Last week, watching the television news, I received a shock. As I was watching, I saw a gunman attempting to shoot the Vice-President of Argentina, Cristina Fernández. Fortunately, he didn’t succeed but the sight provoked a deep response from me as I have had two of my friends and colleagues assassinated in Argentina and it all came back in a flash to my memory. Moreover, the two Argentines killed were only a small subset of my friends and colleagues assassinated in the course of my political activities. I don’t think I am unique with these cursed memories, but it is a sad coda on what my experiences have been.
In 1964 I was in Vienna for a conference of the International Metalworkers Union. I was with the UAW delegation to the meeting, and, because of my language skills, I was asked to translate for the British delegates to the meeting. Having done so I was then asked to assist two Argentine participants to travel from Vienna to Lisbon and to make sure they arrived safely. The two I was escorting were Augusto Timoteo Vandor, an important Argentine trade unionist and Peronist, and Raphael Valle de Aguirre, a journalist.
Vandor, known as “El Lobo” (the Wolf) was head of the steelworkers’ union, and the strongest force in the national union confederation, CGT, along with CGT Secretary General José Alonso. Vandor and Aguirre were travelling to Estoril to meet with Peron, tying up the logistics of Peron’s surreptitious return to Argentina from his exile in a covert plan known as Operation Return. The plan failed and Vandor and Alonso fell out when Alonso and Vandor contested the post of the head of the CGT. Peron chose to support Alonso against Vandor. With the tacit support of the military and the Peronist faction supporting Alonso it was clear that Vandor was in danger. On 30 June 1969, at his UOM offices in Avellaneda, Vandor was cut down by five bullets and then blown up by a bomb, in what was codenamed Operation Judas.
I had limited contact with Vandor after I left him with Peron in Estoril, but I was active in building support for the Argentine Mechanical Workers' Union (SMATA) belonging to the CGT and led by a close friend of mine, Dirck Henry Kloosterman.
I had spent some time in Buenos Aires with Klosterman as I was preparing a study on working conditions and collective bargaining in Latin America for the IMF and we visited his pioneering workers’ recreational centres that today bears his name, located in the town of Canuelas, the 24 de Febrero hotel in Mar del Plata and the 17 de Octubre inn in Luja¡n (San Luis). These were acquired by the union for the members. He visited us on two occasions in Washington, D.C. He became Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean of the International Federation of Workers in the Metal Industry (IMF).
He was a prominent leader in the “Peronism Without Peron” movement and angered the ‘National Command’ of the Peronist Armed Forces (FAP) by his activities. He was assassinated at noon on May 22, 1973, when taking his car out of his house at Calle 51 No. 1617, La Plata. There he lived with his wife, children and his father. Kloosterman was killed by four handgun bullets a few meters from his private home. His wife, who was at the door of his home, witnessed the attack. His death had a deep effect on all of his friends and, despite the efforts to continue his policies by Jose Rodriguez, Kloosterman’s death was a blow to Argentine unionism. I was quite upset by his passing, and I dedicated my book on international labour to him.
In 1969 I was in Washington, D.C. and had been assigned to assist an inspiring Kenyan trade unionist, Tom Joseph Odhiambo Mboya, Tom Mboya was a Kenyan trade unionist, educator, Pan-Africanist, author, independence activist, and statesman. He was one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Kenya. He played a key role in the first Kenyan independence political party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), where he served as its first Secretary-General. He led the Kenyan side at the negotiations for independence at the Lancaster House Conferences. He was important, not only for his skills and achievements, but as a leader of the Luo people in Kenya, the second most powerful faction after the Kikuyu people led by Jomo Kenyatta, who worked together with Kenyatta to build the independent Kenyan nation; he was in opposition to his more radical Luo rival, Oginga Odinga, whom Mboya helped oust as Vice President in 1966.
Tom Mboya was active in promoting good relations with the U.S. and spent some considerable effort to obtain scholarships for Kenyan students. In 1959, Mboya along with the African-American Students Foundation in the United States organized the Airlift Africa project, through which 81 Kenyan students were flown to the U.S. to study at U.S. universities. Barack Obama's father, Barack Obama, Sr., was a friend of Mboya's and a fellow Luo who received a AASF scholarship to study in Hawaii. Mboya was a friend of the Kennedys and the Kennedy Foundation helped fund this program.
I was assigned to help provide some of the background papers on collective bargaining, grievance procedures, representation elections, etc. to Mboya for him as part of his efforts to introduce modern industrial relations systems in Kenya. We met a few times in D.C. to discuss this. He was a very bright and energetic man. I was very impressed.
It was a great shock for me to learn that on July 5, 1969, Mboya, who was then Kenya's Minister of Economic Planning and Development, stepped into Chhani's Pharmacy to buy a bottle of lotion. As he emerged, an assassin opened fire, escaping in the ensuing confusion. Mboya was struck in the chest, blood soaking his suede jacket, and died in an ambulance on the way to Nairobi Hospital. He was only thirty-eight years old. Up to this day, neither the real assassin nor the sponsors of it are known.
During late 1969 a friend and classmate of mine at American University, Gil Fernandes from Cabo Verde, asked me if we could assist the efforts of the anti-colonial political movement, PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde), then in armed conflict with the colonial Portuguese Army. The PAIGC was led by Amilcar Lopes da Costa Cabral and were preparing for taking office at the end of Portuguese rule. Gil asked me if I could help arrange a subsidy for the printing of the PAIGC Constitution of Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde. The Central Committee of the PAIGC had prepared and accepted the terms of their Constitution and wanted to circulate copies of the proposed national constitution to the people of Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde in advance of independence. I was on the Board of the American Committee on Africa and thought I might gather some of our backers to help him. Gil Fernandes, himself, has subsequently had a long career in diplomacy, as Permanent Representative of Guinea-Bissau. to the United Nations, Deputy Permanent Representative of Cape Verde to the UN, Ambassador to the United States and Ambassador to Sweden. I contacted several possible supporters and the UAW. They all paid for the first copies of the Guinea-Bissau-Cabo Verde Constitution, and I helped arrange their discreet delivery to the country.
I was made aware that there would be visit of the PAIGC leader, Amilcar Cabral, to the Washington, D.C. I was asked if I would take him to see the responsible Congressional leaders who dealt with his country as well as some Executive Branch officials. I did so and Cabral was surprised to learn how little was known about his country and how disinterested they were about the last throes of Portuguese colonialism. Cabral was an agricultural engineer, pan-Africanist, intellectual, poet, theoretician, revolutionary, political organizer, nationalist and diplomat, a very impressive and sincere man. He was one of Africa's foremost anti-colonial leaders. He was deeply unimpressed by his reception in Washington and asked me if I could do him one more favour. He wanted to visit the grave of Jack Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery. I took him there and he spent several minutes in quiet, staring at the grave and the flame. He turned to me and said, “Well that was worth the whole trip.”
I only had limited contact with Cabral after that but liaised with Fernandes. I was shocked to learn that on a visit to nearby Guinea (Conakry) on 20 January 1973, a former PAIGC rival, Inocencio Kani, and another PAIGC officer shot and killed Amilcar Cabral. There was widespread belief that they did this with the assistance of the Portuguese Secret Police, PIDE) but it was never proved.
In late 1968 I was invited to lunch by my good friend and colleague, Mariyowanda Nzuwah of, then, Rhodesia. Nzuwah was working with me at the UAW in Washington D.C. Mariyo was a clandestine representative of ZANU in the US and active in support of the party. We did a variety of small projects in support of Rhodesian independence. Our main contact in ZANU was Herbert Wiltshire Pfumaindini Chitepo.
In January 1966 Chitepo moved to Zambia to concentrate on the armed struggle. He toured world capitals canvassing support for ZANU and for the enforcement of total economic sanctions against Rhodesia. He was bright and witty and was very effective and earned for ZANU international recognition and respect. The President of ZANU at the time was Ndabaningi Sithole. Many of the other leaders of ZANU and ZAPU were in Gwelo Prison and inactive. Sithole, like Chitepo was a Manyika-Shona and most of the fighting force was Karanga-Shona. Sithole was sent to detention and Chitepo took over the leadership of ZANU. Chitepo and the military chief, Josiah Tongogara, took on the waging of the armed struggle and planned successful military guerrilla attacks and underground activities in Rhodesia from 1966 onwards. In 1972, he co-ordinated war operations with FRELIMO and opened up the north-eastern region of Zimbabwe as a new and effective war front.
We were asked to assist the liberation movement and Nzuwah and I were encouraged to acquire some printing machines to send to Zambia for both ZANU and ZAPU to use. The UAW bought several Varitype machines in Europe (with the assistance of the German and Swedish labour movements) and we delivered them to Zambia. They could then print their propaganda for the masses. Years later I was visiting in Harare in Dumiso Dabengwa’s office on a different subject and he suddenly looked up and said he recognised me from the Lusaka delivery.
Nzuwah was assisting Chitepo during his visit to Washington, and I was invited to lunch with them. Chitepo was going to speak at Columbia and wanted to be briefed on what were the best topics to speak about. We discussed this and I had several additional discussions with him while he was in the U.S. He thanked us for the printing presses and the three tons of medical supplies we had delivered to ZANU subsequently. I didn’t see or hear from him for a while he was busy fighting the Rhodies.
It was a great shock to me to learn that Chitepo was assassinated on 18 March 1975 in Lusaka, Zambia when a car bomb, placed in his Volkswagen Beetle the night before, exploded. He and Silas Shamiso, one of his bodyguards, were killed instantly. Sadat Kufamadzuba, his other bodyguard, was injured. The explosion sent part of the car onto the roof of his house and uprooted a tree next door. Hours later one of his neighbours died of injuries he sustained in the explosion. ZANU at the time blamed the Rhodesian Security Forces, but others feared that this was a result of an internal battle in ZANU between the Karanga military and the Zezuruu – Manyika forces. Later, it was shown to be the work of Ken Flowers of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) who planted false documentation at the crime scene.
There are several others who met their early fate as a result of assassinations. Some of these are public and several more deeply buried inside the annals of governments I was unlucky to know many of them. Some of my friends told me I was a ‘jinx’. Well, I didn’t want them dead. I was shocked when it happened. That feeling of shock was recalled by the attempted shooting in Argentina. I’ll bury it all again and hope there isn’t another trigger.