exchanged a lot of practical experience during this meeting. Hendrik Vermeersch did not limit the discussion to trade union matters but had a lot of questions on the general situation in Venezuela, the role of Cuba etc.
And back to the rank and file
|Linares with Total workers
Antwerp was the last stop of his visit to Belgium. We started with a visit to the Total oil refinery, where he got a great welcome from the shop stewards belonging to the socialist union in the presence of those of the Christian union, the ACV. To get an idea of the importance of the visit of a Venezuelan trade union leader to Antwerp you need to know that this town hosts the second biggest petrochemical installations in the world, second only to those in Houston Texas. Here again Ruben gave a tireless and passionate account of the resurgence of the workers' movement in his country. He explicitly extended his thanks to Eric Lambert, the convenor of the ABVV in the Total plant who had moved a motion of support of the Bolivarian Revolution and the UNT at the national congress earlier this year. The visit to the refinery left a big impression on Ruben.
Then Ruben went to a meeting with the leadership of the union in the Antwerpen Waasland area. This is the biggest branch of the Building, Chemical and Oil Workers' Union, with its 35,000 members and it has become the most important base of support of the trade union solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution. In the evening Ruben spoke at a joint meeting of activists from the two unions. When a clearly happy Ruben left for Venezuela a few hours later he confirmed to me that the first thing he would be doing upon arriving in Caracas was to try and participate in the demonstration of the workers of Sanitarios Maracay who are demanding the nationalisation of their factory.