Buying Venezuela’s Press with U.S. Tax Dollars

The U.S. State Department is secretly funneling millions of dollars to Latin American journalists, according to documents obtained in June under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The U.S. State Department is secretly funneling millions of dollars to Latin American journalists, according to documents obtained in June under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The 20 documents released to this author—including grant proposals, awards, and quarterly reports—show that between 2007 and 2009, the State Department’s little-known Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor channeled at least $4 million to journalists in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela through the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF), a Washington-based grant maker that has worked in Latin America since 1962. Thus far, only documents pertaining to Venezuela have been released. They reveal that the PADF, collaborating with Venezuelan NGOs associated with the country’s political opposition, has been supplied with at least $700,000 to give out journalism grants and sponsor journalism education programs.

Until now, the State Department has hidden its role in funding the Venezuelan news media, one of the opposition’s most powerful weapons against President Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian movement. The PADF, serving as an intermediary, effectively removed the government’s fingerprints from the money. Yet, as noted in a State Department document titled “Bureau/Program Specific Requirements,” the State Department’s own policies require that “all publications” funded by the department “acknowledge the support.” But the provision was simply waived for the PADF. “For the purposes of this award,” the requirements document adds, “ . . . the recipient is not required to publicly acknowledge the support of the U.S. Department of State.”

Before 2007, the largest funder of U.S. “democracy promotion” activities in Venezuela was not the State Department but the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), together with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). But in 2005, these organizations’ underhanded funding was exposed by Venezuelan American attorney Eva Golinger in a series of articles, books, and lectures (disclosure: This author obtained many of the documents). After the USAID and NED covers were blown wide open—forcing USAID’s main intermediary, Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a Maryland–based contractor, to close its office in Caracas—the U.S. government apparently sought new funding channels, one of which the PADF appears to have provided.

Although the $700,000 allocated to the PADF, which is noted in the State Department’s requirements document, may not seem like a lot of money, the funds have been strategically used to buy off the best of Venezuela’s news media and recruit young journalists. This has been achieved by collaborating with opposition NGOs, many of which have a strong media focus. The requirements document is the only document that names any of these organizations—which was probably an oversight on the State Department’s part, since the recipients’ names and a lot of other information are excised in the rest of the documents. The requirements document names Espacio Público and Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, two leading organizations linked to the Venezuelan opposition, as recipients of “subgrants.”

Neither organization makes clear its connection to the State Department. Espacio Público, according to its website, is a “non-profit, non-governmental civil association that is independent and autonomous of political parties, religious institutions, international organizations or any government” (emphasis added). Two of three images on the homepage are from anti-Chávez demonstrations. The other “subgrantee,” the Venezuelan chapter of Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPyS-Ve), is a Peru-based journalism organization that was started with funding from USAID, and that has continued to receive USAID money while launching a series of attacks on Chávez. It has explicitly opposed Chávez since 2000, when it falsely accused him of harboring Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori’s fugitive spymaster, Vladimiro Montesinos (Chávez’s own authorities later arrested Montesinos and extradited him to Peru).

The documents detail a series of grants doled out to unnamed individual journalists. These include two kinds of grants “for innovative reporting and investigative reporting,” with the winning content disseminated online “and to selected independent media audiences.” While we don’t know who won these grants, we know that they were substantial. One of them consisted of 10 one-year grants of $25,000 each. For many journalists, especially in Latin America, $25,000 for a year is a high salary. The PADF also holds “2 competitions, one per year, for a total of $20,000 in funding awarded to at least 6 entries.”

The PADF’s Venezuela program also supports journalism education, which is undertaken to produce investigative work “via innovative media technologies,” according to an “Action Memorandum” for a fiscal year 2007 grant. This grant includes “a series of trainings for local journalists focused on the basic and advanced skills of Internet-based reporting and investigative reporting,” according to the requirements document. The education program engages “a wide range of Venezuelan media organizations and news outlets, including 4 university partners,” where it aims “to establish one course per school on investigative reporting.” PADF proposes targeting not only universities in the capital city of Caracas, but also regional ones in “the Andes, Center East, Zulia and the Western region of the country.” In each region, “the local partners will sign agreements with academic institutions that teach social communications.”

The revelations of U.S. funding of Venezuelan journalism comes on the heels of a report released in May by the center-right European think tank FRIDE, which found that since 2002 the United States has spent an estimated $3 million to $6 million every year “on small projects with political parties and NGOs” in Venezuela, with funds distributed through an alphabet soup of shifting and intertwined channels. (The report was removed from FRIDE’s website soon after it was publicized.) The PADF journalism program thus appears to be part of a much larger project of propping up the Venezuelan opposition.

The Venezuelan journalists and students who benefited from the grants and education may not have known of the State Department funding. Nonetheless, covert foreign state support for ostensibly independent journalism violates basic principles of the profession’s integrity.*

Look for an expanded version of this article in the September/October edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.

*The word covert was added to this sentence on July 18.

Jeremy Bigwood is an investigative reporter whose work has appeared in American Journalism Review, The Village Voice, and several other publications. He covered Latin American conflicts from 1984 to 1994 as a photojournalist.