VENEZUELA: Opposition leaders to face trial

July 20, 2005

Stuart Munckton

A Venezuelan court ruled on July 7 that four leaders of the opposition to the left-wing government of Hugo Chavez will stand trial over charges of "conspiring against the republican form of the nation".

The four are leaders of the self-styled "non-government organisation" Sumate, and were charged over their acceptance and use of US$31,000 given to them by the US Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to campaign against Chavez in the presidential recall referendum held last August.

Venezuela Analysis reported on July 8 that Sumate directors Maria Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz are charged with being the masterminds of the conspiracy, while Luis Enrique Palacios and Ricardo Estevez are charged with being accomplices.

Venezuelan law (like the law in most countries), as a basic measure to defend national sovereignty, prohibits political organisations from accepting money from foreign powers for the purposes of changing the government or political system. This issue is viewed with extra passion in Venezuela, because the US does not hide its hatred of the Chavez government and openly supported a military coup that briefly unseated Chavez in April 2002.

Sumate claims to be impartial and non-political, yet it has a long record of joining with the US-backed anti-Chavez alliance that includes big business, private media barons, the local oligarchy and corrupt trade union officials, in repeated attempts to force the pro-poor Chavez (whose government has won nine national elections in six years) from office.

Sumate was among the organisations to sign the infamous "Carmona decree" during the 2002 coup. This decree — named after the head of the chamber of commerce Pedro Carmona, who swore himself in as president during the coup — dissolved the constitution, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, and repealed the pro-poor laws passed under Chavez.

The NED's official mandate is to work to strengthen democracy around the world. Yet Eva Golinger reported in a July 11 Venezuela Analysis article that "after the April 2002 failed coup against President Chavez, the NED received a special $1 million grant from the [US] Department of State for its work in Venezuela. Instead of cutting funding to those groups that had participated in the illegal coup that briefly deposed Venezuela's legitimate government, the NED actually increased such funding."

US President George Bush held a controversial one-on-one meeting with Machado in May, publicly declaring his support for the Sumate leaders against the charges. Machado is the only Venezuelan political leader with whom Bush has met during his presidency. Bush turned down offers of a meeting with Chavez.

Venezuela Analysis reported on July 11 that the US State Department was quick to issue a declaration expressing its "disappointment" with the court decision, declaring the charges "without merit". The US response ignores the fact that the act for which the Sumate leaders are charged is also illegal in the US. Both the Spanish government and the Washington-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued statements similar to the US government.

The Venezuelan government angrily hit back, and both the Venezuelan embassy in Washington and Venezuelan attorney-general Isaias Rodriguez issued statements. Rodriguez noted that the positions of the state department and HRW, released the same day, were "suspiciously" similar. The Venezuelan embassy in Washington meanwhile expressed its own "disappointment" at the willingness of the US government to pass judgement on an internal matter.

In an opinion piece posted at Narco Sphere on July 9, Al Giordano argued that the real reason for the US government's strong defence of the Sumate leaders is that it fears that during the trial information will be revealed about the extent to which the US has intervened in Venezuelan politics and organised illegal attempts to overthrow the Chavez government.

From Green Left Weekly, July 20, 2005.

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