Friends of Hugo Chavez (Venezuela Information Office in D.C.)
December 15, 2004 | When staffers at the National Endowment for Democracy opened a letter asking about their programs in Venezuela last year, they never expected their response to trigger the persecution of democratic activists in that troubled country. Yet that's exactly what has happened, as Latin America's most ambitious strongman, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, has joined forces with American leftists to crack down on grassroots organizations that merely seek to promote free elections.
The story begins with Jeremy Bigwood, a self-described journalist with a history of left-wing activism in Central America. He wanted to take a look at just about every scrap of paper the NED had produced in recent years on its involvement with civic groups in Venezuela. On November 14, 2003, he invoked the Freedom of Information Act in requesting a series of documents from the NED, a nonprofit agency that is funded almost entirely by Congress to promote democracy abroad. Several weeks later, the NED sent Bigwood a thick package of grant approvals, financial reports, and staff evaluations of grant recipients. Much of the basic information was already in the public domain and available in the NED's annual report and other publications. In 2003, for instance, the NED spent nearly $46 million on its activities, with a little more than $1 million going to 15 Venezuelan organizations that focus on education, human rights, and freedom of the press. Bigwood believed that in obtaining this information, he had scored a major coup.
And indeed he had — not because the documents themselves contained anything explosive, but because of what happened to them next. Bigwood shared them with Eva Golinger, a Brooklyn immigration lawyer who enjoys strong ties to Chávez. She sent the papers to her friends in Caracas. They ultimately wound up in the hands of Chávez himself. On February 8, Chávez denounced them on his weekly television show, Hello, President! He told listeners that they proved the Bush administration was out to destroy his government and said they'd soon be available on the Internet. Two days later, Golinger posted them on a pro-Chávez website. She added to their allure by calling them "declassified documents," even though they hadn't been classified in the first place.
One of the documents described Grant Number 2003-548, which had been approved the previous September. There was nothing particularly significant about it. The funds were to be spent on typical NED-sponsored activities: the creation of "voter mobilization materials" and training for "people from local organizations on how to monitor the collection of signatures." The grant wasn't especially big: $53,400.
But it was earmarked for Sumate, a grassroots organization that Chávez and his minions view as a threat to their rule — a rule that very nearly came to an end this summer in an unprecedented recall election. Chávez survived that challenge, but has shown no sign of letting up on the persecution of Sumate. In fact, his ongoing courtship of leftists in the United States puts him in position to become the next Fidel Castro — the Western Hemisphere's leading tyrant and irritant.
AN AGGRESSIVE COURTSHIP
Oil wealth makes Chávez an especially menacing foe. Venezuela actually overtook Saudi Arabia as America's top foreign producer in the late 1990s. It has since lost this distinction, but the country still exports more than a million barrels of crude per day to the United States, making it our fourth-largest foreign supplier. One of the main factors leading to Chávez's election as president in 1998 — he ran on a platform that attacked "savage capitalism" — was a dip in the price of oil.
The American Left initially treated Chávez with suspicion. "El Comandante" first gained notoriety as an Army officer who led a failed government takeover in 1992. This action landed him in prison, but it also made him something of a folk hero and he was pardoned in 1994. As president, Chávez has quickly consolidated his power by rewriting the constitution, threatening critics, and turning the military into an extension of his political party. On the diplomatic front, he became the first foreign leader to visit Saddam Hussein in the wake of the Gulf War, and he refused to let American planes tracking drug smugglers enter Venezuelan airspace. He has let Colombian rebels find refuge within his borders and appears to have had a hand in the exiling last year of Bolivia's pro-American president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
Inside Venezuela, Chávez became an incredibly divisive figure, adored in the slums but detested just about everywhere else. In 2002, half a million protesters gathered in Caracas to demand his resignation. Gunfire broke out, leaving as many as 18 people dead. In a series of events that even now remain poorly understood, Chávez seems to have lost power for nearly two days — until military loyalists restored his rule. In the aftermath, Chávez's hatred for the Bush administration boiled over, in no small part because the White House didn't exactly condemn his temporary removal.
The incident played right into his hands. Chávez positioned himself as the victim of elites who lacked his commitment to Venezuela's poor. If American leftists didn't exactly become pro-Chávez, many of them grew to be anti-anti-Chávez.
Chávez, of course, would like to win them over entirely. And so he has begun an aggressive courtship. In 2003, his government created the Venezuela Information Office, headquartered in Washington, D.C. From the outset, VIO has worked closely with Global Exchange, a catch-all group of leftists who protest everything from the Iraq War to biotech food. Five years ago, Global Exchange played a role in fomenting riots during the World Trade Organization's Seattle confab. Deborah James, a former Global Exchange employee, was VIO's executive director until recently. Reporters with questions are directed to Lumina Strategies, a public-affairs shop whose clients include Global Exchange as well as Americans United for Affirmative Action, the Ford Foundation, and the Sierra Club. The Chávez regime clearly believes that this crowd can help it establish a public-relations beachhead on the American left.
The VIO has taken up its task with verve. It has distributed pro-Chávez flyers at anti-globalization rallies, arranged for delegations of activists to embark on "reality tours" of Venezuela, and encouraged art-house theaters to show a propaganda movie on Chávez called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The VIO also coordinates a media response team which contacts the press about its coverage of Venezuela. Its members are a pastiche of radicals such as Golinger as well as representatives from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Nicaragua Network, and United Students Against Sweatshops. This rag-tag operation has obvious limits, and so Venezuela also has retained the costly services of Patton Boggs, one of Washington's top lobbying firms. In a memo from last February, subsequently obtained by an anti-Chávez group called the International Venezuelan Council for Democracy, Patton Boggs blamed Chávez's low reputation on "the opposition controlled Venezuelan media" and "the political right in the U.S., Colombia, and elsewhere." The firm helped the Chávez government craft a positive message and arranged briefings on Capitol Hill. Since the summer of 2003, the Venezuelans have spent more than $1.6 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
One unlikely helper who isn't on the lobbyist payroll is Jack Kemp, the former GOP vice-presidential candidate. More than a year ago, Kemp joined the board of Free Market Petroleum, a company with a contract to purchase Venezuelan oil. Since then, Kemp has worked with Venezuelan ambassador Bernardo Alvarez on trying to improve perceptions of the Chávez government in the United States. But a visit last year with the Wall Street Journal editorial board to discuss the paper's position on Chávez went disastrously and since then Kemp has kept a lower profile.
The most interesting element of Venezuela's public-relations campaign may be its advertising blitz in the top-drawer media, such as The Economist, The New Yorker, and Roll Call. Instead of emphasizing pristine beaches for tourists or favorable business opportunities for investors — the normal messages in ads sponsored by foreign governments — the Chávez regime is trying to demonstrate its commitment to social uplift. "In the past, Venezuela's oil wealth benefited a few. Today, it benefits a few million," says one of these ads, which also encourages readers to visit the VIO website. The campaign was developed by Underground Advertising, a San Francisco-based firm boasting a left-wing clientele that includes the ACLU of Northern California, Friends of the Earth, and the Rainforest Action Network.
TIPPING TOWARD DICTATORSHIP
Whatever gains Chávez has made, however, are now threatened by his harassment of Sumate, the NED's small-time grant recipient. Ever since Bigwood and Golinger passed on their documents, Sumate has been the target of an investigation that only highlights Chávez's authoritarian streak. The intimidation became so great that Sumate even canceled the final portion of its grant, at a cost of more than $20,000. One of Sumate's leaders, Maria Corina Machado, claims that a government prosecutor has tapped her phones, reads her e-mail, and reviews her personal bank statements. She and several others involved with Sumate are on the verge of being charged with crimes that could result in jail terms of up to 16 years. Their real offense is having participated in events that led to last August's recall referendum. In February 2003, Venezuelan opposition groups collected more than 3 million signatures in an attempt to initiate the election. Six months later, however, an election board controlled by Chavistas ruled them illegal. Another effort began in the fall, and this time the groups gathered even more signatures. But once again, the government refused to validate them. Sumate's role in all this was simply to monitor the signature gathering. It did not formally take sides in the contest, though its leaders were widely known to harbor anti-Chávez sympathies.
Chávez had a good reason for trying to prevent a recall election: As recently as last spring, the polls showed him losing. But then he suddenly reversed course, accepting an agreement brokered by Sumate and other groups that allowed the contest to go forward. Over the next few months, he used the Venezuelan army to register voters in neighborhoods where he is popular and spent at least $1.7 billion on pork projects and welfare programs for his most loyal constituencies. In the United States, the VIO persuaded Jesse Jackson, presidential wannabe Dennis Kucinich, and a few others to declare their "solidarity" with Chávez.
When the election came on August 15, Chávez carried 59 percent of the vote. Sumate and other observers immediately raised questions about abuses leading up to the election as well as irregularities on the day of the vote, but the possibility of what might have been a Ukraine-style blowback ended when Jimmy Carter's group endorsed the result — even though it had accepted restrictions on poll-watching that the European Union's election observers found so intolerable they refused to participate.
Despite Carter's imprimatur, the Chávez regime continues to suffer from international criticism, especially for its hounding of Sumate, which has questioned the results of the referendum. "We are appalled that this group is being singled out for punishment, a group whose deep commitment to democratic principles we share and applaud," said a recent letter signed by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former Czech president V·clav Havel, Sen. John McCain, and several dozen others. When NED president Carl Gershman visited Venezuela to deliver this letter and meet with officials in early November, he said that the country is "neither a democracy nor a dictatorship but rather somewhere in between." And it is clearly tipping the wrong way. Today, Chávez's grip on power is tighter than ever — and so he appears to be pressing his advantage. The trial of Machado and her colleagues is expected to begin soon. Other organizations say security personnel have targeted them. Prosecutors want to study the books of opposition groups. The pro-Chávez legislature is about to pass a law that will let the government shut down radio and television stations accused of behaving in ways "contrary to the security of the nation." And when Venezuelan prosecutor Danilo Anderson was murdered in November — perhaps by people with links to the anti-Chávez groups he was investigating — there was Eva Golinger, writing on her website about an assassination "conducted in a style reminiscent of CIA operations."
Is Chávez the next Castro? Time will tell. Whatever his destiny, the American Left is getting itself ready to do his bidding.