CARACAS - Over the two years preceding the thwarted coup in April against President
Hugo Chavez, a US-funded prodemocracy group financed a range of antigovernment
programs, including some that have come under scrutiny for the way they spent
An examination of grants of more than $1 million, given to organizations in
Venezuela by the National Endowment for Democracy, has found that US tax money
financed several Chavez opponents, including two organizations prominent in the
protests that led up to the coup. The documents and interviews also report that
money sent to one US-funded organization never reached its intended target and
that another organization apparently falsified its Venezuelan accomplishments.
An endowment-funded trip to Washington by Chavez opponents may have accelerated
the events leading to the April 11 uprising.
The revolt against Chavez fell apart after two days, allowing him to return
to power. The United States soon came under a barrage of criticism for appearing
to support the coup against a democratically elected president, apparently in
contradiction to US policy to strengthen democracy in Latin America.
The endowment, founded in 1983 during the Cold War, is a private, nonprofit
institution that receives almost all of its annual $33 million budget from the
US Congress. Its purpose is to strengthen democracy worldwide, but critics have
accused it of acting as an extension of US foreign policy.
In 2000 and 2001, as opposition to Chavez's leftist policies intensified Venezuela's
political and social crisis, the endowment more than tripled funding to the country,
from $257,831 to $877,435, according to the organization's grants lists. On April
12, the president of one of the endowment's ''core grantees,'' the International
Republican Institute, praised the removal of Chavez.
Chavez, a charismatic populist who favors leftist rhetoric, won the presidency
in a 1998 landslide. He has frustrated Washington by befriending the leaders of
Cuba, Iran, and Iraq, by criticizing the war in Afghanistan, and by favoring increases
in international oil prices. Venezuela is the third-largest oil exporter to the
At home, too, the confrontational Chavez has made many enemies. In April, street
protests resulted in 17 deaths, which prompted military officials to arrest Chavez
and replace him with Pedro Carmona, a pro-US businessman. Chavez loyalists then
swept him back into office.
Shortly after the coup, The New York Times reported that the National Endowment
for Democracy had financed opposition groups, highlighting the money sent to a
union opposed to Chavez. More recently, scrutiny has focused on how the money
The country's biggest union, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, received
$154,377 last year, more than double its $60,084 grant in 2000. The group was
a leader in the protests that led up to Chavez's ouster.
Part of the grant, distributed by the AFL-CIO's American Center for International
Labor Solidarity, another of the endowment's recipient, was supposed to have paid
for union elections in November. But the money is being used for courses at the
confederation's training institute, said institute director Jesus Urbieta.
Urbieta has said that all the US money was spent to rent classrooms, pay teachers'
salaries, and finance legitimate training efforts.
Alfredo Ramos, a member of the confederation's executive committee who is also
a congressman and opponent of Chavez, said that Urbieta is close to one of the
principal anti-Chavez political parties and that the institute operates without
''They don't have to show their books,'' Ramos said. The union did not provide
him with a report on how the money was spent, he added.
A second organization prominent in the anti-Chavez demonstrations, the Assembly
of Education, received a $55,000 grant to monitor education reform. The name of
the assembly's director, Leonardo Carvajal, was listed as the prospective minister
of education in papers left behind by Carmona after he fled the presidential palace.
Carvajal said the endowment funds were used for carrying out workshops.
Several other beneficiaries of endowment funds are also headed by Chavez critics.
The director of the organization Process of Legislative Development, which
received a $50,000 grant in 2000 to promote government decentralization, was secretary
to the exiled former president, Carlos Andres Perez.
In January, the Venezuelan media broadcast a recorded telephone conversation
between Perez and Carlos Ortega, president of the Confederation of Venezuelan
Workers, in which the pair plotted against Chavez.
In testimony to the National Assembly in May, Ortega acknowledged his conversation
with Perez but said all decisions concerning union activism had been made by the
union alone. He said the endowment money had been used for ''development, training,
and education of union members.''
Although Chavez antagonized much of Venezuela's civil society, the inclusion
of so many government opponents among endow ment grant recipients angers Chavez
''This must be investigated because almost all of these organizations are open
enemies of the Chavez government,'' said Tarik William Saab, a congressman and
a leader of Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement party.
Neither the endowment nor the AFL-CIO's labor solidarity center responded to
repeated requests for interviews. In April, an endowment official told the Times
that none of its money had gone to support the coup.
The International Republican Institute, which has an office in Caracas and
is an arm of the US Republican Party, also has been questioned over its activities
and of the anti-Chavez zeal of its leader. The institute's grant from the National
Endowment for Democracy grew from $50,000 in 2000, to promote youth participation
in politics, to $339,998 last year for political party building.
On the day of the coup, the institute's president, George A. Folsom, sent news
media a fax rejoicing over Chavez's fall. ''The Venezuelan people rose up to defend
democracy in their country,'' he wrote.
The institute's grant in 2000 had been intended for work with a Venezuelan
partner organization, the Youth Participation Foundation.
But dozens of interviews with activists, leaders of nongovernmental organizations,
and government officials - including several people who had worked with the institute
- turned up no evidence that the foundation had actually existed or that forums
supposedly sponsored by the foundation and organized by the institute had been
The institute office in Caracas referred questions about the group to Washington,
where a spokesman said the institute declined to comment on its work in Venezuela.
Another institute-sponsored activity, flying Chavez opponents to Washington
to meet with US officials, may have accelerated the events leading to the coup.
During a trip in mid-March, less than a month before the uprising, Venezuelan
participants said, US officials expressed support only for a constitutional departure
But Carvajal, the Education Assembly leader and one of the institute's invitees,
said the trip helped to unite the opposition.
Within weeks after the trip, Carvajal said, the opposition ''precipitated''
its strategy, which previously had included a referendum on Chavez's rule followed
by strikes to force his resignation. In early April, union and business leaders
called the nationwide strike that culminated April 11 with street shootings and
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company