Transitioning Venezuela

Although Venezuela has a history of democratic governance since 1958, the U.S. government has since 1998 made the country a major focus of its democratization strategy. According to the U.S. government, Venezuela is undergoing a political transition that is leading the country away from democracy and toward dictatorship.

Although Venezuela has a history of democratic governance since 1958, the U.S. government has since 1998 made the country a major focus of its democratization strategy. According to the U.S. government, Venezuela is undergoing a political transition that is leading the country away from democracy and toward dictatorship.

The leading governmental player in U.S. “democracy-building” operations in this oil-rich nation is the U.S. Agency for International Development, a dependency of the U.S. State Department. While the State Department channels most of its U.S. democratization funds through USAID, it also underwrites virtually the entire budget of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—an organization created by the Reagan administration in 1983 as a private conduit and manager of its democratization operations. For more than two decades, the public and private face of U.S. democracy-building—USAID and NED—have shared a common strategy, namely the promotion of “free market democracies” allied with U.S. foreign policy objectives.

The recent history of USAID-NED democratization programs in Venezuela raises new questions and concerns about U.S. democratization strategy. Because of public revelations about its funding of business, political, educational, and labor organizations opposed to the elected government of Hugo Chavez, NED has been the target of most of the questions about the objectives and accomplishments of the democratization strategy.

Yet USAID, through its Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), has also played a key role in the implementation of a U.S. foreign policy that has the ultimate goal of removing Chavez from power. Since 2001 the U.S. government has spent $5-7 million annually in democratization programming.

USAID—Hijacking Democracy in Venezuela

Shortly following the April 2002 coup that briefly removed Chavez from power, USAID established an OTI office in Caracas , whose stated purpose is “to provide fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key transition needs.” OTI’s program in Venezuela “would be part of a comprehensive assistance program to shore up the democratic voices and institutions in Venezuela .”

In its announcement of a job opening for the director of the Caracas office that was circulating the same month as the anti-Chavez coup engineered by many of the “pro-democracy” groups associated with USAID and NED, USAID noted that “Chavez has demonstrated increasing disregard for democratic institutions and intolerance for dissent.” According to USAID, Chavez “has been slowly hijacking the machinery of government and developing parallel non-democratic governance structures.”

It’s worth noting that the duties of the OTI director in Caracas , as described by USAID, included “formulating strategy and initiating the new OTI program in close coordination with the U.S. political interests” and “developing an exit strategy and operational closeout plan.”

However, after the resounding electoral victory by Chavez in the August 2004 referendum, USAID is no longer talking, at least publicly, about an exit strategy. Despite the demonstrated reality of Chavez’s popular support, USAID continues its programmatic focus on Venezuela . Today, however, USAID not only regards the Chavez administration as a threat to democracy within Venezuela but also as a regional threat. On September 28, 2005 , a USAID official told Congress: “The projection of Chavez’s interests and his brand of populism only serve to further undermine democracy in the region.”

The three countries targeted for major U.S. democratization programs under its Office for Transition Initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean are Bolivia , Haiti , and Venezuela . As part of its democratic transitioning planning, Cuba is also a prime focus for USAID, although Cuba programs are handled by a special initiative called the Program to Promote Cuban Transition to Democracy, which allocates $6-7 million a year to Cuban groups planning for a post-Castro government.

Outside the hemisphere, the other countries targeted by ongoing OTI programs are Iraq, Sri Lanka, West Bank and Gaza Strip (Palestine), Burundi, Liberia, Congo, and Sudan.

OTI’s 2005 Venezuela program documents avoid the shrill anti-Chavez rhetoric of USAID and other high government officials. USAID is spending $5 million to meet the stated overall goal of “encouraging participation by all political groups.” It plans to meet this goal in three ways: “demonstrate U.S. solidarity in the fight against poverty,” “support peaceful debate,” and “support for democratic institutions.”

Part of the new USAID approach is a version of a public relations campaign to win the hearts and minds of Venezuelans. Its funding for day care centers and centers for street children are part of an effort, according to USAID, “to reinforce the favorable impression that most Venezuelans have of the American people and to demonstrate the USG’s solidarity with the global fight against poverty.”

As USAID notes in its strategy statement for Latin American democratization programs, the widespread poverty and deep economic divides in the region “make the rhetoric of undemocratic, populist campaigns very enticing”—in clear reference to Chavez and popular movements in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, and especially Bolivia.

USAID is also working with nongovernmental organizations, religious groups, and academic institutions to “promote peaceful coexistence and political tolerance” by creating political spaces that are less polarized. According to USAID, it has found “strong bipartisan support” for this “democratic transition” initiative.

The most overtly political part of USAID’s democratization strategy is support media, human rights groups, and political parties in Venezuela to “support democratic institutions” by examining the “strengths and weaknesses of the current constitution, analyzing the role of NGOs in a democratic society, and strengthening citizen participation in local government.”

NED Keeps On Keeping On

Despite its direct support for the principal actors in the April 2002 coup and the business-labor strike that preceded it, as well as in pushing forward the 2004 referendum, NED continues to insist that it is supporting “democratic organizations” in Venezuela.

While it doesn’t deny that it has funded openly partisan groups that were directly or indirectly involved in the coup, NED claims that its funding was limited to civil society education, electoral training, and institution building—not partisan politics or coup planning. What’s more, NED resorts to the same defense it used during the Reagan and first Bush administrations when it claimed that despite the coincidence of its funding operations with that of the U.S. government in supporting anti-Sandinista groups, it is “independent of the U.S. government,” while also being “fully accountable to the U.S. Congress” for budgetary oversight.

Recently, NED announced that it was not only renewing but substantially increasing funding for Súmate (Join Up), the anti-Chavez group closely associated with Venezuela’s traditional political and business elite that was a main force behind the failed referendum and whose principals openly backed the April coup. Typically, Súmate also has received USAID funding, and at higher levels than NED grants.

Because of the controversy surrounding its funding of partisan activities in Venezuela, NED keeps a FAQ on its homepage about its Venezuela program. But neither here nor any other place does NED—or USAID—define what exactly is a “democratic organization” or how it prioritizes its country programs—which have since its founding closely reflected the U.S. government’s own foreign policy priorities. Apparently, the operative assumption is that if a group supports what USAID calls the “political interests” of the United States, then it should be considered a “democratic organization” regardless of its methods and its own governance procedures.

Since 1998 the three main channels of NED support to anti-Chavez groups have been the International Republican Institute (IRI), Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO. Along with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, these three U.S. organizations are considered NED’s core institutes and funding channels to overseas organizations. In 2004 (the latest year available), NED’s top recipients for democratization programs in Venezuela were IRI ($285,000) and CIPE ($125,000), while in the year following the coup the top recipients were IRI ($415,000), CIPE ($273,000), and the Solidarity Center ($116,00). In its FAQ, NED doesn’t explain how it can justify continued funding of IRI, which not only openly associated with anti-Chavez militants but publicly supported the coup.

There is no doubt that democratic governance and respect for the rule of law are deeply flawed in most Latin American countries, including such targeted countries as Venezuela and Bolivia. Similarly, it is clear that there is a new sector of political leaders and movements that believes that governments should give priority attention to meeting the needs of the poor majorities, even if this means adopting measures that disregard the traditional land and contract rights of the elites and foreign corporations, and even if this occasionally means opportunistically interpreting the rule of law.

By their past and present activities, however, the U.S. government and its foreign policy instruments—such as NED—can’t credibly claim that its democratization programs place democratization and respect for rule of law above narrow U.S. political interests. Clearly, it’s time to call a halt to the two-decade experiment with USAID and NED democratization programs.

As the U.S. public and policy community consider the future of democratic governance in Latin America or elsewhere, what is needed is more enlightened diplomatic support and solidarity for political transitions that not only consolidate and expand democratic governance but also tackle deep-seated socioeconomic inequities. This is exactly the type of political transitioning challenge now facing Venezuela .

Tom Barry is policy director of the International Relations Center, online at www.irc-online.org.

For More Information: See the IRC’s Right Web profiles of NED and the International Republican Institute.