Thursday, March 11, 2004

Chávez Says U.S. Is Fueling His Enemies

Published: March 11, 2004

CARACAS, Venezuela, March 10 — Under United States pressure to allow a recall referendum against his rule, President Hugo Chávez has in recent days counterattacked, charging that the Bush administration is trying to oust him by aiding his adversaries, including those who briefly overthrew him in a 2002 coup.

Mr. Chávez has seized on the information in reams of United States government documents, made public by a pro-Chávez group in New York that show Washington is trying to strengthen political parties and other antigovernment groups that want to remove the populist firebrand through a recall.

Aid to opposition groups by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit agency financed by the United States Congress, is not new. Nor is the $1 million spent here last year excessively high for an organization that spends $40 million a year to finance hundreds of organizations in 81 countries.

But the unearthing of 2,000 pages of documents has provided details of how the Bush administration considers the rehabilitation of Venezuela's battered political parties the best way to counter a leader Washington views as erratic and authoritarian.

"The future of Venezuelan democracy depends on the rebuilding of healthy and responsive political parties that can effectively channel citizen demands," says one memo.

Mr. Chávez has lashed out in three recent speeches, telling Washington to "get its hands off Venezuela" and charging that the Bush administration is "financing this mad opposition." He has even gone so far as to threaten to cut off oil exports if Washington gets the "idea of trying to blockade Venezuela, or, even worse, of invading Venezuela."

Relations between the two countries are at their worst since the April 11, 2002, coup, when the White House blamed Mr. Chávez for his own downfall. Bush administration officials were embarrassed when Mr. Chávez was swept back into power in an uprising two days later.

Anti-Chávez groups have abandoned a strategy of general strikes and are focusing on a referendum.

On March 2, the National Electoral Council temporarily disqualified hundreds of thousands of signatures the opposition needed to allow a vote. But opposition groups and diplomats who monitored the signature-gathering say that more than a million signatures were arbitrarily disallowed.

For the United States, which is dependent on Venezuelan oil supplies and has close economic ties to the country, the possibility that the referendum could be scrapped would be a serious blow to a carefully calibrated policy aimed at building feasible political alternatives to Mr. Chávez.

The endowment documents say that "strengthening political parties remains a critical part of any long-term solution" and that the "battered political party system is the only institution capable of restoring democracy by generating solidly democratic leaders and generating sound policies."

Endowment aid had fallen to $257,000 in 2000, as political parties and other beneficiaries in Venezuela were left crippled after Mr. Chávez's sweeping victories in elections. Assistance more than tripled to $877,000 in 2001 as political parties reorganized to counter the president. In 2002, aid rose again, to $1.1 million.

Chris Sabatini, the endowment's director for Latin America, said the agency's goal was to promote democracy. In a phone interview from Washington, he said the endowment had worked in Venezuela with civic groups without political ties, including conflict resolution teams and organizations defending human and civil rights. The endowment's aid to political groups is aimed at strengthening them "to build political space" and calm the shrill political debate in this deeply divided country, he said.

The documents, obtained by a freelance reporter, Jeremy Bigwood, and posted on the Web site of the Venezuela Solidarity Committee, show that much of the aid benefits political parties and groups leading the recall effort. Those benefiting from assistance include Sumate, a group that has staged signature gatherings for a referendum. It received $53,400 last September.

Financing does not go directly to political parties. The endowment channeled nearly $350,000 to the international wings of the Republican and Democratic parties, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and the foreign policy arm of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. Those organizations ran workshops and training sessions and offered advice to three political parties — Democratic Action, Copei and First Justice — as well as the Venezuelan Workers Confederation.

The leaders of all these organizations have been at the forefront of the anti-Chávez movement.

Mr. Chávez has been suspicious of the endowment's intentions since it was revealed soon after the coup that opposition groups had been receiving funding.

Though the State Department put $1 million in endowment aid on hold in the aftermath, an internal investigation found the groups carried out programs "adhering to U.S. laws and policies," and assistance resumed.

"The government believes it is unacceptable for the United States to be involved in the affairs of Venezuela," said Andres Izarra, a spokesman for the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington.

The Venezuelan parties and the workers confederation that are beneficiaries of aid are important components of the Democratic Coordinator, an anti-Chávez umbrella organization led by politicians, labor leaders, former managers at the state oil company and media executives.

Some groups that receive aid, like the Center for International Private Enterprise, which has ties to the United States Chamber of Commerce, do not hide their loathing of Mr. Chávez.

The enterprise, in explaining its role here, says the "current political crisis in Venezuela has been brought about by the deplorable performance of the Chávez government, which has demonstrated both militaristic and Marxist tendencies." The center received $203,000 last year.

Mr. Sabatini explained that the endowment has helped organizations that are not outwardly political like international private enterprise group, which is monitoring public spending, a journalists' group and conflict resolution organizations. When they conduct programs, it is not an opposition question, Mr. Sabatini said.

Assistance is open to groups allied with Mr. Chávez, he said, and even the governing party received technical assistance from the Republican and Democratic institutes. Independent groups like the N.E.D. have an obligation to support and give a lending hand, Mr. Sabatini said.