- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

CARACAS, Venezuela — A leading organizer of last year’s bid to unseat President Hugo Chavez has been charged with treason amid accusations that she accepted U.S. government funding from the National Endowment for Democracy.

As director of the civic group Sumate, Maria Corina Machado helped organize three petition drives to recall Mr. Chavez, leading to a failed referendum in August.

State prosecutors have invoked an 80-year-old law to charge Miss Machado and two other Sumate leaders with “conspiring to destroy the republican nature of the country,” saying they received $31,000 from the endowment. A trial has not been scheduled, but is expected to begin in the next few weeks. Miss Machado faces 16 years in prison if convicted.

“The reason for [the endowment] giving all that money was to end the Chavez government,” said legislator Nicolas Maduro. “If the Venezuelan government financed organizations to topple the Bush administration, I’m sure we would face life sentence in prison.”

Miss Machado said the money was used “to hold workshops that explained how citizens could work toward a just and transparent recall vote. It was an exercise of our constitutional rights. For that, we are being called conspirators.”

Questions have been raised about whether Miss Machado will receive a fair trial.

“The majority in congress just expanded the court and put in [Chavez] sympathizers. They packed the courts with their people,” said Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch in New York.

“They’ve undermined any pretense of independence. It undermines any hope that highly politicized cases like this one will be handled in a fair fashion.”

Miss Machado, a 37-year-old engineer who spent eight years running a shelter for abandoned children, said her work is dedicated to creating a strong civil society to fortify democracy in Venezuela.

But U.S. lawyer and pro-Chavez activist Eva Golinger, who accessed documents through the Freedom of Information Act, said the endowment’s support was part of a broader campaign to bolster the Venezuelan opposition.

“It’s not a coincidence that almost all of NED financing in Venezuela has gone to opposition groups,” Miss Golinger said. “The funds that went to Sumate were part of the same pattern. They were meant to help remove President Chavez from office, not to promote democracy.”

The NED, a congressionally funded organization founded in 1983 to promote democracy around the world, says it has provided almost $4 million since 2000 to about 15 Venezuelan civic organizations, including a few pro-Chavez groups.

It says the funds have financed training for unions, municipal legislation programs and programs to train justices of the peace to resolve conflicts in poor neighborhoods.

But some of the endowment’s Venezuelan grantees were involved in a brief coup d’etat against Mr. Chavez in 2002 — a failed overthrow that the Bush administration tacitly endorsed — lending credence to the charge that the funds had a subversive purpose.

Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue said Mr. Chavez’s idea of national sovereignty is making sure that foreign countries have no influence within Venezuelan borders — a position that is incompatible with modern diplomacy.

“Latin American dictatorships thrived in the 1960s and 1970s because no one in the diplomatic community spoke out against the human rights abuses taking place there. This is why 30,000 people disappeared during Argentina’s dirty war,” said Mr. Shifter, who recently signed a letter by the endowment in support of Sumate.

Chris Sabatini, the endowment’s program director for Latin American and the Caribbean, insisted that a group’s political orientation had nothing to do with whether it receives financing.

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