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The “Bridge” in the Coup: the IRI in Venezuela

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Senator McCain’shands onchairmanship; IRI President calls organization thebridgein April 11, 2002 coup
NED and IRI exert conservative influence in Venezuela
The Bush Administration’s limited commitment to democratic legitimacy

Yesterday morning, following a massive protest in Washington, D.C., George Bush resigned from his post as President of the United States of America. Though several major media outlets have claimed the resignation was a response to the public’s call for his resignation, it is quickly becoming apparent that the situation was much more complex. It appears that several high-ranking military officials defected from the President’s camp, cornering him in the White House and essentially intimidating him into resignation. In a surprising twist of events, one of the first groups to recognize the ostensible coup was a Chinese NGO, the International Political Institute, whose President congratulated Americans, saying, “Last night, led by every sector of civil society, the American people rose up to defend democracy in their country. Americans were provoked into action as a result of systematic rights violations by the government of George W. Bush.”

Since the momentous events described above, it has been confirmed that the Chinese NGO played an integral role in the development of the opposition parties that set the scene for the overthrow of the president. Over the past several years, the organization has spent nearly $3 million funding political “training clinics,” almost exclusively for opposition groups, as well as political party-building activities. Americans now find themselves wondering whether they should view the removal of the unpopular president as a foreign blessing or a sovereignty-smashing curse.

Of course, this did not actually happen. But what if it had? Imagine the outrage of the American people and the confusion resulting from a flood of unverifiable and often conflicting stories surrounding a would-be coup. Would we tolerate this infringement of our nation’s sovereignty? One certainly hopes not. Yet on April 11th, 2002, the above scenario of events actually happened in Venezuela, apparently with the aid (or at least the indirect approval) of the United States government under the auspices of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and its financial source, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). An embarrassing example of Washington’s penchant for imperial underhandedness and the utilization of covert funding to advance cold war goals, the 2002 coup was cited as “the most damaging occurrence in the history of the International Republican Institute” by a former IRI staff member.

A Tale of Two Stories: April 11th, 2002
The exact sequence of events that occurred on April 11th is still relatively unclear despite the insight provided by the six years that have passed as well as the results of several investigations launched by both the Venezuelan Government and the United States. However, it has become clear that the original matter-of-fact description of the peaceful resignation of Chávez released by Washington was contrived and inaccurate. The official statements of the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas all claimed that Chávez’s antagonistic policies provoked a peaceful demonstration that turned violent when the president encouraged his supporters to open fire on protestors. The statement commended the Venezuelan military for its refusal to fire upon its citizens. After an interim government headed by businessman Pedro Carmona was quickly installed, the United States became one of the first of a minute number of nations to recognize the new government. The IRI was quick to support the same story, with its then-President George Folsom commending the anti-government protestors: “Last night, led by every sector of civil society, the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country.”

However, it soon became apparent that this “official” version of events was riddled with holes. There were indeed two protests that day. The first was a pro-Chávez protest taking place outsides Miraflores, the presidential palace. The other was a combination of anti-government protestors and supporters of a strike called by Venezuela’s main trade union confederation, the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), and Fedecámaras, composed of the chambers of commerce in twelve basic trade groups. More than 100,000 Venezuelans had gathered at the headquarters of Petróleo de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-owned oil company, to protest Chávez’s dismissal of several high-level officials. The organizers of this protest unexpectedly decided to re-route the protest towards Miraflores, endangering members of both the pro- and anti-government protests due to the potential for violence between the two groups.

The Mayor of Caracas pleaded with the leader of the anti-government march, Rear Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo, urging him to halt the march on Miraflores, but his desperate request fell on deaf ears. Though Tamayo and the former president of the PDVSA, General Guaicaipuro Lameda, eventually called off the march on the palace, it was too late. The clash that followed involved several groups including the metropolitan police force, the Presidential Guard and pro- and anti-government protestors. Shots rained down upon the demonstrators from surrounding buildings, killing twenty people and injuring more than one hundred. Disturbing video footage of the violence captured by Venevisión, a Venezuelan TV news station, showed a group of pro-Chávez demonstrators firing from a bridge at Puente Llaguno with a voiceover claiming that the demonstrators were firing upon innocent opposition marchers. However, the man responsible for the video, Luis Alfonso Fernández, later told the newspaper Panorama (31 August 2003) that “in reality, that day I did not see the Chávez supporters firing at the opposition march.” Apparently, the Venevisión video had been cropped and the voiceover was intentionally misleading; footage captured by an amateur cameraman showed that the only thing on the street below the bridge was an armored military vehicle that had previously been firing at the protestors on the bridge. The Venevisión film that later won a Spanish award for journalistic excellence was only one part of the day’s deception.

Meanwhile, inside Miraflores, several high-ranking military leaders handed Chávez an ultimatum. Early on April 12th, General-in-Chief Lucas Rincón announced that Chávez had resigned after dismissing his cabinet. Opposition forces named Fedecámaras chief Pedro Carmona as interim president and promised new elections in the near future.

The View from the White House
As previously stated, the Bush administration proclaimed the turnover a victory for democracy and a promising development for Venezuela’s future. However, President Hugo Chávez had been popularly elected twice (in 1998 and 2000) and only de-throned by what can certainly be classified as an illegal military coup seeking an extra-constitutional change of authority. Venezuela’s supposedly promising future was further scarred by the actions of the Carmona administration in the days immediately following its installment. In his first act as president on April 12th, Carmona issued a decree that dissolved the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the Public Defender’s Office, the Attorney General, the Constitution, and the 49 laws Chávez had passed in December, 2001. On April 13th, the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela sent a message to the White House confirming the detention of several members of Chávez’s party, Movimiento V República (MVR). U.S. Ambassador Shapiro’s message said, “We do not know what charges, if any, have been filed against them.” After a mere twenty-four hours in power, the Carmona administration had effectively eliminated almost all of Venezuela’s democratic institutions.

The White House was silent on Carmona’s truly astonishing and entirely anti-democratic performance, failing to condemn the human rights violations and the breach of democratic norms being perpetrated at the hands of the Washington-backed rump administration. However, back in Venezuela, Carmona’s support within the military faction that had installed him began to wane—a trend hastened by the widespread uprising of pro-Chávez demonstrators that took to the streets following the coup. Violence between demonstrators and the metro police triggered by the coup would claim the lives of more than sixty Venezuelans. The Venezuelan media, so active during the coup itself, now fell silent, neglecting to acknowledge the rampant violence that had taken over the streets since the coup or the much larger counter-coup that was now occurring.

Only 48 hours after the coup began, the loyal presidential guard retook the palace with the support of hundreds of thousands of pro-Chávez demonstrators. After reinstating the cabinet members that had been dismissed by the coup leaders, Chávez was freed and returned to the presidency. A CIA commentary issued early on April 14th recognized the “resignation” of Pedro Carmona, claiming that “[he] was operating without a legal framework and ruling by decree—a move condemned by many regional leaders and the international community.” In a matter of hours, Washington had completely reversed its public position on the events in Venezuela, particularly because of the condemnation by several Latin American leaders who happened to be meeting at the time.

As the chaos created by the failed coup subsided, investigations into the months leading up to the attempt and its plotting began. Their findings revealed a disturbing sequence of U.S. interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation, though U.S. diplomat and foreign service officer Lino Gutierrez claimed that, “The United States did not participate in, inspire, encourage, foment, wink at, nod at, close its eyes to, or in any way leave the impression that it would support a coup of any kind in Venezuela. The record is crystal clear…” Unfortunately, history would not look so favorably upon Washington’s activities in Venezuela.

The Coup: Spontaneous Act or Premeditated Conspiracy?
The question of responsibility for the deaths on April 11th is a complicated one. Obviously, the opposition claims Hugo Chávez is to blame, alleging that he ordered the police to fire upon the innocent protestors in the streets. However, investigations have proven that even the violence may have been planned, and may not necessarily have been a result of the chaos of the coup. In her pro-Chávez book, The Chávez Code, Eva Golinger claims that the night before the coup, ten high-ranking military officers contacted CNN reporter Otto Neustald, requesting that he record a prepared statement by Vice Admiral Héctor Ramierez Pérez to be broadcasted at a later hour. Golinger says that the announcement denounced the massacre of innocent civilians at the hands of President Chávez. It called for a military insurrection, which would result in the death of six Venezuelans, in response to the government’s violence. Neustald later took part in a forum on journalism at the Bicentennial University of Aragua in Venezula, where he said,
On the 10th at night they called me on the telephone and said, Otto, tomorrow the 11th there will be a video of Chávez, the march will
go toward the presidential palace, there will be deaths and then 20 military officials of high rank will appear and pronounce themselves against the government of Chávez, and will request his resignation.
(Golinger 69)

There are other indications that the coup was not only premeditated but also that Washington knew that it was coming. Several intelligence assessments in the month prior to the coup indicated some sort of political uprising might occur. One such report was a Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (SEIB) sent to nearly 200 members of the Department of State that described the mounting opposition to the government but claimed that the fractionalization of opposition parties would still prevent a successful coup. At this time, the IRI, operating under a large grant from the NED, was working to strengthen political parties in Venezuela, directly addressing the CIA’s “concern.” A March 5th cable from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas to several offices in Washington commended an accord among the opposition groups that “[represented] an important step for the opposition, which [had] been quick to condemn Chávez but had so far offered no vision of its own.” At the time, the IRI was conducting training programs with opposition parties specifically aimed at identifying party platforms and images. Aside from showing a clear U.S. appreciation for the growing opposition, the cable also reveals that the IRI had targeted its programs to enhance those areas the U.S. government identified as obstacles to the opposition’s chance to take power. On April 6th, an SEIB entitled “Conditions Ripening for Coup Attempt” revealed a coup in the making in Venezuela, claiming, “Dissident military factions…are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chávez, possibly as early as this month…To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month…”

Even though U.S. officials were aware of the potential coup, the Reagan era instrument, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) continued to fund opposition movements, including the IRI’s activities—perhaps even increasing such funding—and no threats to cut U.S. funding to pro-coup entities were ever made. Rather than discouraging the coup that would almost certainly lead to chaos and violence, the IRI seemed to be concentrating its efforts on strengthening the opposition and preparing for a Venezuela without Hugo Chávez.

Bridge Over Troubled Water: The Role of the IRI in Venezuela
Hours after the coup took place, IRI President George Folsom released a statement claiming, “The Institute has served as a bridge between the nation’s political parties and all civil society groups to help Venezuelans forge a new democratic future…” This statement later would prove to be an embarrassment and a liability for the IRI. NED President Carl Gershman chastised Folsom’s bold statement in a memo, saying, “By welcoming [the coup]—indeed, without any apparent reservations—you unnecessarily interjected IRI into the sensitive internal politics of Venezuela.” Those involved in the politics of Venezuela at the time would know the IRI’s role was much more significant than a simple commendation of the coup attempt. The IRI would later retract Folsom’s statement, but the damage had been done and suspicions were raised.

It is important to remember that the IRI at the time was chaired by the current Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, who insists that, during his 13-year tenure in that position, the board has played a very active role in coordinating IRI activities (a claim that has been verified by a former IRI staff member). In 2000, the National Endowment for Democracy gave the IRI $50,000 for its program activities in Venezuela. The following year, the one leading up to the coup attempt, the NED would nearly sextuple its investment in the IRI’s Venezuela projects, furnishing the “democracy-building” organization with $340,000. Another grant was given by the NED in 2001 to the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), which is linked to the AFL-CIO; the ACILS grant was for $154,375, a 250 percent increase from the $60,000 grant in 2000. The NED also provided a grant worth $210,000 to the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Democratic Party equivalent of the IRI, to fund work with the social movement Momento de la Gente. By the end of 2001, NED funding for programs in Venezuela totaled nearly $880,000. It is important to note that the National Endowment for Democracy along with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are almost entirely funded by taxpayer dollars. Between 2000 and 2006, Eva Golinger calculated that the NED and USAID had spent a combined $34 million in Venezuela “promoting democracy.” A report from an investigation conducted by the State Department at the request of Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) found that “during the six month period [November 2001-April 2002], NED, the [State] Department, and DOD provided training, institution building and other support programs totaling about $3.3 million to Venezuelan organizations and individuals, some of whom are understood to have been involved in the events of April 12-14.” The report found that NED funding for programs in Venezuela during that 6-month period totaled more than $2 million (compared to $200,000 the year before).

Promoting Democracy?”
In 2000, IRI programs focused funding on the Fundación Paticipación Juvenil (FPJ) promoting youth involvement in Venezuelan politics. However, 2001 saw the IRI shift its goal to a much more challenging one: “strengthening political parties” (which, in practice, would come to mean funding anti-Chávez groups). At that time, Venezuela was a country with a fractured political system. Having suffered from accusations of corruption and unfulfilled campaign promises, the two historically “major” parties, Acción Democratica (AD) and Partido Social Cristiano de Venezuela (COPEI), had fallen out of public favor; in fact, each only garnered single-digit support in the 1998 popular election that brought Hugo Chávez to power. Several other smaller parties participated in the elections, but all suffered from internal fragmentation and a lack of infrastructural stability. The goal of the IRI was to remedy this problem and formulate a strong, effective and integrated opposition.

The $340,000 NED grant to the IRI’s Venezuelan project for strengthening political parties almost exclusively funded training clinics for opposition parties including COPEI, AD, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), Proyecto Venezuela, Unión por el Progreso, and Primero Justicia. Unión por el Progreso was the relatively new party formed by Francisco Arías Cárdenas, a former ally of Chávez who defected from the president’s ranks. In the 2000 presidential election held after the passage of the new constitution, Cárdenas ran against his former friend (Cárdenas won an impressive 38 percent of the votes though he was still defeated by Chávez). Primero Justicia was another new party that entered the political scene in 2000, winning several important races in the regional elections. A conservative party mostly comprised of young members, Proyecto Venezuela would replace AD and COPEI as the major opposition party in the nation; the funding and instruction provided by the IRI almost certainly played a significant role in the fledgling party’s rise to glory.

The training sessions sponsored by the IRI often brought in conservative politicians from the United States and elsewhere to tutor Venezuela’s opposition parties on how to develop a platform and connect with citizens. However, it is questionable if the IRI had the best interests of the Venezuelan people in mind. In the quarterly report from October to December of 2001, the IRI claimed it “has made a concerted effort to improve communications between political leaders in both the United States and Venezuela. This included hosting a briefing by Francisco Arias Cardenas in Washington, D.C. and meetings and communications with U.S. government policy makers.” Cárdenas, as previously mentioned, is now staunchly anti-Chávez; he was a somewhat suspect choice if the IRI had truly been committed to “improv[ing] communications” between the two nations, especially since he was not holding any office at the time. It is also worth noting that during this period Stanley Lucas, formerly the IRI’s Senior Program Officer in Venezuela, moved to the Strategic Planning team. Mr. Lucas would later become the hugely controversial program director in Haiti as well as a prime factor in the coup that ousted Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Though this overlap may indeed be coincidental, the IRI’s increased activity in both Haiti and Venezuela during the times leading up to the coups and the fact that Lucas was the IRI’s program director in both nations before their respective coup attempts are certainly a matter of concern.

During the last quarter of 2001, the IRI conducted meetings with a number of prominent political organizations and figures in Venezuela in order to discuss what resources it might provide to their political development. Some of these included Fransisco Arias Cárdenas and Jorge Garrido of Partido Unión, Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, Eduardo Fernandez of COPEI, Lewis Perez and Alfredo Coronil of Acción Democrática, and Carmen Beatriz Fernandez of Primero Justicia. All of the aforementioned groups were considered to be anti-Chávez, an all-too-frequent trend in exclusionary IRI activities in Venezuela.

During the first week of December, 2001, the IRI held a “Party Structure/Grassroots Development Training” clinic that was attended by several opposition parties, including the supporters of Alfredo Peña (who hoped to start his own political party), yet no pro-Chávez government officials were invited to attend. This seemed to be a rather unproductive and short-sighted approach considering that the president’s party, Movimiento V República (MVR), was a relatively new party itself (having been founded by Chávez about a decade earlier) and was faced with serious internal fractionalization issues. Was it really that MVR did not need the IRI’s help or was it that the IRI was unwilling to provide it to the man who was being considered by Washington as its ideological enemy?

That same quarter, the IRI also sponsored a meeting at the U.S. Department of State to discuss “the current political situation in Venezuela and appropriate State Department responses.” Attendees at the IRI meeting identified a “need for better communications with the Venezuelan press, which often times speaks negatively of the United States policy.” Unfortunately, at the time the IRI came to this conclusion, its intervention in Venezuelan politics was creating a good supply of new fodder for anti-U.S. media sentiments.

The first quarter of 2002 was described by the IRI as a “particularly turbulent” time in Venezuela. From the IRI perspective, the $340,000 invested in the country was being well spent: “As Chavez became more aggressive, a once polarized and fragmented opposition was becoming more unified.” In its quarterly report, the IRI blames the Chávez administration for the growing political tension in Venezuela, claiming the “increasing ungovernability and intimidation by the Chavez government against civil society groups.” The goal of IRI programs during this period was to “prepare [the parties] for the challenges ahead.” The IRI also met several times with members of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in a “new attempt to get to know party leaders who have publicly split with the Chavez coalition government.” Felipe Mujica, deputy of MAS, was one of the attendees of the March 14 meeting of political opposition members hosted by the IRI in Washington.

While truly promoting democracy is a noble goal, the actions of the IRI leading up to the attempted coup in 2002 were far from democratic. Its aim was not democratic participation by all players in Venezuela, but rather only those that supported the goals and aims of the right wing IRI and NED. The IRI’s practice of targeting opposition movements for training and funding was clearly a biased and politically motivated attempt to interfere in Venezuelan politics.

IRI Memorandum
On April 22, 2002, the IRI dispatched two people to assess the current political situation in Venezuela and investigate the events of April 11. The inquiry revealed “there was a popular uprising that was betrayed by a lack of leadership. Political parties were absent from these developments and civil society and the business sector were not prepared to govern the country.” These baseless statements were an obvious attempt by the IRI to skew public perception in its favor. The first act of the new government was unquestionably undemocratic and arguably dictatorial.

The recon trip consisted mostly of meetings with opposition leaders to gather their opinions on the coup attempt. The first of these was with Aurelio Concheso, President of CEDICE, an NED grantee. The IRI reported Concheso’s claim that, “Contrary to what is widely perceived as premeditated ‘removal’ [of Chávez] from office, Concheso felt that the April 11 events were spontaneous.” But regardless of what opposition leaders might claim or want the U.S. to believe, the coup was certainly not spontaneous.

The IRI reported that the opposition felt the coup had been “kidnapped” by a “small group” that had “de-legitimized” what began as a popular uprising. Unfortunately for this theory, the march that was likely the only thing resembling “popular uprising” was organized by members of the aforementioned “small group.” Had the march not been re-routed towards Miraflores, upon the decision of the same “small group,” it is unlikely there would have been a coup at all. One of the men with whom the IRI team met, former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, called the coup “a lost opportunity for Venezuela.” Antonio Herrera, another man with whom the IRI met, expressed his regret at the “severe lack of leadership in the opposition.” Dr. Ivan Marcano Lopez was cited in the report as claiming that Chávez was illegally holding office since he had returned to his position without any oath. Eduardo Fernandez, former presidential candidate for COPEI and “old friend of IRI” claimed he was “surprised by [Pedro Carmona’s] decision to dissolve the Congress and disband the Supreme Court” and “believes these decisions were not Carmona’s and that he was forced to make them…” The IRI team also met with two members of the media; the report commends the bravery of journalists in covering the coup violence despite Chávez’s attempts at censorship. What the report fails to mention is that the violence that took place after the coup, which resulted in more casualties than the coup itself, was not even covered by the very same “brave” press outlets. The team met with several other representatives of Chávez opponents; in fact, it seems the only major political group the team did not meet with was the party of Hugo Chávez. How can a thorough investigation of a coup attempt not include the victim? The exclusion of any pro-Chávez opinion memorandum is yet another example of the exclusionary nature of the IRI’s opposition-based policies in Venezuela.

Law of the Land
In the years following the coup attempt, one point of conflict between the United States and Venezuela arose over the fate of María Corina Machado, founder of the allegedly non-partisan “electoral group,” Súmate. Machado and Alejandro Plaz, another Súmate leader, were prosecuted by the Venezuelan government for “conspiracy against the republican form of the nation,” a charge resulting from Súmate’s acceptance of a $53,000 from the NED. Ms. Machado was also found to have signed the “Carmona Decree,” which eliminated most of Venezuela’s democratic institutions, though she later claimed that she thought she had written her name on a sign-in sheet the presidential palace. The significance of the Súmate trial is the charge being brought against the defendants, namely their receipt of a foreign donation, an activity prohibited by Venezuela’s Ley de Partidos Politicos, Reuniones Públicos y Manifestaciones (Political Party Law; 1965). Article 25 contains a clause stating that parties “may not accept donations or subsidiesfrom foreign companiesor from foreign governments or organizations.” By taking the NED grant, the leaders of Súmate clearly violated this law. Thus, by providing resources to several political parties, the IRI encouraged the opposition groups it funded to violate Venezuelan law, as well, raising questions of whether or not the organization can truly claim to be “promoting democracy.”

The Path to Democracy in Latin America
By no means was the IRI alone in its interference in Venezuelan politics. In fact, it was joined by several other NED grantees and perhaps even by factions of the U.S. government. However, the IRI was the main grantee in Venezuela and its connections to Republican Party presidential nominee John McCain are worrisome, especially given McCain’s claims regarding his “hands-on” position as Chairman of the Board of the organization. Perhaps more concerning is the direction “democracy building” operations have taken in Latin America as exemplified by the events that took place in Venezuela in 2002. A former IRI employee commented that for employees of democracy-promoting organizations like the IRI, belief in democracy is almost a “religious experience.” It is a tribute to our own country’s political system that leads these people to want to share democracy with other nations. However, cases like Venezuela show a darker side to democracy-building, one featuring idealistic goals that have been corrupted by the pursuit of self-serving business interests or by acute government rivalries.

Hugo Chávez is certainly not a pundit of equality and justice, however he is a popularly elected leader who heads a government with a Congress that theoretically has the power to keep him in check. Surely the Venezuelan government certainly has flaws, but it is a democracy regardless of whether the government, the NED and the IRI consider it one. By funding and training only opposition parties, the IRI has undoubtedly interfered in the Venezuelan political system, thus violating one of the most important international norms of behavior: a respect for the sovereignty of other nations. This norm may be cast aside occasionally in times of mass murder, mass violence, and mass poverty, but Venezuela most definitely did not fit any of these examples of grave human suffering. The coup attempt in Venezuela, which was permitted by and arguably encouraged by the United States, was an abject failure, not only because it undermined democracy, but also because it destabilized an already tumultuous region. When the United States supports such biased endeavors, it delegitimizes the noble goal of promoting democracy abroad. It is not within the jurisdiction of the IRI or the NED or even the US government to decide what constitutes a “true democracy.” In the absence of mass persecution and suffering, respect for sovereignty deserves to be upheld.

Work Cited:
Golinger, Eva. The Chavez Code; Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela. Northampton: Olive Branch P, 2006.