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A Hidden Agenda: John McCain and the IRI

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Presidential hopeful John McCain is hiding a skeleton in his closet. Not your typical political scandal, Senator McCain’s dirty little secret is his longtime involvement with the International Republican Institute (IRI), an organization that operates in 60 countries and is budgeted by millions of US taxpayer dollars each year. The IRI is “officially” a politically independent entity, though in reality it is aligned in most respects with the Republican Party and its ideals. Senator McCain has been chairman of the IRI since 1993 and Lorne Craner, president of the organization, is one of the presumptive Republican candidate’s informal foreign policy advisors. If McCain’s involvement with the IRI does not worry Latin America yet, it certainly will if the policies that have had such a destructive influence in the past are backed by the power of the presidency. His connection to the IRI could endanger already stressed US-Latin American relations in the event of a McCain victory.

The IRI: A History
In 1982, Ronald Reagan delivered a spirited speech that would lead to the founding of the controversial “research group.” In that speech, Reagan said, “Let us now begin a major effort to secure the best — a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation. For the sake of peace and justice, let us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny.” The IRI nostalgically identifies Reagan’s words as the “historic speech” in which the vision of the IRI first took shape. Not coincidentally, the years that followed became known as the “lost decade” in Latin America, something many have attributed in part to the Reagan Administration’s misguided policies toward the region. During this period, structural adjustment loans plunged regional economies and living standards into a downward spiral from which many countries have yet to recover. The 1980s were plagued by violence; US funded government security forces in Guatemala and El Salvador prosecuted dirty wars which resulted in the disappearance, torture, and massacre of thousands of the countries’ own citizens. In 1984, US became embroiled in one of the region’s most public and profound political scandals. The Iran Contra Affair was an attempt by the Reagan administration to overthrow Nicaragua’s democratically elected Sandinista government by providing funds to the “Contras,” a group of anti-communist rebels notorious for their appalling human rights record. These are the dubious auspices under which the International Republican Institute was founded, fitting when considering what the organization was to become – a covert operation to advance right-wing policy under the guise of promoting freedom.

The International Republican Institute claims to be a nonpartisan organization whose mission is to “advance freedom worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, good governance and the rule of law.” Unfortunately, the magnanimous goals of the IRI have been distorted by a quest to advance rightist US initiatives. Ghassan Atiyyah, Director of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy (a beneficiary of a $116,448 donation from the IRI) commented on the inconsistency of the organization’s policy: “Instead of promoting impartial, better understanding of certain ideas and concepts, they are actually trying to further the cause of the Republican administration.” Though Atiyyah here refers to the current Bush Administration, the McCain administration promises to be equally compatible with the strong armed methods advocated by the IRI and practiced in Latin America in the past.

Furthermore, during the years that the presumptive candidate chaired the IRI, the organization has chosen ironic means to “advance freedom:” training corrupt opposition leaders and providing funds to groups that effectively undermine often democratically-elected officials that the US government views unfavorably. In addition to running training camps, the IRI also conducts polls in high-stakes elections; the organization has been known to conduct “secret polls” with the intention of skewing public opinion in order to yield a desired outcome. The problem with such secret polls is that they cannot be verified and often contradict the findings of other, similar studies.

The IRI: Breaking the Bank
The IRI currently operates with a robust budget of $79 million. Though one of John McCain’s goals as chairman of the organization has been to increase private funding for the IRI, the overwhelming majority of funds for the organization comes from two public sources, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Founded in 1983, the NED is an organization that has come under significant scrutiny, much like the IRI. Critics claim that it illegally privatizes US foreign affairs that are supposed to be overseen exclusively by the legislative and executive branches of the government. Additionally, the NED is publicly funded but lacks the transparency of a public organization. The organization allegedly has funded far right parties in Eastern Europe, even working with convicted Nazi collaborators such as Lazslo Pasztor of the Free Congress Foundation. In Nicaragua, the NED spent what equated to more than $20 on each voter, considerably more than the combined expenditures of the candidates in the 1988 US Presidential election. Not only does the NED represent a misuse of taxpayers’ dollars, but its interference in the affairs of supposedly sovereign nations is illegal and its lack of transparency should disqualify it from receiving public funds. However, the opposite has happened and NED funding has risen from $59 million in 2005 to $74 million in 2006, in addition to $10 to $15 million in operation-specific funds mandated by Congress.

USAID is the other major donor to the IRI. Established in 1961, the organization has the “two-fold purpose of furthering America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world.” It is important to note that the ultimate goal of USAID is to advance US interests, with the secondary goal being to benefit the citizens of the world. This technicality explains why USAID sponsors the IRI, an organization that sometimes foregoes the latter goal in its pursuit of the former. USAID had a $176 million budget for operations in Latin America in 2006, a significant portion of which went to the IRI.

Big business, lobbyist groups and foundations annually donate $1.4 million to the IRI, a small fraction of the organization’s $79 million budget. Such donors to the IRI include UPS, AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, Bell-South, Lockheed Martin, Blackwater, Chevron, ExxonMobil and BP. It is worth noting that several of these donors regularly lobby regarding issues under the jurisdiction of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation where McCain is the second-highest ranked Republican. Private donations account for only $200,000, significantly less than 1 percent of the IRI’s total income.

In a speech regarding his presidential goals, McCain foresaw a future in which “Congress has not sent [him] an appropriations bill containing earmarks for the last three years. A top to bottom review of every federal bureaucracy has yielded great reductions in government spending… and [he has instigated] far reaching reforms of procurement and operating policies that have for too long extravagantly wasted money…” Will the IRI, which is a likely beneficiary of such “earmarks” and bureaucracy, be exempt from these “bottom to top” investigations? Will McCain fulfill his campaign promises or will he suffer from the conflict of interest resulting from his involvement with the IRI?

The IRI in Haiti
Founded in 1983, the IRI’s website reminisces about how it “planted seeds of democracy in Latin America.” Several of these so-called “seeds” were sown during John McCain’s tenure as the IRI’s Chairman. The main IRI project in Haiti involved the overthrow of the country’s democratically-elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. A former Roman Catholic priest, Aristide rose to power in the wake of the brutal Duvalier family dictatorship and was immensely popular with the poverty-stricken and oppressed masses of Haiti. Aristide was overthrown in 1991 (supposedly with the financial support from the outgoing elder Bush administration) but returned to power in 1994 with the help of the Clinton administration. Aristide was re-elected by a land-slide vote in 2000 but once again ousted in a 2004 coup.

In the years immediately preceding the most recent overthrow of President Aristide, the IRI sponsored several “political training” clinics for Haitian leaders in the Dominican Republic and Miami. Though the IRI claims to be an unbiased group that provides funding across the political spectrum, recent research has exposed the fact that the IRI leaders specifically chose virulently anti-Aristide Haitians, including members of the business elite and former military and paramilitary personnel to attend these clinics. The IRI also generously funded the anti-Aristide resistance efforts, the main benefactor of its practices being the Haitian opposition group known as the Democratic Convergence, a unified collection of the previously splintered anti-Aristide factions.

Stanley Lucas, the head of the IRI effort in Haiti, was instrumental in the creation of the Democratic Convergence and, thus, the eventual fall of the Aristide government. Lucas has been described by Mother Jones Magazine as “the scion of a powerful Haitian family with long-standing animosity toward Aristide…” Lucas’ family had close ties to the ruthless Duvalier regime that preceded Aristide and has similarly close ties to the Haitian military, which was an important element of the 2004 coup. Two of Lucas’s cousins allegedly were responsible for organizing a massacre of 250 peasants protesting for land reform. Journalist Max Blumenthal has claimed that he had a source who lived and worked with Lucas in Haiti and who “saw documents indicating that while Lucas was working for IRI, he was being paid by Michelle Francois, who was a notorious FRAPH [paramilitary] leader…” The choice of a program leader with an allegiance to groups that opposed the democratically-elected government is strange considering the IRI claims its goal was to promote democracy.

Lucas’ involvement with opposition groups directly opposed the US government’s official policy of supporting all democratically-elected governments. There is every indication that Stanley Lucas’ involvement undermined the goal of Haitian democratization. US Ambassador Brian Dean Curran discovered that Lucas was encouraging the Democratic Convergence not to negotiate with Aristide to resolve the political conflict that lead to the coup, essentially encouraging the disruption of the democratic process. Yet when Curran reported Lucas’ apparent infractions to USAID, the result was an incredibly lenient 4 month suspension followed by an eventual return by Lucas to his old ways. In addition to originally being a scandalous choice to lead the Haitian program, Lucas’ behavior while holding the position and the subsequent failure of both USAID and the IRI to sufficiently punish Lucas and remedy the situation is a telling example of the mixed messages surrounding the IRI’s supposed “pursuit of freedom.”

When the coup finally occurred, Washington made very little effort to protect democracy and the rule of law, placing Aristide under great pressure to leave the country. Thus, a leader who was not once, but twice elected democratically, was evicted from his own country with the help of the IRI. While President Aristide’s record was not without real achievements – he dismantled the Haitian military, built more schools than had been constructed in the previous century, and doubled the minimum wage – his clearly promising social program was not the type of change the IRI was looking for.

In a 2005 speech, President George W. Bush congratulated the IRI on its accomplishments, saying, “The world is safer and freer and more peaceful because of the International Republican Institute.” This statement is far from the truth in the case of the IRI’s activities in Haiti. The year following Aristide’s overthrow—notably by IRI-supported opposition groups—was one of the most politically tumultuous times in recent Haitian history. Violence and corruption were at a high, with frequent kidnappings and a crooked police force crippling the justice system and Haitian society. The elections to choose a leader to replace Aristide had to be delayed on four separate occasions. The irony of the IRI’s involvement in bringing about this situation should not be missed. The organization’s activities in Haiti helped to cast a shadow over US foreign policy initiatives throughout Latin America. Yet Haiti is not the only victim of IRI policy.

The IRI in Venezuela
After a failed coup attempt against Venezuela’s democratically elected but left-leaning President Hugo Chávez in 2002, the Bush Administration faced accusations of being involved in the attempted overthrow. Despite Washington’s energetic denials, it became apparent that the Bush administration had tentatively interfered in Venezuela by providing opposition groups with considerable donations through the IRI. The US government has encouraged sensationalizing the negative aspects of the Venezuelan government and demonized its President more aggressively than might be warranted. Though Chávez has become more confrontational and his popularity has fluctuated since coming to power in 1999, he took office with and maintains considerable public support. Since 1998, the poverty rate has dropped from 54 percent to 38.5 percent (30 percent if food and health subsidies are considered). The people of Venezuela gained free health care and more than half the population was enrolled in free, public education. Yet, on April 11, 2002 Venezuelan military leaders briefly removed Chávez from power and replaced him with a pro-US businessman named Pedro Carmona. Despite the objections of almost all Latin American nations, the US hailed the overthrow of Chávez as a victory for democracy and the Venezuelan people. Before the coup had even been completed, the IRI president at the time, George Folsom, claimed, “The Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy.” However, Chávez was reinstalled just two days later after his supporters took to the streets and Carmona was deposed. Upon his return to power, Chávez condemned the United States for its quick recognition of the new and illegitimate government.

Between 2000 and 2001, the National Endowment for Democracy (one of the main sponsors of the IRI) tripled its funding in Venezuela from $257,831 to $877,435. This allocation was granted to anti-Chávez groups, including two that participated in the protests that resulted in his brief overthrow in 2002. The IRI office in Caracas received $339,998 in 2001, a seven-fold increase from its meager $50,000 grant in 2000. Though the IRI claims to have used these funds in its work with the Youth Participation Foundation (FPJ), the organization ostensibly no longer existed at that time. Instead, funds were used to sponsor political party-building workshops, which conceivably could have been a legitimate use of funds had the participants not have been handpicked solely from opposition groups. During the month before the coup, the IRI flew a group of anti-Chávez politicians, union leaders and activists to Washington to meet with US officials.3 While it is possible that the meeting was perfectly innocent, the timing and secrecy delegitimize any explanation of coincidence. If the IRI is indeed guilty of intervening in Venezuelan politics, one must wonder which of its professed high moral standards it was pursuing at the time.

The IRI and John McCain
The aforementioned events in Haiti and Venezuela are significant, not only because they reflect gross abuses of power and the misuse of taxpayers’ dollars, but also because they received McCain’s stamp of approval during his tenure as chairman. McCain held that position for nearly a decade, so he cannot claim to have inherited these policies, nor can he argue that he did not know they were taking place. In fact, McCain has boasted that he has been a very involved chairman, informing the press, “All board members are involved in determining where IRI will work and in overseeing those activities.” Further evidence of the overlap in IRI policy and McCain’s foreign policy is his “rogue state rollback” plan, first mentioned during his 2000 presidential campaign. When questioned about his policy plans regarding “rogue states,” McCain responded that he would “arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments…” Though McCain goes on to say that he would then install democratically-elected governments, the IRI’s tactics have, in the past, been directed towards governments that could already claim that mark of legitimacy. The prospect of IRI-influenced policies like “rogue state rollback” applied by the White House is a frightening one that shows a disregard for true democracy, which can not be achieved by outside intervention as McCain proposes, but only through the desire and efforts of a country’s own citizens.

The IRI has not only provided Senator McCain with certain detrimental policy tendencies, but has also heightened the superiority complex necessary to be comfortable with intervening in the affairs of other nations. Those who see McCain as a different kind of Republican point to his broad-minded stance on immigration. He had, after all, reminded Americans that illegal Mexican immigrants “are God’s children as well.” One of McCain’s favorite rhetorical phrases “boots on the ground,” is a telling implication of McCain’s predilection for intervening in the affairs of other nations, and a warning about the nature of his potential foreign policy. Even conservative-minded voters should have reason to be concerned, exhibited by a statement taken from American Conservative Magazine: “Such narcissism, unseemly in anyone, is especially unbefitting in a president, yet it is key to understanding McCain’s evolution from conventional Republican realist to relentless interventionist.” McCain’s campaign website also illustrates the bias the Arizona Senator may have inherited from the IRI. On it, McCain promises to build strong alliances with those governments “who reject the siren call of authoritarians like Hugo Chávez.” This unfounded statement neglects to acknowledge that not only was Chávez democratically elected, but that Venezuela’s popularly elected Asamblea Nacional is responsible for all legislation and can over-rule any presidential decree or veto with a simple majority vote. McCain has affirmed, “There is such thing as good international citizenship,” but it unfortunately seems as though the model upon which he has based his own regional policies is on the same misguided model as the IRI.

In a March 2008 speech, McCain said, “We must also lead by attracting others to our cause, by demonstrating once again the virtues of freedom and democracy, by defending the rules of international civilized society and by creating the new international institutions necessary to advance the peace and freedoms we cherish.” The IRI is undoubtedly an example of such a “necessary” institution in McCain’s mind, but the organization has undermined democracy, setting an example that favors government subversion and illegal interference in the affairs of sovereign nations rather than true promotion of democracy. McCain’s IRI does not set a model for democracy, it is a model for bureaucracy and an abuse of power that has no place in the White House.

Big Business and Big Bucks for the IRI Chairman
McCain and his presidential campaign have benefited financially from the Arizona senator’s connection with the IRI. During his time in the Senate, McCain became a champion of big oil, proposing a tax plan that will give the top five oil companies $3.8 billion a year in tax breaks. One oil company that has benefited from a friendship with McCain is Chevron, which also happens to be a contributor to the IRI. Chevron has its own murky past in Latin America and is currently being sued by Ecuador as part of a $16 billion lawsuit for allegedly exposing tens of thousands of native peoples living in the rainforest to fatal levels of pollution. The IRI’s connection to Chevron is almost as suspicious as the one it has to Blackwater, the private security firm that has played a controversial role in the Iraq War, or to Lockheed Martin, the world’s number one military contractor.

The overlap in funding between the IRI and the John McCain’s political career is worrisome: McCain received $392,000 in donations from IRI donor companies and their employees since January 2005 and his presidential campaign has received $670,000 from institute donors. Senator McCain has over 100 lobbyists working for his campaign and his connection to big business through the IRI contradicts his promise that if elected, “the United States will not bow to special interests seeking to block progress.”

McCain’s IRI and the Presidential Campaign
The most disturbing problem with the credibility of McCain’s foreign policy background is that much of his experience in international relations has come from his time with a very compromised IRI. The policies the IRI has pursued, if reinforced by the full might of the White House, could have a devastating impact on an already deeply fractured relationship between the US and Latin America.

As more Latin American governments shift to the left, they become almost too numerous to extinguish by either brute force or financial might, which could be described as the IRI’s modus operandi since its inception. Now is the time for a US administration to be willing to negotiate with our southern neighbors in a spirit of constructive engagement and compromise. A new president could spearhead such progress. This feat will be difficult to accomplish for a politician who “grew up” in the shadow of a cloak-and-dagger operation like the IRI.

Last year, the IRI presented Antonio Saca, president of El Salvador, with its “Freedom Award” for what McCain called a transformation of El Salvador’s politics and economy. Yet in 2006, just two years after Saca was elected President, crime had reached an all time high in El Salvador. In response, death squads unofficially linked to Saca’s ruling ARENA Party emerged to supposedly suppress the surge in crime. What resulted was rampant corruption, which remains a problem for the Salvadoran government to this day. Despite a questionable record, McCain has praised Saca, claiming, “Advocates of freedom have no better ally in the region than President Saca.” This is a worrisome statement considering Saca has publicly praised people like Colonel Monterrosa, leader of the massacre at El Mazote, stating, “Colonel Monterrosa knew how to defend the nation, with nobility…” Though Saca has been championed as a Latin American success story and a friend of the IRI, slipping popularity ratings and alleged ties to brutal disciplinary groups would appear to make his friendship a contradiction to the ideals of both the IRI and John McCain.

McCain’s Future in Latin America
The IRI has a long and infamous history in Latin America. Should he reach office, McCain will have to deal with foes like Hugo Chávez and other left-leaning leaders of governments that are typically targeted by the IRI. In a campaign speech, McCain claimed, “Relations with our southern neighbors must be governed by mutual respect, not by an imperial impulse or byanti-American demagoguery.” Yet the policies McCain has endorsed during his time with the IRI have in no way implied a respect for the democratically-elected leaders of the region or the sovereign rights of other nations. In order to salvage his reputation with our southern neighbors, McCain will need to sever his ties to the right-wing organization or have his Latin American policy suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that he will embrace such a change in favor of a policy of constructive engagement. In an interview with the Arizona Republic, McCain said, “Given my decades of involvement in promoting democratic values, it is safe to assume that I will remain a supporter of legitimate democracy-building.” This statement implies that McCain will continue to support policy much like that which he has advocated during his time as the IRI’s chairman, a prospect for US-Latin American relations that is about as “safe” as the IRI is “legitimate.”