Aug. 26, 2006, 7:26PM
AP: U.S. aid stirs Venezuela's suspicion
By IAN JAMES Associated Press Writer
© 2006 The Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela — 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 Chavez, in part because the U.S. has
refused to name many of the groups it's supporting.
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 Chavez government would harass or prosecute the grant recipients
if they were identified.
Chavez, 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,
President Bush's government 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 Chavez 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
Chavez ally, socialist Evo Morales, was elected president in December.
Chavez 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
Chavez 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-Chavez National Assembly
is preparing to require nonprofit groups to reveal their funding
sources. And Chavez 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 Chavez.
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-Chavez neighborhood and $23,189 for chickens and coops at a
Others seem to promote good government, like $15,289 to publish a pocket
guide on citizenship.
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 "Chavez 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 Chavez 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 Chavistas,
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
U.S. officials call the concerns baseless. They point to U.S.-funded
programs meant to bridge the divide between Chavez's backers and
opponents, such as conflict resolution workshops and public service
announcements urging peaceful coexistence.
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-Chavez 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 Chavez a threat to
democracy, and Chavez sympathizers find it hard to trust the U.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 "The
Chavez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela," a book that cites
public documents to argue that Washington is systematically trying to
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
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
But friction is mounting as Chavez 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
Chavistas 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 Chavez was driven from power, the
International Republican Institute's then president, George Folsom,
issued a statement praising those who "rose up to defend democracy."
Chavez regained the presidency amid huge street protests, and the IRI's
leadership later renounced Folsom's statement as contrary to the group's
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
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 non-governmental
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 society."
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 Chavez 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 Chavez out of power."