Tension in Venezuela

Lawyer Eva Golinger describes the effects of the release of documents describing the support of the US National Endowment for Democracy to Venezuelan groups seeking to oust President Chavez

Originally published by Newsday, April 4, 2004

Brooklyn immigration lawyer Eva Golinger usually spends her time navigating government bureaucracy to get visas for musicians from Latin America, such as the Grammy Award-winning Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.

But since a 2002 coup in her mother’s homeland, Venezuela, Golinger has become alarmed at what she says is U.S. government funding for groups there that aim to overthrow the elected president, Hugo Chávez. She has spent months digging out 2,000 pages of documents on U.S. financing of groups opposed to Chávez.

In mid-February, Golinger’s findings helped prompt Chávez to charge that the Bush administration is “using its people’s money to support not only opposition activities but acts of conspiracy.” That charge has helped revive tensions between Chávez and the White House.

The money that alarms Golinger is disbursed by the private but congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, which says its mission is “to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts.” The endowment is giving $922,000 to Venezuelan groups this year and handed out $1,046,323 last year, according to Chris Sabatini, its senior program officer for Latin America.

When business and military leaders ousted Chávez for two days in April 2002, two men whose organizations were funded by the National Endowment for Democracy or its grantees were named to the junta’s cabinet: Leonardo Carvajal of the Civil Education Association was offered the post of education minister, and Leopoldo Martínez of the right-wing Primero Justicia party was named finance minister.

“How can they [the endowment] say they are supporting democracy when they are funding groups that backed the coup?” Golinger asked.

Sabatini said there is no evidence that endowment-backed groups directly participated in the coup, and said the endowment made clear to all the groups it works with that it opposes unconstitutional actions. He said the endowment no longer funds Carvajal’s group.

Another group, Sumate, which got a $53,400 grant in September, is helping petition for a recall referendum against Chávez by “collecting and processing signatures,” the group says. Sabatini said the group is merely monitoring the referendum process and ensuring that citizens get to exercise their constitutional rights.

“There is no ideological content to our work except working with committed democrats in countries where democracy is developing or under siege,” Sabatini said. He conceded that no pro-Chávez groups get endowment funds, but said none has asked for any.

Chávez’s accusation that the Bush administration is promoting conspiracy against him came shortly after Golinger sent him documents she obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the charge was Chávez’s attempt to divert attention from the recall referendum. “It’s not the first time he’s made accusations, but I have to say, they’re not serious ones,” Boucher said.

Chávez has polarized Venezuela. Many middle and upper-class residents say 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.

Golinger, 31, says she got involved because of her family’s activist history. Her mother, Elizabeth Calderon, is of Venezuelan heritage and once led a chapter of the National Organization for Women. “I was marching in the streets at the age of 5 with my mother,” Golinger said. In 1993, Golinger moved to Venezuela to get in touch with her roots. She taught English, wrote for an English newspaper and sang with a Latin rock fusion group whose composer and guitarist, Gustavo Moncada, she married.

After moving back to New York, Golinger earned a law degree at City University of New York and opened her practice. But one eye was on events in Venezuela.

The coup, which the White House initially endorsed, galvanized her attention and her resolve to counter what she calls unfair attacks by the United States and the media against Chávez. She founded a group called the Venezuela Solidarity Committee and, with the help of a freelance investigative journalist, Jeremy Bigwood, submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to find out what the National Endowment for Democracy was doing in Venezuela.

Some scholarly critics say the endowment was created in 1983 to support foreign groups – political parties, unions, newspapers or community organizations – that had been backed secretly by the CIA until the agency was reined in by Congress following revelations in the 1970s that it also carried out assassinations and other unsavory acts.

The endowment “was founded to do overtly what we had been doing covertly,” said Elizabeth Cohn, a professor of international studies at Goucher College who wrote her doctoral thesis on the organization. The endowment denies that and says it has fostered democratic institutions in places such as Chile, South Africa and Poland, where it aided the anti-communist Solidarity Movement.

Source: Newsday