Financing Venezuelan Mischief

I thought it was a little curious when our newspaper, on the day of the coup that ousted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for 48 hours or so, received an exultant fax from one George A. Folsom of the International Republican Institute. "The Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country," crowed Mr. Folsom. A couple of days later we also got a crow-eating fax – although it was far from identifying itself as such – from the same Mr. Folsom, expressing his pleasure and satisfaction that "civil society" in Venezuela had been successful in putting down that nasty old attempted coup.

Now the Register is among the top 30 newspapers in the country in terms of circulation, but it’s not one especially noted (though I think it should be) for its coverage of foreign affairs on the editorial page, where I write, and to which fax machine the Folsom missive came. So I figured that if we got that fax, it was probably blanket-sent to lots and lots of newspapers. Mr. Folsom, who had not in the past shared his views with us via fax, obviously wanted lots of newspapers to know he was pleased – and, presumably, even more pleased later on when the opposite of what he originally celebrated happened.


I was aware of what the International Republican Institute was. It is the Republican Party branch of the National Endowment for Democracy, an agency created and funded by Congress (to the tune of about $33 million per year) to support democracy worldwide through the two major U.S. branches of the Government Party. There is also a National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. The two institutes are supposed to be completely independent of the US government, but to perform their missionary work on behalf of functionaries of the Republicans and Democrats.

But, of course, they get all their funding from forced exactions from American taxpayers. It is supposed to be a mark of virtue that he who pays the piper is not supposed to be able to call the tune in this case. The Endowment claims to be completely independent of the federal government, completely independent of foreign-policy debates, and utterly pure in its pursuit of some abstract concept called "democracy." Why this is supposed to be a virtue is beyond me. If it’s true, it means that the Endowment is completely free of any accountability to those who are paying the bills. In fact, it’s almost impossible for organizations run by the major parties not to take what they view as US foreign policy interests into account when they spread the taxpayers’ largess around the world.


I figured that Mr. Folsom was simply handy with a press release and eager to bask in the glory of (if glory was appropriate) the ouster of Hugo Chavez who, after all, has been cozy with Castro and something of a pain to US foreign policy elites. As a story in Friday’s New York Times makes clear, however, Mr. Folsom’s interest was much more direct.

It turns out that the International Republican Institute has an office in Venezuela and had received $339,998 for "political party building" activities there. The National Democratic Institute was given $210,500 of Endowment money to promote local government accountability. The Endowment also gave $154,377 directly to the international arm of the AFL-CIO for organizing in Venezuela.

The Confederation of Venezuelan Workers led the work stoppage that precipitated the coup. The Confederation’s leader, Carlos Ortega, worked closely with businessman Pedro Carmona, who proclaimed himself president after the coup (and was later arrested and might yet face some kind of charges).

All told, the National Endowment spent about $877,000 in Venezuela over the last year – about four times what it had spent prior to Chavez’s assumption of the presidency.


So did a US government-funded organization supposedly devoted to democracy finance a coup attempt? The Times story comes very close to saying so in so many words. At the very least, the Endowment funded several of the organizations, including the labor confederation, that ended up participating in the coup. When Times reporter Christopher Marquis talked to George Folsom, Folsom insisted that his organization focused on finding only constitutional means to remove Chavez. But he doesn’t deny that the IRI was interested in opposition to Chavez.


All of this news is bound to fuel the widespread perception – intensified by the fact that the Bush administration’s first response was to celebrate the coup – that the United States had fairly heavy involvement in the attempted coup. Lorne Craner, now Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is a former president of the International Republican Institute. When I talked to former UC professor (and former CIA consultant) Chalmers Johnson a couple of weeks ago, he said he didn’t have any direct knowledge, but he would be surprised if the CIA hadn’t been at least somewhat involved in planning the coup against Chavez. Certainly there was a parade of opposition figures trooping in and out of the US embassy in the weeks before the coup attempt. Johnson suggested that it would be almost impossible to find anybody, regardless of political persuasion, south of the border who didn’t believe that the United States backed and helped to plan the coup, whether it instigated it or not.


Advocates of the National Endowment for Democracy, formed during the Reagan administration, say it has kept itself independent of US foreign policy and has therefore been able to be helpful in places like Poland and South Africa, in instances where official US government help might have been unwelcome or unhelpful. Even apart from the question of whether an agency designed to meddle overseas (however helpfully) and funded by the government can or should be independent of the government, few people overseas believe that it is truly independent.

Thus most Venezuelans believe the Endowment’s support of certain groups that later participated in the coup attempt represented official US policy.

For that reason and for many others it would be a good idea to abolish the National Endowment for Democracy. If the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the Reform Party or Libertarian Party – or any non-party political group – wants to raise money privately to assist "friendlies" in other countries, they should be free to do so. In fact, millions of dollars are raised each year for good works overseas, both political and humanitarian. But forcing US taxpayers to provide operatives of the two major parties a slush fund to push their causes in other countries is a mistake.

I doubt if the Endowment’s activities can or should be genuinely independent of the government. If they are not independent, they amount to imperialist meddling, however well-intentioned, in other countries. If they are independent, they amount to taxpayer subsidies for unaccountable meddling by the two major parties, who are quite capable of raising money through contributions rather than through taxes.

Whether it’s true or not, the Endowment is perceived as an operation in support of the American empire. The little good it might do is outweighed by the negative effects of that impression and by the reality that underlies it.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).