In the weeks before the April 12-13 coup in Venezuela, Asociacion Civil Consorcio Justicia, a legal rights outfit, was planning an April 10 conference to promote democracy in that country. At the time, Venezuela was undergoing severe political strife. Business groups and labor unions were bitterly squaring off against President Hugo Chavez, a democratically elected strongman/populist. Using an $84,000 grant from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, a quasi-governmental foundation funded by Congress, Consorcio Justicia was supposed to bring together political parties, unions, business associations, religious groups and academicians to discuss “protecting fundamental political rights,” as an NED document put it. In a proposed agenda Consorcio Justicia listed as one of the main speakers Pedro Carmona, president of Fedecamaras, a leading Venezuelan business group. But when the coup came, Carmona was handpicked by the plotters to head a government established in violation of the Constitution. Then he signed a decree suspending the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. Carmona, it turns out, was hardly interested in safeguarding “fundamental political rights.”
Fortunately for NED, the conference was part of a series that never happened. The program was canceled as Venezuela was hit by national strikes that would lead to the massive business-and-labor demonstration against Chavez on April 11, in which at least eighteen people were killed by unidentified gunmen. The murders provided Chavez’s military foes cause, or cover, to move against him early the next morning. (A recent Human Rights Watch report concluded, “Both sides bear responsibility for the shootings.”) But imagine if the NED-backed conference had occurred and Carmona had appeared there–days before becoming a front man for the coup-makers. That was a close call for NED. Instead, the episode may be no more than a mild what-if embarrassment for NED, which is supposed to finance pro-democracy activism around the world. It shows, though, how democracy-promotion can slip, perhaps unintentionally, toward supporting the opposite–especially in a highly polarized political environment like the one in Venezuela.
Created by President Ronald Reagan and Congress in 1983, NED was designed to run a parallel foreign policy for the United States, backing and assisting entities that Washington might not be able to officially endorse–say, an opposition party challenging a government with which the United States maintained diplomatic relations. In a way, NED took public some of the covert political activity the CIA had previously mounted. The endowment–which devotes much of its budget to funding the foreign policy arms of the Democratic and Republican parties, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO (its core grantees)–has been involved in both questionable and praiseworthy projects. It awarded a large grant to a student group linked to an outlawed extreme-right paramilitary outfit in France, helped finance the development of conservative parties in countries where democracy was doing just fine and played a heavy-handed role in Nicaragua’s 1990 elections. In the late 1980s it aided the pro-democracy opposition in Chile and antiapartheid organizations in South Africa. But even if its programs have indeed enhanced democracy on occasion, NED overall has long been problematic, as it has handed taxpayer dollars to private groups (such as the two major parties) to finance their overseas initiatives and has conducted controversial programs that could be viewed abroad as actions of the US government. What might the reaction be here, if the British government funded an effort to improve the Democratic Party’s get-out-the-vote operation in Florida?
Which brings us back to Venezuela–where the US Embassy was compelled after the coup to declare as a “myth” the notion that “the US government, through organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, financed coup efforts.” For months before the coup, Americans–including US government officials and officials of NED and its core grantees–were in contact with Venezuelans and political parties that became involved or possibly involved with the coup. This has provided Latin Americans cause to wonder if the United States is continuing its tradition of underhandedly meddling in the affairs of its neighbors to the south. And these contacts have prompted some, though not much, official probing in Washington. The issue is not only whether the United States in advance OK’d this particular coup (of which there is little evidence) or tried to help it once it occurred (of which there is more evidence). But did discussions between Americans and Chavez foes–such as those involving NED–encourage or embolden the coup-makers and their supporters? Give them reason to believe the United States would not protest should they move against Chavez in an unconstitutional manner? Much of the two-day coup remains shrouded in confusion. (It came and went so quickly: Carmona fled office the day after he seized power, once several military units announced they opposed the military coup, whereupon Chavez was returned to his office.) But enough questions linger about US actions in Venezuela to warrant a good look.