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Venezuela: U.S. group's funds aid democracy

The Oppenheimer Report, reprinted from The Miami Herald

Is the Bush administration giving financial support to help Venezuela's opposition win the Aug. 15 referendum on leftist President Hugo Chávez's rule? Is it meddling in that country's internal affairs?

Chávez -- who was elected in a 1998 landslide but whose popularity has plummeted since -- made these allegations Sunday in one of his escalating tirades against the Bush administration for alleged ''interferences'' in Venezuela's internal affairs.

Chávez said the Bush administration has given $300,000 to groups of the opposition Democratic Coordinator coalition seeking to unseat him in the upcoming referendum, and an additional $53,400 to Sumate, a civic organization that promotes voter education, monitors elections and does independent exit polls.

In fact, Chávez was blaming the Bush administration for funds provided by the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, a congressionally funded, bipartisan U.S. private institution that helps pro-democracy groups around the world.

The Chávez government is investigating Sumate leaders Alejandro Plaz and Maria Corina Machado for allegedly ''conspiring'' against the state with foreign funds. If convicted, they could spend up to 16 years in prison.

''They are carrying out a political persecution against us,'' Machado told me in a telephone interview earlier this week, adding that Sumate didn't break any law. ``They want to get Sumate out of the way, to weaken civic society.''

NED officials say Chávez is misrepresenting the figures, and the nature of the funds. The alleged $300,000 in NED contributions for the Democratic Coordinator never existed, they say. And the $53,400 given to Sumate was to help the group monitor elections, regardless of their outcome, they say.

''NED is aiding civic organizations that are defending basic constitutional rights,'' said Christopher Sabatini, the NED's Latin American program director. ``We are working with groups that are seeking to promote and defend peaceful resolution of political conflicts. We have no stake, interest or position on the outcome of the process.''

Sabatini stressed that both rightist and leftist strongmen have charged the NED over the years with aiding opposition groups.

''Our program in Venezuela is remarkably similar to our work in Peru during President Alberto Fujimori's term, when we funded electoral observation groups, human rights groups and journalists pressing for press freedoms,'' Sabatini said. ``We did similar work in Chile, Mexico and many other countries.''


According to NED figures, the group contributed $1.6 million for election monitoring purposes in the 1988 plebiscite that toppled Chile's rightist dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet; $618,000 for civic election monitoring groups during the 1999 elections that forced Fujimori to step down in Peru; and $726,000 to civic society groups that monitored the 2000 elections that brought then-opposition leader Vicente Fox to power in Mexico after seven decades of one-party rule.

Currently, the NED gives more than $1 million a year to various human rights, freedom of the press and election monitoring groups in Venezuela; about $1.1 million for mostly U.S.-based groups trying to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba; $512,000 to civic society groups in Mexico; and $619,000 to similar groups in Colombia.

Leading international human rights groups say there is nothing wrong with the NED support for Sumate. In fact, European governments and nongovernmental organizations are also helping the Venezuelan group.


''The fact that NED, the European Union, the Swedish government, the Canadians or any other country supports groups like these is not only legitimate, but necessary and within the hemisphere's democratic principles,'' said Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Latin American office of Human Rights Watch. ``Sumate is not a subversive group, but one that is trying to strengthen Venezuelan democracy.''

I agree. Just like what happened in Pinochet's Chile and Fujimori's Peru, today's civil society in Venezuela will need as much international backing as it can get. The $53,400 for Sumate's election monitoring and exit poll project will amount to pennies compared with the Chávez government's campaign chest, which is not only spending part of $1.6 billion in oil revenues that in theory belong to all Venezuelans, but is also using an estimated 10,000 Cuban doctors and other Cuban workers for Chávez's election-time literacy and health campaigns.

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