Democracy's Special Forces Face
[National Endowment for Democracy
(NED) & Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI)]
As diplomatic row between US and
Venezuela escalates, US democracy-building efforts face more scrutiny.
by Jens Erik Gould
The Christian Science Monitor
, February 6, 2006
A diplomatic row between the United States
and Venezuela escalated this past week when President Hugo Chávez
expelled a US naval attaché for espionage, prompting Washington
to order the Venezuelan ambassador's chief of staff to leave the
Mr. Chávez fanned the flames in
front of thousands of supporters Saturday by vowing to buy more
arms to defend his country from a possible US invasion.
Beyond the heated rhetoric on both sides,
one of the actions the Chávez government views as most
theatening is the US government's funding and support of opposition
groups that Chávez charges hope to overthrow his government.
Tuesday, the attorney general is scheduled
to take a get-out-the-vote group called Súmate to court
on conspiracy charges for accepting $31,120 from the US-funded
National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
The case, which comes at a time when US-sponsored
democracy-building programs are facing increased scrutiny worldwide,
has bolstered Chávez's claims that the US is meddling in
Venezuelan affairs. Yet Washington says the persecution of Súmate,
an organization highly critical of Chávez, smacks of a
political witch hunt that damages democracy in the country.
Despite the attention the case has garnered,
Súmate's NED money is small change compared with the millions
of dollars given to Venezuelan groups by a little-known branch
of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) called
the Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI). The Venezuelan government
and some analysts question OTI's motives in Venezuela, since it
is less transparent than other US aid agencies, more directly
tied to US foreign policy interests, and has unusual budgetary
US aid agencies have been under scrutiny
in Venezuela since it was revealed that some members of US-funded
groups were at the forefront of the opposition movement and supported
the failed coup against Chávez in 2002. But OTI's mode
of operations, until recently, has gone under the radar.
Called "the special forces of development
assistance" by Harvard University public policy professor
Robert Rotberg, OTI was designed in the 1990s to help former Soviet
Union countries make the transition to democracy. It now works
in areas such as Iraq, Haiti, Sudan, and the West Bank.
Even though Venezuela is not experiencing
the kind of civil strife seen in countries where OTI operates,
OTI devoted $4.5 million to its Venezuelan program in 2005, more
than six times NED's budget.
OTI, which derives its money from disaster-assistance
funding, can issue urgent short-term grants much faster than normal
OTI says it works to nurture Venezuela's
"fragile democratic institutions" by funding groups
that strengthen human rights, the judicial system, and public
dialogue in a polarized society.
But critics have raised concerns. "The
[Bush] administration's nation-building mission includes trying
to weaken or challenge the Chávez administration,"
said Riordan Roett, director of Latin American studies at Johns
Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
"OTI is really at the front line of what the administration
thinks of Venezuela."
The State Department accuses Chávez
of bordering on dictatorship, saying he is gaining near-total
control over the judicial system, the legislature, and the nation's
vital oil industry.
The Venezuelan government responds that
Chávez's party and its allies have won all seven elections
held in the past seven years. It questions why the US is using
an agency dedicated to transition initiatives when Venezuela has
officially been a democracy since 1958.
"It's absolutely outrageous,"
says lawyer Eva Golinger, who investigates US funding in Venezuela.
"This isn't a government in transition at all. For an entity
that is allegedly promoting democracy and using US taxpayer dollars
to do so, OTI is highly secretive - and suspiciously so."
OTI has broken an initial promise made
by one of its implementing partners to stay in Venezuela only
two years. The agency is designed to stay in a country for no
more than two or three years, but has been in Venezuela for almost
The US government says OTI is still operating
here, housed in the US Embassy, because Congress has not earmarked
enough funds for USAID to open its own office in the country.
Roett says Washington opted against a
larger USAID mission because it might be seen as a provocation
to Chávez. Yet unlike most USAID programs, OTI describes
itself as "overtly political" and particularly tied
to foreign-policy goals.
In order to issue grants quickly, OTI
can spend money free from earmarks for specific programs that
Congress often puts on regular USAID funds.
OTI says on its website that transparency
is one of its "strategic principles," but declined to
release the names of its grantees and denied requests for any
on-the-record interviews on its Venezuela program.
The US government did agree by phone to
release to the Monitor descriptions of all 2005 OTI grants with
most of the grantees' names blacked out. These documents have
not yet been received.
"This is being done devoid of public
scrutiny," said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric
Affairs in Washington. "I personally think that it's outrageous
that the US government can dispose funds with no real consultation."
The US government says releasing the names
of OTI grantees would jeopardize the groups' safety. It says five
recipients of US funding have recently been investigated by the
Disip, Venezuela's state security force.
The US also cites the case against Súmate
- which has received OTI grant money - as evidence that the Venezuelan
government targets its grantees.
Armando Obdola, director of the group
Kapé Kapé, which promotes leadership and education
in indigenous communities, said that the Disip questioned him
for 12 hours and bugged his phone after Golinger announced on
state television that the group was receiving NED funding.
"Why do we have to hide if we're
doing nothing wrong?" Mr. Obdola said when acknowledging
that his group was US-funded. "We're doing effective work
in the indigenous communities."
The US says OTI has provided assistance
to Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement party as well as the
three largest opposition political parties.
"Every grant we have is a good grant,"
said a US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They're
good projects, things we are proud of. But we can't have their
National Endowment for Democracy (NED)