US tax dollars helped finance some Chavez foes, review finds

Feb 25 2004

By Mike Ceaser, Globe Correspondent

CARACAS – Over the two years preceding the thwarted coup in April against President Hugo Chavez, a US-funded prodemocracy group financed a range of antigovernment programs, including some that have come under scrutiny for the way they spent their money.

An examination of grants of more than $1 million, given to organizations in Venezuela by the National Endowment for Democracy, has found that US tax money financed several Chavez opponents, including two organizations prominent in the protests that led up to the coup. The documents and interviews also report that money sent to one US-funded organization never reached its intended target and that another organization apparently falsified its Venezuelan accomplishments.

An endowment-funded trip to Washington by Chavez opponents may have accelerated the events leading to the April 11 uprising.

The revolt against Chavez fell apart after two days, allowing him to return to power. The United States soon came under a barrage of criticism for appearing to support the coup against a democratically elected president, apparently in contradiction to US policy to strengthen democracy in Latin America.

The endowment, founded in 1983 during the Cold War, is a private, nonprofit institution that receives almost all of its annual $33 million budget from the US Congress. Its purpose is to strengthen democracy worldwide, but critics have accused it of acting as an extension of US foreign policy.

In 2000 and 2001, as opposition to Chavez’s leftist policies intensified Venezuela’s political and social crisis, the endowment more than tripled funding to the country, from $257,831 to $877,435, according to the organization’s grants lists. On April 12, the president of one of the endowment’s ”core grantees,” the International Republican Institute, praised the removal of Chavez.

Chavez, a charismatic populist who favors leftist rhetoric, won the presidency in a 1998 landslide. He has frustrated Washington by befriending the leaders of Cuba, Iran, and Iraq, by criticizing the war in Afghanistan, and by favoring increases in international oil prices. Venezuela is the third-largest oil exporter to the United States.

At home, too, the confrontational Chavez has made many enemies. In April, street protests resulted in 17 deaths, which prompted military officials to arrest Chavez and replace him with Pedro Carmona, a pro-US businessman. Chavez loyalists then swept him back into office.

Shortly after the coup, The New York Times reported that the National Endowment for Democracy had financed opposition groups, highlighting the money sent to a union opposed to Chavez. More recently, scrutiny has focused on how the money was spent.

The country’s biggest union, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, received $154,377 last year, more than double its $60,084 grant in 2000. The group was a leader in the protests that led up to Chavez’s ouster.

Part of the grant, distributed by the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity, another of the endowment’s recipient, was supposed to have paid for union elections in November. But the money is being used for courses at the confederation’s training institute, said institute director Jesus Urbieta.

Urbieta has said that all the US money was spent to rent classrooms, pay teachers’ salaries, and finance legitimate training efforts.

Alfredo Ramos, a member of the confederation’s executive committee who is also a congressman and opponent of Chavez, said that Urbieta is close to one of the principal anti-Chavez political parties and that the institute operates without financial oversight.

”They don’t have to show their books,” Ramos said. The union did not provide him with a report on how the money was spent, he added.

A second organization prominent in the anti-Chavez demonstrations, the Assembly of Education, received a $55,000 grant to monitor education reform. The name of the assembly’s director, Leonardo Carvajal, was listed as the prospective minister of education in papers left behind by Carmona after he fled the presidential palace. Carvajal said the endowment funds were used for carrying out workshops.

Several other beneficiaries of endowment funds are also headed by Chavez critics.

The director of the organization Process of Legislative Development, which received a $50,000 grant in 2000 to promote government decentralization, was secretary to the exiled former president, Carlos Andres Perez.

In January, the Venezuelan media broadcast a recorded telephone conversation between Perez and Carlos Ortega, president of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, in which the pair plotted against Chavez.

In testimony to the National Assembly in May, Ortega acknowledged his conversation with Perez but said all decisions concerning union activism had been made by the union alone. He said the endowment money had been used for ”development, training, and education of union members.”

Although Chavez antagonized much of Venezuela’s civil society, the inclusion of so many government opponents among endow ment grant recipients angers Chavez supporters.

”This must be investigated because almost all of these organizations are open enemies of the Chavez government,” said Tarik William Saab, a congressman and a leader of Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement party.

Neither the endowment nor the AFL-CIO’s labor solidarity center responded to repeated requests for interviews. In April, an endowment official told the Times that none of its money had gone to support the coup.

The International Republican Institute, which has an office in Caracas and is an arm of the US Republican Party, also has been questioned over its activities and of the anti-Chavez zeal of its leader. The institute’s grant from the National Endowment for Democracy grew from $50,000 in 2000, to promote youth participation in politics, to $339,998 last year for political party building.

On the day of the coup, the institute’s president, George A. Folsom, sent news media a fax rejoicing over Chavez’s fall. ”The Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country,” he wrote.

The institute’s grant in 2000 had been intended for work with a Venezuelan partner organization, the Youth Participation Foundation.

But dozens of interviews with activists, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, and government officials – including several people who had worked with the institute – turned up no evidence that the foundation had actually existed or that forums supposedly sponsored by the foundation and organized by the institute had been held.

The institute office in Caracas referred questions about the group to Washington, where a spokesman said the institute declined to comment on its work in Venezuela.

Another institute-sponsored activity, flying Chavez opponents to Washington to meet with US officials, may have accelerated the events leading to the coup.

During a trip in mid-March, less than a month before the uprising, Venezuelan participants said, US officials expressed support only for a constitutional departure for Chavez.

But Carvajal, the Education Assembly leader and one of the institute’s invitees, said the trip helped to unite the opposition.

Within weeks after the trip, Carvajal said, the opposition ”precipitated” its strategy, which previously had included a referendum on Chavez’s rule followed by strikes to force his resignation. In early April, union and business leaders called the nationwide strike that culminated April 11 with street shootings and the coup.

This story ran on page A12 of the Boston Globe on 8/18/2002.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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