U.S. Funds Aid Chavez Opposition: National Endowment for Democracy at Center of Dispute in Venezuela

By Jones, Bart | National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

U.S. Funds Aid Chavez Opposition: National Endowment for Democracy at Center of Dispute in Venezuela


Jones, Bart, National Catholic Reporter


The United States is using a quasi-governmental organization created during the Reagan years and funded largely by Congress to pump about a million dollars a year into groups opposed to Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, according to officials in Venezuela and a Venezuelan-American attorney.

Some 2,000 pages of newly disclosed documents show that the little-known National Endowment for Democracy is financing a vast array of groups: campesinos, businessmen, former military officials, unions, lawyers, educators, even an organization leading a recall drive against Chavez. Some compare the agency, in certain of its activities, to the CIA of previous decades when the agency was regularly used to interfere in the affairs of Latin American countries.

"It certainly shows an incredible pattern of financing basically every single sector in Venezuelan society," said Eva Golinger, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based attorney who helped obtain the documents through Freedom of Information Act requests. That's the most amazing part about it."

One organization, Sumate, which received a $53,400 grant in September, is organizing the recall referendum against Chavez, Golinger said. The head of another group, Leonardo Carvajal of the Asociacion Civil Asamblea de Educacion, was named education minister by "dictator for a day" Pedro Carmona, a leading businessman who briefly took over Venezuela during an April 2002 coup against Chavez, she said. A leader of a third group assisted by the National Endowment for Democracy and its subsidiary organizations, Leopoldo Martinez of the right-wing Primero Justicia party, was named finance minister by Carmona, she said.

"How can they [the National Endowment for Democracy] say they are supporting democracy when they are funding groups that backed the coup?" asked Golinger, head of the pro-Chavez Venezuela Solidarity Committee in New York.

Chris Sabatini, the endowment's senior program officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, acknowledged the organization is handing out $922,000 this year, largely to groups opposed to Chavez, and gave out $1,046,323 last year. He said pro-Chavez groups have not received funds because they didn't ask for any or they rejected the National Endowment's overtures.

Sabatini said there is no evidence that groups backed by the National Endowment for Democracy--called NED--participated directly in the coup, although he acknowledged Carvajal and Martinez were offered cabinet posts. He said the endowment made it clear to all groups it works with that it explicitly opposes unconstitutional, actions. NED no longer funds Carvajal's group, he added, because it was not meeting its objectives of developing education policies.

As for Sumate, he said the organization is merely monitoring the recall process and ensuring citizens get to exercise their constitutional rights.

The endowment's work in Venezuela, he said, is aimed at promoting democracy and defusing festering tensions that could lead to a civil war. "There is no ideological content to our work except working with committed democrats in countries where democracy is developing or under siege," he said in a telephone interview March 2.

The revelations about the endowment's work in Venezuela is provoking criticism from some high-level officials, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, that the United States is trying to destabilize and overthrow democratically elected governments in Latin America.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., charged that the Bush administration helped oust Haiti's President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and that it is trying to depose Chavez, as well. "We're doing the same thing in Venezuela because we don't like Chavez," Rangel said on a radio roundtable discussion.

U.S. officials deny the allegations, and say Aristide fell and Chavez almost did because of economic mismanagement and human rights abuses.

The controversy over the U. …

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