CARACAS, Venezuela — 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.
Carlos Correa, whose group Public Space tracks police brutality at protests and encourages freedom of expression, acknowledged receiving U.S. funding, but declined to specify whether it's from the government or independent groups. When the ban was under debate in 2010, state-run TV ran political cartoons depicting him with a suitcase stuffed with U.S. government dollars.
A free-market think tank, CEDICE Libertad, receives NED funding that is channeled through an associated group, the Washington-based Center for International Private Enterprise.
Other political organizations have decided it's too risky to take U.S aid. The Caracas-based Leadership and Vision, which aims to create a new generation of democracy-minded leaders, accepted its last NED grant in 2010, spokeswoman Naibet Soto said.
Several other leftist Latin American countries also oppose U.S. financial assistance to civil society groups.
Bolivia last year expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), accusing the agency of trying to undermine its government. More recently, Ecuador prohibited USAID from funding new projects there. And this spring, revelations that Washington engineered a "Cuban Twitter" social media platform to undermine support for Havana increased regional suspicions about U.S. financial assistance.
The mounting tensions mean anxious times for U.S.-funded activists. Torrealba sees few other options for grants. Local donors consider organizations like hers too political, she said, and there are few institutional alternatives.
"There are no Rockefellers in Venezuela," she said.
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