Venezuela at the Crossroads
National Endowment for Democracy Channels Money to
Recall Campaign Against Democratically Elected President

by Bill Berkowitz
March 11, 2004

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While news about U.S. participation in what many observers believe to be the forced removal of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide continues to unfold, the situation in Venezuela is once again reaching a tipping point. Over at David Horowitz's right wing FrontPage Web site, columnist and radio talk show host Lowell Ponte, overjoyed by Aristide's removal, hysterically called Venezuela President Hugo Chavez the "third domino in the axis of red evil." In an op-ed piece for the Houston Chronicle, Douglas MacKinnon, former press secretary to former Sen. Bob Dole, and a former White House and Pentagon official, called Chavez a "madman" and "an evil just as unpalatable, just as real and potentially just as lethal as Osama bin Laden."

With the U.S.'s oil supply threatened, is the Bush Administration organizing "regime change" in Venezuela?

For nearly two years Venezuelan government officials have hurled accusations at the Bush Administration, charging that it was involved in the aborted April 2002 coup aimed at overthrowing the democratically elected Chavez. Now, on the cusp of a possible recall election, President Chavez says he has evidence proving that U.S. officials "met with rebel military officers [and] U.S. military officers acted in the coup." Chavez also pointed out that, "the U.S. ambassador was at the Presidential Palace after the coup to applaud the dictator [Pedro Carmona]. The government of the United States must answer before the world about the deaths that occurred here in April of 2002."

The State Department's Richard Boucher dismissed Chavez's charges out of hand, saying that the accusations were meant to "'to divert attention' away from the referendum process currently underway in Venezuela," Venezuelanalysis.com reported. Boucher, however, acknowledged that the Bush Administration is providing "funding to groups that promote democracy and strengthen civil society in Venezuela and around the globe." Boucher claimed that the funds "are for the benefit of democracy, not to support any particular political faction."

One of the recipients of U.S. taxpayer money is a Venezuelan company called Sumate, the organization that has provided much of the logistical support for the signature collection process. Between September 2003 and September 2004, Sumate received more than $50,000 from the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy.

The "NED Report to the U.S. Dept. of State on Special Venezuela Funds" documents that the organization received a million dollars in April 2002, and since June of that year it awarded more than $800,000 to organizations working in Venezuela, according to VenezuelaFOIA.info. The non-profit Web site, sponsored by the Venezuela Solidarity Committee/National Venezuela Solidarity Network, found that among the organizations receiving funds were the Center for International Private Enterprise, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

The NED is no stranger to Venezuelan politics. According to the New York Times, the organization "funneled more than $877,000 into Venezuela opposition groups in the weeks and months before the recently aborted coup attempt." More than $150,000 went to "a Venezuelan labor union that led the opposition work stoppages and worked closely with Pedro Carmona Estanga, the businessman who led the coup."

At its Web site, the National Endowment for Democracy modestly describes itself as a "private, nonprofit, grant-making organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world." But the NED is not merely a non-partisan election facilitator or educator. Over the years it has actively destabilized governments in Central America and Eastern Europe. According to William Blum's book "Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower," the NED "played an important role in the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, funding key components of Oliver North's shadowy... Project Democracy' network, which privatized US foreign policy, waged war, ran arms and drugs, and engaged in other equally charming activities." For years the NED supported the Cuban exile community in South Florida, contributing $250,000 between 1990 and 1992 to the right wing Cuban-American National Foundation.

In 1997, NED president, Carl Gershman told Congress that the group's "four affiliated institutes, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI)... operate a host of programs that strengthen political parties, promote open markets, advocate the rights of workers, and many related activities."

The NED functions as a full-service infrastructure-building clearinghouse. It provides money, technical support, supplies, training programs, media know-how, public relations assistance, and state-of-the-art equipment to select political groups, civic organizations, labor unions, dissident movements, student groups, book publishers, newspapers, and other media. The organization's aim is to destabilize progressive movements, particularly those with a socialist or democratic socialist bent.

Chavez's well-funded opposition also appears to be receiving the tacit stamp of approval from Henry Kissinger and his international consulting firm, Kissinger and Associates. In late-January, while the national elections council was preparing to evaluate the authenticity of the two-plus million petition signatures handed in by the opposition, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was presenting an award to Venezuelan billionaire, Gustavo Cisneros, Chairman & CEO of the Cisneros Group of Companies. According to the Green Left Weekly, Cisneros has been "identified by Newsweek and Venezuelan publications as one of the protagonists and financiers of the April 11, 2002, coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez."

In a December 2003 press release announcing the upcoming awards ceremony, the IAEC described Cisneros as someone who "consistently sought to create an environment where business and government can work together in meaningful ways for the betterment of society." It went on: "The council seeks to create a forum in which effective policy making is made by the public and private sectors working together. Cisneros' life's work parallels the council's mission."

According to the Green Left Weekly, however, Cisneros is "credited with being a driving force behind the December 2002 nationwide lock-out and sabotage of the oil industry, which drove the Venezuelan economy into the ground by causing a historical drop of 27% in the country's GDP in the first trimester of 2003." And the US-based NGO Global Strike for Women condemned the IAEC's decision to give Cisneros the award, charging that he was a leader of the Dec 2002-Feb 2003 nationwide lock out "aimed at forcing President Chavez from office" and that "he played a similar role in the more recent oil lock out orchestrated by the CIA and aimed at paralyzing the whole country."

Cisneros owns one of the largest privately held media, entertainment, technology, and consumer products organizations in the world. His holdings include Univision Communications, Inc., AOL Latin America, DIRECTV Latin America, Claxson Interactive Group, Venevision, Venezuela's largest television network, Los Leones del Caracas, Regional Brewing Company, Backus & Johnston Brewing Company, and Pueblo International, LLC.

It should be remembered that two days after the aborted coup, Kissinger partner Thomas "Mack" McLarty, the Vice Chairman of Kissinger McLarty Associates, and former President Bill Clinton's top adviser on Latin America, penned an op-ed piece that issued a stern warning to Brazilian leftist Luiz Igacio Lula da Silva: "[W]hat happened in Venezuela could be perceived as a sign that messianic solutions, as opposed to genuine reform measures, lead to disaster. It bodes well for those in the region who advocate for open markets in the region. I don't think this is a net positive for Lula's candidacy." Despite the warning, six months later Lula was overwhelmingly elected president of Brazil.

Sumate has admitted "that there were instances where people signed the petition who were not supposed to or who did so incorrectly," Gregory Wilpert recently reported. But the company maintains that although the invalid signatures number around 265,000, there are still some 3.2 million valid signatures "which would be more than enough for a presidential recall referendum, which requires over 2.4 million signatures (20% of the registered electorate)."

On March 3, the national elections council said only 1.8 million signatures had been verified, which fell some 500,000 short of the needed number for the recall. According to BBC News, the opposition could "still reach" the target because the council will "publish lists of the disputed signatures and set up posts where people who find themselves on these listings can go and validate their entry." The opposition, however, declared that it would "not accept the electoral commission's plans for voters to confirm their signatures, complaining this was not included in the initial rules for the referendum."

According to Gregory Wilpert, international observers from the Carter Center and the OAS will judge whether the CNE is doing an evenhanded job. If the CNE changes it ruling, Chavez could appeal it to the Supreme Court, thus delaying the recall election until after August, which would then allow Chavez's vice president to succeed him should the election be held and he be defeated.

In President Bush's State of the Union address, he pledged to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy. When former Minnesota Republican congressman Vin Weber, a close ally of then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, took over as chairman of the NED's board in July 2001, he made it clear that the organization was interested in once again playing a more muscular role shaping and supporting U.S. foreign policy objectives. That's exactly what it appears to be doing in Venezuela.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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