Heritage Foundation & Venezuela’s International Cooperation Law

The US think-tank The Heritage Foundation is once again attacking Venezuela, this time for the proposed “Law for International Cooperation,” which could pose a real threat to the US government’s ability to fund opposition groups working in Venezuela.

The US conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation is once again at the ropes, attacking Venezuela for a law currently being debated in the Venezuelan National Assembly, which hopes to coordinate international cooperation, support, and solidarity for Venezuela, under the “Law for International Cooperation.”

In a memorandum published on July 7th and available on the Foundation’s website, the think-tank calls Venezuela’s proposed bill, “draconian” and argues that if passed, it will “block foreign donations to local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and put such groups under state control.”

In reality, according to the Venezuelan National Assembly’s proposal of the draft legislation, it appears that the “International Cooperation Law,” which is based on “self-determination, solidarity, equality, common interests, cooperation, sustainability, and co-responsibility” could actually open up more channels for international cooperation through the creation of a fund for International Cooperation and Assistance and an “autonomous organism” to work with the Venezuelan state in order to “execute and administer” various projects of international cooperation. The law also proposes the formation an “Integral Registry System” in order to ensure that all national and foreign NGOs are registered and “fulfill the requisites and requirements established… under their respective charters.”

While it is important to note that some international organizations have also raised red flags about certain aspects of the law, which they say is vague and could leave too much up to the discretion of the new regulatory bodies, or could increase existing regulations with which NGOs would need to comply. Nonetheless, the Heritage Foundation’s attacks are overzealous.

The Heritage Foundation report lumps Venezuela in to the same boat as Uzbekistan, which it states that due to recently reformed NGO legislation, “over 80 percent of foreign grants to Uzbekistan’s NGOs have been blocked.” However, the report neglects to state what percentage of those grants came from independent sources and which came directly from foreign governments with a specific agenda tied to their healthy contributions.

The delineation is important. The United States has a long and documented history of surreptitiously supporting foreign opposition organizations through considerable donations from such organizations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and others.  The NED, for example, claims to be “a private, nonprofit organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts,” but it is entirely financed by the US Congress.

It is no coincidence that in their report, the Heritage Foundation mentions Uzbekistan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and the Ukraine as other locations where “NGOs played [a central role] in defending individual freedoms.”  They are all locations where the NED has substantial programs, and has donated millions over the past few years.  In fact, as The Nation pointed out in late 2004, in the midst of Ukraine’s “orange revolution,” over the last decade the United States has spent some $58 million in the Ukraine, through organizations like the NED and NGOs like Open Society, who “in principle their intervention has been nonpartisan, but the boundary between support for a fair election and support for the candidate who is demanding fairness for himself is not easy to draw.”

Although the Heritage Foundation’s attacks do not hold up, it makes sense why they would be scared.  Venezuela’s proposed legislation for “international cooperation” could be very real threat to the United States’ ability to fund opposition groups working against Venezuela’s democratically elected President Hugo Chavez.

In the case of Venezuela, you have a country, which as of only two weeks ago, in the Second Report from the US Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, the United States named Venezuela a key element in the fight “to free Cuba” and likened the south American nation to the former Soviet Union during the cold war for it’s assistance of the island nation.  The US has branded Venezuela part of the axis of evil, and in the past few months the United States officially embargoed military equipment sales to the South American nation.  The US has been implicated in the failed coup d’etat attempt against Chavez in April 2002 and the oil lockout, which shut down the Venezuelan economy for over a month during December 2002 – January 2003.  With these and countless more accusations and attempts to push for a change in government in Venezuela, unilateral support for specific NGOs in Venezuela or elsewhere on the part of the United States government is anything but benign.

Súmate is the most high profile of the partially US funded Venezuelan NGOs, and admits to accepting $31,000 from the NED in 2003.   While the organization ostensibly received the funds for voter education and outreach, and they consider themselves to be a non-partisan independent organization, “with the objective of fomenting individual liberty, free thought, and exercising the Venezuelan constitutional rights,” it is no secret that Súmate’s goal is to work for an end to the Chavez administration.  The organization led the 2004 referendum signature drive against President Chavez and is now organizing primary elections for the Venezuelan opposition. 

Súmate’s directors, María Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz, are currently facing prosecution for “conspiracy against the republican form of the nation,” a crime stemming from their acceptance of the NED grant, and perhaps understandable when you consider that they received funds from a foreign and antagonistic government to push for the end of a democratically elected administration.  Meanwhile, Machado visited President Bush on invitation to the White House in May of last year and has become a conservative celebrity spokesperson touring the United States and speaking of the so-called evils of the Chavez administration.

Beyond Súmate, the US has a long and well-documented history of intervention in Latin America.  A history that cannot be forgotten or overlooked, which appears to be a tiny piece of what Venezuela plans to do with this new legislation—to be able to oversee the repartition of funds to national and foreign NGOs working in Venezuela.  The legislation has not yet been passed and the final language is still yet to be defined, but in the light of continued US donations to Venezuelan “civic” NGOs, it is an understandable move. Besides, the US does not allow foreign governments to fund electoral campaigns in the US or to direct lobbying activity in the US without first registering these with the federal government.