CARACAS, Venezuela — As this bitterly divided nation approaches a vote Sunday on whether to recall populist President Hugo Chavez, he and his supporters are accusing Washington of interfering in Venezuela's affairs by providing about $2 million to opposition groups.
Grants from the National Endowment for Democracy to more than a dozen organizations over two years account for only a fraction of opposition funding. But because some members of the U.S.-supported groups have ties to the opponents who briefly deposed Chavez in April 2002, the former paratrooper contends that the funding backs another effort to oust him.
"Washington has been financing the opposition with millions, including for this referendum," Chavez said during a news conference Thursday at the presidential palace.
Chavez won the presidency in December 1998, and his rule has polarized this country, one of the world's largest oil producers. After the 2002 coup and a two-month national strike failed, opponents changed strategy to focus on a recall campaign. This spring, they submitted 2.5 million signatures, slightly more than the 20% of registered voters required to trigger a recall.
The Venezuela Solidarity Committee, a New York-based nonprofit group, obtained several thousand pages of documents on NED programs in Venezuela under the Freedom of Information Act and provided them to the Los Angeles Times and other media.
At issue is whether the endowment strayed from its mandate to support the development of democracy by assisting nonpartisan grass-roots organizations. The NED technically is a private organization, but it receives most of its budget -- about $80 million this year -- from Congress and other taxpayer-financed sources.
Chris Sabatini, the NED's director for Latin American programs, defended the endowment funding and denied that it was aimed at destabilizing Chavez's government. He said the group was trying to promote dialogue in Venezuela and opposed any unconstitutional actions against Chavez.
"In a situation of political polarization, if you want to pull people back from the brink of conflict, you have to work with people at the brink," Sabatini said.
Chavez supporters see more ominous intentions.
"The NED says its goal is to build democracy, but it is giving money to people who were key players in the coup and who are trying to oust a democratically elected president," said Deborah James of the Washington-based Venezuela Information Office.
One grant of $42,000 went to a group called Leadership and Vision to train Caracas police "in democratic rights and responsibilities, and the peaceful resolution of conflict."
Though he described the NED contribution as "totally insignificant," the group's leader, economist Gerver Torres, said the training project "should have been welcomed by a government committed to the public's interests." The private, nonprofit group aims to educate voters and encourage broader participation in the country's decision-making, he said.
But Chavez supporters say that some members of the capital's police force, under the control of an opposition mayor, supported the coup. And Oscar Garcia Mendoza, who signed Leadership and Vision's grant agreement with the NED, also signed a newspaper advertisement two days after Chavez's brief ouster that declared "unconditional support" for the coup government.
Join Up, another group that received NED funding, said the money it received was spent on voter education and activities that equally benefited the pro- and anti-Chavez camps. Join Up said it received $35,000; the NED grant lists it as $54,000.
"None of this was hidden from anyone. We are extremely transparent," said one of the group's leaders, Alejandro Plaz. He denied the government charge that Maria Corina Machado, another leader of the group, attended the swearing-in of Pedro Carmona, the oil executive who replaced Chavez until an uprising of the poor restored him to power.
Late last month, government prosecutors here announced that they were investigating Machado on conspiracy charges for having accepted NED funding. Chavez supporters accuse Join Up of being openly hostile to Chavez. The group's website says it "collected and processed signatures" in support of a recall vote.
The grant agreement between the group and the NED lists promoting support for the recall referendum as a "project objective."
Some recipients, such as the avidly anti-Chavez political party Justice First, make no pretense of being nonpartisan. Several prominent members of the party supported the coup leaders. One of them, Leopoldo Martinez, was finance minister in the coup government.
The NED also has given money to a conservative think tank known as CEDICE to help it draft "a viable [opposition] agenda." Rocio Guijarro, the group's general manager, signed the coup decree that abolished Venezuela's Constitution, Supreme Court and National Assembly. Several members of CEDICE's project advisory committee attended Carmona's swearing-in.