By IAN JAMES
The Associated Press
Saturday, August 26, 2006; 11:43 AM
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Of all the groups getting U.S. support in Venezuela, none has faced more scrutiny than Sumate, whose leaders have been called conspirators and "mercenaries" even though they insist they are simply promoting democracy.
President Hugo Chavez says he's convinced the U.S. is acting through Sumate to "take us down the path of destabilization" as he seeks re-election in December. Prosecutors have brought conspiracy charges against Sumate's leaders for their use of $31,000 from the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy, ostensibly for voter education courses.
This month, an inquiry by the National Assembly concluded Sumate appears to have violated various other laws. Prosecutors are investigating whether to charge members with treason, tax evasion and other crimes, said Sumate leader Maria Corina Machado, who has met with President Bush at the White House and is a persistent irritant to Chavez.
She denies accusations by Chavistas that her group is essentially an opposition political party, and insists Sumate has broken no law.
"It's an organization that promotes and builds democracy," Machado said. "Those who do that are persecuted under governments that stop being democratic."
Chavez's allies argue Sumate persistently tries to unseat Chavez. It organized a recall referendum in 2004 that Chavez won and also is a vociferous critic of the government and the electoral system.
Sumate acknowledges getting some $102,120 for voter education programs since 2003 from the Washington-based NED, though it says it has not used any direct aid from the U.S. government. The U.S. State Department granted Sumate $300,000 last year to help review the voter rolls, but the group returned the money in July saying it could not obtain a complete database to analyze.
Other groups have received funds through the U.S. Agency for International Development, including Leadership and Vision, which obtained about $45,000 in 2003 to organize 10 seminars aimed at promoting dialogue among opposition and pro-government camps.
USAID _ which hired the Maryland-based company Development Alternatives Inc. to administer the grants _ has declined to identify many Venezuelan recipients, saying they could be intimidated or prosecuted.
The U.S. government also provides financial support to other U.S. groups working in Venezuela _ such as $1.7 million for the International Republican Institute and $2.1 million for the National Democratic Institute since 2002. Both say they provide technical training to parties across the political spectrum and support training of independent electoral monitors.
Freedom House has obtained $1 million in U.S. funds since 2004 to help train Venezuelan human rights groups.
Venezuela may soon take a tougher stand. Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez recently said: "It's not lawful for a non-governmental organization to receive funds from a foreign state."
While Venezuelan law does not include a specific prohibition, the penal code prescribes prison terms for "any Venezuelan who solicits foreign intervention" in the country's political affairs, or receives a foreign state's money to be used to the "detriment" of the nation.
The National Assembly, now held entirely by Chavez allies after opposition parties boycotted the last election, is preparing to require any group receiving foreign support to register with the government, reveal its sources and submit to additional controls.