Doing the US’s bidding

Ex-CIA man Philip Agee sees many parallels between what the US is doing in Venezuela today and its successful efforts to undermine the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s

July 1, 2006 · 12 min read

Philip Agee is a former CIA operative who left the agency in 1967 after becoming disillusioned by the CIA’s support for the status quo in the region. Says Agee: ‘I began to realise that what I and my colleagues had been doing in Latin America in the CIA was no more than a continuation of nearly 500 years of exploitation and genocide and so forth. And I began to think about what, until then, would have been unthinkable, which was to write a book on how it all works.’

The book, Inside the Company: CIA Diary, was an instant bestseller and was eventually published in more than 30 languages. In 1978, three years after the publication of CIA Diary, Agee and a group of like-minded journalists began publishing the Covert Operations Information Bulletin (now Covert Action Quarterly), as part of a strategy of ‘guerilla journalism’ aimed at exposing the CIA’s operations.

Agee was expelled from the UK in 1976 under US government pressure, and he has been forced to divide his time since the 1970s between Germany and Cuba.

How do you view recent developments in Venezuela?

When Chávez was first elected and I began following events, I could see the writing on the wall, as I could see it in Chile in 1970 and in Nicaragua in 1979-80. There was no doubt in my mind that the United States would try to change the course of events in Venezuela as they had in Chile and Nicaragua, and before that in various other countries.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to really follow events day to day, but I did try to follow them from a distance on the web. Eventually I began reading some of the documents and I could see the application in Venezuela of the same mechanisms that were used in Nicaragua in the 1980s in the penetration of civil society and the efforts to influence the political and electoral processes.

Just after the Sandinistas took over in Nicaragua, I wrote an analysis of what I believed would be the US programme there. Practically everything I wrote about happened. This is because these techniques – through the CIA, the Agency for International Development (AID), the State Department, and, since 1984, through the National Endowment for Democracy – all follow a certain pattern. In Nicaragua the programme for influencing the outcome of the 1990 elections by uniting the opposition and creating a civic movement began several years before the elections. All these things seem to have happened in Venezuela.

Have there been significant changes in CIA strategy since you left the agency?

Yes, absolutely. In the 1970s there were brutal military dictatorships in all of the Cono Sur [Southern Cone] countries – Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and, of course, in Chile with Pinochet. These were all supported by the CIA.

It was during this period that a process of new thinking began in the upper echelons of the makers of US foreign policy that these military dictatorships, with all the repression and the disappearances and death squads and so forth, might not be the best way to preserve US interests in Latin America – or other areas for that matter. The new thinking was that US interests could better be achieved through the election of democratic governments formed by political elites who identified with the political class in the US. Here I mean not the popular forces, but the traditional political classes in Latin America – to speak of one area – known as the ‘oligarchies’. And so the new American programme, which became known as ‘Project Democracy’, was adopted and US policy would seek to promote free, fair, transparent democratic elections – but in such a way that it would assure that power went to the elites and not to the people.

The American Political Foundation (APF) was founded in 1979, with major participation from the main US labour organisation, the AFL-CIO, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Democratic and Republican parties. Finance came from both the government and private sources. The APF’s job was to study how the US could best apply this new thinking in promoting democracy.

The solution was the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its four associated foundations: the International Republican Institute (IRI) of the Republican Party, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) of the Democratic Party, the American Center of International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) of the AFL-CIO, and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) of the US Chamber of Commerce. Where the AFL-CIO foundation is concerned, they took an existing organisation that had worked hand-in-glove with the CIA for many years called the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), and they simply changed its name.

How exactly does the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) work with the CIA?

The mechanism would be that Congress would give millions of dollars to the NED, established by Congress as an NGO, and the NED would then pass the money to the four ‘core foundations’, who in turn would hand out the money to foreign recipients.

This all began in 1984, and one of the first recipients of NED money was the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which was then the focal point of the most extremist of the anti-Castro individuals and organisations in the US. But the real test for this new system came in Nicaragua.

Since 1979-1980, the CIA had run a programme organising the counter-revolutionary military or paramilitary forces that became known as the Contras, with the logistics and the organisation and backup all coming from places in Honduras and El Salvador. They infiltrated eventually something like 15,000 guerillas into Nicaragua. By 1987 they had terrorised the countryside, caused around 3,000 deaths and left many others maimed for life. It was a strictly terrorist operation – they were not able during all those years to take a single hamlet and hold it. So they were defeated militarily.

By 1987, Central America was war weary. There was a meeting of the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua in the Guatemalan town, Esquipulas, and they worked out a series of agreements by themselves – the US was not a party to this – which included the disarming of the Contras and ceasefires in the various countries. So in Nicaragua there was a ceasefire, but the CIA did not disarm the Contras because they knew that elections were coming up in 1990 and they wanted to maintain them as a threat. Although the Contras had been defeated militarily by 1987, they had caused enormous economic problems and Nicaraguans were suffering very badly from the destruction.

Following the Esquipulas accords, US policy changed. More emphasis was placed on the penetration of civil society and strengthening the forces opposing the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN). One of the mechanisms was to strengthen what was known as the Coordinadora Democratica Nicaraguense, which was comprised of private-sector business leaders, certain trade unions that were anti-Sandinista, anti-Sandinista political parties and anti-Sandinista civil associations. A private consulting firm, the Delphi International Group, was contracted to run operations to influence the elections coming up in 1990. They turned out to receive the most money of all and played the key role in the run-up to the elections.

In order to get the anti-Sandinista vote out, the CIA and NED established a civic front called Via Civica. Its ostensible job was election monitoring, political education and activism – non-partisan civic action. In fact, all its activities were designed to strengthen the anti-Sandinista side.

So, first there was the Coordinadora, then Via Civica, and finally the unification of the opposition, and they didn’t achieve this until about August 1989, about six months before the elections. Of the 20 opposition parties, they unified 14 – many simply through bribes – and they called it the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO). UNO ran a single candidate for all the different positions, and the US selected Violetta Chamoro to run as president.

Bill Robinson, an academic who lived in Nicaragua for quite a bit of the 1980s, wrote about this period in his book (A Faustian Bargain: US Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-cold War Era, Westview Press, 1992). It’s an excellent book, very well documented, very well written. He estimated that the US spent in excess of $20 million for the 1990 elections.

As everyone knows, the Sandinistas lost; the UNO coalition won something like 56 per cent of the vote, and the Sandinistas 40 per cent or something like that. The operations that were started to ensure the defeat of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections continued to ensure that they would not return to power in the next elections, and that has been the case.

How has this model been applied to Venezuela?

In Venezuela, there is something rather similar. You have the Coordinadora Democratica, comprised of the same sectors of the same organisations as in Nicaragua, although from what I’ve read it has more or less collapsed at this point. But they’ll revive it, I’m sure.

You also have an organisation that is supposedly non-partisan and dedicated to getting out the vote and making sure the elections are clean, which is Súmate. You have the private US consulting group, Development Alternatives Incorporated, which is fulfilling the same role that the Delphi International Group fulfilled in Nicaragua. And both the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute have offices in Caracas.

So you have several offices that are handing out tens of millions of dollars – private offices that in fact are under the control of the US embassy, the Department of State in Washington and the Agency for International Development (AID). The first contract given to Development Alternatives was by the AID, while the NED programmes continued at a rate of about $1 million per year.

In the wake of the failed coup in April 2002, the decision was taken in Washington to do the same thing they’d done in Nicaragua. This involved hiring a consulting firm – Development Alternatives – to act as a front for AID money, which would be much larger than the NED money. The first contract was signed on 30 August 2002, granting a little more than $10 million over the next two years for political activities in Venezuela.

They sent five people down from Washington – five people that were named by the AID. Get that: they hire this consulting firm, but they name the people. And for any Venezuelan that is hired by Development Alternatives, the contract requires that they be approved by the AID in Washington. So there’s no other way to look on these offices in Venezuela than as mechanisms of the US embassy, and to consider that behind the scenes of these organisations is the CIA.

What is useful in having these foundations and the consulting firm giving out money is that it provides a way for the CIA to give a lot more money while making it easier for the recipient organisations to cover it up. So, if the AID money to Development Alternatives is about $5 million, of which $3.5 million is for grants to Venezuelan organisations, with another $1 million-plus from the NED, you have about $6-7 million of open money.

The CIA can add quite a lot of additional money to the $6-7 million, and the evidence is there in documentation obtained under the Freedom of Information Act of support for the oil strike, the national strike, from December 2002 to February 2003, and then for the 2004 recall referendum campaign. All of these things they lost, so now they have to be focusing on the 2006 elections. But with this election looming only a few months away, the US programme has failed to unify the opposition or to spur them to effective campaigning – a sharp contrast to Nicaragua in 1989-1990.

Venezuela is certainly not the only country in which these operations to strengthen civil society, promote democracy and educate people in election processes is only a cover, the real purpose being to favour certain political forces over others. There is a real need for research in this area because Development Alternatives Inc operates all over the world. It’s not that all its programmes are financed by the US government – they’re also financed by the World Bank and I can’t remember how many other sources. But one can look at their programmes and see which ones are similar to what’s happening in Venezuela.

The same is true with the National Democratic Institute and the other foundations associated with the NED, and one can see where they’re focusing this political penetration – with the CIA, of course, in tandem. I think that there is a great need to expose this and to denounce it for what it is, which is fundamentally a lie – purportedly to promote democracy but in fact to overthrow governments, to achieve regime change, or to strengthen favourable governments that are already in power.

It is important to recognise that the word ‘democracy’ has a very special meaning when used by the US government. It does not merely mean free and open, multi-party political processes and clean elections. For the US to deem a government democratic its policies have to include the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, deregulation, free trade and unimpeded movement of capital. As a package these ‘democratic’ policies favour US economic interests, create unequal playing fields and allow the US to move the goal posts whenever convenient.

Thus a Venezuela that sets policies in its own interests to the exclusion of those of the US will never be accepted as ‘democratic’ no matter how many free and fair elections they hold. In my opinion, the smartest thing the Venezuelan government has done, along with its social programmes, is the rapid build up of its military. Hopefully this will continue to the point where the US is forced to conclude that military invasion carries too heavy a cost to be ventured.

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