Categorized | USA, Mexico, Peru, South America, Venezuela

How the US Funds Dissent against Latin American Governments

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“A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”

NED founding father, Allen Weinstein

The U.S. government and military have a long history of interfering in the affairs of numerous countries in Latin American and the Caribbean.

By the end of the 19th century, there had been at least 10 U.S. military interventions across the hemisphere including Argentina (1890), Chile (1891), Haiti (1891), Panama (1895), Cuba (1898), Puerto Rico (1898) and Nicaragua (1894, 1896, 1898 and 1899).

From this time onward, successive U.S. administrations applied different strategies and tactics for involvement in the region as a means to secure and protect its geopolitical and economic interests. However, only recently has there been wider acknowledgement about the role that U.S. funding to nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, particularly from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), plays in furthering U.S. foreign policy. For example, in 2012 governments of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) collectively signed a resolution to expel USAID from each of the signing countries. Those countries included Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Dominica, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED)

Created by the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1983, the NED operates as a foundation that provides grants for “democracy promotion.” The foundation is structured as an umbrella with an almost corporatist flavor, housing four other organizations reflecting U.S. sectoral and party interest: the U.S. labor affiliated American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) and Chamber of Commerce linked Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), along with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), both of which reflect Democrat and Republican affiliations, respectively.

In many ways the NED resembles previous CIA efforts in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to provide mostly public money for secret operations aimed to bolster pro-U.S. governments and movements abroad. In South America for example, between 1975 and 1978 the U.S. helped with the creation and implementation of Operation Condor. The U.S. provided right-wing dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador with technical and military support for the goal of hunting down and killing political opponents. Some estimate that Operation Condor killed between 60,000 and 80,000 people.

In 1986, then president of the NED Carl Gershman explained to the New York Times, “We should not have to do this kind of work covertly … It would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the C.I.A. We saw that in the 60s, and that’s why it has been discontinued. We have not had the capability of doing this, and that’s why the endowment was created.”

U.S. citizens unknowingly fund the NED with public money. The U.S. government allocates part the budget of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the U.S. State Department to the NED – which is most of the NED’s funding source. Although it receives practically all of its funding from the U.S. government, the NED is itself an NGO headed by a Board of Directors. The current board includes:

  • Political economist, author and free market universalist Francis Fukuyama,
  • Elliott Abrams, former deputy assistant and deputy national security adviser on Middle East policy in the administration of President George W. Bush,
  • Moises Naim, Venezuelan Minister of Trade and Industry during the turbulent early 1990s and former Executive Director of the World Bank, and
  • Former Deputy Secretary of State under George W. Bush (2005 – 2006) and Vice Chairmanship at Goldman Sachs Group, Robert B. Zoellick.

The scope of activity of the NED is truly impressive. According to the NED website, it supports more than 1,000 NGO projects in more than 90 countries.

At its inception in the early 1980s, its funding allocation was set at US$18 million and reached its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Allocations for 2014 and 2015 have been approved for US$103.5 million, while over US$7 million was directed primarily to opposition organizations in Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba in 2013.

Within the U.S. State Department Justification of Request documents which outline the reasons for funding requests, it is clear that funding priorities in Latin America and the Caribbean reflect the NED’s modern strategy of overtly carrying out old covert objectives.

Michel Chossudovsky, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Ottawa in Canada, sees this funding as an element in “manufacturing dissent” against governments that the U.S. government dislikes. However, these funders do not work alone. “The NED (and USAID) are entities linked with the U.S. state department, but they operate in tandem with a whole of other organizations,” said Chossudovsky.

In May 2010 the Foundation for International Relations and Foreign Dialogue released their report Assessing Democracy Assistance in Venezuela which revealed that in addition to NED and USAID funding, a broad range of private and European based foundations funded opposition-aligned NGOs in the country with between US$40-50 million annually.

According to Dan Beeton, International Communications Director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C., NED funds in Latin American have been directed at “a lot of what are kind of the old guard political entities that are now kind of discredited,” such as the Trade Union Confederation of Venezuela (CTV), which was instrumental in the 2002 coup in Venezuela, as well as older political parties that are now marginal forces in their country’s political landscapes in spite of their considerable outside funding.

The United States Agency for International Development

Created in 1961 as a foreign assistance program under President John F. Kennedy, USAID commands a much larger budget and broader scope than NED. While U.S. diplomats continue to stress that USAID funding does not have a political basis, USAID documents nonetheless acknowledge its role in “furthering America’s interests” while carrying out “U.S. foreign policy by promoting broad-scale human progress at the same time it expands stable, free societies, creates markets and trade partners for the United States.” But critics are skeptical of USAID’s missionary work, noting how their strategy has changed over time.

“(USAID’s) mandate is to provide development aid and historically it has provided development aid, tied into debt negotiations and so on. Subsequently with the evolution of the development aid program it has redirected its endeavours on funding NGOs,” said Chossudovsky.

While the range of activities undertaken by NGOs can be broad and some of these programs may not have political intentions, Beeton nonetheless argues that this funding “ultimately can and often does serve a political end when the U.S. wants these grantees to help it fulfill its goals in these countries.”

The extent of U.S. political ambitions recently came into the international spotlight with the revelation that USAID had secretly spent US$1.6 million to fund a social messaging network in Cuba called ZunZuneo, with the stated purpose of “renegotiat(ing) the balance of power between the state and society.” The project was headed up by Joe McSpedon of the USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI).

Other USAID officials accused of active political meddling in the affairs of sovereign countries include regional head Mark Feierstein. According to Venezuelan investigative journalist Eva Golinger, in 2013 Feierstein met Venezuelan opposition figures including right-wing politicians Maria Corina Machado, Julio Borges and Ramon Guillermo Avelado as well as political strategist Juan Jose Rendon to devise a plan to undermine the Venezuelan government.

At the State Department budgetary hearing, Feierstein also confirmed “a long-standing program in place to support those who are advocating and fighting on behalf of democracy and human rights in Venezuela … and we are prepared to continue those under any scenario.”

State Department cables revealed by WikiLeaks also brought to light previous activities by USAID/OTI in Venezuela, including the development of a five point, anti-government strategy for U.S. embassy activities, as well as the confirmation that grantees had been active in promoting street demonstrations in 2009.

Machado, a former anti-Chavista National Assembly member, was among the signatories of the Carmona decree following the Venezuelan coup in 2002, which abolished the legislative and judiciary powers, as well as the constitution. She was also among the most prominent promoters of last year’s opposition violence that claimed the lives of 43 people.

In Bolivia, local rural workers’ groups and the government expelled the U.S.-based Chemonics International Inc. after their US$2.7 million USAID-funded “Strengthening Democracy” program was accused of financing destabilization attempts against the government. Chemonics operates in approximately 150 countries, offering various technical services and “consulting.”

The Bolivian government publicly outlined what they argued was proof of USAID-funded programs to mobilize the indigenous population against the government, in particular an indigenous march protesting the construction of a highway. USAID funded programs were active in these areas, and had funded some of the leading organizations such as the Eastern Bolivia Indigenous Peoples and Communities Confederation (CIDOB).

“USAID refused to reveal who it was funding and the Bolivian government had strong reasons to believe that it had ties and coordination with opposition groups in the country which at the time was involved in violence and destructive activities aimed at toppling the Morales government,” said Beeton. “Now we know through WikiLeaks that that’s what really was going on.”

President Evo Morales also revealed transcripts of phone calls between the anti-highway march organizers and U.S. embassy officials. The U.S. embassy confirmed the calls, but explained that they were merely trying to familiarize themselves with the country’s political and social situation.

Officials also denounced the lack of accountability to the Bolivian government or to the recipient constituencies of USAID funds.

The head of the Eastern Bolivia Indigenous Peoples and Communities Confederation (CIDOB), Lazaro Taco, confirmed that they had received “external support for our workshops,” but would not identify the source.

These and other USAID activities led Bolivian President Evo Morales to claim that the agency was conspiring against his government. The government expelled USAID from the country in May 2013, while USAID denied any wrongdoing.

In June of 2012, an Ecuadorian daily revealed that 4 NGOs based in Ecuador were recipients of over US$1.8 million for a project called Active Citizens, whose political bend was critical of the Correa government.

Shortly afterwards, the Technical Secretariat for International Cooperation (Seteci) of Ecuador announced it would also investigate the “Costas y Bosques” (Coasts and Forests) conservation project, which received US$13.3 million in funding from USAID. The project, based in the provinces of Esmeraldas, Guayas and Manabí, was also being undertaken by the Chemonics International Inc, the same organization expelled from Bolivia.

Mireya Cardenas, National Secretary of Peoples, Social Movements and Citizen Participation, said that “there is every reason to consider USAID a factor of disturbance that threatens the sovereignty and political stability (of Ecuador)”. While the U.S. Ambassador in Ecuador Adam Namm tried to reassert that USAID did not fund political parties, he did confirm that certain opposition groups such as Fundamedios was funded “indirectly.”

In November 2013 the Ecuadorean government sent a letter to the U.S. embassy in the country’s capital Quito, ordering that “USAID must not execute any new activity” in Ecuador. USAID canceled its aid shortly after.

For Beeton, “lack of transparency is probably the biggest problem (with USAID) in that it really prevents the governments in the host countries from finding something objectionable, or even coordinating better”. This was in large part the principle concern from the Ecuadorian Seteci, who questioned the extent of expenditures on certain project and the lack of coordination.

In the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, CEPR conducted an extensive evaluation of USAID funding to Haiti, including the history of funding, and found transparency and coordination with local government to be a significant problem, especially when the local government experienced tensions with U.S. foreign policy.

“The U.S. government has been perfectly happy to not coordinate with governments, and that has a lot to do with politics… it was under [former Haitian President] Aristide really saw a lot of assistance bypass the Haitian government and go to NGO, including violent opposition groups and so called democratic opposition groups much like what you are seeing recently in Venezuela and Bolivia,” said Beeton.

For 2013, the combined NED and USAID allocations for Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia alone totaled over US$60 million, with the bulk of these funds destined to Cuba and Ecuador. For the government and progressive social movements of these countries, there is a growing concern that these funds could be used to undertake what Chossudovsky qualified as a “consistent process of destabilizing government as part of non-conventional warfare, meaning you don’t send in the troops but you destabilize the government through so called colored revolutions or infiltrations.”

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