International Súmate Defenders Get It All Wrong

In a recent letter sent to President Chavez, a group of 70 mostly conservative world famous politicians and intellectuals asked the president to intervene in the case against four leaders of the oppositional and U.S.-government funded NGO Súmate. Unfortunately for the signers, the letter gets almost everything wrong.

In a recent letter sent to President Chavez, a group of 70 mostly conservative world famous politicians and intellectuals asked the president to intervene in the case against four leaders of the oppositional and U.S.-government funded NGO Súmate. Signers of the letter included former secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Czech President Vaclav Havel, social theorist Francis Fukuyama, the European studies specialist Timothy Garton Ash, former U.S. National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci, and U.S. News and World Report editor Mortimer Zuckerman, among many other equally high ranking personalities.

Their letter is directed to President Chavez, to the president of the National Assembly, Francisco Ameliach, and to the President of the Supreme Court, Ivan Rincon. In it they state, first, that they accuse the Venezuelan government of “persecuting” Súmate, a group with which they “share the same and profound commitment to democracy.” Second, they say that they are “worried” about the reform of Venezuela’s penal code, which would “attempt to sanction, with the maximum penalty applicable in Venezuela, the international financing of NGOs.” Third, the letter “begs” of the three addressees that they “intervene” so that both the case against the leaders of Súmate is “reconsidered” and that international assistance is not criminalized. It concludes by saying that “These actions of the Venezuelan judicial and legislative powers are inconsistent with international democratic norms and represent a grave threat to democracy.”

On every count the claims the writers of this letter get things wrong. First, the authors are wrong to assume that any of the addressees (Chavez, Rincon, or Ameliach) can intervene in the proceedings of the country’s prosecutor, the Attorney General. The writers don’t seem to be aware that in Venezuela the Attorney General’s office is a fourth branch of government, constitutionally completely independent from the three to which they have directed their letter. That is, the letter is asking Chavez, Rincon, and Ameliach to violate the constitution by intervening in a constitutionally independent proceeding. It’s as if Chavez wrote a letter to President Bush, asking Bush to intervene in a Supreme Court case that will affect Venezuelan interests.

Even if the authors buy into the opposition’s conviction that Chavez controls all branches of government, their request to Chavez and the others to violate the constitution merely begs the question of how important upholding the constitution is to those who signed the letter, assuming they knew that the Attorney General’s Office is independent. If, however, they did not know this, one must seriously question whether they are knowledgeable in any of the other areas that they discuss.

The misinformation contained in the letter thus continues when the authors claim that the revision to the Penal Code would “attempt to sanction, with the maximum penalty applicable in Venezuela, the international financing of NGOs.” A brief glance at the actual proposed text shows that this sanction would only apply if the monies were used under specific circumstances. That is, it says that those who “supply, receive, or collaborate in the distribution of national or foreign resources of any kind that are intended for conspiring against the integrity of the Republic’s territory.” Now, unless all Venezuelan NGOs participate in such a conspiracy, it is absurd to claim that the penal code reform proposal would outlaw the international financing of Venezuelan NGOs. Not only that, most countries in the world forbid the international financing of activity that is intended to harm or alter the integrity of the republic. The U.S., for example, goes much further, with its “Patriot Act,” in observing and persecuting groups that are suspected of funding such activity.

Third, the letter claims that “the Venezuelan government is persecuting” Súmate for “exercising their civil rights.” One must wonder whether they are at all familiar with the accusations against Súmate, given that the letter has already gotten several essential elements wrong.  Rather, the accusation seems to have a solid legal basis. Súmate is being charged with creating a parallel CNE, which is illegal according to Venezuelan law. The group developed a comprehensive electoral database of its own (which would be completely illegal in many countries), attempted to station computers at every signature collection locale, so as to verify each signer just before they entered the locale, and they were actively engaged in the signature verification process after the signature collection had been completed. All of these are activities to which the CNE is supposed to enjoy exclusive rights.

But more than that, Súmate is not a neutral NGO, as Súmate and its funder, the U.S. government financed National Endowment for Democracy (NED), claim. Súmate is a clearly partisan group that was instrumental in organizing for the presidential recall referendum. The NED says that the money Súmate received was for non-partisan citizen education workshops. While this might have been its intention, the Attorney General says that Súmate redirected these funds for the recall referendum, which makes the use of these funds illegal. What would the signers of the letter have said if Chavez had provided funds to the democrats for non-partisan “citizen education,” which then ended up swinging the election in Florida?

In short, the letter addressed to the heads of the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary (but not to the prosecutor or to the electoral power) should be a terrible embarrassment to the 70 famous signers. They mistakenly trusted whoever wrote the letter probably because it was written by the NED, to which most of the signers are tied either by being on their board of directors or because they are NED grant recipients. Unfortunately for them, the letter got it all wrong.

Letter in Defense of Súmate:

Excelentísimo Señor Hugo Chávez, Presidente de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela

Excelentísimo Señor Iván Rincón, Presidente del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia

Excelentísimo Señor Francisco Ameliach Presidente de la Asamblea Nacional

Estimados Señores:

Nos dirigimos a ustedes, como demócratas que representamos a diferentes pueblos del mundo, con el objeto de expresar nuestra solidaridad y preocupación por la situación a la cual están sometidos algunos de nuestros colegas demócratas venezolanos quienes, en estos momentos, son perseguidos por ejercer sus derechos civiles.

Tenemos conocimiento sobre la situación que afecta a los representantes de  Súmate, una organización civil que promueve y defiende los derechos políticos de los ciudadanos venezolanos, quienes están sometidos a un proceso judicial por recibir  financiamiento internacional para diseñar y ejecutar un programa de educación ciudadana dirigido a dar a conocer los mecanismos de participación política y ciudadana, derechos establecidos en la Constitución.  Como demócratas, nos sentimos  en  la obligación de denunciar  este caso ya que el gobierno venezolano está persiguiendo a un grupo con el cual compartimos el mismo y profundo compromiso con la democracia.

Estamos igualmente preocupados porque este caso parece ser el primer paso de un esfuerzo oficial por criminalizar la solicitud y uso de fondos internacionales por parte de Organizaciones No Gubernamentales venezolanas.  Asimismo, compartimos las denuncias formuladas por grupos de derechos humanos en Venezuela y en otros países contra la reforma propuesta del Código Penal la cual pretende sancionar, con la máxima pena aplicable en Venezuela , el financiamiento internacional a ONGs. 

Enjuciar y castigar Organizaciones No Gubernamentales por recibir financiamiento dirigido a fortalecer la democracia es una violación de la Carta Democrática Interamericana y de la Declaración de la Comunidad de Democracias de Varsovia.  Debemos recordar que el gobierno venezolano firmó, hace cuatro años,  la Declaración de Varsovia junto a más de cien países.

Por otra parte, la base de las acusaciones contra la Asociación Civil Súmate es el financiamiento otorgado por el National Endowment for Democracy (NED), la cual es una fundación privada muy respetada a nivel internacional por los programas que desarrolla en más de ochenta países para promover y defender la democracia.  El NED es un ejemplo de las docenas de fundaciones que, en América del Norte, Europa y Asia, se dedican a promover la democracia.  Estas fundaciones reciben financiamiento público de los parlamentos de sus países con el fin de apoyar programas dirigidos a fortalecer la democracia, como lo es el programa que está llevando a cabo Súmate.

Como demócratas del mundo, rogamos a ustedes su intervención para reconsiderar tanto el proceso judicial contra los líderes de Súmate como el proyecto legislativo de reforma del Código Penal que busca criminalizar la recepción de asistencia democrática internacional.  Estas actuaciones de los poderes judicial y legislativo venezolanos son inconsistentes con las normas democráticas internacionales y representan una grave amenaza contra la democracia.


Los abajofirmantes

Morton Abramowitz , Senior Fellow, Century Foundation

Mahnaz Afkhami , Founder and President, Women’s Learning Partnership

Sergio Aguayo , Professor, El Colegio de Mexico

Madeleine Albright , former US Secretary of State 

Sergio Fernando Araya Alverado, President, Colegio Ciencias Politicas y Relaciones Internacionales de Costa Rica

Zainah Anwar , Executive Director, Sisters in Islam , Malaysia

Bernard Aronson , former Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America and the Caribbean (US)

Genaro Arriagada , former Chilean Ambassador to the U.S.

Timothy Garton Ash , Senior Research Fellow, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford and Director European Studies Center

Ronald Asmus , German Marshall Fund

Dr. Werner Bohler , Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung , Germany

Robert M. Borden , CEO, Bumpers Corporation ( Canada )

Jack Buechner , President, US Association of Former Members of Congress

Emma Bonino , former European Union Commissioner and former member, European Parliament ( Italy )

William E. Brock , former US Senator and former Secretary of Labor

Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell , Former Prime Minister of Canada

Frank Carlucci , former National Security Advisor (US)

Violeta Chamorro , former President of Nicaragua

Lorne Craner , President, International Republican Institute and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Michael Danby , Member of Parliament , Australia

Gianfranco Dell’Alba , Member of European Parliament , Italy

Larry Diamond , Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution and co-editor, Journal of Democracy

Philip Dimitrov , former Prime Minister , Bulgaria

Jorge Dominguez, Professor, Harvard University

Thomas R. Donahue ,  President Emeritus, AFL-CIO

Nicholas Eberstadt , American Enterprise Institute

Peter Eigen , Chairman, Transparency International

Jean Bethke Elshtain , Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics, The University of Chicago

Joao Carlos Espada , Director, Institute for Political Studies, Portuguese Catholic University

Francis Fukuyama, Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy, Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopk University

Richard Goldstone , former Prosecutor, International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia

Peter Hakim , President, Inter-American Dialogue

Vaclav Havel , former President, Czech Republic

Francois Heisbourg  , French Academic

Bi-khim Hsiao , Member of Parliament , Taiwan

Penn Kemble , Senior Fellow, Freedom House

Harvey Klehr , Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History, Emory University

Stephan Klingelhofer , President, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Robert LaGamma , Council for a Community of Democracies

Bolívar Lamounier , Augurium Consulting, Brazil

Amb. Luis Lauredo , former U.S. Ambassador, Organization of American States

Ulrich Laute, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung , Germany

John McCain , US Senator

Edward J. McElroy, President, American Federation of Teachers

Matthew McHugh , former Member of  US Congress 

Edward McMillan-Scott , Member of European Parliament ( UK )

Sascha Müller-Kraenner , Heinrich Böll Stiftung

Ghia Nodia , Chairman, Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, Republic of Georgia

Janusz Onyszkiewicz , former Minister of Defense , Poland

Marco Pannella ,  Member of European Paliament ( Italy )

Amb. Mark Palmer , Vice Chairman, Freedom House

Robert A. Pastor , Director, Center for Democracy and Election Management, American University

Theodore Piccone , Democracy Coalition Project (US)

Surin Pitsuwan , Member of Parliament , Thailand

James N. Purcell , former Director General, International Organization for Migration

Xiao Qiang , U.of California at Berkley , Past Executive Director, Human Rights in China

John Richardson , Chair, Council for a Community of Democracies

Markus Rosenberger, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Perú

Richard C. Rowson , Council for a Community of Democracies

John Shattuck , CEO, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Michael Shifter , Vice President for Policy, Inter-American Dialogue

Stephen Solarz , Former Member of US Congress

Theodore C. Sorensen, Former Special Assistant to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Strobe Talbott , former Deputy US Secretary of State

Amb. Terence Todman , former US Ambassador to Argentina , Costa Rica and Spain

Elisabeth Ungar , Universidad de los Andes (Colombia)

Arturo Valenzuela , Director, Center for Latin American Affairs, Georgetown University

Gianni Vernetti, Member of Parliament , Italy

Alexandr Vondra , former Deputy Foreign Minister , Czech Republic

Gerhard Wahlers ,  Head of International Cooperation, Konrad Adenauer Foundation

Reinhard Willig ,  Konrad Adenauer Stiftung- Costa Rica

Jennifer Windsor , Executive Director, Freedom House

Kenneth Wollack , President, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs

Mortimer Zuckerman , Editor, U.S. News and World Report and New York Daily News