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Opinion and Analysis: Opposition | Politics

U.S. Group and Venezuelan President Clash

Venezuelanalysis.com editor note: The attached image does not appear in the original NCR story. It was added as proof that Maria Corina Machado did support the dictatorial government that briefly replaced Hugo Chavez after a coup in April of 2002.

Under scrutiny for its role in Venezuela, the National Endowment for Democracy is waging what critics contend is a campaign to defend its activities in the South American nation as it clashes with President Hugo Chávez and his allies.

The Venezuelan leader has attacked the U.S.-funded organization for giving about $1 million a year to groups that oppose him, including some that backed an April 2002 coup attempt against him. The National Endowment for Democracy denies any of the groups it funded participated in the coup, and contends pro-Chávez organizations have not received funding because they haven’t asked for any (NCR, April 2).

One group backed by the endowment, Sumate (Join Up), which received a $53,400 grant in September, is at the center of a controversial recall referendum aimed at ousting Chávez. After months of disputes, electoral authorities declared June 3 that Chávez’s opponents collected enough petition signatures to trigger a recall vote, which may take place in August.

With Chávez and his allies intensifying their attacks on it, the National Endowment for Democracy released a letter defending its work signed by two political heavyweights, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Both serve as chairman of the board of two of the endowment’s four core subgroups.

The National Endowment for Democracy “is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting democracy worldwide,” said the April 20 letter, which also was signed by Vin Weber, chairman of the endowment’s board. Active in 80 countries and enjoying bipartisan support, the endowment seeks to “increase transparency in public management, improve governance, and better defend and protect human and political rights.”

The letter and an unsigned memo that accompanied it were a response to a blistering speech given March 31 by Venezuela’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, Jorge Valero. He accused the endowment of waging a destabilization plan in Venezuela aimed at toppling Chávez and of financing groups whose leaders took part in the coup.

The National Endowment for Democracy is systematically trying “to create an environment of instability and promote the breakdown of institutional democracy in the country, actions directed at a final goal: the overthrow of the constitutional president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez,” Valero said.

The endowment dismissed the allegations, saying in the memo that neither it nor the groups it finances had any connection to the coup. It cited a U.S. Inspector General’s Office review to back up its assertions. The same day the endowment released the letter and memo, it also posted a summary of its work in Venezuela at the top of its Web site. Two weeks later, on May 4, Valero responded with his own letter to the endowment, calling on the organization to end its work in Venezuela.

Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan-American attorney who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and who obtained 2,000 pages of endowment documents detailing its work in Venezuela, contends that the organization’s alleged offensive is aimed at silencing critics like her. Golinger has shared much of the information with Chávez, whom she contends is livid. “Madeleine Albright and John McCain are just there as threatening figures to say, ‘Look, this is a big deal. Stop it,’ ” Golinger said. “It’s just to intimidate.”

Chris Sabatini, the endowment’s senior program officer for Latin America, dismissed her assertions as “paranoia” and said the organization was merely defending itself from a series of allegations he calls “scurrilous.” “We’re not going on the offensive nor do we feel we need to,” Sabatini said. “There’s no intimidation. ... The NED doesn’t have a right to respond” to allegations?

Golinger says that while she would like to see the endowment’s funding in Venezuela cut off, that is unlikely because of the endowment’s broad bipartisan support in Congress. Still, she said she plans to focus initially on Sumate. Golinger said one of the group’s leaders, Maria Corina Machado, backed the coup against Chávez and signed an infamous decree drafted by Pedro Carmona, a leading businessman who briefly replaced Chávez. The decree wiped out democracy and installed a dictatorship by eliminating the Congress, the Supreme Court and the constitution. Carmona presented it at Miraflores presidential palace as elite Venezuelan businessmen, media moguls, Catholic church leaders and others cheered him on and signed it.

Sumate “is not an organization engaging in a democratic process,” Golinger said. “It doesn’t have a democratic foundation.”

Sabatini did not deny Machado signed the decree. But he said that amid the chaos of the coup, she and others did not know what they were signing. “Everyone was sort of summoned to the palace and they just passed around this piece of paper and everyone signed,” Sabatini said. “It was unclear what they were really signing.”

He said if anyone’s democratic credentials could be questioned it is Chávez, a former paratrooper who led his own failed coup in 1992. “He staged a bloody coup in which he bombed the city,” Sabatini said. “Now suddenly he’s a democrat?” He added, however, that Chávez nonetheless is the nation’s legitimate, democratically elected president.

In a telephone interview May 17, Machado contradicted Sabatini’s statements and said she never signed the decree -- even though Golinger says she has a copy of it with Machado’s signature on it. Machado said she visited the presidential palace during Carmona’s two-day reign at the invitation of his wife, a close friend, but that she was not present during the decree signing.

Signers in support of dictator who replaced Venezuelan president Chavez after the April 2002 coup include Maria Corina Machado from SUMATE. Click to enlarge
Dictatorial government supporters such as Maria Corina Machado signed in separate pages as the book of attendees at Pedro Carmona's self-swear in ceremony ran out of allocated slots. Other signers listed here are Omar Camero, president of TV station Televen; Eccio León Rodríguez, from Caracas' stock market firm Humbolt Investments Mercado de Capitales; and Albertina de Petricca from TV station CMT and newspaper El Norte.
Venezuelanalysis.com image

Machado defended her organization, saying in Spanish that “there is no organization that has worked harder for a democratic exit” to Venezuela’s political crisis than Sumate. She also alleged that the government is persecuting the group, with prosecutors calling in her and another leader for questioning in May on unspecified charges. Andres Izarra, a spokesman for the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, said Venezuela’s attorney general is investigating the group for treason and conspiracy because it is a violation of Venezuelan law for the organization to receive outside funding from groups such as the National Endowment for Democracy.

With the controversy over the endowment simmering, Chávez is stepping up his allegations that the United States participated directly in the coup. “The government of Mr. Bush made the decision three years ago to overthrow the Venezuelan government, only to get the surprise of the century,” Chávez said in a speech April 13. He also declared the United States is responsible for the violence in Iraq, saying “blame for all the dead has a name: George W. Bush.”

The next day, Bush’s top envoy to Latin America, Roger Noriega, said “negative examples” from Chávez were mounting and suggested diplomatic relations might be cut. “We obviously want to maintain normal relations, but it is very difficult when the president continues in his very negative declarations and his irresponsible declarations about my country,” Noriega said.

Tensions escalated again in May when, days before electoral authorities conducted a three-day “repair”
process to determine whether residents properly signed disputed recall petitions, Noriega declared they had enough signatures to force a vote. Venezuelan authorities accused him of meddling and siding with the opposition.

Meanwhile, Sabatini contends the controversy over the endowment’s activities in Venezuela is limited and will not affect its work. But Golinger insists the group’s work is fueling Chávez’s conviction that the U.S. government backed the coup and still wants to overthrow him. “He’s using this information to accuse the United States government of participating in a coup that resulted in the death of Venezuelan citizens as well as an ongoing destabilization campaign,” Golinger said. “He’s made that connection.”

Bart Jones is a reporter for Newsday and a former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in Venezuela.