The US government has been accused of trying to undermine the Chávez government in Venezuela by funding anonymous groups via its main international aid agency.
Millions of dollars have been provided in a "pro-democracy programme" that Chávez supporters claim is a covert attempt to bankroll an opposition to defeat the government.
The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. Photograph: Tengku Bahar/AFP/Getty
The money is being provided by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) through its Office of Transition Initiatives. The row follows the recent announcement that the US had made $80m (£42m) available for groups seeking to bring about change in Cuba, whose leader, Fidel Castro, is a close ally of Mr Chávez.
Information about the grants has been obtained following a Freedom of Information request by the Associated Press. USAID released copies of 132 contracts but obscured the names and other identifying details of nearly half the organisations.
The Office of Transition Initiatives, which also works in such "priority countries" as Iraq, Afghanistan, Bolivia and Haiti, has overseen more than $26m in grants to groups in Venezuela since 2002.
Among the grants detailed in the information are: one for $47,459 for a "democratic leadership campaign"; $37,614 for citizen meetings to discuss a "shared vision" for society; and one of $56,124 to analyse Venezuela's new constitution.
"What this indicates is that there is a great deal of money, a great deal of concern to oust or neutralise Chávez," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (Coha) in Washington yesterday. "The US is waging diplomatic warfare against Venezuela."
He said that while the US had accused Mr Chávez of destabilising Latin American countries, the term "destabilisation" more aptly applied to what the US was trying to do to Mr Chávez.
"It's trying to implement regime change," Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan-American lawyer who wrote The Chávez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela, told AP. "There's no doubt about it. I think the US government tries to mask it by saying it's a noble mission."
She added: "It's too suspicious to have such a high level of secrecy."
President Chávez has also accused groups of taking American money and predicted that the US will seek to use its influence in Venezuela's December polls.
USAID officials denied any suggestion the money had any political aim and said the reason for anonymity for some groups was to protect them from potential harassment.
"The goal of the programme is to strengthen democracy, which is consistent with President Bush's 'Freedom Agenda'," said a USAID official yesterday. "A strong civil society is a critical part of any healthy democracy, just as it is in the United States, England or anywhere else in the world."
The official said that the money was used to pay for "a wide range of seminars, educational programmes and even public service TV commercials aimed at promoting dialogue between pro- and anti-Chávez camps. Other projects include workshops on conflict resolution, efforts to promote human rights, and training for positive citizen involvement in their communities."
USAID also supports programmes such as day-care centres for the poor, improvement for schools, junior sports teams, and children's homes, the official said, adding that the sums being spent in Venezuela were much smaller than those allocated elsewhere this year in Latin America, with USAID budgeting $3.8m for Venezuela compared with $84.8m for Bolivia and $85.1m for Peru.
The row comes just as China has agreed to invest $5bn in energy projects in Venezuela, including the building of 13 oil rigs and 18 oil tankers. Last week Mr Chávez announced that China was endorsing Venezuela's bid for the rotating Latin America seat on the 15-member security council, a candidacy strongly opposed by the US. The commercial arrangements with Beijing are seen as part of the Chávez government's strategy of establishing new links so as to lessen the country's dependence on US trade.
As a symbol of the friendly relations established between Mr Chávez and the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, there will be a festival of Latin-American music with a Caracas theme in Trafalgar Square this Friday evening. The two men met earlier this summer when the president was a guest at an event hosted by the mayor.
· Results of AP's Freedom of Information Act request: hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/_documents/ven_dollars.xls
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