Venezuelan activists facing trial for receiving money from a U.S.-financed organization to promote the recall vote last year against President Hugo Chávez’ mandate have gotten the group’s approval for additional funding, representatives said.
A local judge last month ordered four members of the Súmate civil association – which backed the 2004 referendum against Chávez – tried for conspiracy after they received a grant last year from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
The endowment is a nongovernmental organization funded by the U.S. Congress to promote democracy internationally.
New Súmate financing could fuel already tense relations between Washington and Chávez, an ally of Cuba’s Fidel Castro who often clashes with U.S. officials over his self-proclaimed socialist revolution in Venezuela. Chávez brands Súmate “traitors,” while opposition leaders and some U.S. officials say the group has been targeted in a political witch hunt against critics of the former army soldier turned president.
Súmate has been cleared for a $107,200 grant from the NED, financing which will go toward a civil-rights and election education campaign, Súmate and the NED said.
“What we are doing is within the framework of the law, and does not violate any regulation. But of course we know that the case against us is political in character,” Súmate representative Roberto Abdul told Reuters.
The grant, which will help to “strengthen the democratic process in Venezuela” is approved but in the final stages of being signed, NED spokeswoman Jane Riley Jacobsen said Tuesday.
However, allies of Chávez complained that this grant was also “illegal.”
National Assembly (AN) Deputy Rafael Ríos, of the ruling Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), argued that Súmate is “a political organization sided with opposition groups” that is strictly prohibited under the Constitution from receiving foreign funds.
“Political organizations cannot receive funds from other countries, it’s illegal,” said Ríos, adding that Súmate’s mission to educate voters “is a facade” for activities aimed at removing Chávez from power.
Jacobsen said that the new grant for Súmate was to support a “clean elections education program.”
“It’s similar to what we’ve funded in the past with Súmate. It’s voter education,” Jacobsen said.
She said the grant is to fund a series of workshops to train some 12,000 Súmate volunteers working to monitor upcoming elections and ensure they are fair and transparent.
Elections for AN deputies are scheduled for December while presidential elections, which Chávez has vowed to win, are slated to be held next year.
Earlier this year, a Súmate leader, María Corina Machado, held talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in the White House. Chávez’ administration slammed the meeting as a provocation.
The Súmate members face up to 16 years in prison if they are convicted. No date has been set for their trial.
Súmate had previously received a $31,000 grant from NED. Chávez has lambasted the endowment for backing opponents trying to unseat him.
Last month, U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, wrote to Chávez asking him to stop the prosecution of the four Súmate activists in a letter describing the prosecution as a “grave threat to democracy” in Venezuela.
Chávez, an ex-army paratrooper elected in 1998 vowing to combat poverty, often accuses Washington of trying to topple him and backing his short-lived April 2002 ouster. He won the August 2004 referendum, although opponents complained about fraud, a charge that international observers did not support.
U.S. officials reject Chávez’ plot charges, but they portray him as an authoritarian who undermines democracy at home and destabilizes the region by promoting “new socialist” ideas. AP, Reuters