Venezuelan Opposition Student Leader to Receive $500,000 Award from U.S. NGO

The libertarian, U.S.-based Cato Institute awarded the $500,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to Venezuelan opposition student leader Yon Goicoechea for his leadership in recent student protests. Critics say the award is a new source of opposition funding.
Venezuelan opposition student leader Yon Goicoechea to receive $500,000 Milton Friedman award from the libertarian Cato Institute.

Mérida, April 25, 2008 (– The libertarian, U.S.-based Cato Institute awarded the $500,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to Venezuelan opposition student leader Yon Goicoechea for his leadership in student protests against the non-renewal of the public broadcast license of Radio Caracas Televisions (RCTV) and against the constitutional reform in 2007.

Goicoechea was chosen because he is “a passionate opponent of the erosion of human and civil rights under the government of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez,” according to the Cato Institute website.

The Cato Institute, which was founded in 1977, espouses a libertarian free market philosophy, supports the privatization of social security, and is opposed to environmental regulations to halt global warming, but has clashed with the administration of
U.S.  President George W. Bush over the Iraq War.

Goicoechea organized “massive, peaceful student marches” which “successfully prevented President Hugo Chávez`s regime from seizing broad dictatorial powers in December 2007,” when the constitutional reform lost the popular vote by a slim margin in a nation-wide referendum, Cato says.

Goicoechea, a 23 year-old law student at the private Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, told the press Wednesday that “this award is not only for me, but for thousands of young Venezuelans who came out to struggle for freedom.”

The student leader said he will not keep the money for himself, but rather will use it to found a new “leadership school for freedom” which will offer political training to young people, including youth from Cuba, Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia, he specified.

The award “opens many international doors to spread our message and bring the world’s progress to Venezuela,” Goicoechea added.

Goicoechea now plans to launch a political career in Venezuela, he told the opposition television station Globovisión.

He added that the next step for the student movement will be to protest the educational curriculum reform proposed by the Education Ministry, which will be in a period of public discussion among the nation`s teachers until 2009.

Details on where the award money came from are not available on the Cato Institute website. Cato’s 2006 budget was $20.4 million, fed by contributions from dozens of corporations, including ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, FedEx, Microsoft, several automobile companies, tobacco companies, and communications companies including Time Warner and Comcast, according to the institute’s 2006 annual report. Cato says it does not accept government funding, and that most of its funding comes from individual donations.

The selection committee for the award included the CEO of the transnational Koch Industries, Inc., Charles Koch, the head of the chancellery of the Republic of Georgia, Kakha Bendukidze, the former Mexican finance minister, Francisco Gil Díaz, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Mary Anastasia O`Grady, Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria, and Andrew Mwenda from the Advocates Coalition for Development in Uganda, along with Cato Institute officials.

Venezuelan-U.S. lawyer Eva Golinger denounced on Thursday that awarding Goicoechea is a surreptitious way for the U.S. to continue funding the Venezuelan opposition, since traditional avenues for funds such as the National Endowment for Democracy have come under intense criticism since Venezuelan opposition groups which received these funds participated in the April 2002 coup and numerous destabilization efforts thereafter.

The award “legitimizes capital that will be used to destabilize governments in Latin America. It is a way to filter money through supposedly clean institutions,” Golinger alleged.

In 2007, Goicoechea-led student protesters supported the renewal of the public broadcasting license of RCTV, which the station had used for over half a century. The concession was not renewed because the government said RCTV had participated in the coup against President Chávez in April 2002 and because the station had over 500 cases against it for violations of the Law for Responsibility in Radio and Television. RCTV continues to broadcast on cable television.

Student groups led by Goicoechea fiercely opposed the constitutional reform proposal. Had it passed, it would have banned the funding of Venezuelan political groups by foreign governments. It also would have guaranteed social security to informal workers, removed the limit on how many times the president can run for office, banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, and created new forms of collective property.

Milton Friedman, a conservative economist who died in 2006 at age 94, received the Nobel Prize for economics in 1976. His ideas greatly influenced the policies of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the International Monetary Fund throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the developing world.

For this reason, Golinger expressed on Venezuelan television Thursday that the award money is stained by the “blood of millions of Latin Americans who have suffered the hunger and misery implanted by economic packages that only benefited the giant corporations.”

Previous recipients of Cato’s Milton Friedman award were Mart Laar, the former prime minister of Estonia, the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, and the British Economist Peter Bauer.