Dec 15/04 - Article "Friends of Hugo Chavez (Venezuela Information Office in D.C.)" by John J. Miller
Friends of Hugo Chavez (
Information Office in D.C.) Venezuela
By John J. Miller | National Review Online
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
The story begins with Jeremy Bigwood, a self-described journalist with a history of left-wing activism in
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
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
AN AGGRESSIVE COURTSHIP
Oil wealth makes Chávez an especially menacing foe.
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
The incident played right into his hands. Chávez positioned himself as the victim of elites who lacked his commitment to
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
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
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
The most interesting element of
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
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
Is Chávez the next Castro? Time will tell. Whatever his destiny, the American Left is getting itself ready to do his bidding.
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