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The National Endowment for Democracy, a personal experience

By Gustavo Coronel

February 18, 2004 - Reading about the latest brouhaha brought up by Chávez about the "destabilizing" role of The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Venezuela, I could not help thinking about my personal experience with that organization during the almost five years they contributed to my Venezuelan non-governmental organization (NGO) "Agrupacion Pro Calidad de Vida." In 1995 I was getting ready to give up on Pro Calidad de Vida due to the fact that no Venezuelan public or private organization was prepared to help us financially. I created this NGO in 1990 with the purpose of doing civic work in a country where the main enemies I perceived were corruption, lack of civic values and poor leadership. I readily found a small group of dedicated and bright volunteers but we never found any money to pay the rent, the telephone bill and the electricity. We dug into our own pockets to meet those expenses. Slowly we developed our three main programs: Civic Values for children 10 to 14 years old; the promotion of leadership in small communities and a workshop on "Strategies to Control Corruption." We worked for about 4 years developing and starting to put these programs in motion. The visit to Venezuela of Robert Klitgaard in 1993 was of great importance to me, since I adopted much of his thinking on the problem of corruption and used it in structuring the workshop, complementing those ideas with my own and with case studies about Venezuela. In 1995, however, we were broke and all of our attempts at getting funds met with sympathetic but negative answers. No private company in Venezuela felt like supporting an exposé on Venezuelan corruption, much less the government.

At this time I received a call from US Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, a wonderful person whom I had met at Harvard and who knew about the work I was doing. He told me that two persons from NED were in Caracas and wanted to talk to some organizations, including mine. I almost ran to the place of the meeting, a small coffee shop in front of the Embassy. I met the two ladies from NED and talked to them about the work we were doing. They told me that I could prepare a proposal for a grant and gave me a package of documents to guide me on the preparation of the proposal. I went back to our small office and started working at the proposal. The questionnaire was extremely comprehensive. They needed to know the amount of people working for us, volunteers and salaried, if we had an evaluation procedure for the staff, our accounting procedures, our bank accounts, the persons handling those accounts, the office equipment we had, a myriad of questions related to the organization. I felt a bit overwhelmed since the permanent "organization" was really a young secretary, a messenger and me. The rest were floating volunteers, here today gone tomorrow. I decided to be totally candid and gave them the true size and nature of the organization. I also put forward a proposal for the financing of the three programs that we had already been putting in motion. We structured a very detailed budget containing: salaries for the two existing staff and two more persons required; space and utilities; supplies and equipment; communication expenses; transportation costs and other, contingency costs. We asked for $43,000. After an anxious wait and a few exchanges over the telephone to clear up some doubts, we were given a grant for that amount, to cover 12 months as of the date of the first quarterly disbursement. In order to receive further monies we had to present a quarterly report of activities, as well as a detailed account of the expenses for that quarter, fully supported with original receipts. This was the starting point of our relationship, which lasted until the end of 1999. A typical year of our costs financed by NED went like this:

Salaries (12 months) $14,700
Space and utilities 13,600
Supplies, equipment 1,000
Communications 500
Transportation (trips within Latin America) 5,000
Costs of workshops 5,200
Total $40,000

What did we do with this money? In a typical year we would conduct programs on civic values in six public schools, covering a group of children that kept increasing until reaching about 12,000. We would conduct between 24 and 30 anti-corruption workshops for some 1,500 persons and 6 "train the trainer" workshops to create a group of some 60 trainers, which could multiply the effort, not only in Venezuela but also in other countries of Latin America. We also conducted our program to promote the empowerment of leaders in small communities, a program that also had the financial support of PDVSA.

At the end of every year we received in our office the visit of an auditing representative of NED, who went over every receipt and expense incurred in our work. Although I was in charge of most of the anti-corruption workshops and many were given outside Caracas, I never used NED money to cover my per diem while in Venezuela but did use it when traveling abroad, following the rules of NED.

Our work progressed satisfactorily until 1999, when the new Venezuelan government made it clear that we were not welcome in public offices or public schools. The Attorney General decided that any NGO that had received funding from abroad could not qualify for working with the government or participating in government sponsored activities. As anti-corruption work needs full cooperation between the government and the NGO our work started to falter. We tried to change the nature of the work and applied to NED for a new grant for 2000 to manage a new Institute for the training of Good Citizens, which we had already created in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. This proposal was sent to NED in January 2000 and we asked for $30,000 to cover the initial costs of running the Institute while it could become self financed. This grant was not approved.

We received help from NED for almost five years. During those years we imparted civic values to thousands of Venezuelan children through a program designed by volunteer teachers and given by volunteer university students, a program which is still active in several public schools. We gave anti-corruption workshops to some 8,000 persons in Venezuela, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Panama, Bolivia and Ecuador, a workshop that was given to more than 15,000 people during the 10 years of activity of our NGO. We formed dozens of community leaders in small Venezuelan towns. During all these years of relationship we never saw any attempt on the part of NED to use us politically or otherwise. I visited their Washington offices every time I went to the area to visit my relatives and always found all staff very friendly, supportive and extremely professional. Due to our anti-corruption work we were named Venezuelan representatives of "Transparency International" and I had the opportunity to write a report on this work for the July 1996 issue of "The Journal of Democracy."

Now I see that some smart US freelance operator has sold the Venezuelan government on the idea that he has tapped into the Freedom of Information Act and discovered something that nobody knew, that NED has been financing organizations in Venezuela, some of which are not pro-government (it also supports a program of the chavista National Assembly). This information, of course, can be found by visiting the Web site of NED and by consulting their Annual Reports which exist in every US public library and is certainly not secret. However, the operator has made Chávez believe that he has unearthed an extremely important and valuable secret which, we have no doubt, will be well rewarded. Among the "dangerous" organizations NED has been supporting financially in the past and today are CESAP, the wonderful civic organization led by father Armando Janssen, our organization Pro Calidad de Vida, CEDICE, an economic think tank of impeccable credentials, The Citizens Assembly, the Education Assembly, Accion Campesina, connected with the largest Labor Confederation, CTV, several religious civic organizations and several others duly listed in NED's Web site. I saw president Chávez on TV waving a piece of paper, which "proved," he shouted, that the enemies of his government were being financed by an arm of the CIA. He said that he would denounce this aggression to the US Congress. He apparently ignores the fact that NED is sponsored by the US Congress, institution that provides about 65% of the funds that NED utilizes in its work. Chávez also ignores the fact that the support of NED in the US Congress is bipartisan, both the Democrats and the Republicans being represented in its Board of Directors, together with Francis Fukuyama and other well known businessmen and public figures of excellent reputation. Reagan created NED in 1982 and it took a Democratic Congressman, Dante Fascell, to help it grow. NED, to be sure, is controversial since it often supports democratic activists in countries where the government is authoritarian or totalitarian. NED has funded programs connected with Solidarity, with the anti-Sandinista government, with the Cuban opposition to dictator Castro and with the Communist Party in Chile. It has supported Vaclav Havel and Elena Bonner, the widow of Andrei Sakharov. Republican representative from Texas, Ron Paul, has accused NED of being a communist front. NED finances democratic organizations all over the world and acts through four institutions representing diverse US political and commercial interests: the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Center for International Labor Solidarity (AFL-CIO) and the Center for International Private Enterprise (Chamber of Commerce). It is easy to see why Chávez would distrust an organization, which is supported by political parties, by labor unions and by private business, the main enemies of his solitarian revolution.

This brouhaha about NED will pass, like a tropical rainstorm and the smart operator who generated it will soon be left without his meal ticket and will return to the study of fungi. Some other idea will capture Chávez's imagination tomorrow or the day after.

What a waste of time and effort!

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