In the days following last month's abrupt and short-lived ouster of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, there were widespread accusations that the U.S. had provided assistance to a cabal of business, military, and labor leaders behind the coup. That such claims would be leveled is not surprising. The U.S. has a long history of meddling in Latin American politics. And the Bush administration has done little to disguise its hostility to Chavez, who has been denounced for his leftist rhetoric, his ties to pariah states such as Libya and Iraq, and, perhaps most significant, his efforts to overhaul the state-run petroleum industry.
But despite a rash of reports linking CIA and State Department officials to the coup, one question of particular interest to Minnesotans has remained both unasked and unanswered: What role was played by former Second District Congressman Vin Weber?
Weber, a power player in GOP political circles who retired from Congress in 1993, has served as chairman of the board for the obscure but influential National Endowment for Democracy since January 2001. The NED, a private nonprofit agency, was founded in the early Eighties with the express goal of fostering democratic ideals abroad. Although it is funded almost exclusively with taxpayer dollars (to the tune of $33 million annually), the NED is supposed to operate independently of any government agency. Theoretically, this allows the NED to carry out its mission in countries where official U.S. involvement is unwelcome, such as Manuel Noriega's Panama.
But critics such as liberal journalist Bill Berkowitz contend that, in practice, the NED has functioned as a kind of overt branch of the CIA, funneling money to groups and individuals that are friendly to U.S. interests but are not necessarily champions of democratic ideals. In an article posted last summer on the progressive Web site www.workingforchange.com, Berkowitz notes that Weber has ties to a raft of Iran-Contra figures from the Reagan era who are now ensconced in the State Department, such as Elliot Abrams and Otto Reich; he then predicts that Weber's ascension to chair of the NED likely means that the organization will "once again emerge as a foreign policy player."
Weber has variously described the NED's method of operation as an exercise in straightforward coalition building. Writing about the NED's activities in Burma in the winter issue of the endowment's newsletter, Democracy, Weber says the organization has carried out its mission by providing assistance to governments in exile, trade unions, women's groups, human-rights organizations, and independent media outlets.
In the past year, as the Chavez government became increasingly unstable, the NED ratcheted up its efforts in Venezuela, which, unlike Burma, was led by a democratically elected government. According to a report in the New York Times, the endowment--and four affiliated institutes bankrolled by the NED--quadrupled its financial support to various Chavez foes. One of those affiliates, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, has come under scrutiny for a $157,377 grant it issued to a Venezuelan labor union, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers. The union played a key role in installing businessman and coup leader Pedro Carmona as the country's new president.
In all, some $877,000 in NED funds has been distributed in Venezuela in the past year. Most of those funds were funneled to opposition movements by the four NED affiliates, including the International Republican Institute (IRI). The day after Chavez's removal, IRI President George Folsom--an advisor to former President George H.W. Bush--issued a statement praising the coup, saying, "The Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country."
Within a day, that view became harder to defend, as Carmona acted to dissolve the national legislature and the supreme court, causing mass protests in the streets of Caracas. Other Latin American heads of state, many of whom dislike Chavez, denounced the extra-constitutional ouster. The U.S. was left to celebrate alone. By the start of the week, Chavez was restored to power and the backpedaling began.
Neither NED spokeswoman Jane Riley Jacobsen nor Vin Weber responded to City Pages' queries about the NED's current view of the developments in Venezuela or the organizations relationship with coup backers. In an interview with the New York Times, Chris Sabatini, the NED's program officer for Latin America, flatly maintained that none of the agency's funds "in any way were used to support the coup."
Bill Blum, author of Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower, says Sabatini's statement is hard to believe. He has followed the NED since its inception and says the organization has a long history of subverting governments and popular movements that the U.S. disapproves of, including, most famously, the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. "The behavior is always consistent," Blum maintains. "It's not like it's happened just once and they gave money to the wrong group for the wrong reason. It's happened year after year."
The criticisms of the NED have come from both the left and the right. In 1993, Barbara Conly, an analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, wrote an essay denouncing the organization. "Through the endowment," she wrote, "the American taxpayer has paid for special-interest groups to harass the duly elected governments of friendly countries, interfere in foreign elections and foster the corruption of democratic movements."