The endowment hopes to score another success in the Philippines. The Democratic and Republican party institutes are jointly sponsoring a delegation of observers, drawn from democratic political parties around the world, to keep tabs on the fairness of Friday's presidential election.
But even this project has raised eyebrows because the treasurer of the Democratic institute, Peter G. Kelly, is a partner in a lobbying firm that represents the Chamber of Philippines Manufacturers, Exporters and Tourist Assns., an organization with close links to President Ferdinand E. Marcos' government.
The endowment's backers point with pride to criticism from the official newspaper of Nicaragua's leftist government, which said a $50,000 endowment grant was part of "a scandalous conspiracy" between the U.S. government and Nicaraguan guerrillas "to strengthen the Nicaraguan opposition."
In addition, endowment supporters quote a letter from Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet dissident now living in the West, who called endowment-sponsored projects in the Soviet Bloc "the only hope for our friends behind the Iron Curtain in their struggle for freedom."
But for all the endowment's triumphs, it has also been party to some major debacles. Too often, critics say, the endowment does more harm than good.
In the 1984 Panamanian election, critics say, the endowment gave money to Nicholas Ardito Barletta, the candidate backed by the nation's armed forces, despite official U.S. neutrality. Ardito Barletta won the election, which the opposition charged was fraudulent, but was later forced to resign in a dispute with his former backers in the military.
"U.S. intervention in other people's elections is not, in my view, a convincing way to promote democracy," said Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.).
Opponents also note that the American Assn. of Publishers returned a grant last year after the endowment demanded changes in the list of books the association plans to send to the Moscow book fair.
Perhaps most significantly, critics of the endowment point to a $575,000 grant to the French National Inter-University Union, a small student and faculty organization accused by a parliamentary committee of right-wing political violence. The group is a bitter foe of the Socialist government of French President Francois Mitterrand.
The endowment is also contributing to programs in Spain, Portugal, Britain, Northern Ireland, Belgium, Venezuela and Israel. None of the recipient groups are engaged in outright opposition to the government, but critics say it is a waste of the endowment's limited funds to support programs in countries where democracy seems to be firmly rooted.
In the critics' view, the endowment's successes could have been achieved as easily by the government's Agency for International Development or U.S. Information Agency. Endowment officials say some recipient groups abroad would be reluctant to receive funds directly from the U.S. government, but the distinction between the endowment and the government has become so blurred that foreigners generally assume endowment-funded programs are backed by the U.S. government.
Although the endowment was established to bring the American private sector into world politics, it relies on government funds for all but an insignificant fraction of its budget. Critics say its organizational structure does not permit the free-wheeling independence that a truly private organization would enjoy, yet its accounting methods and supervision fall far short of what usually would be demanded of a government enterprise. Although it is required to issue regular reports to the U.S. Information Agency, the reports contain limited information on individual projects, and the USIA has no veto over those projects.
Whims of Congress
Unlike truly private organizations, however, the endowment is subject to the whims of Congress, which prohibited it in fiscal 1985 from giving any new money to the Republican and Democratic party institutes. The board kept the institutes operating by reprograming money from the previous year. The Senate voted to continue the ban on the party institutes in the current fiscal year but eventually gave in to the House, which supported the institutes.
For this year, Congress also clamped a 25% cap on the proportion of endowment money that could be allocated to any one organization, a limitation that requires a cut of more than half in the funds for labor's Free Trade Union Institute.
Eugenia Kemble, executive director of the Free Trade Union Institute, said the 25% cap could prove disastrous.
"We were given the ability to create major new programs with the understanding with Congress and the endowment board that we would have the funds to carry them through," she said. "(The budget cap) says to our friends that there is no consistency here. It's a slap in the face. It says to everyone that we are not reliable."
Feeling Their Way