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One more on Venezuela: US funded Chavez's opponents
by Elson Boles
25 April 2002 13:19 UTC
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April 25, 2002

U.S. Bankrolling Is Under Scrutiny for Ties to Chávez Ouster


WASHINGTON, April 24 — In the past year, the United States channeled
hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to American and Venezuelan groups
opposed to President Hugo Chávez, including the labor group whose protests
led to the Venezuelan president's brief ouster this month.

The funds were provided by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit
agency created and financed by Congress. As conditions deteriorated in
Venezuela and Mr. Chávez clashed with various business, labor and media
groups, the endowment stepped up its assistance, quadrupling its budget for
Venezuela to more than $877,000.

While the endowment's expressed goal is to promote democracy around the
world, the State Department's human rights bureau is examining whether one
or more recipients of the money may have actively plotted against Mr.
Chávez. The bureau has put a $1 million grant to the endowment on hold
pending that review, an official said.

"We wanted to make certain that U.S. government resources were not going to
underwrite the unconstitutional overthrow of the government of Venezuela,"
said the official, who occupies a midlevel job in the department and asked
not to be identified. The deputy spokesman for the State Department, Philip
Reeker, said he was unaware of the proposed grant.

Of particular concern is $154,377 given by the endowment to the American
Center for International Labor Solidarity, the international arm of the
A.F.L.-C.I.O., to assist the main Venezuelan labor union in advancing labor

The Venezuelan union, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, led the work
stoppages that galvanized the opposition to Mr. Chávez. The union's leader,
Carlos Ortega, worked closely with Pedro Carmona Estanga, the businessman
who briefly took over from Mr. Chávez, in challenging the government.

The endowment also provided significant resources to the foreign policy
wings of the Republican and Democratic parties for work in Venezuela, which
sponsored trips to Washington by Chávez critics.

The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs was given a
$210,500 grant to promote the accountability of local government. The
International Republican Institute, which has an office in Venezuela,
received a grant of $339,998 for political party building. On April 12, the
day of the takeover, the group hailed Mr. Chávez's ouster. "The Venezuelan
people rose up to defend democracy in their country," the institute's
president, George A. Folsom, said in a statement. "Venezuelans were provoked
into action as a result of systematic repression by the government of Hugo

The statement drew a sharp rebuke from Carl Gershman, the endowment
president, for the openly political stance, which he said would undercut the
institute's work in Venezuela in the future.

The institute has close ties to the Bush administration, which had also
embraced the short-lived takeover; Lorne Craner, the assistant secretary of
state for democracy, human rights and labor, is a former president of the

In an interview, Mr. Folsom said discussions at the institute on Venezuela
involved finding ways to remove Mr. Chávez by constitutional means only.

Chris Sabatini, the endowment's senior program officer for Latin America and
the Caribbean, said his agency's funds went to specific projects to bolster
the democratic opposition in Venezuela — including training in civics,
journalism and conflict resolution — and did not contribute to the attempted
ouster of Mr. Chávez.

"None of our funds in any way were used to support the coup," he said.

Mr. Sabatini acknowledged that the endowment had hurriedly increased its
outlays in Venezuela in the past year as Mr. Chávez and his supporters
restricted press freedoms and sought to suppress growing dissent against his
leftist policies. The goal was to create political space for opponents to
Mr. Chávez, not to contribute to his ouster, he said.

"We were very explicit that we had no opinion of Chávez," but were
responding to events, Mr. Sabatini said.

The Bush administration, which has made no secret of its disdain for Mr.
Chávez — and his warm relations with nations like Cuba and Iraq — has turned
to the endowment to help the opposition to Mr. Chávez.

With an annual budget of $33 million, the endowment disburses hundreds of
grants each year to pro-democracy groups from Africa to Asia. Advocates say
the agency's independent status enables the United States to support
democratic actors in nations where American government aid might be
cumbersome or unwelcome. Its supporters proudly cite critical assistance
from the endowment to countries emerging from repressive systems like Poland
and South Africa.

Jane Riley Jacobsen, a spokeswoman for the endowment, said her agency
scrupulously maintained its independence from the federal government and
avoided foreign policy debates.

But critics say recipients of endowment aid do not have the same
accountability that government programs require, which opens the door for
rogue activities and freelancing. The agency overreached, those critics say,
in Chile in 1988 and in Nicaragua in 1989, when endowment funds were used to
sway the outcomes of elections.

Barbara Conry, an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the
organizing philosophy behind the endowment was flawed.

"You ended up with the worst of both worlds," she said. "Everybody knew it
was directly funded by Washington. That didn't fool too many people. But it
wasn't really accountable."

Elson Boles
Assistant Professor
Dept. of Sociology
Saginaw Valley State University
University Center
Saginaw MI, 48710

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