Venezuela's Crippling Move Against NGOs
12.11.04 - Venezuelan prosecutors are pursuing treason charges against the directors of a pro-democracy group that received funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. The courts -- controlled by President Hugo Chavez -- are likely to convict the four leaders of Sumate, a voting rights non-governmental organization (NGO). Convictions would set a precedent that could encourage other authoritarian governments to prosecute NGOs they consider pesky. Moreover, U.S. pro-democracy efforts around the world could be crippled if fear causes these groups to sever ties with their U.S. government backers.
Venezuelan Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez is prosecuting four civilian leaders of the pro-democracy organization Sumate on charges of "treason against the nation." If convicted, the four could be imprisoned for eight to 16 years. As President Hugo Chavez exerts almost complete political control over Venezuela's judicial system, convictions are likely.
Sumate's mission is to protect the voting rights of all Venezuelans, and its directors in Caracas have been charged with treason because their organization accepted a $31,000 grant from the Washington, D.C. -based National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The grant was used to help defray the costs of signing up millions of voters to support an Aug. 15 recall referendum against Chavez. Chavez won that referendum but was accused of perpetrating a massive electoral fraud.
The mission of the NED, a private non-governmental organization (NGO) funded by the U.S. government, is to support the spread of democracy worldwide. Grants issued by the endowment, and by other NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), finance pro-democracy and free-market NGO activities in dozens of countries around the world.
The prosecution's core charge against Sumate's directors is that the NED, and sister entities such as the NDI and IRI, are U.S. government agencies that conduct destabilization activities in foreign countries -- that they are, in fact, CIA fronts. If the Venezuelan courts convict Sumate's directors in the coming weeks or months, it could have major implications for U.S.-funded pro-democracy activities in Venezuela, and throughout Latin America and the rest of the world.
The directors' conviction would open the door to jailing hundreds or even thousands of Venezuelans that belong to pro-democracy NGOs that have received funding from NED and other U.S. entities. It also would inhibit Venezuelans opposed to Chavez from joining dissident NGOs in the future. A conviction also could establish a precedent that governments in other countries might use to jail any pro-democracy activists that receive funds from the NED or any other U.S. public policy institutions engaged in promoting the growth of democracy and democratic institutions.
In fact, this appears to be part of the Chavez government's political strategy in prosecuting Sumate's directors. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel and several senior political leaders of the Chavez government reportedly planned the prosecution strategy against Sumate's directors and are directly participating in the prosecution. Sources in the Venezuelan attorney general's office say the leaders are receiving advice from Cuban intelligence officials working closely with the Chavez government.
In June and July, more than a month before the presidential recall referendum, Rangel, Foreign Minister Jesus Arnaldo Perez and Venezuelan Ambassador to the Organization of American States Jorge Valero gave sworn depositions to Sixth National Prosecutor with Full Competence Luisa Ortega Diaz, in which the NED is basically accused of serving as a front for CIA-inspired efforts to destabilize foreign governments that are not on friendly terms with the U.S. government.
For example, Valero described the NED essentially as an entity created to conduct destabilization activities in foreign countries previously carried out covertly by the CIA. Valero added that if activities "like influencing the outcome of elections" were performed within the United States, U.S. prosecutors and courts would consider them illegal. Perez said the NED is an entity that pretends to be a private NGO but, in fact, works closely with the U.S. State Department to advance U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. Perez also said the NDI, the IRI, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Center for International Private Enterprise and other entities engage in similar destabilization campaigns against foreign governments the U.S. government does not like.
In all three depositions, the senior Venezuelan government officials argue, in essence, that the NED employs U.S. taxpayer monies to destabilize democratically elected foreign governments the U.S. government does not view as friendly to U.S. national interests.
Venezuelan attorneys brought these depositions to the attention of the U.S. State Department in October. Presumably the U.S. Embassy in Caracas also knew of these affidavits, but it is unclear whether the implications of the case were reported fully to Washington. In any case, NED belatedly has come to its own defense. NED President Carl Gershorn is in Caracas this week refuting the accusations against the endowment as "propaganda." Chavez government officials, however, have declined to meet with Gershorn, whom the Venezuelan government does not consider an important U.S. bureaucrat.
The Chavez government's case against the Sumate directors could grow even more complicated internationally in the coming days and weeks. Reportedly, some U.S. officials at the National Security Council have urged Secretary of State Colin Powell to take a direct interest in the treason case. However, with Powell reportedly considering leaving his post, it is unclear whether the Bush administration is on top of an issue that could damage U.S.-funded pro-democracy efforts in dozens of countries.
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