Ethics & Public Policy Center

On Keeping Your Head



Your editor remembers that his seventh-grade teacher, Sister George Mary, was a fanatic for memorization who required that “If” be learned by heart. Not much of that exercise in Kipling remains fresh at hand, save the opening line: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”

Which came back to us recently when, in the midst of the inside-the-Beltway turmoil over Iran/hostages/ Nicaragua, the AFL-CIO’s executive council held its annual meeting and issued a statement on “Latin America and the Caribbean,” which was notable for its balance and thoughtfulness. Among the salient points raised were the following:

“The AFL-CIO regards with great satisfaction the long-term trend in Latin America toward governments chosen by the people in honest elections, and toward greater respect for human and trade union rights. It urges the government of the United States to take all possible steps to reinforce this process and to support the forces that contribute to freedom of association, trade union rights, and the democratization of this hemisphere….

“The AFL-CIO continues to hold to a single standard with regard to dictatorships of either the reactionary right, as in Chile and Paraguay, or the totalitarian left, as in Cuba, Suriname, and Nicaragua. No political ideology can justify restrictions on the right to freely associate, to form independent unions, and to represent the authentic interests of the workers.

“Trade relations between the United States and other nations of the Western hemisphere should be conditioned upon observance of human and trade union rights….

“The AFL-CIO affirms its desire for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Central America through dialogue and negotiations between the governments of Nicaragua and of El Salvador and the rebel movements of their respective countries—whether such dialogue takes place under the auspices of the Contadora nations or some other democratic group of nations and/or institutions….

“[T]he AFL-CIO will re-double its efforts to assist the CUS [the independent labor federation in Nicaragua] in promoting dialogue between the Nicaraguan government and its opposition, to seek a settlement of the conflict based on the 21 points of the Contadora process, which include freedom of association, freedom of the press, and free and honest elections.

“The AFL-CIO reiterates its support for the Salvadoran democratic trade union movement . . . which has called for a negotiated end to the fighting based on respect for democratic rights. We continue to insist that U.S. economic and military aid be conditioned on improvements in human and trade union rights: and to condemn efforts by the left and right extremes to destabilize the democratic process. …”

Compare this statement, by a group that can hardly be accused of being in the back pocket of the Reagan administration, to the League of Women Voters’ letter to members of Congress, in which the league opposed military aid to the Nicaraguan resistance (see “In Brief,” below). The AFL-CIO statement sets the Nicaragua case in its appropriate historical context: the democratic revolution in Latin America. The AFLCIO recognizes that the Sandinista regime is totalitarian in nature, and that it has lots of human rights problems. The AFL-CIO further recognizes that the Nicaraguan resistance has a right to a voice in the future of the Nicaraguan people’s revolution. None of this is recognized in the league’s letter.

Thus, once again, as it had done throughout the 1980s, the AFL-CIO executive council has kept its head while many others were losing theirs on the matter of Central America policy. And the AFL-CIO has done that, not by splitting the difference between the poles of the argument, but by scouting out new terrain, ahead of the present debate, on which agreement about the pursuit of peace, freedom, and justice in Central America might form. For which Lane Kirkland, Tom Kahn, Bill Doherty, David Jessup, and many others deserve considerable credit and praise.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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