Democracy vs Bush-o-cracy in Venezuela

Maria Corina Machado, founder and director of Venezuelan NGO Sumate met with US President George Bush on Tuesday. What's at stake is not just a public slight to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Put Bush and Machado together, do you get a winning Presidential ticket?

From an ad hoc podium Maria Corina Machado addresses the gathered reporters sprawled out on the White House lawn before her.  “Good morning.  Yes, I had a meeting with Mr. President just now,” she says, “and we were invited [to the White House] because he’s very interested to know the perspective of civil society about democratic values and the spread of democracy in particular in my country, Venezuela.”  Machado is the founder and director of Súmate (Join Up), a Venezuelan non-governmental organization (non-Venezuelan government, that is).  Her close ties to the White House, however, have been cause for concern in Venezuela for some time, where Súmate’s alleged neutrality has been called into question ever since it was founded in 2002.

According to Machado, Súmate is an objective non-partisan civil association.  Súmate is the third NGO founded and directed by Machado, including one that worked with Venezuelan municipalities in the 1990s to privatize homeless shelters.  To date, Súmate’s only political experience has been to agitate for the removal of Chávez by way of a recall referendum last August, though Chávez won nonetheless with 60 per cent of the vote.  Their controversial role conducting flawed exit polls during the referendum—specifically criticized by the Carter Center and OAS observation missions in Venezuela—and their subsequent rejection of the referendum results, though both the Carter Center and the OAS declared them to be free and fair, have cast doubt on Súmate’s professed “neutrality.”  When asked why Súmate has worked exclusively with the Venezuelan opposition since its inception in 2002, Machado said that their overtures to the government were regularly rebuffed.  She did not specify whether her presence at the swearing-in of the illegal government of Pedro Carmona during a short-lived April 2002 coup may have sullied her reputation with Chávez’s government.

On April 11th of that year Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez—democratically elected in 1998 and again in 2000—was overthrown in what proved to be a short-lived coup.  Before he was restored to power by massive popular protests and loyal elements of the military, however, a “transition government” was set up, and business leader Pedro Carmona Estanga sworn in as provisional President.  Carmona’s first act as provisional Venezuelan leader was to abolish the Bolivarian Constitution—ratified by popular referendum in 1999—as well as the Supreme Court, the National Assembly and the Human Rights Ombudsman in what became known as the “Carmona Decree.”  Present at Carmona’s swearing-in ceremony were several hundred prominent Venezuelans, including business-leaders, media barons, politicians, and members of “civil society,” whose signatures (below) confirmed their attendance.  Machado was one of the latter.

“Attendance at the Swearing-in of the Governing Junta.” Maria Corina Machado’s signature appears bottom left.
Source: Venezuelafoia.info

Less than 48-hours after coming to power, however, Carmona’s illegal junta was overthrown, and as the now defunct April 11th-government sped out the backdoor of the palace into their tinted SUVs and back into Caracas’ posh gated communities, his allies began back-pedaling.  In a recent article, Machado told Newsday that she did not know what she was signing, saying she innocently signed a blank piece of paper she had assumed was a reception sheet.  Yesterday, her story changed again.  Still flushed from her tête-á-tête with George W. Bush, Machado claimed that the Venezuelan government “know[s] clearly that I did not sign the decree. I was not present at the event,” she said.  Yet the evidence would appear to suggest otherwise.

The fact that Súmate has received a series of grants from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Agency for International Development (AID) does not speak to their neutrality.  Neither organization has a history of objectivity; they are both on the frontlines of attempts to spread US influence under the rubric of “promoting democracy.”

Subverting Democracy in the Name of Democracy

The NED was formed in 1983, as US foreign policy shifted from a focus on “national security,” which often involved alliances with and support for authoritarian regimes, to “democracy promotion.”  The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was formed, along with a series of other foundations, think tanks, and NGOs, and given funding from congress and a mandate to “promote democracy” as a new and more effective way to support United States policies abroad.

Two of the first test cases are particularly relevant to present-day Venezuela: the democratization movement in the Philippines that culminated in the election of Corazon “Cory” Aquino in 1986, and Violeta Chamorro’s defeat of the Sandinistas in the Nicaraguan elections of 1990.  According to veteran journalist and academic William I. Robinson who teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara, the US successfully intervened in the Philippines to prop up an elite leadership of the democratization movement calling for an end to Marcos’ dictatorship.  Only months before the scheduled elections, US Chargé d’Affaires Philip Kaplan convinced the divided anti-Marcos elite to unite and Cory Aquino was selected as the opposition’s candidate.[1]

Four years later a similar model was employed in Nicaragua, where the US had waged a decade-long illegal insurgency against the Sandinista government, destroying the Nicaraguan economy and holding the specter of continued aggression over voters’ heads.  Again, just months before scheduled elections, the US—operating through a complex web of government, non-governmental, and private sector proxies—united the fractured anti-Sandinista opposition.  According to ex-CIA agent Philip Agee who spoke with Venezuelanalysis.com last March, the US managed to unify the Nicaraguan opposition primarily through bribes.

The Formula

“In order to get the anti-Sandinista vote out and to monitor the elections,” says Agee, “the CIA and NED established a civic front called Via Civica and their ostensible job was political education and activism…non-partisan civic action.  When in actual fact all their activities were designed to strengthen the anti-Sandinista side.”  US “democracy promotion” theory may have been young in the mid-1980s, but by 1990 in Nicaragua a formula had been developed.  It consisted more or less of three stages, including the formation of a political alliance, a civic alliance, and an opposition-wide unified front.  “First there was the Coordinadora,” says Agee, referring to the Coordinadora Democratica Nicaraguense, “then Via Civica, and finally the unification of the opposition.”[2]

Venezuela has its own Coordinadora—the Coordinadora Democratica (CD)—or it did, until it imploded last September after Chávez’s referendum victory, which had grouped all of the major anti-Chávez parties and NGOs.  Venezuela’s version of Via Civica is Súmate, which will likely evolve into a national civic alliance, perhaps renamed Via Civica, or Alianza Civica—something “civica” anyway.  The dissolution of the CD is irrelevant to the opposition since, according to their “democracy promotion” schedule, it’s about time for stage three: the unification of the opposition into a new organization and the nomination of a common candidate.

According to Robinson, who has theorized the “democracy promotion” strategy in Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (1996), this strategy “as it actually functions, sets out not just to secure and stabilize elite-based polyarchic systems, but to have the United States and local elites thoroughly penetrate civil society, and from therein assure control over popular mobilizations and mass movements.”[3]

A Bush-Machado alliance in Venezuela, then, is key.

President George W. Bush and Súmate director Maria Corina Machado pose for a photo-op in the Oval Office on Tuesday.
Source: www.whitehouse.gov

Presidential Grooming?

In Nicaragua, once the US had secured a unified opposition candidate in the person of Violeta Chamorro, the White House arranged for a variety of photo-opportunities: Chamorro with Bush, Thatcher, even John Paul II.  As news of Machado’s meeting with Bush spread in Caracas yesterday, the possibility that Machado could be Chávez’s contender in the 2006 Presidential elections seemed to grip the country all at once.  Pro-Government Congresswoman Iris Varela told the press that the meeting could not possibly mean anything else.  And US-Venezuelan lawyer and Freedom of Information activist Eva Golinger appeared on television in the early evening to say the same, drawing a parallel to Chamorro.  “There they are sitting together, holding hands, smiling, one hiding a terrorist and the other backing a coup,” said lawmaker Cilia Flores, who called for Machado’s prosecution. “She went there to receive instructions, to see what other mischief they can get up to in Venezuela,” she said.

Robinson describes the strategy during Chamorro’s time fittingly.  “The purpose of these visits [to the US], in which photo-opportunities were stressed and statements kept to a minimum, was to have the image of Chamorro beside world leaders reverberate in the minds of the Nicaraguan electorate.”  Machado’s meeting with Bush apparently lasted only 15 minutes, but judging from the crowd in the above photo, it would appear to have been a success.

Nor is this the first such visit Machado has had with state leaders and high-level foreign diplomats.  In January, the Súmate leader was in Ottawa meeting with representatives of Canada’s Foreign Affairs department and NGO and business leaders.  According to a spokesperson at the Canadian embassy in Caracas, Súmate came away with a grant of approximately US$18,000 from the Canadian Embassy in Venezuela.  And one month later, during his February visit to Venezuela, Machado met with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero.

This weekend Machado will get a chance to plead her case before the entire hemisphere as one of the civil society groups given permission to present before the Organization of American States when the group meets in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from June 5 to 7.  The US has been pushing for the OAS to acquire some teeth in its mandate to protect democracy in the hemisphere, but representatives from other countries see the move as a poorly camouflaged attack on Venezuela.  Another initiative supported by the US is the creation of a mechanism to give civil society a voice in the Permanent Council—the group’s day-to-day governing body—to denounce threats to democracy in their countries.  Machado is clearly thrilled at the prospect.  At her press conference yesterday on the White House lawn, she voiced her support for opening the OAS to civil society groups, and the private sector as well.

But wait.  The Private sector needs a voice at the OAS?  The concept, though absurd, is perhaps understandable coming from Machado, whose comments were directed not so much towards Venezuelans, as towards private and “civil society” actors in the US and the Americas who stand to gain from the fusion of democracy and capitalism.  Reflecting Bush administration rhetoric, Lawrence J. Korb of the New York think-tank Council on Foreign Relations noted recently, “contrary to what some believe, democracy and capitalism do not spread inexorably on their own. The United States therefore needs to assume a leadership role in spreading and accelerating the growth of free-market democracies.”

Groups like Súmate, the NED, USAID, Development Alternatives Incorporated (the consulting firm distributing US-beneficence in Venezuela) are not so much interested in promoting democracy—if they were they’d be more impressed by the nine elections Chávez has won in the past six years—as they are in promoting a particular limited form of democracy that dovetails nicely with capitalist globalization—what William Robinson calls “low-intensity democracy.”

In a forthcoming interview with Venezuelanalysis.com, Robinson states it plainly: “This is a full-blown operation, a massive foreign-policy operation to undermine the Venezuelan revolution, to overthrow the government of Hugo Chávez, and to reinstall the elite back in power in Venezuela.”  “‘Democracy promotion’ will continue unhindered,” says Robinson, “and if the chance and the opportunity arises for…Venezuela to be isolated by international organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations, and so forth, then the US will go ahead and promote that type of diplomatic aggression.”

Is Machado launching a presidential bid backed and organized, like her ideological predecessors Aquino and Chamorro, by Washington?  Maybe.  But a more likely scenario in the short-term is the Súmate-led formation of a Venezuelan civic alliance, a key component of any anti-Chávez strategy hiding behind the cynical rhetoric of democracy.  And the OAS convention on Sunday would be the place to do it.

[1] William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[2] “The Nature of CIA Intervention in Venezuela: Interview with Philip Agee,” Jonah Gindin, Venezuelanalysis.com.

[3] p.69, emphasis added.