Of all the groups getting U.S. support in Venezuela, none has faced
more scrutiny than Sumate, whose leaders have been called conspirators and "mercenaries"
even though they insist they are simply promoting democracy.
President Hugo Chavez says he's convinced the U.S. is acting through
Sumate to "take us down the path of destabilization" as he seeks re-election
in December. Prosecutors have brought conspiracy charges against Sumate's
leaders for their use of $31,000 from the U.S.-funded National Endowment for
Democracy, ostensibly for voter education courses.
This month, an inquiry by the National Assembly concluded Sumate appears to
have violated various other laws. Prosecutors are investigating whether to charge
members with treason, tax evasion and other crimes, said Sumate leader Maria
Corina Machado, who has met with President Bush at the White House and is a
persistent irritant to Chavez.
She denies accusations by Chavistas that her group is essentially an opposition
political party, and insists Sumate has broken no law.
"It's an organization that promotes and builds democracy," Machado
said. "Those who do that are persecuted under governments that stop being
Chavez's allies argue Sumate persistently tries to unseat Chavez. It organized
a recall referendum in 2004 that Chavez won and also is a vociferous critic
of the government and the electoral system.
Sumate acknowledges getting some $102,120 for voter education programs since
2003 from the Washington-based NED, though it says it has not used any direct
aid from the U.S. government. The U.S. State Department granted Sumate $300,000
last year to help review the voter rolls, but the group returned the money in
July saying it could not obtain a complete database to analyze.
Other groups have received funds through the U.S. Agency for International Development,
including Leadership and Vision, which obtained about $45,000 in 2003 to organize
10 seminars aimed at promoting dialogue among opposition and pro-government
USAID — which hired the Maryland-based company Development Alternatives
Inc. to administer the grants — has declined to identify many Venezuelan
recipients, saying they could be intimidated or prosecuted.
The U.S. government also provides financial support to other U.S. groups working
in Venezuela — such as $1.7 million for the International Republican Institute
and $2.1 million for the National Democratic Institute since 2002. Both say
they provide technical training to parties across the political spectrum and
support training of independent electoral monitors.
Freedom House has obtained $1 million in U.S. funds since 2004 to help train
Venezuelan human rights groups.
Venezuela may soon take a tougher stand. Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez recently
said: "It's not lawful for a non-governmental organization to receive funds
from a foreign state."
While Venezuelan law does not include a specific prohibition, the penal code
prescribes prison terms for "any Venezuelan who solicits foreign intervention"
in the country's political affairs, or receives a foreign state's money to be
used to the "detriment" of the nation.
The National Assembly, now held entirely by Chavez allies after opposition
parties boycotted the last election, is preparing to require any group receiving
foreign support to register with the government, reveal its sources and submit
to additional controls.
Dollars, democracy and Venezuela
By Ian James
The U.S. government is spending millions of dollars in the name of democracy
in Venezuela — bankrolling human-rights seminars, training emerging leaders,
advising political parties and giving to charities.
But the money is raising deep suspicions among supporters of President Hugo
Chávez, in part because the U.S. has refused to name many of the groups
Details of the spending emerge in 1,600 pages of grant contracts obtained by
The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request. The U.S.
Agency for International Development released copies of 132 contracts in all,
but whited out the names and other identifying details of nearly half the grantees.
U.S. officials insist the aid is aboveboard and politically neutral, and say
the Chávez government would harass or prosecute the grant recipients
if they were identified.
Chávez, however, believes the United States is campaigning — overtly
and covertly — to undermine his leftist government, which has crusaded
against U.S. influence in Latin America and elsewhere.
"The empire pays its lackeys, and it pays them well," he said recently,
accusing some of his opponents of taking "gringo money."
While USAID oversees much of the public U.S. spending on Latin America, the
Bush administration also has stepped up covert efforts in the region. This month,
Washington named a career CIA agent as the "mission manager" to oversee
U.S. intelligence on Cuba and Venezuela.
The Bush administration has an $80 million plan to hasten change in Cuba, where
Chávez has sworn to help defend Fidel Castro's communist system. The
U.S. also is spending millions on pro-democracy work in Bolivia, where Bush
has warned of "an erosion of democracy" since a Chávez ally,
socialist Evo Morales, was elected president in December.
Chávez makes no distinction between the programs supported by U.S. funds
and the secret effort he claims the CIA is pursuing to destabilize his government.
And it appears a crackdown on the U.S. aid is looming as Chávez runs
for re-election in December.
Venezuelan prosecutors have brought conspiracy charges against the leaders
of Sumate, a U.S.-backed group that frequently points out perceived flaws in
the voting system. The pro-Chávez National Assembly is preparing to require
nonprofit groups to reveal their funding sources. And Chávez has threatened
to expel U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield, whom he accuses of stirring up
trouble with USAID donations to youth baseball teams and day-care centers.
Much of the spending is overseen by USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives,
which also works in such "priority countries" as Iraq, Afghanistan,
Bolivia and Haiti.
OTI says it has overseen more than $26 million for programs in Venezuela since
2002, when it began work here after a failed coup against Chávez. Much
of it has gone toward more than 220 small grants as part of USAID's "Venezuela
Confidence Building Initiative."
"It's a pro-democracy program to work with Venezuelans of any point of
view," said Adolfo Franco, USAID's assistant administrator for Latin America
and the Caribbean. "It's without political bias."
The USAID grants for 2004 and 2005 reviewed by AP include some charity projects
— like $19,543 for baseball equipment that Brownfield delivered to a pro-Chávez
neighborhood and $23,189 for chickens and coops at a poor school.
Others seem to promote good government, like $15,289 to publish a pocket guide
One recipient, the Development and Justice Consortium, held a workshop in a
poor Caracas neighborhood on seeking accountability in local government. A neighborhood
banner read "Chávez Forever," but teacher Antonio Quintin reminded
students that "governments are only delegates."
Most attendees had no idea U.S. money paid for the class, and even die-hard
Chávez supporters saw nothing subversive in it. "As long as it brings
benefits, it doesn't matter where the funding comes from," said Ingrid
Sanchez, 40, a member of a local planning council.
But other projects remain so vague as to raise concern among Chávistas,
such as a $47,459 grant for a "democratic leadership campaign," $37,614
for citizen meetings to discuss a "shared vision" for society, or
$56,124 to analyze Venezuela's new constitution of 1999. All went to unidentified
U.S. officials call the concerns baseless. They point to U.S.-funded programs
meant to bridge the divide between Chávez's backers and opponents, such
as conflict-resolution workshops and public-service announcements urging peaceful
Much of the spending was for "in kind" aid — anything from
snacks to airfare, rather than cash. And every grant requires the inclusion
of people from across the political spectrum.
Even some pro-Chávez groups got support, said Russell Porter, an OTI
official for Latin America.
Still, USAID said revealing more of their identities would be an "unwarranted
invasion of personal privacy" that could endanger the recipients, saying
some have been questioned for 12 hours at a time by the Venezuelan secret police.
"It's simply for the security of the recipient," Porter said. "The
only thing we've held back are the names of the groups."
U.S. officials say they simply want to promote dialogue and strengthen Venezuela's
"fragile democratic institutions."
But at the same time, Bush has repeatedly called Chávez a threat to
democracy, and Chávez sympathizers find it hard to trust the U.S. government's
"It's trying to implement regime change. There's no doubt about it. I
think the U.S. government tries to mask it by saying it's a noble mission,"
said Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan-American lawyer who wrote "El Codigo Chavez"
(The Chávez Code), a book that cites public documents to argue that Washington
is systematically trying to overthrow Chávez.
Golinger sees parallels in past U.S. campaigns, partly covert, to aid government
opponents in countries from Nicaragua to Ukraine. "It's too suspicious
to have such a high level of secrecy," she said.
The U.S. State Department also has supported electoral observer missions and
training for human-rights activists as part of the $26 million spent since 2002.
In addition, the government-funded National Endowment for Democracy has awarded
$2.9 million in pro-democracy grants for Venezuela since 2002, and the U.S.-funded
International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute have provided
technical training to help restructure various Venezuelan political parties
and supported training of electoral observers.
"It isn't designed to favor one party or another," said the National
Democratic Institute's president, Ken Wollack. "All parties have participated."
But friction is mounting as Chávez seeks re-election. He holds a wide
lead in the polls, and predicts the U.S. will try to discredit the December
vote if he wins, with ammunition provided by U.S.-funded nonprofit groups.
Chávistas say their president has good reason to be concerned, given
how quickly U.S. officials recognized his opponents during a short-lived coup
in 2002. Immediately after Chávez was driven from power, the International
Republican Institute's then president, George Folsom, issued a statement praising
those who "rose up to defend democracy."
Chávez regained the presidency amid huge street protests, and the IRI's
leadership later renounced Folsom's statement as contrary to the group's pro-democracy
Still, all these efforts to influence another country's political process raise
concerns outside Venezuela, too.
"It's very hard to accept an innocent directing of those funds,"
said Bill Monning, a law professor at the Monterey Institute of International
Studies in California. "We would scream bloody murder if any outside force
were interfering in our internal political system."
Sumate leader Maria Corina Machado, who met Bush at the White House last year,
faces up to 16 years in prison if convicted of conspiracy for using $31,000
from the National Endowment for Democracy that she says went for voter-education
courses. Three other Sumate members also face charges.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan lawmakers recommended that Sumate be investigated for
currency and tax-law violations, and they've given initial approval, in a first
reading, to a new law that would require nongovernmental organizations to reveal
their funding sources.
CIVICUS, a South Africa-based international group that supports citizen participation,
says the proposed law will "endanger the existence of an independent civil
Russia adopted a similar law targeting human-rights and pro-democracy groups
this year after opposition leaders rose to power in the former Soviet republics
of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Critics say Venezuela's law would bring
heavy-handed tactics, but Chávez supporters say they need to keep tabs
on U.S. spending.
"They're promoting a U.S. agenda," Golinger said, "and that's
the overall goal: to eventually get Chávez out of power."
U.S. diplomats and their strange personal habits
i on the news
The U.S. is up in arms (not yet literally, but with the U.S., nothing can
ever be taken for granted) because Venezuela
searched and seized some "diplomatic" baggage. The State Department
had this to say about the seized shipment: "The impounded cargo consisted
of household effects of a U.S. diplomat and a shipment of commissary goods."
Well now that is interesting. Because here's what the shipment did
consist of: "ejector seats apparently intended for Venezuelan combat jets,
explosive charges and about 180 pounds of chicken that did not pass through
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