Venezuela: WikiLeaks shows US use 'NGOs' to cover intervention

April 14, 2013
Former US ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield. Cables leaked by WikiLeaks show Brownfield's role in promoting opposition

In the week leading up to Venezuela’s April 14 presidential elections, whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks published a classified cable indicating that US-based aid organisations were working to overthrow the government and defend US corporate interests in the Andean country.

Sent from the US embassy in Caracas on November 2006, the cable details how dozens of non-government organisations (NGOs) are financially maintained by US government-funded US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). This includes “over 300 Venezuelan civil society organizations”, ranging from disability advocates to education programs.

Many of the initiatives sound well-intentioned, such as ones supporting an environmental lobby group and a garbage collection program in Caracas.

However, USAID/OTI support for these benign-sounding groups was part of a larger, four-pronged project.

The ultimate aims of the embassy were described by then-US ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield as “penetrating Chavez’s political base ... dividing Chavismo ... protecting vital US business ...[and] isolating Chavez internationally”.

According to Brownfield, the “strategic objective” of developing opposition-aligned “civil society organizations[sic] ... represents the majority of USAID/OTI work in Venezuela”.

However, among the dozens of groups mentioned in the document, the usual suspects of US interventionism also make appearances.

According to the document, OTI funded a Freedom House program in Venezuela with US$1.1 million, while Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI) provided grants totalling $726,000 on behalf of OTI.

DAI has a long history of working to undermine governments that oppose US hegemony, and this isn't the only time its operations in Venezuela have raised questions.

In 2002, DAI worked with the National Endowment for Democracy to fund a right-wing propaganda campaign during the 2002 oil industry lockout that sought to bring down Chavez’s government.

The groups is now being sued by the family of a subcontractor who was jailed in 2009 while working in Cuba.

Alan Gross was working with a USAID initiative to install satellite communication systems for civil use, when he was arrested by Cuban authorities for “acts against the integrity of the state”, and is now serving a 15-year prison term.

His wife, Judy Gross has accused DAI of misleading him, and failing to provide adequate training.

Documents released by DAI in court certainly indicate that there was more to the initiative than DAI and USAID previously admitted.

On January 18, DAI submitted records in the case that state the communications equipment was being provided to communities to “provide a base from which Cubans can 'develop alternative visions of the future'”.

In its court filing, DAI further stated that it is “deeply concerned that the development of the record in this case over the course of litigation could create significant risks to the U.S. government's national security, foreign policy, and human rights interests”.

In other words, DAI would rather keep its agenda in Cuba secret, because national security takes priority over a jailed subcontractor.

Like DAI, Freedom House prioritises US geopolitical concerns over human rights.

Some of Freedom House's past exploits include supporting the Vietnam War, opposing calls for the US to join the International Criminal Court, failing to condemn Guantanamo Bay and receiving funds from far-right groups such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

However, Freedom House really shines when it comes to interfering in elections, like it did in 2004 in Ukraine.

During the Ukrainian presidential campaign, it administered funds to the Poland-America-Ukraine Cooperation Initiative (PAUCI), which allegedly financed groups campaigning for presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko.

At the time, the US State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher responded to allegations that government funds were being poured into Yushchenko's campaign, telling media: “Our money doesn't go to candidates. It goes to the institutions that it takes to run a free and fair election”.

One such US-funded NGO was the International Centre for Policy Studies — of which Yushchenko was a board member.

When Brownfield wrote the leaked cable in 2006, Freedom House had $1.1 million in USAID/OTI funding to play with in Venezuela.

According to its website, Freedom House still operates in Venezuela to “strength[en] democratic institutions in order to improve democratic governance”.

Its more recent activities include contradicting Supreme Court rulings in both January and March.

On both occasions, Freedom House uncritically regurgitated interpretations of the Venezuelan constitution from the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).

Like in the 2004 Ukrainian elections, it appears that Freedom House has chosen to focus its efforts on backing its preferred candidate, rather than pursue its stated goal to “strength[en] democratic institutions”.

As illustrated by the WikiLeaks document, the relationship between the US embassy in Caracas and groups such as Freedom House and DAI is close.

In 2007, Brownfield was accused by the Chavez administration of interfering in internal affairs. On March 5 this year, the day Chavez died, two US embassy officials were expelled after the government accused them of trying to ferment another coup.

Indeed, there is a shared imperative to end the revolution, whether through violence or seemingly innocent “civil society” activities.

Though the methods vary, there is one constant in Washington's approach to Venezuela; regime change at all costs, and regression to the neo-colonial relationship of the pre-Chavez years.

[Ryan Mallett-Outtrim is a Green Left Weekly journalist living in Merida, Venezuela.]

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