In the summer of 2007, the vehemently pro–Hugo Chávez journalist and lawyer Eva Golinger got on Venezuelan state TV and, with the help of a flow chart hand-drawn on flimsy poster board, called out several fellow journalists who had allegedly accepted US funding to help bring down the country's famously left-wing, anti-American president.
“These journalists are destabalizing agents,” Golinger said, and explained that that they had participated in programs paid for by the US that were designed to promote a pro-American agenda, the goal of which was to create anti-socialist sentiment in Venezuela.
The accusation didn't cause the kind of uproar Golinger was hoping for. The journalists were briefly investigated by a government committee, but that prompted an immediate public outcry—in fact, many Chavistas rejected such McCarthy-like tactics, claiming they made them look bad.
The incident did cause the US Embassy in Caracas some concern, however. In a cable released by Wikileaks titled “IV Participants and USAID Partners Outed, Again” that describes Golinger's TV appearance and the aftermath, an embassy official wrote that people were becoming wary of getting involved with any enterprise funded by the US. “It is particularly hard to persuade Chávez supporters to participate in a program they perceived as potentially career-ending,” the official wrote. In other words, though Golinger embarrassed herself with her shit-stirring, the US was really trying to bring down Chávez by funneling money to his opponents.
Since then, the US has continued its longstanding practice of funding programs that it often claims are aimed at promoting fair elections and human rights, but also strengthen Venezuelan opposition groups—and this money may be influencing the ongoing protests that have helped put the country in a political crisis.
These programs have several names and objectives. Some have clearly benevolent goals; one is targeted at discouraging violence against women, for instance. But other US efforts in Venezuela are unabashedly political, such as a 2004 USAID program that, according to a Wikileaks cable, would spend $450,000 to “provide training to political parties on the design, planning, and execution of electoral campaigns.” The program would also create “campaign training schools” that would recruit campaign managers and emphasize “the development of viable campaign strategies and effectively communicating party platforms to voters.”
Interestingly, it's illegal for a US political party or candidate to accept funding from any “foreign national,” which includes individuals, corporations, and governments. Venezuela passed a similar law in 2010, but this is easily circumvented by channeling the money through NGOs.
It's difficult to determine exactly how much money the US has spent on these political programs in Venezuela since Chávez was first elected in 1998, but some estimates put the figure around $50 to $60 million. This year alone, President Obama earmarked $5 million to “support political competition-building efforts” in Venezuela.
It's understandable, then, that some critics of Venezuela's opposition have argued that the protests are in part due to US meddling.
“There's absolutely some organic movement against the government. There are concerns about crime and other things,” said Roberto Lovato, a journalist who has covered the drug war and social movements in Latin America. “But if you don't factor in the millions of dollars that's been spent on destabilizing the government and prop up opposition leaders, it's not the whole story.”
Lovato added that this top-down funding of a protest movement is similar to how the American Tea Party claims to be a grassroots mobilization of everyday people but is largely bankrolled by a few wealthy individuals, such as the billionaire Koch brothers.
Although there are disagreements about the root causes for the high crime, goods shortages, and political repression that's fueling the demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro, nobody is denying the pain Venezuelans are suffering as a result. But there are undoubtedly a lot of international interests at stake here, and both wealthy people in Venezuela and multinational corporations would be happy to see, for instance, the privatization of the country’s oil industry.
“This is not necessarily a case of the US being a puppet-master and telling the opposition what to do, but the US government does want to remove the Maduro government from power just like they wanted to do with Chávez,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at Drexel University and author of a book about Chávez. “You also have a lot of rich businessmen in Venezuela who have put money behind the opposition. But their interest is not only political—they want to get their hands on that oil money.”
There's no question that many of Maduro’s opponents are wealthy and come from elite families that have significant ties to corporate interests and have long opposed the Chavista government. One example is jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, who comes from a wealthy Venezuelan family, was educated at Harvard, is cousins with the owner of the largest food company in Venezuela, and whose mother is the vice president of corporate affairs at the Cisneros Group, the largest media conglomerate in Latin America. (Billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, the company’s founder, is a fierce critic of Chavismo who is also close to the US government; a Wikileaks cable from 2004 describes a meeting he had with the US ambassador to discuss ways to eventually remove Chávez from power.)
So yes, the opposition is made up of political parties that have received extensive US funding and is led by the well-connected López. Does that mean the protests aren’t about helping the poor and instead only serve the interests of the US and wealthy Venezuelans?
One of the directors of Lopez's political party, Voluntad Popular (“Popular Will”), is Juan Andrés Mejía, a 27-year-old activist who has been working with Lopez since 2009 and is now pursuing a master's at Harvard. He admits that the bulk of the opposition protesters are from the middle and upper classes and are led by Venezuela's elite, but he claims that support among the poor is growing.
“What Chávez did right was give the poor a voice. Before 1999, they didn't have that,” Mejía said, referring to the year Chávez came to power. “But the opposition leaders today don't agree with the [pre-Chávez government], so that won't change. And it's true that a lot of the poor still support the government, but that is changing because the current government's policies are causing problems for everyone.”
As for the US funding, Mejía thinks it shouldn't matter.
“As long as it's not illegal, if another country wants to help us make elections more transparent and help strengthen a political party, I don't see what's wrong with that,” he said. “Besides, the Chavistas have Cubans and Russians on their side.”
And although Voluntad Popular is often said to be the most right-wing and capitalistic of Venezuela's opposition parties, Mejia balks at the description. All they want to do is open up the markets in Venezuela, which will help the poor, he says.
“Private investment is essential to foster the Venezuelan economy,” he said, “but we do not think that private investment will, on its own, be sufficient to make people progress.”
Opposition parties like Voluntad Popular want a drastically different economic model than what Venezuela currently has. But Mejía told me that they don't want to completely eradicate the socialist element from Venezuelan government. Mejía says they'd still use oil money to provide social programs for the poor as the current government does, but they'd also look at doing something similar to what Norway has done with its oil profits and invest in stocks to create a government-run pension fund for the people.
But however things turn out in Venezuela, there's no question that the socialist government has been weakened and corporate have interests received a boost—which, fairly clearly, has been the point of the US’s funding programs all along.
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