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Opinion and Analysis: International

National Endowment for Democracy On The Offensive in Venezuela

On November 8, 2004, National Endowment for Democracy (“NED”) President Carl Gershman made a historical visit to Venezuela with a very peculiar purpose. Gershman traveled to the South American nation to request President Chávez influence the outcome of a legal case brought against NED direct grantee Súmate, currently in the hands of the independent Attorney General’s office. But much to Gershman’s surprise, no meetings had been authorized with the Venezuelan President or cabinet members and therefore, he was unable to exert the weight of the United States-backed NED over the popular head of state. Gershman did meet with Attorney General Isaías Rodriguez and President of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, Ivan Rincón. However, both legal chiefs were unwilling to succumb to NED pressure and instead, made very clear that Venezuela’s judiciary is independent of the executive and that international influence will not interfere with or impede due process of law.

The case brought against NED-grantee Súmate has caused uproar in the ranks of the U.S. State Department and the quasi-governmental NED, which receives all of its financing from the U.S. Congress and is obligated to report annually on its activities and use of funds. On occasion, such as in Venezuela, the State Department issues “special funds” to the NED to finance its activities in nations of key interest. In April 2002, just days after the failed coup d’etat against Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, the State Department gave the NED a $1 million grant entitled “Special Venezuela Funds”, which was distributed to many of the very same groups that had just led and participated in the coup. In fact, since President Chávez’s election to that nation’s highest office in 1998, the NED has consistently funded just one sector in Venezuela: the opposition to President Chávez. Once George W. Bush assumed the U.S. presidency in 2000, funding to opposition groups in Venezuela was quadrupled. Those organizations receiving NED funding, such as the Confederación de Trabajadores Venezolanos (CTV), the Asamblea de Educación, Primero Justicia, Fedecámaras, CEDICE, Súmate and others have used the millions in U.S. taxpayer dollars to lead a coup against President Chávez, devastate Venezuela’s economy through a 64-day long illegal strike and later lead a failed recall referendum attempt. All of the NED-funded initiatives have shared just one goal: remove President Chávez from power, be it through legal or illegal means.

The case against Súmate was brought earlier this year by the Attorney General’s office alleging violation of Article 132 of the Penal Code, which makes it a crime to “conspire to destroy the government” and to “solicit international intervention in international politics” or to “incite civil war or defame the President or diplomatic representatives in the foreign press.” The Attorney General alleges that Súmate committed a crime by soliciting financing from the NED, an arm of the U.S. Government, in order to campaign for and lead a recall referendum against President Chávez. Furthermore, the Chief Prosecutor alleges that Súmate violated the Constitution by usurping functions of the Electoral Power through its creation of a parallel Electoral Registry and database that it used to collect and count signatures during stages of the referendum process. Though charges have been filed with the court, and an arraignment hearing to set a trial date and determine bail has yet to occur.

Due to a massive campaign in defense of Súmate that has been launched by the U.S. State Department, the case has experienced interesting delays. Gershman’s visit came one week after the arraignment hearing had been postponed from November 2nd to November 24th, as a result of the resignation of one of the defendant’s attorneys. Subsequently, the case experienced another development after U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, visited Supreme Court President Ivan Rincon and requested he intervene to prevent the case from proceeding. Although Rincon was clear in his respect for due process and the jurisdiction of the Attorney General, a separate power, one of the other justices in the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court decided to review the case for “clarity” and “merit” before allowing it to continue.

But Gershman’s visit, the first visit by the NED president to a foreign nation to defend the organization’s interests, was an apparent “last chance” offer to the Venezuelan government to stop the case or face the wrath of the U.S. government. Even presidential candidate John Kerry got on the Súmate defense bandwagon in the days prior to the U.S. elections, criticizing Chávez for “political persecution” and accusing him of heading towards a dictatorship. Other Súmate defenders include U.S. Congress members Christopher Cox and Gregory Meeks, both on the NED Board of Directors, and Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who chair the NED core grantee organizations, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, respectively. The aforementioned have all authored letters defending NED’s work in Venezuela and defending its grantees, despite their notorious unconstitutional behavior during the coup and the strike.

Though NED representatives and spokespersons have time and again claimed their work in Venezuela as “impartial” and only “promoting democracy”, Gershman’s declarations to the Venezuelan press showed otherwise. After being snubbed by the Executive, Gershman angrily declared to the Venezuelan media that “Venezuela is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship but rather something in between”. In the same breath, Gershman claimed that in Venezuela, the NED “only finances democratic groups,” which must imply that groups involved in coup d’etats fit within the NED’s view of democracy. He also tried to make a weak comparison between the Venezuelan government and the Chilean dictator Augustus Pinochet by claiming, “In the eighties, we were attacked by the Pinochet government, which didn’t like the fact that we supported the groups that moved forward the democratic transition in Chile.”

Gershman’s comparison between the Pinochet dictatorship and Venezuela under Chávez, along with his outright denial of Venezuela’s democracy, despite the nine electoral processes in the past five years that have reaffirmed Chávez’ overwhelming popular support, evidence the NED’s biased position against the Venezuelan Government.  How could Gershman expect a warm welcome from the Venezuelan Government after making such declarations? Furthermore, Gershman’s statements merely reaffirmed that the NED’s purpose in Venezuela is to remove President Chávez from power. The NED-grantees were the ones chosen by the U.S. government to “lead the democratic transition” post-Chávez, just like in Chile. This has been was evidenced through NED-funded projects in Venezuela to create “alternative government agendas” and “transition government plans” for post-Chávez Venezuela. But there is one major difference here: Chile under Pinochet was a dictatorship, one in fact imposed by the U.S. government. Venezuela under Chávez is the most participatory and popularly-support democratic government in Venezuela’s history. In fact, Chávez just won a recall referendum promoted by the opposition with 60% of the vote, a landslide victory that demonstrated the massive support of his presidency to the world.

But the NED and the U.S. government just don’t appear to care about the majority that supports President Chávez, or the nine democratic electoral processes that have reaffirmed his administration, or the fact that more Venezuelans today participate in the governance of the nation than ever before. Instead of rectifying or apologizing for such blatantly offensive and biased statements, NED President Carl Gershman followed through on his threats to the Venezuelan Government to increase international pressure in defense of the Súmate case and to attempt to convert Chávez into an international “pariah” and “human rights abuser.”  Just twenty-four hours after Gershman’s departure from Venezuela, a letter was released from an alleged group of 70 “international democrats” demanding the Venezuelan President intervene in the Súmate action and prevent the Attorney General from proceeding with the case.

The letter, whose existence had been leaked to the press more than one week ago, but was kept under the wraps until needed, was obviously Gershman’s attempt to exert international pressure over the Venezuelan Government. But the letter is riddled with misinformation and errors about Venezuela’s legal system and laws and strangely demands respect for democracy while asking the Venezuelan President to violate the Constitutional separation of powers in his nation by intervening in a case under the authority of the Attorney General. The letter requests an abandonment of the law and demands the Súmate directors be granted “above the law” status, just because they are supported by 70 prominent “international democrats” who state to share Súmate’s “view of democracy.” Again, if the NED along with these 70 personalities believe democracy and rule of law can been averted by those who have friends in high places, then Venezuela certainly doesn’t share the same vision.

Although the letter was intended to look like an independent statement by 70 renowned “democrats”, its ties to the NED were all too obvious. In fact, the letter was released to the public by the NED press department and of the 70 signors, more than half are either on the NED Board of Directors or are direct NED grantees.  Clearly, their allegiance is to the hand that feeds them.

The NED visit to Venezuela was also unsuccessful in its efforts to attract pro-Chávez groups to accept financing. NED President Gershman and his sidekick, Christopher Sabatini, thought they could entice pro-Chávez organizations into accepting their funding so they could then justify their claims of non-partisanship. But no such groups were even the slightest interested in establishing a relationship with a U.S. government funded organization that has worked exclusively with coup leaders and other hard line opposition groups in Venezuela. In fact, Christopher Sabatini’s claim in the Venezuelan press that the Boston Group, a coalition of pro-Chávez and opposition-linked Assembly Members in Venezuela and U.S. Congressional representatives, was negotiating with the NED to receive financing was quickly refuted the following day in El Nacional newspaper.  Both opposition and pro-Chávez Assembly Members in the Boston Group declared to the press that they never met with the NED to discuss any potential funding or future financing. Clearly, Sabatini had made a desperate attempt to justify the NED’s work in Venezuela, not realizing that his error would be caught by savvy Venezuelans attuned to the NED’s deceptive ways.

Deception, manipulation, pressure, intimidation, threat and constitutional violations seem to be the NED’s tools for “promoting democracy” around the world. Luckily, Venezuelans are on to the trickery of this heavy-handed organization and are unwilling to cede to its bully tactics.

To view documents evidencing the NED intervention in Venezuela visit my web page at: www.venezuelafoia.info