Center for Security Policy
July 30, 2006
(Washington, D.C.): Over the course of his presidency that began in 1998, Hugo Chavez has managed to transform an emerging democracy and promising regional ally of the United States into an authoritarian state that is enemy to the Free World. In his own country, Chavez has rolled back democratic institutions and consolidated power by silencing the independent media and supporting aggressive tactics against the political opposition.
He has also sought to export the "Bolivarian revolution" by using the country's vast oil wealth to support other would-be autocrats in neighboring countries' elections - including most recently in Bolivia, Peru, Mexico and Nicaragua. All the while, Chavez has augmented his military with the assistance of other strongmen such as Russia's Vladimir Putin, who recently delivered of a range of weapons to Venezuela, including fighter planes and Kalashnikov rifles.
While it is widely recognized that Chavez is working fastidiously to expand his influence throughout Latin America, his efforts have gone entirely unnoticed on another front - the U.S. homeland. His most potent tool and single greatest accomplishment in this campaign, moreover, has been the establishment of a base of operations in our very capital from which to engage the United States in the war of ideas.
The War at Home
Founded in 2003, the Venezuelan Information Office (VIO) has hardly attempted to disguise the influence operation it is running for Chavez. In fact, VIO openly acknowledges that it receives funding from the Venezuelan government - to the tune of an estimated $800,000 annually - to "educate the public about contemporary Venezuela...[and] to present an accurate view of the current political scene in Venezuela for the American public and build allies for the Venezuelan people."
The VIO's objective, then, is to create within the United States a base of support for, or at least sympathy with, the Chavez regime that can be used as leverage to prevent the United States from adopting the measures necessary to check the dictator's regional and global ambitions. This is accomplished in several ways:
• One of its primary missions is to serve as a media "watchdog" by monitoring U.S. news coverage and commentary on Venezuela that challenges "factual inaccuracies." VIO not only entrusts its staff with authoring responses to material unfavorable toward Chavez, but it also organizes "Action Alerts" that provide would-be writers a how-to on opinion letter writing, complete with talking points.
• Hardly reactionary, however, VIO also produces positive commentary on its website - which receives up to 15,000 hits per day according to its staff - on the state of Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution." These propaganda pieces fall under headings such as: "Democracy in Venezuela," aimed at dispelling the notion that the country has slipped into autocracy; "International Cooperation," emphasizing Venezuela's commitment to being a peaceful, law-abiding neighbor and member of the international community; and "The Opposition," pointing to the media and political opposition's corruption.
• VIO's website also offers a "Take Action" section that promotes "10 things you can do to support the revolution." Among other methods, it encourages readers to join or start their own "Bolivarian Circles," and provides information on how to go about doing this. Ostensibly, these loosely knit social organizations are intended to improve local communities, but in reality serve as solidarity networks and as mini-VIOs operating throughout the United States, organizing support for Chavez and his agenda. It has been reported on numerous occasions, moreover, that these groups have used violence against Chavez opponents and members of the media.
• The organization facilitates Potemkin-village vacations for American citizens wishing to travel to Venezuela. As explained by VIO Executive Director Deborah James, the purpose of these trips is to show Americans "the incredible social transformation that is happening in Venezuela, and in particular when they learn about the use of oil revenues to benefit all Venezuelans, people contact us so that we provide them with ways they can work against U.S. intervention."
• VIO has informally allied itself with various other leftist and radical groups in the United States, with whom it appears at peace and social justice events. Its staff has also contacted and visited different college campuses across the country where they distribute literature and VIO's propaganda tool-of-choice - DVD copies of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a pro-Chavez documentary on the 2002 Venezuela coup.
• Finally, VIO directly lobbies U.S. policymakers. Among these activities, its staff is in frequent contact with congressional and administration offices - claiming about 100 visits per year, in addition to countless phone calls and emails.
We've Seen This Before
Chavez's influence operation is not without precedent. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union also established a base within the United States from which to engage the Free World in a war of ideas - the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Directly funded by the Soviet government, CPUSA worked tirelessly to counter anti-Soviet rhetoric, expand its membership, and distribute its own version of the truth in order to create support for the Evil Empire.
Recognizing the CPUSA as a propaganda front for the Soviet Union, however, America of yore correctly chose to confront the enemy by passing the Subversive Activities Control Act (SACA) of 1950, which recognized CPUSA as an "agency of a hostile foreign power" that constitutes "a clear, present and continuing danger to the security of the United States." Under SACA's provisions, the U.S. government acted decisively to counter the internal communist threat by requiring the registration of communist organizations with the Attorney General, while asserting the ability to deport members of these groups who were non-citizens.
Unlike decades past, however, the United States today does little to counter foreign propaganda, aside from requiring groups that receive foreign funding to register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938 that was originally set up to track Nazi propaganda. Even this is of little consequence, as the unit within the Justice Department that administers FARA is severely under-funded - so badly that its computer database is reported to be on the verge of "a collapse that cannot be fixed" - and consequently is unable to keep tabs on such organizations.
The Bottom Line
The well-funded and well-organized propaganda campaign run by Chavez through the Venezuela Information Office represents a direct effort by a hostile foreign government to organize popular resistance within the United States. Thus far, VIO has been able to fly below the radar, receiving attention only from a small collection of Venezuelan bloggers. Its efforts to influence U.S. policy toward Chavez's government must be taken seriously.
Congress should begin by providing the funding necessary to ensure the FARA Unit can maintain a database of all information relating to the lobbying practices of foreign governments. Beyond this, insufficient policies currently regulating the types of organizations that can register under FARA must be updated to account for the origins and intentions of applicants. Immediately in order, then, is the formation of a new unit within the DOJ that has the power to deny applications from groups that hope to run influence operations for openly antagonistic governments.
The United States simply cannot afford to remain unilaterally disarmed on this front as on so many others in the war of ideas. Confronted once again by an enemy attempting to destroy the Nation from within, we must recapture our national resilience that was evident in the earliest days of the Cold War, and confront those forces hostile to the Free World.