From an ad hoc podium Maria Corina Machado addresses the gathered reporters sprawled out on the White House lawn before her. â€œGood morning. Yes, I had a meeting with Mr. President just now,â€ she says, â€œand we were invited [to the White House] because he’s very interested to know the perspective of civil society about democratic values and the spread of democracy in particular in my country, Venezuela.â€ Machado is the founder and director of SÃºmate (Join Up), a Venezuelan non-governmental organization (non-Venezuelan government, that is). Her close ties to the White House, however, have been cause for concern in Venezuela for some time, where SÃºmateâ€™s alleged neutrality has been called into question ever since it was founded in 2002.
According to Machado, SÃºmate is an objective non-partisan civil association. SÃºmate is the third NGO founded and directed by Machado, including one that worked with Venezuelan municipalities in the 1990s to privatize homeless shelters. To date, SÃºmateâ€™s only political experience has been to agitate for the removal of ChÃ¡vez by way of a recall referendum last August, though ChÃ¡vez won nonetheless with 60 per cent of the vote. Their controversial role conducting flawed exit
On April 11th of that year Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vezâ€”democratically elected in 1998 and again in 2000â€”was overthrown in what proved to be a short-lived coup. Before he was restored to power by massive popular protests and loyal elements of the military, however, a â€œtransition governmentâ€ was set up, and business leader Pedro Carmona Estanga sworn in as provisional President. Carmonaâ€™s first act as provisional Venezuelan leader was to abolish the Bolivarian Constitutionâ€”ratified by popular referendum in 1999â€”as well as the Supreme Court, the National Assembly and the Human Rights Ombudsman in what became known as the â€œCarmona Decree.â€ Present at Carmona’s swearing-in ceremony were several hundred prominent Venezuelans, including business-leaders, media barons, politicians, and members of â€œcivil society,â€ whose signatures (below) confirmed their attendance. Machado was one of the latter.
“Attendance at the Swearing-in of the Governing Junta.” Maria Corina Machado’s signature appears bottom left. Source: Venezuelafoia.info
Less than 48-hours after coming to power, however, Carmonaâ€™s illegal junta was overthrown, and as the now defunct April 11th-government sped out the backdoor of the palace into their tinted SUVs and back into Caracasâ€™ posh gated communities, his allies began back-pedaling. In a recent article, Machado told Newsday that she did not know what she was signing, saying she innocently signed a blank piece of paper she had assumed was a reception sheet. Yesterday, her story changed again. Still flushed from her tÃªte-Ã¡-tÃªte with George W. Bush, Machado claimed that the Venezuelan government â€œknow[s] clearly that I did not sign the decree. I was not present at the event,â€ she said. Yet the evidence would appear to suggest otherwise.
The fact that SÃºmate has received a series of grants from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Agency for International Development (AID) does not speak to their neutrality. Neither organization has a history of objectivity; they are both on the frontlines of attempts to spread US influence under the rubric of â€œpromoting democracy.â€
Subverting Democracy in the Name of Democracy
The NED was formed in 1983, as US foreign policy shifted from a focus on â€œnational security,â€ which often involved alliances with and support for authoritarian regimes, to â€œdemocracy promotion.â€ The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was formed, along with a series of other foundations, think tanks, and NGOs, and given funding from congress and a mandate to â€œpromote democracyâ€ as a new and more effective way to support United States policies abroad.
Two of the first test cases are particularly relevant to present-day Venezuela: the democratization movement in the Philippines that culminated in the election of Corazon â€œCoryâ€ Aquino in 1986, and Violeta Chamorroâ€™s defeat of the Sandinistas in the Nicaraguan elections of 1990. According to veteran journalist and academic William I. Robinson who teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara, the US successfully intervened in the Philippines to prop up an elite leadership of the democratization movement calling for an end to Marcosâ€™ dictatorship. Only months before the scheduled elections, US ChargÃ© dâ€™Affaires Philip Kaplan convinced the divided anti-Marcos elite to unite and Cory Aquino was selected as the oppositionâ€™s candidate.
Four years later a similar model was employed in Nicaragua, where the US had waged a decade-long illegal insurgency against the Sandinista government, destroying the Nicaraguan economy and holding the specter of continued aggression over votersâ€™ heads. Again, just months before scheduled elections, the USâ€”operating through a complex web of government, non-governmental, and private sector proxiesâ€”united the fractured anti-Sandinista opposition. According to ex-CIA agent Philip Agee who spoke with Venezuelanalysis.com last March, the US managed to unify the Nicaraguan opposition primarily through bribes.
â€œIn order to get the anti-Sandinista vote out and to monitor the elections,â€ says Agee, â€œthe CIA and NED established a civic front called Via Civica and their ostensible job was political education and activismâ€¦non-partisan civic action. When in actual fact all their activities were designed to strengthen the anti-Sandinista side.â€ US â€œdemocracy promotionâ€ theory may have been young in the mid-1980s, but by 1990 in Nicaragua a formula had been developed. It consisted more or less of three stages, including the formation of a political alliance, a civic alliance, and an opposition-wide unified front. â€œFirst there was the Coordinadora,â€ says Agee, referring to the Coordinadora Democratica Nicaraguense, â€œthen Via Civica, and finally the unification of the opposition.â€
Venezuela has its own Coordinadoraâ€”the Coordinadora Democratica (CD)â€”or it did, until it imploded last September after ChÃ¡vezâ€™s referendum victory, which had grouped all of the major anti-ChÃ¡vez parties and NGOs. Venezuelaâ€™s version of Via Civica is SÃºmate, which will likely evolve into a national civic alliance, perhaps renamed Via Civica, or Alianza Civicaâ€”something â€œcivicaâ€ anyway. The dissolution of the CD is irrelevant to the opposition since, according to their â€œdemocracy promotionâ€ schedule, itâ€™s about time for stage three: the unification of the opposition into a new organization and the nomination of a common candidate.
According to Robinson, who has theorized the â€œdemocracy promotionâ€ strategy in Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (1996), this strategy â€œas it actually functions, sets out not just to secure and stabilize elite-based polyarchic systems, but to have the United States and local elites thoroughly penetrate civil society, and from therein assure control over popular mobilizations and mass movements.â€
A Bush-Machado alliance in Venezuela, then, is key.
President George W. Bush and SÃºmate director Maria Corina Machado pose for a photo-op in the Oval Office on Tuesday. Source: www.whitehouse.gov
In Nicaragua, once the US had secured a unified opposition candidate in the person of Violeta Chamorro, the White House arranged for a variety of photo-opportunities: Chamorro with Bush, Thatcher, even John Paul II. As news of Machadoâ€™s meeting with Bush spread in Caracas yesterday, the possibility that Machado could be ChÃ¡vezâ€™s contender in the 2006 Presidential elections seemed to grip the country all at once. Pro-Government Congresswoman Iris Varela told the press that the meeting could not possibly mean anything else. And US-Venezuelan lawyer and Freedom of Information activist Eva Golinger appeared on television in the early evening to say the same, drawing a parallel to Chamorro. â€œThere they are sitting together, holding hands, smiling, one hiding a terrorist and the other backing a coup,” said lawmaker Cilia Flores, who called for Machado’s prosecution. “She went there to receive instructions, to see what other mischief they can get up to in Venezuela,” she said.
Robinson describes the strategy during Chamorroâ€™s time fittingly. â€œThe purpose of these visits [to the US], in which photo-opportunities were stressed and statements kept to a minimum, was to have the image of Chamorro beside world leaders reverberate in the minds of the Nicaraguan electorate.â€ Machadoâ€™s meeting with Bush apparently lasted only 15 minutes, but judging from the crowd in the above photo, it would appear to have been a success.
Nor is this the first such visit Machado has had with state leaders and high-level foreign diplomats. In January, the SÃºmate leader was in Ottawa meeting with representatives of Canadaâ€™s Foreign Affairs department and NGO and business leaders. According to a spokesperson at the Canadian embassy in Caracas, SÃºmate came away with a grant of approximately US$18,000 from the Canadian Embassy in Venezuela. And one month later, during his February visit to Venezuela, Machado met with Spanish Prime Minister JosÃ© Luis Zapatero.
This weekend Machado will get a chance to plead her case before the entire hemisphere as one of the civil society groups given permission to present before the Organization of American States when the group meets in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from June 5 to 7. The US has been pushing for the OAS to acquire some teeth in its mandate to protect democracy in the hemisphere, but representatives from other countries see the move as a poorly camouflaged attack on Venezuela. Another initiative supported by the US is the creation of a mechanism to give civil society a voice in the Permanent Councilâ€”the groupâ€™s day-to-day governing bodyâ€”to denounce threats to democracy in their countries. Machado is clearly thrilled at the prospect. At her press conference yesterday on the White House lawn, she voiced her support for opening the OAS to civil society groups, and the private sector as well.
But wait. The Private sector needs a voice at the OAS? The concept, though absurd, is perhaps understandable coming from Machado, whose comments were directed not so much towards Venezuelans, as towards private and â€œcivil societyâ€ actors in the US and the Americas who stand to gain from the fusion of democracy and capitalism. Reflecting Bush administration rhetoric, Lawrence J. Korb of the New York think-tank Council on Foreign Relations noted recently, â€œcontrary to what some believe, democracy and capitalism do not spread inexorably on their own. The United States therefore needs to assume a leadership role in spreading and accelerating the growth of free-market democracies.â€
Groups like SÃºmate, the NED, USAID, Development Alternatives Incorporated (the consulting firm distributing US-beneficence in Venezuela) are not so much interested in promoting democracyâ€”if they were theyâ€™d be more impressed by the nine elections ChÃ¡vez has won in the past six yearsâ€”as they are in promoting a particular limited form of democracy that dovetails nicely with capitalist globalizationâ€”what William Robinson calls â€œlow-intensity democracy.â€
In a forthcoming interview with Venezuelanalysis.com, Robinson states it plainly: â€œThis is a full-blown operation, a massive foreign-policy operation to undermine the Venezuelan revolution, to overthrow the government of Hugo ChÃ¡vez, and to reinstall the elite back in power in Venezuela.â€ â€œâ€˜Democracy promotionâ€™ will continue unhindered,â€ says Robinson, â€œand if the chance and the opportunity arises forâ€¦Venezuela to be isolated by international organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations, and so forth, then the US will go ahead and promote that type of diplomatic aggression.â€
Is Machado launching a presidential bid backed and organized, like her ideological predecessors Aquino and Chamorro, by Washington? Maybe. But a more likely scenario in the short-term is the SÃºmate-led formation of a Venezuelan civic alliance, a key component of any anti-ChÃ¡vez strategy hiding behind the cynical rhetoric of democracy. And the OAS convention on Sunday would be the place to do it.
 William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
 â€œThe Nature of
 p.69, emphasis added.