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US funds political groups in Venezuela despite ban

Friday - 7/18/2014, 12:45pm  ET

A pedestrian walks past a mural that reads in Spanish "Imperialism" in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, July 17, 2014. Almost four years after Venezuela enacted a law to bar the U.S. from funding groups frequently critical of the socialist government, millions of the American dollars the administration tried to ban still flow to these organizations, an analysis by The Associated Press shows. Much more U.S. support is under consideration. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

HANNAH DREIER
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Almost four years after Venezuela enacted a law to bar the U.S. from funding groups frequently critical of the socialist government, millions of the American dollars the administration tried to ban still flow to these organizations, an analysis by The Associated Press shows. Much more U.S. support is under consideration.  

The State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy, a government-funded nonprofit organization, together budgeted about $7.6 million to support Venezuelan groups last year alone, according to public documents reviewed by AP.

That was 15 percent more than they collectively authorized in 2009, the year before then-President Hugo Chavez pushed Venezuela's Congress to ban such funding in the name of protecting the country's sovereignty from groups it views as the opposition.

In Washington, the Senate is considering a bill to boost State Department aid to pro-democracy groups in Venezuela from about $5 million to $15 million amid calls for a tougher line against Venezuela after current President Nicolas Maduro cracked down on anti-government protests. A similar version cleared by the House would maintain current funding levels.

It's unclear whether the government has been unable to enforce the law against such funding, or is simply uninterested. The sweeping 2010 ban on foreign donations subjects violators to fines of as much as twice all foreign money received, and bars them from running for public office. Foreigners in Venezuela who provide such aid can be deported.

Marino Alvarado, director of the centrist Venezuelan human rights group Provea, says the ban was passed to send an anti-imperialist message, but is politically impossible to enforce. Venezuela, which itself provides aid around the region, even in the U.S., would open itself to charges of hypocrisy if it took the extreme step of shutting down local organizations for taking foreign assistance, he said.

For eight years, the Chavez administration provided families in 25 U.S. states with heating oil during the cold winter months, according to Citgo Corp., an American subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company. Caracas provides Havana with an estimated $3.2 billion annually in cut-rate Venezuelan oil that is a lifeline for Cuba's ailing economy, and gives oil and natural gas on preferential terms to other countries including Nicaragua, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic.

"The administration is stuck," Alvarado said.

Many groups continue to accept U.S. funds despite the law, but the ban has increased their sense of vulnerability, according to Luisa Torrealba, coordinator at Venezuela's Institute for Press and Society, which monitors government interference with journalists, and accepts U.S. funding.

"The situation makes us all fearful, and I sometimes think about other paths I could have taken," Torrealba said. "But the work is tremendously important. It's vital that we document what's happening so that the world knows."

The U.S. long has used international aid to promote its values, such as free speech and open markets, by strengthening civil society and institutions. It's unclear how the U.S. is deploying its millions in Venezuela. The National Endowment for Democracy, known as NED, now omits Venezuelan recipients' names from its annual reports, and the State Department since 2010 has not publicly named the Venezuelan partners which receive its pro-democracy funds.

NED spokeswoman Jane Riley Jacobsen said the agency withholds recipient names because of an "atmosphere of severe intimidation, including threats of physical violence, hate campaigns on state-controlled media, and legal reprisals."

Venezuela's National Assembly approved the ban on foreign assistance after revelations that NED had funded an election-monitoring group, Sumate, which in 2004 organized an unsuccessful recall drive against Chavez.

Sumate was co-founded by Maria Corina Machado, an opposition leader who was stripped of her position as congresswoman and now leads anti-government protests. The administration has accused her of plotting to assassinate Maduro, a claim she denies.

In Venezuela, there are signs the administration may act to stop the flow of U.S. dollars. Maduro mentioned Sumate at a news conference earlier this year and said he would "reactivate the strict laws we have against foreign funding." Writing in The New York Times this spring, he raised concerns about the millions the U.S. allocates for the opposition.

As U.S. funding has continued, Washington's relationship with Venezuela has deteriorated with Maduro frequently drawing connections between American aid and the violent anti-government protests that claimed at least 43 lives earlier this year. The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010, when Chavez rejected the U.S. nominee for the post.

Despite the condemnations and the threat of punishment, many organizations still take U.S. money.

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