The Miami Herald
When the U.S. official approached leaders of Argentina’s piquetero movement of street protesters to offer them money for democracy-strengthening programs, he got a cold reaction.
‘You could see this look of panic that crept across their face: `We’re talking to the CIA!’ ” the official recalled.
Such are the deep suspicions and strong reluctance that the Bush administration faces as it adds tens of millions of dollars to U.S. democracy-building programs in Latin America, a region where leftist, populist and anti-Bush sentiments increasingly dominate politics.
”A new political class . . . has come to power, or is coming to power, and they see a lot of this [U.S. aid] with a great deal of suspicion,” said Christopher Sabatini, who until recently ran the Latin American programs for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a congressionally funded group that gives grants to pro-democracy programs.
Supporters of socialist President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela have stopped attending political training seminars arranged by U.S-based institutions, for example, and pro-Chávez lawmakers are pushing a bill that would make it much harder for nongovernmental groups to accept U.S. funding.
The U.S. official who reached out in 2003 to the piqueteros, known for their disruptive street protests in demand of social benefits, never heard from them again, he said, asking for anonymity to avoid affecting his institution’s dealings in Argentina.
In the past, NED and its main beneficiaries like the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), worked well with what Sabatini called “more traditional civil society organizations and leaders, many of them Harvard trained technocrats.”
NEW POLITICAL CLASS
But new groups have emerged from the fringes of Latin America society, like indigenous Bolivian groups with a long history of grievances against the ruling elites and the urban poor from Buenos Aires’ industrial districts. Increasingly, they have challenged the U.S. agenda that promotes political stability and more open economies.
The Bush administration, in keeping with its pledge to push for democracy around the world, has quadrupled worldwide aid for pro-democracy programs to more than $2 billion a year, says Thomas Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House, which organizes exchange visits for pro-democracy activists in Latin America.
U.S. government agencies contacted by The Miami Herald for official aid totals said any such numbers are only rough approximations because funds are being poured over multiple accounts into a complex web of groups and government agencies.
The web spans from specialized sections of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to the Pan-American Development Foundation of the Organization of American States and nonprofit groups like the Carter Center, the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for International Private Enterprise.
The biggest single winner appears to be NED, which hands out grants directly to foreign groups. Its congressional funding rose from $59 million in 2005 to $74 million this year — plus $10 million to 15 million for specific programs ordered by lawmakers, such as $2 million for groups in Venezuela, NED officials say. So far this year, NED has awarded grants in Latin America totalling $7.9 million, and expects to at least equal last year’s record of $10.9 million. In 2004, NED gave out $6.7 million in the region.
The biggest government donor is USAID, which has a $176 million democracy-and-governance budget for Latin America in 2006, with Haiti ($33 million) and Paraguay ($27 million) topping the list of beneficiaries.
That’s a drop from the $185 million in 2005, which experts say is the result of a new Bush administration attempt to redirect money away from some of the large U.S. private contractors that regularly work for USAID. Benefiting from this new approach has been the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which has set aside $9 million for nongovernment organizations in Latin America for the next two or three years — tripling previous levels.
The office has already asked for grant applications for programs involving Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Haiti, Ecuador and Guatemala. One program asks applicants to find ways to use satellite and wireless communications technology to reach Cubans. Another seeks to strengthen Venezuelan labor unions.
Officials insist that all groups can apply, even those that oppose U.S. policies. ”The litmus test is not President Bush’s policies, but democratic openness,” said Adolfo Franco, who heads Latin American programs for USAID.
But there have been questions about who benefits from the programs.
IRI, linked to the Republican Party, has denied allegations that it urged opponents of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to reject a compromise with his government, and came under attack from the Venezuelan government when it blamed a 2002 coup against Chávez on his ”repressive” ways.
Chávez’ Fifth Republic Movement later stopped sending its members to political training seminars in Caracas arranged by IRI and NDI, leaving the seminars to politically neutral or anti-Chávez groups.
The Venezuelan legislature’s proposal to make it hard for nongovernment groups to receive U.S. funding is already scaring some potential recipients, wary of being tagged as agents of the Bush administration’s policies.
Freedom House, for instances, often will not post the names of Venezuelans who take part in two-week democracy-building study tours.
”Venezuela is in fact a place where people will get harassed for going on U.S.-sponsored exchange tours to learn about human rights monitoring,” said Melia.