New York Times
November 9, 2006
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 8 — Since President Hugo Chávez returned to power after a brief coup in 2002, the United States has channeled millions of dollars to Venezuelan organizations, many of them critical of his government. This aid has become a key issue in the presidential election next month amid claims of American interference in the domestic political system.
"Washington thinks it can buy regime change in Venezuela," said Carlos Escarrá, a constitutional lawyer and a leading legislator in the National Assembly who has been pushing for tighter regulation over the American financing of Venezuelan groups. "This is an affront to our sovereignty as a nation that is not docile to Washington"s interests."
He echoed recent comments from other high-ranking officials and from Mr. Chávez, who has a double-digit lead in most polls over his main opponent, Manuel Rosales, the governor of Zulia State. Mr. Chávez rarely refers in public to Mr. Rosales by name, instead framing his campaign as a choice between his government and the Bush administration.
American diplomats here have remained largely quiet in commenting on the election, which is scheduled for Dec. 3, in contrast to the active role American officials played in Nicaragua before the election of Daniel Ortega earlier this week. Government officials here exploit any example of American efforts to counter Mr. Chávez"s influence as evidence of what they see as a looming confrontation with Washington.
For instance, Vice President José Vicente Rangel has organized an event this week to publicize the release of "Bush vs. Chávez: Washington"s War Against Venezuela," a book by Eva Golinger, an American lawyer who has become famous in Venezuela for detailing the American financing of groups here.
The United States Agency for International Development has distributed about $25 million to various Venezuelan organizations over the last five years, according to officials involved in the projects. The funds have been channeled to the Venezuelan groups through private and public entities from the United States that have opened offices in Caracas.
These include Development Alternatives Inc., a Bethesda, Md., company that works closely with the State Department in dispersing funds around the world, and the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, two Washington groups that have carried out training for emerging political leaders in Venezuela.
Documents obtained from the United States government under the Freedom of Information Act point to numerous grants made by the United States in the past two years to groups whose activities are viewed as critical of Mr. Chávez"s government. The international development agency withheld the names of many of the grant recipients, saying that the disclosure of their identities could put them at risk of political retaliation.
All of the grants were channeled through Development Alternatives, which worked on behalf of the Office of Transition Initiatives, a little-known branch of the international development agency that started operating in Venezuela after the April 2002 coup.
O.T.I., which was created in the 1990s to push for democratic change in the former Soviet Union, normally finances activities in strife-torn countries like Liberia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Its only operations in Latin America are in Venezuela and Bolivia, two countries that have developed an alliance based in part on shared distrust of the United States.
Mr. Chávez has repeatedly lashed out at the United States government"s activities, mixing his attacks with unsubstantiated claims that the Bush administration is financing covert intelligence operations aimed at strengthening his opponent"s campaign. This criticism has played well among the president"s political base, where anti-American sentiment has flourished since Mr. Chávez was briefly removed from power in a coup in 2002 with the Bush administration"s tacit approval.
Officials from the agency for international development did not withhold all of the identities of its grant recipients in Venezuela, as if to point out that some of the aid went to groups receiving charity in the form of baseball equipment and roofing materials. One $15,728 grant for a nutrition program went to the municipal government of Baruta, an area of Caracas whose mayor, Henrique Capriles Radonski, is an outspoken critic of Mr. Chávez.
American officials here and in Washington say the aim of the assistance is to bring opponents and supporters of Mr. Chávez together to discuss ways to prevent the erosion of democratic freedoms.
"U.S. activities, as has been publicly discussed on numerous occasions, focus on strengthening civil society in Venezuela, which is a critical element for any healthy democracy," David Snider, an international development agency spokesman in Washington, said in a statement.
"These nonpartisan activities are no different than those activities that U.S.A.I.D. supports in many other countries throughout the world," he added.
But some grants were directed at organizations whose stated objectives seemed to look for potential weaknesses in Mr. Chávez"s administration. One $33,304 grant in March 2005 was called "Land Redistribution Dos and Don"ts," and required its unidentified recipient to investigate agricultural policies in areas where the federal government had been carrying out land expropriations.
Other grants had what appeared to be an objective of building support for potential rivals to Mr. Chávez. A $47,459 grant, for instance, was made in July 2005 to an organization whose goal was to meet with organizations to build a "democratic leadership campaign."
The agency"s grants in Venezuela have raised concern among some political analysts who see parallels in efforts by Washington to destabilize the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in the early 1970s or attempts to influence the domestic political system of Nicaragua in the 1980s.
"I wouldn"t feel comfortable with the Chinese government doing something like this in the U.S.," said Jeremy Bigwood, an international policy analyst at the Center for Economic Policy and Research in Washington. Mr. Bigwood filed a pending lawsuit against the agency for international development this year asking that it name its recipients. He said not doing so changed it from a "civilian to a clandestine service."
Meanwhile, a backlash to the American financing has been building. Prosecutors filed conspiracy charges against leaders of Súmate, a voter education group, after it received $31,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy, another entity backed by the United States government that distributes money to groups in Venezuela.
A proposed law is also making its way through the National Assembly that would regulate international financing of nongovernmental organizations. The bill, which has been criticized by anticorruption groups like Transparency International, has been held up until after the election.
Increased scrutiny by the government here of the American financing has been described as hypocritical by some analysts at a time when Venezuela has increased its own foreign aid in an attempt to influence the political direction of countries like Bolivia and Nicaragua.
"The thinking goes that if it"s for the revolution, then by definition it is correct," said Aníbal Romero, a professor of political science at Simón Bolívar University. "But if the money comes from Washington, then it"s definitely wrong."
Jens Erik Gould contributed reporting.