U.S. Funds Aid Venezuela Opposition

National Endowment for Democracy is at the center of a dispute in Venezuela. President Chavez says the endowment's involvement proves US interference in Venezuela, while the NED says it is just promoting democracy.

By Bart Jones - National Catholic Reporter
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The United States is using a quasi-governmental organization created during the Reagan years and funded largely by Congress to pump about a million dollars a year into groups opposed to Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, according to officials in Venezuela and a Venezuelan-American attorney.

Some 2,000 pages of newly disclosed documents show that the little-known National Endowment for Democracy is financing a vast array of groups: campesinos, businessmen, former military officials, unions, lawyers, educators, even an organization leading a recall drive against Chávez. Some compare the agency, in certain of its activities, to the CIA of previous decades when the agency was regularly used to interfere in the affairs of Latin American countries.

“It certainly shows an incredible pattern of financing basically every single sector in Venezuelan society,” said Eva Golinger, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based attorney who helped obtain the documents through Freedom of Information Act requests. “That’s the most amazing part about it.”

One organization, Sumate, which received a $53,400 grant in September, is organizing the recall referendum against Chávez, Golinger said. The head of another group, Leonardo Carvajal of the Asociación Civil Asamblea de Educación, was named education minister by “dictator for a day” Pedro Carmona, a leading businessman who briefly took over Venezuela during an April 2002 coup against Chávez, she said. A leader of a third group assisted by the National Endowment for Democracy and its subsidiary organizations, Leopoldo Martínez of the right-wing Primero Justicia party, was named finance minister by Carmona, she said.

“How can they [the National Endowment for Democracy] say they are supporting democracy when they are funding groups that backed the coup?” asked Golinger, head of the pro-Chávez Venezuela Solidarity Committee in New York.

Chris Sabatini, the endowment’s senior program officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, acknowledged the organization is handing out $922,000 this year, largely to groups opposed to Chávez, and gave out $1,046,323 last year. He said pro-Chávez groups have not received funds because they didn’t ask for any or they rejected the National Endowment’s overtures.

Sabatini said there is no evidence that groups backed by the National Endowment for Democracy -- called NED -- participated directly in the coup, although he acknowledged Carvajal and Martínez were offered cabinet posts. He said the endowment made it clear to all groups it works with that it explicitly opposes unconstitutional actions. NED no longer funds Carvajal’s group, he added, because it was not meeting its objectives of developing education policies.

As for Sumate, he said the organization is merely monitoring the recall process and ensuring citizens get to exercise their constitutional rights.

The endowment’s work in Venezuela, he said, is aimed at promoting democracy and defusing festering tensions that could lead to a civil war. “There is no ideological content to our work except working with committed democrats in countries where democracy is developing or under siege,” he said in a telephone interview March 2.

The revelations about the endowment’s work in Venezuela is provoking criticism from some high-level officials, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, that the United States is trying to destabilize and overthrow democratically elected governments in Latin America.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., charged that the Bush administration helped oust Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and that it is trying to depose Chávez, as well. “We’re doing the same thing in Venezuela because we don’t like Chávez,” Rangel said on a radio roundtable discussion.

U.S. officials deny the allegations, and say Aristide fell and Chávez almost did because of economic mismanagement and human rights abuses.

The controversy over the U.S. role in Latin America intensified March 16 when Chávez joined Jamaica in declaring he would not recognize the interim government in Haiti that replaced Aristide. Chávez also offered asylum to the deposed Haitian president, who arrived a day earlier in Jamaica, where he has received temporary refuge.

A populist firebrand first elected in 1998, Chávez has polarized oil-rich Venezuela. Many middle- and upper-class residents charge he is a leftist dictator who has befriended Fidel Castro, wrecked the economy and fostered class hatred by referring to wealthy Venezuelans as corrupt “squalid ones.” But millions of poor people adore him for creating massive literacy programs, handing out land titles to slum dwellers and peasants, and combating a ruling class they say pillaged the nation’s vast oil wealth.

In the wake of disclosures about the National Endowment for Democracy, Chávez has dropped his past caution on the topic and now openly accuses the United States of backing the 2002 coup attempt and bankrolling efforts to destabilize and overthrow his government. He is also threatening that Venezuela, one of the world’s top oil suppliers, might cut off shipments to the United States if the Bush administration persists in its efforts to undermine him.

After Golinger had some of the NED documents delivered to Chávez, the Venezuelan president on Feb. 8 angrily denounced the funding of Sumate on his nationally broadcast television and radio program, “Hello, Mr. President.”

Then, as more information from Golinger arrived, Chávez stepped up his attacks. “The government of Washington is using its people’s money to support not only opposition activities, but acts of conspiracy,” Chávez declared in a speech Feb. 17. He directly accused the Bush administration of involvement in the coup. “There is no doubt: The government of Mr. George W. Bush was behind the coup,” Chávez said. “We have photos, evidence.”

The next day, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher accused Chávez of trying to divert attention from the recall referendum, and said U.S. funding in Venezuela is to “promote democracy and strengthen civil society.” Speaking in Washington at the department’s daily press briefing, Boucher added that pro-Chávez groups and officials have benefited from the programs, although he and other State Department officials decline to name them. Golinger says that is because there are none, according to her research.

An investigation by the State Department’s inspector general two years ago into the United States’ possible role in the coup determined that the work of the National Endowment for Democracy broke no U.S. laws. It also found there was no evidence the NED or the U.S. government did anything to encourage Chávez’s unconstitutional overthrow.

But the report, “A Review of U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela -- November 2001-April 2002,” added that the endowment, the Pentagon and other U.S. assistance programs “provided training, institution-building and support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chávez government,” although there was “no evidence that this support directly contributed, or was intended to contribute, to that event.”

The NED’s work in Venezuela is not the first time it has provoked controversy. In the 1980s it generated criticism by funding organizations opposed to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, prompting accusations that its whopping $10.5 million in grants in a single year in the impoverished Central American nation “bought” the 1990 election that led to the Sandinista’s defeat.

Many analysts contend the National Endowment for Democracy was created in 1983 to replace some CIA activities -- covertly supporting political parties, unions, newspapers, book publishers, student groups and civic organizations -- after the agency’s work was reined in by Congress following revelations it carried out everything from assassinations to economic sabotage.

The group’s involvement in Venezuela “is in keeping with a pattern from NED’s very origins when the Reagan administration used it to do overtly what it was trying to do covertly in Nicaragua -- undermine the Sandinista revolution,” said Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive in Washington. “The difference of course is that Chávez was elected and the Sandinistas were a revolutionary government.”

Kornbluh, author of The Pinochet Files and an expert on declassified government documents, added: “The NED was created to supplement the activities of the CIA.”

NED officials vigorously deny that allegation. Sabatini said the organization has promoted democracy around the world, from South Africa to Chile to Poland, where it assisted Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. The group’s budget -- $44 million this year -- is approved by Congress, with both Democratic and Republican support.

Still, the NED’s own Web page traces the group’s origins to the late 1960s when lawmakers first proposed creating an institution that would replace the “covert means” U.S. policymakers employed in post-World War II Europe -- including CIA assistance -- with “overt funding for programs to promote democratic values.”

In a Sept. 22, 1991, interview with The Washington Post, Allen Weinstein, who helped draft the legislation establishing the National Endowment for Democracy and who was the group’s first acting president, said, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”

The debate over the NED is the latest controversy over the Bush administration’s role in Latin America. The United States initially blamed Chávez for his temporary overthrow in 2002, then later condemned the coup after an international outcry. U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro had breakfast in Miraflores presidential palace at 9 a.m. during Carmona’s first day in power, indicating to some U.S. support for the coup. Carmona wiped out the nation’s democratic institutions including Congress, the Supreme Court and the Constitution -- moves Shapiro says he told Carmona he opposed. The institutions were restored when Chávez returned to power two days later.

Support from Bush

Beyond those disputes, Bush has brought back into power several figures from the Iran-contra scandal, including Otto Reich, who until recently was Bush’s top diplomat to Latin America. Now he’s serving as the White House’s “special envoy” to the region. His replacement as U.S. assistant secretary of state is Roger Noriega, a former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms, also known for his intense dislike of Aristide and Chávez. Both Noriega and Reich recently warned voters in El Salvador against electing leftist Shafik Handal in the March 21 presidential election. Handal, who lost, was the candidate of the FMLN, the party of the former guerrilla movement that battled the U.S.-backed government and its death squads from 1980-92.

Critics say the NED’s activities in Venezuela parallel the Bush team’s desire to topple Chávez, an accusation NED officials deny. Like Ronald Reagan, who helped create the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush has proven to be a strong supporter of the organization. He spoke at the group’s 20th anniversary celebration in November. Then, in January, he praised the endowment during his State of the Union address and called for doubling its budget, mainly for pro-democracy activities in the Middle East. Last fall the Senate and the House passed resolutions saluting the endowment’s work.

Even some of the NED’s critics concede the group’s record is not all negative. “I don’t think it’s just the CIA reincarnated,” said Elizabeth Cohn, a professor of International and Intercultural Studies at Goucher College, Towson, Md., who wrote her doctoral thesis on the National Endowment for Democracy. Parts of the organization do “some very good work” in strengthening democratic institutions and fostering democracy.

But the problem is when the NED oversteps its bounds and meddles in the internal affairs of other countries, radically altering the political landscape in pursuit of U.S. foreign policy objectives, she said. The $10.5 million it pumped into Nicaraguan opposition groups in a dirt-poor country with 4 million residents essentially threw the February 1990 election to Violeta Chamorro, the candidate for the U.S.-backed UNO coalition, Cohn said.

“New organizations sprouted in Nicaragua and NED was first on the scene as their primary, sometimes only, funder,” she said. “NED monies mobilized the opposition and with the enormous amounts of money NED funneled into Nicaragua, they essentially bought the election.”

Kornbluh agrees the NED played a key role in ousting the Sandinistas. “It was very, very clear that NED was an overt side of a paramilitary war against the Sandinistas,” he said.

NED officials deny their activities swayed the 1990 Nicaragua election, and contend the Sandinistas lost because they mismanaged the economy and committed widespread human rights abuses. They say their work there focused on building democratic institutions including an independent press, unions, universities and political parties.

Despite the controversy in Nicaragua, Sabatini said he believes the debate over the endowment’s involvement in Venezuela is overblown. The documents obtained by Golinger and Jeremy Bigwood, a freelance investigative journalist based in Washington, are not classified, Sabatini said, and are available to anyone -- as long as they file Freedom of Information Act requests. “There’s a lot of bluster about something that is really entirely transparent and is entirely on the books,” he said.

While he contends the National Endowment for Democracy is a neutral force seeking middle ground in Venezuela, Sabatini also said he has doubts about the democratic credentials of Chávez, who has “shown a troubling lack of respect for institutions and rules and rhetoric that tends to inflame polarization.” Some NED-funded organizations such as the “economic reform” group Cedice go farther. In one report Golinger obtained, Cedice compares Chávez to the Nazis. The group suggests another coup may be in the offing, saying, “a democratic solution to the present political crisis will be well-nigh impossible” if the referendum doesn’t take place.

Michael Shifter, a former NED grants officer for Latin America who is now an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said that if the NED is inserting itself into Venezuela under the premise that Chávez is a cruel tyrant who is wiping out democracy and must be stopped, the group “is misreading the situation.” While Chávez, a former paratrooper who led his own failed coup in 1992, has shown some troubling autocratic tendencies, Shifter said, democracy remains essentially intact.

The jails hold no political prisoners, he said. The opposition-owned press operates freely, with Chávez critics even calling for coups on national television. Tens of thousands of his opponents regularly protest in the streets. International observers considered the elections that brought Chávez to power free and fair. Foreign investors generally are “happy,” Shifter said. Despite significant opposition, Chávez retains a strong base of support.

As for the opposition, he added, “there’s this ambivalence about democratic methods.”

Golinger says she is working feverishly before that ambivalence dooms Chávez. She says she and Bigwood obtained the NED reports over the last few months. Golinger has established a Web site where she is posting them, Venezuela FOIA Info.

“This is one of the first times FOIA requests are being done in real time while it’s happening” rather than years after the fact, she said. “We posted them on the Internet so that the world would see them.” After Chávez himself announced the Web site on his show Feb. 8 -- the day it was launched -- it got 15,000 “hits” in three days, Golinger said.

Golinger said her group’s goal now is to save Chávez before he meets the same fate as Aristide. She and Bigwood also are submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to the CIA, the State Department, USAID and the Southern Command to determine the extent of their involvement in Venezuela.

Where the money goes

Michael Shifter, a former National Endowment for Democracy grants officer for Latin America, now an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says the key question about the endowment’s involvement in Venezuela is whether it is working to build bridges between the two sides and promote reconciliation, or whether it is merely bankrolling an opposition force intent on toppling a democratically elected president by whatever means necessary. He said he didn’t have enough information to issue a judgment.

But Brooklyn, N.Y.-based lawyer Eva Golinger contends she does have enough information, and she thinks it is clearly the latter. While the endowment’s Chris Sabatini says the organization started funding groups in Venezuela as early as 1993, the amounts have risen markedly since Hugo Chávez was elected, nearly quadrupling from $216,000 to $877,000 between 2000 and 2001. In 2002, several months after the April coup against Chávez, the State Department gave the endowment a $1 million grant for its work in Venezuela.

“What’s clear is the sums are enormous,” said Golinger, who heads the pro-Chávez Venezuela Solidarity Committee in New York and obtained the NED documents with the help of Jeremy Bigwood, a freelance investigative journalist based in Washington. “Venezuela has a $75-a-month minimum wage and that’s for those who are in the formal economy,” she said. The grants are “a tremendous amount of money.”

One legal rights group, Asociación Civil Consorcio Justicia, received $172,152 in various grants during the years 2001 to 2003, according to Golinger. The group’s stated mission, says the endowment, includes helping to “build the capacity of civil society organizations in Venezuela to become active in the struggle against authoritarianism.” Golinger claims the group supported the coup against Chávez and an illegal two-month strike later that year that shut down the country’s oil industry, the lifeblood of the economy.

Golinger said that rather than spending their time strengthening the nation’s judicial system, improving schools or building consensus across party lines, NED-funded groups devote themselves almost exclusively to opposing Chávez’s programs and trying to oust him.

One group, for instance, Acción Campesino, has helped stage violent protests to block peasants from moving onto land acquired through Chávez’s reform program, she said.

Another group, Asociación Civil Asamblea de Educación, received $55,000 in September 2001 from the NED and $57,000 in October 2002, according to the documents. It was led by Leonardo Carvajal, who was offered the cabinet post of education minister by Pedro Carmona, the businessman who briefly replaced Chávez during the coup.

Golinger also says the Confederación de Trabajadores Venezolanos union, one of the main groups that led a massive protest march that ended with the coup and also helped lead the illegal nationwide strike later that year, is a major beneficiary of NED funding, channeled through one of NED’s four core subsidiary organizations. The former head of the union, Carlos Ortega, worked closely with Carmona, who was the former head of the nation’s largest chamber of commerce, Fedecamaras, in forging the opposition movement.

On April 12, 2002, the president of one of NED’s four subsidiary groups, George Folsom of the International Republican Institute, issued a statement supporting the coup: “Last night, led by every sector of civil society, the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country.” Three days later, Folsom was rebuked by endowment president Carl Gershman, who reminded him Chávez was removed “through unconstitutional means.” Folsom later backtracked.

Golinger says another NED-funded organization, Momento de la Gente, received $40,000 in February 2001, $64,000 in February 2002 and $64,000 in April 2003. The group’s stated objectives include election and civil liberties monitoring. Golinger says they are well-known “ardent” opponents of Chávez who belong to the “Democratic Coordinator” opposition umbrella group.

The International Republican Institute, which is associated with the Republican Party and maintains a staffed office in Caracas, has conducted extensive training of opposition political parties, according to NED documents.

In one, Mike Collins, a former GOP press secretary, taught party leaders how to mount photo-ops and do press interviews. With the video camera rolling, Collins conducted mock interviews with the participants and then critiqued their performances. At another session he counseled Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, a key Chávez opponent, how he “could soften his aggressive image in order to appeal to a wide range of voters.”

The International Republican Institute also helped arrange meetings in Washington between opposition leaders and U.S. government policymakers.

Thayer Scott, an institute spokesman, said the organization’s work in Venezuela aims “to build and encourage democratic institutions. It’s the antithesis of coups and violence.” He said program participants and grant recipients are mainly from the opposition because Chávez supporters have shown little interest in taking part.

“We respond to proposals,” Sabatini said. “We don’t force money on people.”

Golinger and Cohn, however, said the NED often pursues or even helps create groups, and then writes grants for them -- an assertion Sabatini denied.

The Confederación de Trabajadores Venezolanos union has not received any direct NED grants, he said, although it did receive a small amount for hotel and food expenses as part of efforts to democratize internal elections and it does get substantial funding from a NED subsidiary associated with the AFL-CIO.

While NED-assisted groups did not play a direct role in the coup and many of them condemned Carmona’s elimination of the country’s democratic institutions, Sabatini said, many members of the groups also appeared to endorse Chávez’s overthrow. “Many of them in the euphoria and the excitement, I will confess, did sort of express ... a lot of that enthusiasm” for the coup, he said.

Sabatini stressed that the NED made it clear all along to the groups it funds and works with that unconstitutional actions were out of bounds. The groups are prohibited from using NED money for partisan political activities, he added.

Sabatini rejected assertions that National Endowment for Democracy money is keeping the opposition movement alive. “These groups existed before they applied for funding from NED,” he said, “and they would continue to exist without funding from NED.”

The Inter-American Dialogue’s Shifter noted the groups’ main funding comes from Venezuela’s wealthy elites.

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

Related Web Sites

National Endowment for Democracy

Venezuela FOIA Info

International Republican Institute