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Our Gang in Venezuela? | The Nation

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Our Gang in Venezuela?

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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."

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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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.

Consider some NED activities there. When Consorcio Justicia began to assemble the pro-democracy conferences, it approached the two main opponents of Chavez--Carmona and his Fedecamaras, as well as the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), the leading anti-Chavez labor union--according to documents obtained from NED under a Freedom of Information Act request. Christopher Sabatini, NED's senior program officer for Latin America, says, "The idea was that the conferences (which were to include Chavistas) would be able to define a consensus-based policy agenda" for the entire country. But certainly NED's core grantees were trying to beef up Venezuelan organizations challenging Chavez. The AFL-CIO, for example, was working (seemingly laudably) to bolster and democratize the CTV, which Chavez had been trying to intimidate and infiltrate. The International Republican Institute was training several parties that opposed Chavez. At one session, Mike Collins, a former GOP press secretary, taught party leaders how to mount photo-ops; at another he suggested to Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, a prominent Chavez foe, how he "could soften his aggressive image in order to appeal to a wider range of voters," according to an IRI report. (Human Rights Watch found that at least two members of the police force controlled by Peña--now Chavez's primary rival--fired weapons during the April 11 melee.) The question, then, is, since it was not explicit US policy to call for Chavez's ouster--though his departure from office was desired by the Bush Administration, which detested his oil sales to Cuba and close ties to Iraq, Iran and Libya--should US taxpayer dollars have gone to groups working to unseat Chavez, even through legitimate means?

Moreover, NED and its grantees helped organizations that may have been represented in the coup government. When Carmona unveiled his Cabinet on the morning of April 12--hours after he was placed in power by the military at 5 am--his junta included a leading official from COPEI, the Christian Democrat party, and one from Primero Justicia, a new party. IRI had provided assistance to both. Carmona also named a member of the CTV board as minister of planning, even though he was not a recognized leader of the union. And when Carmona assumed power in the presidential palace, a leading CTV figure was supposedly nearby--though his whereabouts and his role have been subjects of debate. The CTV did denounce Carmona--but not until Carmona, on the afternoon of April 12, announced his decree to shutter the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. It's not easy to determine whether Carmona's Cabinet appointees were acting on behalf of their parties or freelancing. And as one current Venezuelan official says, "The appointees were never sworn in as ministers, so they can claim they did not approve of Carmona's decree."

On April 12 Carmona also said he was establishing an advisory council for his government. But he did not name the several dozen members of this group. After the coup, the Chavez government maintained that it found a list of council members. The roster supposedly included leading officials of COPEI, Primero Justicia and the CTV, including CTV head Carlos Ortega--all of whom had been in touch with and/or received assistance from NED or its core grantees. This document, if accurate, raises the prospect that recipients of NED assistance, when the crunch arrived, were more interested in overthrowing Chavez than adhering to the democratic process.

Asked whether it might be troubling if political figures who worked with NED and its grantees had agreed to assist the coup, NED's Sabatini said, "It's important to remember that these are independent groups, reacting--on their own--to their very difficult political environment. The NED's programs with the groups...were very specific programs of technical assistance and training.... It's also important to remember that these groups (when they were named to the Cabinet or to the advisory council) were acting under the belief that Chavez had resigned--as had been announced on TV." But according to postcoup news reports, Chavez actually refused to submit his resignation. And, as Venezuelan human rights outfits argued while the coup was in progress, Carmona's military-installed government was unconstitutional, whether or not Chavez had resigned.

At least two key NED partners did cheer the coup (as did the Bush Administration initially). On April 12 George Folsom, the IRI president, issued a statement supporting the action: "Last night, led by every sector of civil society, the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country." Three days later, after the coup was reversed, NED president Carl Gershman sent Folsom a letter of rebuke, noting that by welcoming Chavez's "removal through unconstitutional means," Folsom had "unnecessarily interjected IRI into the sensitive politics of Venezuela." Folsom's statement, Gershman added, "will only make it more difficult for the IRI to work in Venezuela and the region as a whole." Gershman, though, didn't threaten to withdraw support from IRI. And on the night of April 12--after Carmona suspended the assembly--Mercedes de Freitas, a director of the Fundacion Momento de la Gente, a legislative monitoring project subsidized by NED, e-mailed the endowment defending the military and Carmona, claiming the takeover was not a military coup.

Not all NED allies were rooting for Carmona. On April 13 Carlos Ponce, executive director of Consorcio Justicia, e-mailed NED that the coup was illegal and that the decision to eliminate the legislature was "terrible." Yet several weeks earlier Ponce had almost jumped into bed with coup supporters. While developing NED's pro-democracy conferences, he solicited the participation of the Frente Institucional Militar de Venezuela, an organization of former military officials. That prompted a swift reply from Washington. "This is a group that has proposed a military coup!" Sabatini exclaimed in an e-mail. He noted that NED "will NOT--I repeat--will NOT support anything that involves the FIM." Ponce subsequently said that he was unaware of FIM's position (noting that its participation had been suggested by Carmona), and he quickly booted the organization from the conference. Another potential embarrassment was averted.

But NED was only a part of the picture. For months before the coup, according to several US media reports, US officials in Venezuela had assorted conversations with Chavez foes, and these interactions, purposefully or not, may have led the plotters to believe the Bush Administration would look favorably on anyone who made Chavez go away. Newsday noted that long before the coup, business, union and civic leaders were meeting to plan opposition to Chavez, and at one such meeting--attended by Carmona and held at the US Embassy--a coup was proposed. US officials, according to the newspaper, say they immediately killed the idea. But the officials continued to interact with these Chavez opponents. The newspaper quoted one Venezuelan source familiar with these discussions as saying, "All the United States really cared about was that it was done neatly, with a resignation letter or something to show for it." And the Los Angeles Times reported that a "Venezuelan leader who visited Washington for an official meeting said he concluded after talks with US officials that the Americans would not necessarily punish the leaders of a government that overthrew Chavez." A Western diplomat told the Washington Post, "I don't think the US provided any active or material support for [the coup]. But the people involved may have seen all of these meetings and visits, added them all up, and come up with an idea that they were on the same team." Last November then-US ambassador Donna Hrinak instructed the US military attaché in Venezuela to cut off contacts with dissident military officers. But Vice Adm. Carlos Molina, one of the leading military opponents of Chavez, said he had met with a US official several weeks before the coup.

After the coup failed, Chavez officials found inside the presidential palace documents left behind by the coup-makers. One was a note apparently written by Luis Herrera Marcano, chargé d'affaires in the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. He was reporting on a conversation he had had with State Department official Phillip Chicola while the coup was under way. According to a copy published by Proceso, a Mexican newsmagazine, Chicola said, "Given that the United States signed and fully supports the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which condemns any violation of constitutional rule, it is necessary that the transition currently under way in Venezuela, which [the United States] understands and sympathizes with, conserve constitutional structures."

On the morning of April 12, according to the New York Times, Otto Reich, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told a gathering of Latin American and Caribbean ambassadors that they had to support the new government. The next day Reich spoke twice to Venezuelan media magnate Gustavo Cisneros, according to a Cisneros spokeswoman. Cisneros's role in the coup--if he had one--has been a topic of speculation in Venezuela, for on the night of April 11 Carmona met with other opposition leaders at a TV station owned by Cisneros. (Cisneros denies he was a force behind the coup.) Cisneros's spokeswoman maintains that Reich called on April 13 "as a friend" because Chavez supporters were protesting at media outlets in Caracas. And on the morning of April 13, US ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro met with Carmona. According to Carmona, Shapiro expressed concern regarding Carmona's dissolution of the legislature and urged Carmona to be less antidemocratic. If Carmona is to be believed, Shapiro did not oppose the unconstitutional means by which Carmona seized power.

The Bush Administration claims that all the contacts before and during the coup were kosher. The US Embassy in Venezuela released a statement maintaining that "of course" US officials met with opposition figures, for "that is an Embassy's job." But it insisted that "officials in Washington and in Caracas consistently and repeatedly emphasized the United States' opposition to any extra-constitutional alteration of power." The embassy denied that US military officials were involved in coup activities. It noted that Secretary of State Colin Powell declared, "We condemn the blows to constitutional order." But Powell said that on April 19--six days after the coup collapsed.

There has been no thorough public exploration in Washington of the precoup contacts or the efforts of Bush officials to nudge the coup in a direction that would permit the Administration to openly support the takeover. At the request of Senator Christopher Dodd, who chairs the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Latin America, the Inspector General of the State Department has been examining Bush Administration actions before and during the coup. Dodd asked the IG to review cables, e-mails and other records to determine what US officials told Chavez's foes and to examine NED programs. The report is due at the end of July, and Dodd expects to hold hearings afterward. On April 23 the New York Times reported that the Pentagon was reviewing its actions during the coup to insure that no military officials had encouraged the plotters. But Lieut. Comdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, says no formal review was initiated: "It was just a matter of getting the facts together. There were questions why people from the US defense attaché were on a Venezuelan military base while this thing was going on. It was nothing out of the ordinary."

One matter that warrants scrutiny is a Washington Post report that two military officials who publicly challenged Chavez in the weeks before the coup--Vice Admiral Molina and Col. Pedro Soto--each received $100,000 from a Miami bank. The newspaper cited an unnamed diplomat in Venezuela as its source for this curious allegation. Who in the United States might have been secretly subsidizing Chavez's foes? Any official body that wants to investigate could start by subpoenaing Soto. In April he fled Venezuela for the United States, and in June he asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami for political asylum, claiming that he feared for his life.

Postcoup Venezuela is a jittery place of deepening division, marked by rising gun sales, political violence, constant rumors of another coup and talk of assassination. Former President Jimmy Carter failed to broker talks between Chavez and his foes; on July 11 an estimated 600,000 people demonstrated against Chavez. For the time being, Consorcio Justicia has given up on holding a large pro-democracy conference. "It's a nasty environment," executive director Ponce says. "We have a radical opposition and a radical government. We are unable to find ways to negotiate." So his group is now using NED money for smaller projects. The failed coup has changed his perspective. Has it affected the policies and plans of the Bush Administration, NED or NED's grantees? If a Congressional hearing regarding Venezuela's cloudy coup ever convenes, that is one of many questions that ought to be asked.

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