AFSCME office gets mural by visiting artist from Venezuela


It all came together Nov. 1. Oregon Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) had a new office in need of beautification.

Some AFSCME members had begun to take an interest in what’s been going on recently in Venezuela.

And it happened that a Venezuelan political muralist was in Portland for a two-week visit.

AFSCME Local 88 Vice President Mary Orr met muralist Nelson Santana Oct. 21 when he spoke at the Local 99 Musicians Union Hall. Just days before, her union’s staff had moved into its new office building at 6025 East Burnside. “Could Santana paint a mural there?” she wondered. A few days and a flurry of phone calls later, Santana was at work on a mural adorning the lobby.

Santana, who trained at art schools in France and Spain, is well-known in Venezuela as the painter of over 100 murals in one district of Caracas, the capital. Murals have a long tradition in Latin America as a marriage of art and revolutionary idealism, dramatizing social justice struggles and glorifying popular heroes.

AFSCME has its own popular heroes, whose images now adorn Council 75’s foyer: Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated while supporting a group of AFSCME strikers in Memphis, Tennessee, and Bill Lucy, AFSCME national secretary-treasurer, who was with King in Memphis.

“It’s a great way for our members to see what we’re about when they come in,” said Gina James, office support staffperson who helped get the mural project in motion.

Santana’s visit was part of a series of events sponsored by the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee (PCASC) that sparked interest in Venezuela among local unionists. In August, AFSCME Local 88 had given $500 to send two Portlanders to Venezuela, including former AFSCME organizer Megan Hise, and the two reported on their trip at the local’s October meeting.

On Oct. 29, Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, spoke at Portland State University, and was welcomed by Oregon AFL-CIO President-elect Tom Chamberlain.

For his mural work, Santana wouldn't accept payment, but AFSCME paid for materials and contributed a $500 honorarium that will go toward a school for muralists he is founding. Santana, who was born in Caracas, is a devoted supporter of the “Bolivarian” movement. Named for Venezuelan General Simon Bolivar, who liberated Latin America from Spanish rule in the early 1800s, the Bolivarian movement seeks to implement Bolivar’s vision of a united Latin America.

The movement’s best-known proponent is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a populist former paratrooper who was elected by a landslide vote in 1998. The Chavez government quickly moved to devote Venezuela’s oil wealth to bring up living standards for the country’s poorest citizens. That alienated the country’s most prominent business leaders, who led an unsuccessful coup in 2004. Since then, Chavez has emerged as an outspoken critic of so-called free-trade agreements, such as the recently passed CAFTA which the U.S. labor movement also opposes.

While U.S. President George W. Bush has said new trade agreements will help Latin America reduce its poverty, Chavez has urged the United States to do more to eliminate its own poverty.

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