Editor's note: Below we reprint an exchange on the merits and demerits of the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI) and its director Gene Sharp. The occasion of the exchange is, among other things, a series of articles that appeared in Venezuelanalysis.com over the years, criticizing the AEI for its involvement in Venezuela. The first part of this exchange originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, a progressive foreign policy think tank.
Sharp Attack Unwarranted
by Stephen Zunes, June 27, 2008
Sharp, an 80-year-old scholar of strategic nonviolent action and
veteran of radical pacifist causes, is under attack by a number of
foreign governments that claim that he and his small research institute
are key players in a Bush administration plot against them.
Though there is no truth to these charges, several leftist web sites
and publications have been repeating such claims as fact. This raises
disturbing questions regarding the ability of progressives challenging
Bush foreign policy to distinguish between the very real manifestations
of U.S. imperialism and conspiratorial fantasies.
Gene Sharp’s personal history demonstrates the bizarre nature of
these charges. He spent two years in prison for draft resistance
against the Korean War, was arrested in the early civil rights sit-ins,
was an editor of the radical pacifist journal Peace News, and
was the personal assistant to the leftist labor organizer A.J. Muste.
He named his institute after Albert Einstein, who is not only
remembered as the greatest scientist of the 20th century but was also a
well-known socialist and pacifist.
Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution in 1983, dedicated to
advancing the study and utilization of nonviolent conflict in defense
of freedom, justice, and democracy. Long considered the foremost
authority in his field, Sharp has inspired generations of progressive
peace, labor, feminist, environmental, and social justice activists in
the United States and around the world. In the past few decades, as
nonviolent pro-democracy movements have played the decisive role in
ending authoritarian rule in such countries as the Philippines, Chile,
Madagascar, Poland, Mongolia, Bolivia and Serbia, interest among peace
and justice activists has grown in his research and the work of other
scholars studying strategic nonviolent action.
Unfortunately, however, as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and
the Bush administration’s open advocacy for “regime change,” any
American group or individual who provides educational resources on
strategic nonviolence to civil society organizations or human rights
activists in foreign countries has suddenly become suspect of being an
agent of U.S. imperialism – even Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein
For example, in February Iranian government television informed
viewers that Gene Sharp was “one of the CIA agents in charge of
America’s infiltration into other countries.” It included a
computer-animated sequence of him and John McCain in a White House
conference room plotting the overthrow of the Iranian regime. In
reality, Sharp has never worked with the CIA, has never met Senator
McCain, and has never even been to the White House. Government
spokespeople and supporters of autocratic regimes in Burma, Zimbabwe,
and Belarus have also blamed Sharp for being behind dissident movements
in their countries as well.
Ironically, some on the left have picked up and expanded on these
charges. For example, in an article about the Bush administration
promoting “soft coups” against foreign governments it doesn’t like,
Jonathan Mowat claims
that “The main handler of these coups on the ‘street side’ has been the
Albert Einstein Institution,” which he says is funded by
Hungarian-American financier George Soros. Venezuelan-American attorney
Eva Golinger, meanwhile, claimed that
“Peter Ackerman, a multimillionaire banker had sponsored ‘regime
changes’ in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia through the Albert Einstein
Institute.” Tony Logan insists
that AEI “is a U.S. government run operation designed to link Gandhian
methods of nonviolent protest to Pentagon and U,S, State Department
efforts to overthrow foreign governments.” In a similar vein, Counterpunch readers were recently informed
that the Albert Einstein Institution plays “a central role in a new
generation of warfare, one which has incorporated the heroic examples
of past nonviolent resistance into a strategy of obfuscation and
misdirection that does the work of empire.”
Absolutely none of these claims is true. Yet such articles have been
widely circulated on progressive websites and list serves. Such false
allegations have even ended up as part of entries on the Albert
Einstein Institution in SourceWatch, Wikipedia, and other reference web
The international press has occasionally echoed some of these bogus claims as well. For example, a commentary published in the Asia Times
last fall accused Sharp of being the “concert-master” for the Saffron
Revolution in Burma, claiming that the Albert Einstein Institution is
funded by an arm of the U.S. government “to foster U.S.-friendly regime
change in key spots around the world” and that its staff includes
“known CIA operatives.” Though these charges were utterly false, the
article was then widely circulated on a number of progressive list
serves, including such academic networks as the Peace and Justice
Implicit in such charges is that Burmese monks and other
pro-democracy activists in that country are unable to initiate such
actions themselves and their decision to take to the streets last fall
in mass protests against their country’s repressive military junta came
about because an octogenarian academic in Boston had somehow put them
up to it. One Burmese human rights activist, referring to his country’s
centuries-old tradition of popular resistance, noted
how the very idea of an outsider having to orchestrate the Burmese
people to engage in a nonviolent action campaign is like “teaching
grandma to peel onions.” (The Asia Times article also tried to connect Sharp to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China and another article from the Straits Times in Singapore even places Sharp and AEI behind the recent uprising in Tibet.)
This racist attitude that the peoples of non-Western societies are
incapable of deciding on their own to resist illegitimate authority
without some Western scholar telling them to do so has been most
dramatically highlighted by French Marxist Thierry Meyssan. In his article
“The Albert Einstein Institution: non-violence according to the CIA,”
he insists that Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution were
personally responsible for the 1991 Lithuanian independence struggle
against the Soviet Union; the 2000 student-led pro-democracy movement
that ousted Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia; the 2003 Rose Revolution that
forced out Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze; and, the 2004 Orange
Revolution that forced the revote on the rigged national election in
Ukraine. He also credits (or, more accurately, blames) Gene Sharp for
personally playing a key role in uniting the Tibetan opposition under
the Dalai Lama, as well as forming the Burmese Democratic Alliance, the
Taiwanese Progressive Democratic Party, and a dissident wing of the
Palestine Liberation Organization that Sharp supposedly trained
secretly in the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.
The failure of people power movements to succeed in some other cases
was not, according to Meyssan, due to weaknesses within the movement or
strengths in the state apparatus. Says Meyssan, “Gene Sharp failed in
Belarus and Zimbabwe for he could not recruit and train in the proper
time the necessary amount of demonstrators.”
Despite the absurdity of these claims and the attribution of
seemingly superhuman capabilities to this mild-mannered intellectual,
Meyssan’s article has been repeatedly cited on progressive web sites
and list serves, feeding the arrogance of Western leftists who deny the
capability of Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, and Eastern Europeans
to organize mass actions themselves.
The Real Story
The office of the Albert Einstein Institution – which supposedly
plays such a “central role” in American imperialism –is actually a
tiny, cluttered space in the downstairs of Gene Sharp’s home, located
in a small row house in a working class neighborhood in East Boston.
The staff consists of just two employees, Sharp and a young
Rather than receiving lucrative financial support from the U.S.
government or wealthy financiers, the Albert Einstein Institution is
almost exclusively funded by individual small donors and foundation
grants. It operates on a budget of less than $160,000 annually.
Also contrary to the slew of recent charges posted on the Internet,
the Albert Einstein Institution has never funded activist groups to
subvert foreign governments, nor would it have had the financial means
to do so. Furthermore, AEI does not initiate contact with any
individual or organizations; those interested in the group’s
educational materials come to them first.
Nor have these critics ever presented any evidence that Sharp or the
Albert Einstein Institution has ever been requested, encouraged,
advised, or received suggestions by any branch of the US government to
do or not do any research, analysis, policy studies, or educational
activity, much less engage in active subversion of foreign governments.
And, given the lack of respect the U.S. government has traditionally
had for nonviolence or for the power of popular movements to create
change, it is not surprising that these critics haven’t found any.
The longstanding policy
of the Albert Einstein Institution, given its limited funding and the
reality of living in an imperfect world, is to be open to accepting
funds from organizations that have received some funding from
government sources “as long as there is no dictation or control of the
purpose of our work, individual projects, or of the dissemination of
the gained knowledge.” Well prior to the Bush administration coming to
office, AEI received a couple of small grants from the congressionally
funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the International
Republican Institute (IRI) to translate some of Gene Sharp’s
theoretical writings. Nearly forty years ago (and fifteen years prior
to AEI’s founding), Sharp received partial research funding for his
doctoral dissertation from Harvard Professor Thomas Schelling, who had
received support from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US
Department of Defense to fund doctoral students.
Though these constitute the only financial support Gene Sharp or
the Albert Einstein Institution has ever received, even indirectly,
from government sources, critics have jumped on these tenuous links to
allege that AEI is “funded by the U.S. government.”
A look at the five members of the Albert Einstein Institution’s
board shows that none of them is a supporter or apologist for U.S.
imperialism. In addition to Sharp himself, the board consists of: human
rights lawyer Elizabeth Defeis; disability rights and environmental
activist Cornelia Sargent; senior deputy executive director of Amnesty
International USA Curt Goering; and, veteran civil rights and anti-war
activist Mary King, author of a recent highly acclaimed book that gives a sympathetic portrayal of the first – and largely nonviolent – Palestinian Intifada.
During the 1980s, Gene Sharp’s staff included radical sociologist
Bob Irwin and Greg Bates, who went on to become the co-founder and
publisher of the progressive Common Courage Press.
Some years ago, when the institute had a larger budget, one of their
principal activities was to support research projects in strategic
nonviolent action. Recipients included such left-leaning scholars and
activists as Palestinian feminist Souad Dajani, Rutgers sociologist
Kurt Schock, Israeli human rights activist Edy Kaufman, Kent State
Peace Studies professor Patrick Coy, Nigerian human rights activist
Uche Ewelukwa, and Paul Routledge of the University of Glasgow, all of
whom have been outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy.
For decades, the work of Gene Sharp has influenced such radical U.S.
groups as Movement for a New Society, the Clamshell Alliance, the
Abalone Alliance, Training for Change and other activist organizations
that have promoted nonviolent direct action as a key component of their
Sharp and AEI have also worked closely in recent years with
pro-democracy activists battling U.S.-backed dictatorships in such
countries as Egypt and Equatorial Guinea as well as with Palestinians
resisting the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, hardly “the work of
empire” designed “to foster US-friendly regime change” as critics
The Case of Venezuela
As part of an effort to challenge the longstanding stereotype of
nonviolent action being the exclusive province of radical pacifists,
Dr. Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution have taken a
“transpartisan” position that cuts across political boundaries and
conceptions and makes their educational resources available to
Not surprisingly, a small minority of those who have taken
advantage of such resources have been those whose commitment to justice
and equality is questionable, including some members of Venezuelan
This ideological indifference on the part of Sharp and his
institution has been troubling for many of us on the left, but it
certainly does not constitute evidence that they are part of a
U.S.-funded conspiracy to overthrow foreign governments around the
world to advance U.S. imperialism and capitalist hegemony. Indeed,
their consulting policy
explicitly prohibits them from taking part in any political action,
participating in strategic decision-making with any group, or taking
sides in any conflict. None of the institute’s critics has been able to
provide evidence of a single violation of this policy.
Nevertheless, in her book Bush vs. Chavez: Washington’s War on Venezuela,
author Eva Golinger falsely claims that the Albert Einstein Institution
has developed a plan to overthrow that country’s democratically elected
government through training right-wing paramilitaries to use
“widespread civil disobedience and violence throughout the nation” in
order to “provoke repressive reactions by the state that would then
justify crises of human right violations and lack of constitutional
order.” Similarly, in a recent article,
Golinger has gone so far as to claim that Gene Sharp has written “a big
destabilization plan aiming to overthrow Chavez government and to pave
the way for an international intervention” including sabotage and
street violence. Neither Golinger nor anyone else has been able to
produce a copy of this supposed plan, instead simply citing Sharp’s
book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, written over 35 years
ago, in which he outlines close to 200 exclusively nonviolent tactics
that have been used historically, but includes no destabilization plan
aimed at Venezuela or any other country.
In addition, Meyssan, in an article posted in Venezuela Analysis,
insisted that “Gene Sharp and his team led the leaders of [the
opposition group] Súmate during the demonstrations of August 2004.” In
reality, neither Sharp nor anybody else affiliated with the Albert
Einstein Institution even took part in – much less led – those
demonstrations. Nor were any of them anywhere near Venezuela during
that period. Nor were any of them in contact with the leaders of that
In another article,
recently posted on the Counterpunch web site, George Cicariello-Miller
falsely accuses Sharp of having links with right-wing assassins and
terrorists and offering training “toward the formulation of what was
called ‘Operation Guarimba,’ a series of often-violent street
blockades that resulted in several deaths.” Cicariello-Miller’s only
evidence of Sharp’s alleged role in masterminding this operation was
that a right-wing Venezuelan opposition leader had once met with Sharp
in Boston and that a photo of a stylized clinched fist found in some
AEI literature (taken from a student-led protest movement in Serbia
eight years ago) matched those on some signs carried by anti-Chavez
protesters in Venezuela.
It appears that no one who has written any of these articles or who
has made such claims has ever actually attended any of the lectures,
workshops, or informal meetings by Gene Sharp or others affiliated with
the Albert Einstein Institution or has even bothered to interview
anyone who has. If they had done so, they would quickly find that these
presentations tend to be rather dry lectures which focus on the nature
of power, the dynamics of nonviolent struggle, and examples of tactics
used in nonviolent resistance campaigns historically. They do not
instruct anybody or give specific advice about what to do in their
particular situation other than to encourage activists to avoid all
forms of violence.
Finally, even if one were to assume that the Albert Einstein
Institution’s underfunded two-person outfit was indeed closely involved
in training the Venezuelan opposition in tactics of nonviolent
resistance, Chavez would have little to worry about. No government that
had the support of the majority of its people has ever been overthrown
through a nonviolent civil resistance movement. Every government
deposed through a primarily nonviolent struggle – such as in the
Philippines, Chile, Bolivia, Madagascar, Nepal, Czechoslovakia,
Indonesia, Serbia, Mali, Ukraine, and elsewhere – had already lost
popular support. This is not the case with Venezuela. While Chavez’
progressive economic policies have angered the old elites, he still
maintains the support of the majority of the population, particularly
when compared to the alternative of returning to the old
elite-dominated political system.
Unfortunately, Chavez himself was apparently convinced by these
conspiracy theorists that Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein
Institution really were part of a CIA-backed conspiracy against him, claiming last
June that “they are the ideologues of the soft coup and it seems like
they’re here [in Venezuela.] They are laying out the slow fuse …
they’ll continue laying it out [with] marches, events, trying to create
an explosion.” In reality, no one affiliated with AEI was in Venezuela
nor were they organizing marches, events, or any other activity, much
less trying to create an “explosion.”
In response, Sharp wrote a letter
to President Chavez explaining the inaccuracy of the Venezuelan
leader’s charges against him and expressing his concern that “for those
persons who are familiar with my life and work and that of the Albert
Einstein Institution, these inaccuracies, unless corrected, will cast
doubts on your credibility.” He also offered Chavez a copy of his book The Anti-Coup, which includes concrete steps on how a threatened government can mobilize the population to prevent a successful coup d’etat, hardly the kind of offer made by someone conspiring with the CIA to overthrow him.
With the U.S. corporate media and members of Congress refusing to
challenge the very real efforts by the Bush administration to subvert
and undermine Chavez’s government, the credibility of those of us
attempting to expose such genuine imperialistic intrigues are being
compromised by these bizarre conspiracy theories involving Gene Sharp,
the Albert Einstein Institution, and related individuals and NGOs.
Golinger’s books and articles, for example, bring to light some very
real and very dangerous efforts by the U.S. government and U.S.-funded
agencies. It is hard for many people to take her real accusations
seriously, however, in the face of her simultaneously putting forward
such blatant falsehoods about Gene Sharp and his institute.
Why Such Bizarre Attacks?
There is a long, sordid history of covert U.S. support for foreign
political parties, military cliques, and individual leaders, as well as
related activities that have resulted in the overthrow of elected
governments. And there are the very real ongoing efforts by such U.S.
government-funded entities as the NED and IRI which, in the name of
“democracy promotion,” provide financial and logistical support for
groups working against governments the United States opposes. Given
these very real manifestations of U.S. imperialism, why have some
people insisted on going after an aging scholar whose worst crime may
be that he is not being discriminating enough regarding with whom he
shares his research?
One reason is that some critics of Sharp subscribe to the same
realpolitik myth that sees local struggles and mass movements as simply
manifestations of great power politics, just as the right once tried to
portray the popular leftist uprisings in Central America and elsewhere
simply as creations of the Soviet Union. Another factor is that many of
the originators of the conspiracy theories regarding Gene Sharp and the
Albert Einstein Institution are Marxist-Leninists who have
traditionally downplayed the power of nonviolence and insisted that
meaningful political change can only come about through manipulation by
powerful external actors or privileged elites.
This is reinforced by the fact that many supporters of U.S.
imperialism – particularly the neo-conservatives – share this vanguard
mentality with Marxist-Leninists. As a result, the right has given the
United States unjustifiable credit for many of the dramatic transitions
from dictatorships to democracies which have taken place around the
world in recent decades. This, in turn, has led some on the left to see
such ahistorical polemics as “proof” of the central U.S. role because
the imperialists are “admitting it.”
The attempts to discredit Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein
Institution – as well as similar charges against the International
Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) and the Center for Applied
Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) – appear to be part of an
effort by both the right and the far left to delegitimize the power of
individuals to make change and to portray the United States – for good
or for ill – as the only power that can make a difference in the world.
(For a detailed analysis of the relationship between U.S. foreign
policy and popular democratic movements, see my article on the United States, nonviolent action and pro-democracy struggles.)
It is therefore troubling that so many progressive sources of
information have transmitted such falsehoods so widely and that so many
people have come to believe them, particularly given the transparent
lack of any solid evidence to back their accusations. The minority of
these articles that actually have citations, for example, simply quote
long-discredited sources such as Meyssan and Golinger. In a
mirror-image of the right-wing’s blind acceptance of false stories
about Barack Obama’s embrace of militant Islam, Michelle Obama’s
anti-white rhetoric, and Nancy Pelosi’s punitive tax plan against
retirees, some on the left all too easily believe what they read on the
Internet. The widespread acceptance of these false charges against Gene
Sharp and others raises concerns as to how many other fabricated
pseudo-conspiracies are out there that distract progressive activists
from challenging all-too-real abuses by the U.S. government and giant
One consequence of these attacks has been that a number of
progressive grass roots organizations in foreign countries have now
become hesitant to take advantage of the educational resources on
strategic nonviolent action provided by the Albert Einstein Institution
and related groups. As a result of fears that they may be linked to the
CIA and other U.S. government agencies, important campaigns for human
rights, the environment, and economic justice have been denied access
to tools that could have strengthened their impact. Furthermore, these
disinformation campaigns have damaged the reputation of a number of
prominent anti-imperialist activists and scholars who have worked with
such groups by wrongly linking them to U.S. interventionism.
Fortunately, there is now an effort underway to fight back.
Activists from groups ranging from the Fellowship of Reconciliation to
Code Pink to the Brown Berets – as well as such radical scholars as
Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Paul Ortiz – are signing onto an open letter in support of Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution.
Making Excuses for Empire: Reply to Defenders of the AEI
George Ciccariello-Maher and Eva Golinger, August 4, 2008
As much as we enjoy puns in titles, Stephen Zunes’ recent defense of Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution (AEI) in the article “Sharp Attack Unwarranted,” doesn’t have much else going for it. Zunes spends most of his time diverting attention from the real issues: the AEI’s role in imperial projects, a role which is politically irresponsible at best and consciously undertaken at worst. Unfortunately, in the process of mounting such an unwavering and uncritical defense, Zunes compromises what he claims to be his own political values (especially with regard to the AEI’s training of the right-wing Venezuelan opposition).
Beating Around the Bush (Administration)
Diverting attention is a sure sign that someone doesn’t have much in the way of an argument, and this seems to be the method of choice for the self-appointed defenders of the Albert Einstein Institution and its “Senior Scholar” Gene Sharp. Stephen Zunes’ article seems to tell us a great deal: that Sharp is an octogenarian with a cluttered home in a working-class area, a “mild-mannered intellectual” who gives “rather dry lectures,” that he has a long history of civil disobedience and an arrest record to match, that he was even under surveillance by the FBI. What Zunes doesn’t tell us is why this matters, or what it has to do with the AEI’s support of the Venezuelan opposition. Rather he merely asserts the paramount importance of the personal, claiming that “Gene Sharp’s personal history demonstrates the bizarre nature” of the charges we have leveled in the past.
But none of this matters, and while Zunes focuses on issues of personal history, what is more crucial is political fact. It matters little if Sharp is a sweet, old man (this being Zunes’ implication), that he loves his family, that he takes every opportunity to help those in need, that he donates to charity, that he has a small budget (although the $900,000 in assets that AEI declares suggest that Zunes is downplaying the organization’s financial capacity). To focus on such individual characteristics is something that American capitalism teaches us, ingrains in our very habits, and something that many “nonviolent” activists fetishize: as long as we remain individually pure, it doesn’t matter what happens around us (or better, what we allow to occur through our myopic individualism).
Nor is receiving funds directly from the US government what is crucial. Certainly, it should raise questions. Why, for example, was the Department of Defense willing to fund Gene Sharp’s 1960s doctoral dissertation? Why did the neoliberal National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and International Republican Institute (IRI) make donations to the AEI in the past? Why has Sharp himself insisted misleadingly in a letter to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez that “We have received no government funding ever,” knowing full well that the NED and IRI were created by the US government to conceal its covert activities behind a non-governmental façade, and that these very institutions constitute the spearhead of the imperial attack on the Venezuelan Revolution? (Incidentally, in an unpublished email, Zunes himself contradicts Sharp by admitting that these institutions do indeed constitute “government funding”). Finally, why does the AEI divert attention by arguing that this NED and IRI funding occurred long ago, when the IRI is credited in the organization’s annual reports as sponsoring the AEI’s recent and ongoing efforts in Serbia and Burma?
But as we said, the real issue isn’t government funding: it’s the AEI’s willingness to play a role in imperial projects, a willingness that doesn’t require direct government funding to make it politically irresponsible and reprehensible. There can be little doubt at present that, as the media and international public opinion have gained strength, and as the United States’ imperial project has come under fire, it has turned its sights toward subtler forms of intervention, in which it erases its own tracks through a dense tangle of institutional linkages. This is a clever imperial strategy, and Zunes seems to buy it, hook, line, and sinker. In an era when the U.S. operates through grants from the NED or the IRI, Zunes goes out of his way to justify these institutions while demanding that critics of this strategy provide an unsurprisingly non-existent paper trail.
Responsibility, Not Conspiracy
But even here, we seem to agree (at least in private) with Zunes. In an email which evidently served as a rough draft for Zunes’ recent article, he argues that efforts to overthrow Chávez “must be exposed and categorically condemned,” and openly admits the irresponsibility of the AEI consultation policy:
Unfortunately, Sharp – who is now well into his 80s and whose health is failing – appears to show little discernment as to who he meets with and his audience has sometimes included some right-wing Cubans or Venezuelans who have sought him out to see if any of his research would be of relevance in their efforts to organize some kind of popular mobilization against the Castro or Chavez governments. Some of those may have indeed been later found to have engaged in assassination plots. But does that really constitute having “links” with assassins?
But rather than including this concern, Zunes’ published piece instead defends the AEI’s so-called “transpartisan” policy of meeting with “essentially anyone.” Why was this privately-expressed concern watered-down significantly before being published? Why does Zunes feel obligated to publicly defend positions that cause him concern privately? Evidently, even in his private communications, Zunes feels that old age and health give us an excuse to shirk political responsibility. He even, somewhat breathtakingly, sees this as justifying meeting with terrorists, something which we are sure the readers–his and ours–will find disconcerting.
Similarly, while in a previous defense Zunes claims not to have been aware of the activities of AEI operatives in Venezuela (an effort to distance himself from such activities, no doubt), even this nagging concern appears to have been jettisoned in his recent effort to put forward a blind, united-front defense of the AEI. Zunes, it seems, has decided that he is comfortable with the AEI’s destabilizing and reactionary role in the very country he claims to defend.
But on top of this, Zunes argues that “None of the institute’s critics has been able to provide evidence of a single violation of this [allegedly apolitical transpartisan consultation] policy.” We are fairly sure that such evidence has indeed been provided previously, but just in case doubts remain, we will show both the internal incoherence and political irresponsibility of the AEI’s consultation policy as well as the fact that the AEI itself has violated this policy in the case of Venezuela.
AEI’s “Transpartisan” Consulting
The policy of Sharp’s AEI in Venezuela demonstrates how potentially violent and how insistently political the agency’s consultation policy is, and yet how willing they themselves are to violate it.
But what, exactly, does this policy say? According to an AEI document, “the Einstein Institution is committed to democracy and freedom, the right of peoples to live, liberation from oppression, and to exploring and developing the viability of nonviolent struggle against military attacks and other types of political violence.” As a result, at least according to this policy document, the AEI does indeed make political decisions regarding who to consult (again despite Zunes’ claims): “It is not the Institution's role to consult on how to defeat a nonviolent struggle movement which is resisting dictatorship, genocide, oppression, or aggressive war. Consultation with both sides in a given conflict is more likely and desirable when the distribution of rights and wrongs between the two contending groups is mixed.”
Furthermore, and revealingly, this policy even hedges the Institution’s bets by insisting that, if its objective is to reduce the incidence of violence in the world, it cannot limit itself to meeting with only proponents of nonviolence, but must also consult those who have used violence in the past and even those who continue to do so in the present. Under the guise of preaching to the unconverted, this purported institution of nonviolence justifies having associations with any and everyone, thereby freeing its hands of pesky ethical concerns. The logical extension of this “transpartisan” consultation policy is expressed in an email from Arthur Edelstein, who is credited as a “longtime supporter” in AEI literature, and who appears to be, besides Zunes, Gene Sharp’s only other self-appointed defender. Edelstein, like Zunes, justifies the policy of meeting with anyone, but unlike Zunes, takes this logic to its extreme: “The simple truth is that AEI members present their research to organizations that ask them to (finances permitting). If the State Department asked them to make a presentation, I believe they would be happy to.”
While it is clear that there is nothing neutral about such a policy, the AEI’s political orientation and sympathies still remain vague at best, but it is precisely this vagueness that proves so useful to the institution’s activities in Venezuela. How, we might ask, did it come to pass that the AEI consulted only with the anti-Chávez opposition, which has historically been on the side of violent coups and massacres? How could the institution have judged so erroneously the “distribution of rights and wrongs” in Venezuela, in violation of its own consultation policy?
Some light can be shed by the AEI’s own self-important resume of activities in Venezuela, which constitutes nothing more and nothing less than a rewriting of history through the eyes of the oligarchic opposition. We reproduce the entire passage, so that there will remain no doubt as to the institution’s own understanding of its role:
After his failed coup attempt in 1992, Hugo Chávez emerged victorious from the presidential elections in December 1998. Since then the regime has become increasingly authoritarian despite having been democratically elected. Soon after coming into office, Chávez drafted a new constitution, which significantly increased the powers of the presidency. Chávez’s popularity began to wane in December 2001 when he announced by decree a set of 49 new laws affecting industries including banking, agriculture and oil. People reacted by taking to the streets for a one day nationwide civil strike. The government responded with violent repression against the protesters. In this climate, the opposition has had difficulty mobilizing. Venezuelan society is extremely polarized as a result, and poised for the potential outbreak of violence.
Venezuelans opposed to Chávez met with Gene Sharp and other AEI staff to talk about the deteriorating political situation in their country. They also discussed options for opposition groups to further their cause effectively without violence. These visits led to an in-country consultation in April 2003. The nine-day consultation was held by consultants Robert Helvey and Chris Miller in Caracas for members of the Venezuelan democratic opposition. The objective of the consultation was to provide them with the capacity to develop a nonviolent strategy to restore democracy to Venezuela. Participants included members of political parties and unions, nongovernmental organization leaders, and unaffiliated activists. Helvey presented a course of instruction on the theory, applications and planning for a strategic nonviolent struggle. Through this, the participants realized the importance of strategic planning to overcome existing shortcomings in the opposition’s campaign against Chávez. Ofensiva Ciudadana, a pro-democracy group in Venezuela, requested and organized the workshop. This workshop has led to continued contact with Venezuelans and renewed requests for additional consultations (AEI Annual Report, 2000-2004, pp. 20-21).
Lest we fail to realize who attended the consultation, the meeting was also covered by Reuters on April 30th 2003, in an article noting that it took place in the utmost secrecy at an elite private Venezuelan university in eastern Caracas, with a sign on the door reading only “Seminar on Strategic Marketing.” The article continues: “The attendees included representatives of Venezuela’s broad-based but fragmented opposition, who are struggling to regroup after failing to force Chavez from office in an anti-government strike in December and January.” And, we could add, a murderous and anti-democratic (if botched) coup.
Anyone familiar with recent Venezuelan history will immediately spot a number of politically-motivated distortions of history, most egregiously the claim of Chávez’s authoritarianism, the claim of waning popularity, the claim that the government was responsible for the violence of April 11th 2002 (when it has been decisively demonstrated that it was the very same opposition supported by the “nonviolent” AEI that massacred dozens on that day), the revealing absence of any mention of the subsequent anti-democratic coup whatsoever, and the claim that far-right opposition group Ofensiva Ciudadana (whose members were associated with that coup) is “pro-democracy.”
Could there remain any doubt that the AEI indeed has taken a political position on Venezuela, and that Sharp’s claim to be “neither pro-Chávez nor anti-Chávez” is utterly farcical? On the surface, perhaps, but a more subtle view would see how the vague nature of AEI’s consultation policy allows the institution to follow a more winding and sinister path: from nominal neutrality through tacit judgment, through fake history, and on to the very reversal of reality. And once we reach this point, all traces of the “distribution of rights and wrongs” that would favor the Venezuelan left have been erased. We don’t need to explain the circularity of this path: the AEI’s intervention is justified by the history it re-writes.
A direct question is in order: Stephen Zunes, do you endorse this view? Had the 2002 coup not been heroically reversed, would the AEI have admitted that a popular government had been overthrown? Evidently not, as they had already rewritten history to suit their very clear political agenda. And yet Zunes insists: “What motivates me is that there are real threats out there to rolling back Venezuela’s exciting and ambitious socialist initiatives and we need to focus on countering them, not being sidetracked by paranoid fantasies against phantom enemies.” The United States is a “phantom enemy”? Is the coup-mongering Venezuelan opposition a “phantom enemy”? The United States, with its openly imperial designs? Clearly not, and yet Zunes’ sleight-of-hand is meant to conceal the AEI’s involvement with these very real enemies.
We are left wondering: is this mere coincidence? Was it a simple error (or rather, several errors) of historical fact that led AEI into the hands of a violent opposition seeking a new strategy? While the AEI’s nominal defense of abstract nonviolence–embodied by Gene Sharp himself–might lead us to this conclusion, his is but one of the Janus-faces of the AEI, and to grasp the deeper truth of the Institution’s role, we must also turn to the other face of the AEI: Robert Helvey.
But first, Sharp. Despite the AEI’s clearly political orientation, Sharp nevertheless conceals himself in a subterfuge of abstract nonviolence. In an email, Sharp himself uses this abstract faith to justify AEI’s intervention in Venezuela:
If we had refused the request for a workshop for the Venezuelan resisters, some of them would possibly have concluded the “only” option to be another coup d'état, riots, assassinations, or even a foreign invasion, as in Iraq… Would you have recommended that the dissident Venezuelans instead use violence?
Here, perhaps, we have the best proof yet of the reactionary nature of an abstract insistence on nonviolence. Sure, we know that the historic role of principled nonviolence has been a mixed bag: when peoples the world over picked up arms for their own liberation, nonviolent activists largely allowed their silence to speak, at best criticizing moments of excessive repression by the forces of reaction, at worst passively allowing and facilitating that repression. Sure, when the Black Panthers were targeted for FBI assassination, their allegedly confrontational and violent orientation prevented any sort of organized defense by the “nonviolent” left. Sure, we already knew that “nonviolence” in the face of violence is more often than not–by virtue of refusing to adopt a position–a tacit endorsement of that violence. (As Michael Barker puts it in an article critical of Zunes, “All peace activists want peace, but do activists want peace at any cost?” For Sharp and Zunes, the answer appears to be affirmative.)
But here, we have an apologistic justification, plain and simple, one which would equally apply to a variety of more reprehensible contexts. It would justify training the FBI to facilitate the “nonviolent” liquidation of the Black Panthers or any other insurgent movement in the US or abroad. It would justify consulting the Nazis in an effort to convince them that a “nonviolent” solution like deportation or mass imprisonment would be preferable to the Final Solution. Or, closer to the case in point, advising the United States government that–so long as its empire is achieved “nonviolently”–it can count on the legitimacy provided by the recognized standard-bearers of the philosophy of nonviolence.
Let’s cut through all the other arguments: could anyone on the left possibly endorse this view? Are we so politically impoverished that we cannot judge when and where armed resistance is justified? Are we so ethically impoverished that we can use nonviolence to support collusion with the right? We will be accused of misrepresentation, but the underlying logic is the same, and no quantity of celebrity signatures, no wealth of biographical detail, can erase this fact. Even if AEI were a consistently apolitical proponent of nonviolent strategies, we can see that this would represent a politically-irresponsible position. To refuse to take a position, as existentialism reminds us, is to take a position. While Sharp claims with regard to this abstract nonviolence, “We operate on what we regard as a deeper level,” it’s clear that this position is in fact much shallower.
Disavowing Robert Helvey
But what of the other side of the AEI, the more covert side, which doesn’t bother with the adornments of ethical arguments?
It was only recently that we realized a peculiar trend in the (unsolicited) responses to our work by the self-appointed defenders of the AEI and Gene Sharp. Firstly, in a prior email, Zunes asserted–without elaborating–that Robert Helvey and Chris Miller (both mentioned in the above report on AEI’s activities in Venezuela) “are not ‘AEI staffers.’” This claim is especially peculiar, not so much because the two are named in the AEI’s own documents as having carried-out the AEI consultation in Venezuela, but moreover because at the time the 2000-2004 Annual Report was written, Helvey was AEI’s President! To disavow a former president of the Institution you seek to defend: a strange tactic indeed.
That is, until we begin to delve into Helvey’s history and philosophy. Helvey is a retired US Army Colonel, a graduate of the US Army General Command Staff College and the Navy War College. Helvey’s prior experience includes service in Vietnam, association with the US Defense Intelligence College and Defense Intelligence Agency, and several years as the US Military Attaché in Burma. While still in the Army, Helvey recalls having stumbled across a seminar given by Sharp at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs:
He started out the seminar by saying, “Strategic nonviolent struggle is all about political power. How to seize political power and how to deny it to others.” And I thought, “Boy, this guy’s talking my language.” And, you know, that’s what armed struggle is about.
So much for Sharp’s self-image–which Zunes apparently believes–as the advocate of a principled, ethical approach to nonviolent action.
It has been Helvey above all who has weaponized Sharp’s nonviolence, arguing in his book On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict (published in 2004 by the AEI) that “nonviolent strategy is no different from armed conflict, except that very different weapons systems are employed” (xi). It was not a major transition, then, for this self-professed “professional soldier” to shift toward nonviolence, especially since he even admits that nonviolent strategies can coexist with violent ones! Indeed, while Zunes accuses us of falling prey to the “realpolitik myth,” he would do better to turn his gaze to this former president of the institution he goes to such lengths to defend. Helvey is a realpolitiker par excellence (as is Sharp, it would seem), but one who couches his power games in the language of nonviolence.
The tactic of disavowal is repeated by the AEI’s other self-appointed defender, Arthur Edelstein, who argues in an email that it was Helvey who served as liaison to the über-reactionary International Republican Institute (IRI), currently chaired by John McCain and responsible for, among other things, training and funding coup plotters from Haiti to Venezuela. This close relationship with the IRI is confirmed by Helvey himself, but while Edelstein deploys this assertion, inexplicably, to clear the AEI of any blame, surely the link cannot but reflect badly on the Institution as a whole and Sharp in particular, who no doubt had a hand in naming Helvey president.
In reality, the Janus-faces of these two figures–Sharp with his façade of ethical nonviolence and Helvey with his nonviolence as realpolitik–are a very convenient ploy for the AEI’s operations. When critics like ourselves highlight US government funding via the IRI, self-appointed defenders like Zunes and Edelstein reply in ethical terms. When we note the AEI’s links with the violent and anti-democratic right in Venezuela, we are told that AEI’s “consultation policy” allows it in the name of abstract nonviolence. And, no doubt, if Chávez is overthrown by “nonviolent” means, if the Venezuelan struggle for social justice is set back decades and violent repression returns, we will no doubt be told that while the collateral damage is unfortunate, what we are really seeing is the victory of nonviolence. Such is the carnival mirror that is the Albert Einstein Institution.
Contradictory Self-Deprecation and Smears
Given all the contradictions entailed, how can someone like Zunes, who allegedly defends the Venezuelan process and who privately admits the political errors of AEI and Gene Sharp continue to defend the Institution’s “transpartisan” consultation policy and activities in Venezuela?
A first strategy is to contradict the entire basis for AEI’s work by essentially arguing that nonviolence isn’t actually a particularly powerful strategy. As he puts it in his article, “No government that had the support of the majority of its people has ever been overthrown through a nonviolent civil resistance movement.” In other words: don’t worry, nonviolence won’t take you out as long as you’re popular. Unfortunately, this minimization of the strategic utility of nonviolence contradicts AEI’s controversial former President Robert Helvey, who argues in his book on the subject that “experience has shown that nonviolent struggle is an effective means of waging conflict” (xi). According to this view, the AEI position seems to be to attempt to rid the world of violence by giving violent people powerful weapons.
Furthermore, it seems quite impossible to prove Zunes’ empirical point that no popular government has been nonviolently overthrown, especially since the AEI seems willing to write Chávez’s lack of popular support into its Orwellian history, and since much is known about the efforts of professional polling firms like Penn, Schoen, and Berland to provoke coups through polling (much like AEI, from Serbia to Venezuela).
Either nonviolence is effective or it isn’t. To claim that it couldn’t be strategically deployed by a minority is nonsense: 49%, and even as few as 10% of a population is a lot of people to be engaging in nonviolent actions against a government. This view, moreover, neglects all of the other myriad powers that intersect with the political realm. Few would deny that, say, a dedicated 5% of the population, in conjunction with 90% of the media, economic control of 90% of a nation’s resources, and full support of a foreign superpower would be able to dispense with a government without recourse to openly violent strategies. This, in fact, was the case of the opposition oil sabotage against Chávez that took place in late 2002 and early 2003, in which a small number of oligarchs and right-wingers nonviolently destroyed the Venezuelan economy during more than two months. Surprisingly, Zunes cites this as proof of his theory that popular governments can’t be overthrown by nonviolent means. Unfortunately, it’s quite clearly a case of the exception proving the rule: certainly, heroic popular support for Chávez played a role in the government’s survival, but given the economic crisis that the sabotage involved, the government’s survival was utterly unprecedented.
A secondary strategy deployed by Zunes, it seems, is that of smearing his opponents, but fortunately such smears are hysterically risible and transparent in their objective. All critics of the AEI, it seems, are either racists or (here echoing McCarthyism) Marxist-Leninists, or preferably both. Evidently, anyone questioning the AEI’s dubious political affiliations is guilty of harboring the “racist attitude that the peoples of non-Western societies are incapable of deciding on their own to resist illegitimate authority without some Western scholar telling them to do so.” Coming from someone who demands a concrete paper trail before criticizing the AEI, such a glaring non sequitir is really surprising.
And this all the more so when we reflect for a moment on the abstract devotion to nonviolence that nominally undergirds the work of both the AEI and Zunes himself. An abstract devotion to nonviolence imposes a preordained strategy on local actors for ethical reasons derived from the comfort of the US. AEI and Zunes, so it seems, would have no problem imperialistically imposing a nonviolent strategy upon those inhabiting other parts of the world, struggling against oppression under a variety of conditions in which nonviolent action may prove ineffective at best or disastrous at worst. Against this, we believe that all people are capable of both rebellion and crafting a balance between revolutionary ethics and strategic necessity, and those who know how best to do so are those involved directly with the struggle. Who’s the racist?
The New Strategy
The Albert Einstein Institution plays a key role in the new generation of imperial designs of the United States. As we have seen, however, this is not because the individuals that constitute it are evil (though some certainly have dubious politics) or because it has received funding from the empire (it has). Rather, the issue is far more one of function: the AEI fits perfectly into the new imperial strategy of the US, perhaps best summarized in the much-vaunted revision by General Petraeus of the US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which argues pointedly that “some of the best weapons… do not shoot” (1-27). As a result, it should be of no surprise that violent organizations like the Venezuelan exile group ORVEX–who have in the past called for Chávez’s assassination and advocated bombing the Caracas Metro–are now advocating a “nonviolent” strategy and celebrating the work of Gene Sharp.
After realizing the power of asymmetrical warfare in Vietnam, the United States began to pioneer ways of turning this warfare of the weak to its advantage. Chile, Nicaragua, and dozens of other countries served as the testing ground, and Venezuela is the current focus. Having failed to topple Chávez through a coup and massive economic sabotage (methods employed in the Chile intervention) or through financial intervention into electoral politics (a method used to ensure “regime change” in Nicaragua), few options remain on the table. Given the opposition’s failures, it is widely known that their efforts have turned to the “soft coup” model. This is where the AEI and “nonviolent” regime change become central. With or without the blessings of Gene Sharp (or Stephen Zunes), nonviolent strategies have been used, are being used, and will continue to be used against the people of Venezuela and their radical democratic and socialist experiment. Irresponsible? Yes. Dangerous? Certainly.
But we need to recognize the AEI for what it is and be willing to honestly critique its errors if we are to move forward in the struggle against imperialist domination. If Zunes is so concerned for the Venezuelan Revolution, then surely the correct course of action is to urge his good friend Gene Sharp to immediately cut all ties with a Venezuelan opposition that has proven its reactionary nature and disposition to violence, rather than engaging in unfounded attacks and smears against those defending the process.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley, and is currently writing a people’s history of the Bolivarian Revolution entitled We Created Him. He can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.
Eva Golinger is a lawyer based in Caracas, and the author of two books, The Chávez Code and Bush Versus Chávez, which use classified documents to reveal US strategies against the Venezuelan government. She can be reached at evagolinger(at)gmail.com.
Earlier articles on the Albert Einstein Institution and Venezuela:
The Albert Einstein Institute and Venezuela May 5th 2008 – by George Cicariello-Maher – CounterPunch
The Albert Einstein Institution: Non-Violence According to the CIA June 6th 2007 – by Thierry Meyssan – VoltaireNet.org
The Coming War on Venezuela March 25th 2008 – by George Cicariello-Maher – CounterPunch
USAID in Bolivia and Venezuela: The Silent Subversion September 12th 2007 – by Eva Golinger
Who Are the Real “Freedom Fighters” in Venezuela? July 7th 2007 – by Chris Carlson – Venezuelanalysis.com
US Continues Destabilisation Push in Venezuela July 2nd 2007 – by Eva Golinger and Sam King – Green Left Weekly
Awakening the Giant of Youth in Venezuela July 23rd 2007 – by Sam King – Green Left Weekly
The New Politics of Political Aid in Venezuela July 25th 2007 – by Tom Barry – Global Research
Chavez Accuses U.S. of a “Soft Coup” Attempt in Venezuela June 8th 2007 – by Gregory Wilpert – Venezuelanalysis.com