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Issue Date:  April 2, 2004

Where the money goes


Michael Shifter, a former National Endowment for Democracy grants officer for Latin America, now an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says the key question about the endowment’s involvement in Venezuela is whether it is working to build bridges between the two sides and promote reconciliation, or whether it is merely bankrolling an opposition force intent on toppling a democratically elected president by whatever means necessary. He said he didn’t have enough information to issue a judgment.

But Brooklyn, N.Y.-based lawyer Eva Golinger contends she does have enough information, and she thinks it is clearly the latter. While the endowment’s Chris Sabatini says the organization started funding groups in Venezuela as early as 1993, the amounts have risen markedly since Hugo Chávez was elected, nearly quadrupling from $216,000 to $877,000 between 2000 and 2001. In 2002, several months after the April coup against Chávez, the State Department gave the endowment a $1 million grant for its work in Venezuela.

“What’s clear is the sums are enormous,” said Golinger, who heads the pro-Chávez Venezuela Solidarity Committee in New York and obtained the NED documents with the help of Jeremy Bigwood, a freelance investigative journalist based in Washington. “Venezuela has a $75-a-month minimum wage and that’s for those who are in the formal economy,” she said. The grants are “a tremendous amount of money.”

One legal rights group, Asociación Civil Consorcio Justicia, received $172,152 in various grants during the years 2001 to 2003, according to Golinger. The group’s stated mission, says the endowment, includes helping to “build the capacity of civil society organizations in Venezuela to become active in the struggle against authoritarianism.” Golinger claims the group supported the coup against Chávez and an illegal two-month strike later that year that shut down the country’s oil industry, the lifeblood of the economy.

Golinger said that rather than spending their time strengthening the nation’s judicial system, improving schools or building consensus across party lines, NED-funded groups devote themselves almost exclusively to opposing Chávez’s programs and trying to oust him.

One group, for instance, Acción Campesino, has helped stage violent protests to block peasants from moving onto land acquired through Chávez’s reform program, she said.

Another group, Asociación Civil Asamblea de Educación, received $55,000 in September 2001 from the NED and $57,000 in October 2002, according to the documents. It was led by Leonardo Carvajal, who was offered the cabinet post of education minister by Pedro Carmona, the businessman who briefly replaced Chávez during the coup.

Golinger also says the Confederación de Trabajadores Venezolanos union, one of the main groups that led a massive protest march that ended with the coup and also helped lead the illegal nationwide strike later that year, is a major beneficiary of NED funding, channeled through one of NED’s four core subsidiary organizations. The former head of the union, Carlos Ortega, worked closely with Carmona, who was the former head of the nation’s largest chamber of commerce, Fedecamaras, in forging the opposition movement.

On April 12, 2002, the president of one of NED’s four subsidiary groups, George Folsom of the International Republican Institute, issued a statement supporting the coup: “Last night, led by every sector of civil society, the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country.” Three days later, Folsom was rebuked by endowment president Carl Gershman, who reminded him Chávez was removed “through unconstitutional means.” Folsom later backtracked.

Golinger says another NED-funded organization, Momento de la Gente, received $40,000 in February 2001, $64,000 in February 2002 and $64,000 in April 2003. The group’s stated objectives include election and civil liberties monitoring. Golinger says they are well-known “ardent” opponents of Chávez who belong to the “Democratic Coordinator” opposition umbrella group.

The International Republican Institute, which is associated with the Republican Party and maintains a staffed office in Caracas, has conducted extensive training of opposition political parties, according to NED documents.

In one, Mike Collins, a former GOP press secretary, taught party leaders how to mount photo-ops and do press interviews. With the video camera rolling, Collins conducted mock interviews with the participants and then critiqued their performances. At another session he counseled Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, a key Chávez opponent, how he “could soften his aggressive image in order to appeal to a wide range of voters.”

The International Republican Institute also helped arrange meetings in Washington between opposition leaders and U.S. government policymakers.

Thayer Scott, an institute spokesman, said the organization’s work in Venezuela aims “to build and encourage democratic institutions. It’s the antithesis of coups and violence.” He said program participants and grant recipients are mainly from the opposition because Chávez supporters have shown little interest in taking part.

“We respond to proposals,” Sabatini said. “We don’t force money on people.”

Golinger and Cohn, however, said the NED often pursues or even helps create groups, and then writes grants for them -- an assertion Sabatini denied.

The Confederación de Trabajadores Venezolanos union has not received any direct NED grants, he said, although it did receive a small amount for hotel and food expenses as part of efforts to democratize internal elections and it does get substantial funding from a NED subsidiary associated with the AFL-CIO.

While NED-assisted groups did not play a direct role in the coup and many of them condemned Carmona’s elimination of the country’s democratic institutions, Sabatini said, many members of the groups also appeared to endorse Chávez’s overthrow. “Many of them in the euphoria and the excitement, I will confess, did sort of express ... a lot of that enthusiasm” for the coup, he said.

Sabatini stressed that the NED made it clear all along to the groups it funds and works with that unconstitutional actions were out of bounds. The groups are prohibited from using NED money for partisan political activities, he added.

Sabatini rejected assertions that National Endowment for Democracy money is keeping the opposition movement alive. “These groups existed before they applied for funding from NED,” he said, “and they would continue to exist without funding from NED.”

The Inter-American Dialogue’s Shifter noted the groups’ main funding comes from Venezuela’s wealthy elites.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 2004

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