Our Gang in Venezuela?
The National Endowment for Democracy has been
and far from alone.
by David Corn
The Nation magazine, August 5 /12, 2002
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
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 anti-apartheid 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 the* 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
Parties 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 Pena, 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 Pena-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, lran 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. TRI 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 post-coup 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 exclain~ed in an ermail. 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 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
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, charge 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 InterAmerican 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
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
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 m June he asked the Immigration and Naturalization
Service in Miami for political asylum, claiming that he feared
for his life.
Post-coup 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.