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Why Are We Giving Maduro $610 Million in Aid and Where is it Going?

The State Department is mum, but it wouldn't be the first time assistance ended up in the wrong hands, CIA or otherwise.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech during the "No more Trup" march to protest US sanctions in Caracas on August 10, 2019. (Photo by Federico PARRA / AFP) (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP via Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been touting USAID frequently lately, boasting that amid the coronavirus pandemic, Americans have been the most generous with international aid.

One of those targets of Americans’ generosity? Venezuela. Despite Venezuela’s leaders being under DOJ indictment for narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking and a host of other criminal charges, Venezuela has received $610,581,092 of U.S. taxpayer dollars since 2017.

And at the end of May, Pompeo announced even more funds would be flooding the Central American nation: “The international community has again stepped up in support of Venezuelans suffering from Maduro’s disregard and brutality by raising more than $600M in direct donor pledges. Every day Maduro remains in power is another day the needs of the Venezuelan people are neglected.”

“The U.S. is proud to join donor countries in responding to one of the worst man made crises in the world with an additional $200 million in humanitarian and development assistance. Together we can save lives and bring about the democratic transition Venezuelans desperately need.”

fact sheet located on the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) website states that over $138 million has been pledged in “humanitarian funding for response to the Venezuela regional crisis” and that recently “USAID has allocated an additional … $9 million” in humanitarian assistance for COVID-19 response in Venezuela.

There’s just one problem: according to news reports, due to shortages in the United States, U.S. COVID-19 aid funding cannot be used to buy medical masks, gloves, ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other virus-fighting supplies without extensive, specific approval.

Coronavirus funds for Venezuela are aimed at supporting “case management, disease surveillance, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) supplies, and other critical activities,” the USAID fact sheet states.

But the history of USAID in Venezuela suggests there’s a lot more to the story, said Tim Gill, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, in an interview with TAC.

A former USAID agent told Gill that USAID has been funneling money into Venezuela recently through its Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) because, “like during the Cold War,” while the office “is not clandestine, we can get money to people quicker, with less red tape.”

In the past, OTI aid has been used to fund CIA operations. And critically, USAID operates with a network of contractors and subcontractors which are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

“Historically, there is little oversight into what people that work for USAID and OTI do on the ground,” Gill adds. “They might talk to the ambassador in Caracas here and there,” and while there might be a foreign policy agenda they are vaguely aware of, “they’re generally able to fund whomever they want with the money.”

In secret embassy cables released by Wikileaks, Venezuela Ambassador William Brownfield laid out the goals of USAID funding in 2006 quite explicitly: they were “1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital U.S. business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally.”

Among other things, OTI has previously paid subcontractors to set up fake NGOs in poor neighborhoods in Venezuela; then in the mid-2000s shifted efforts toward using “racialized fear of Chávez to organize middle-class youth around a long-term strategy to defeat him,” according to a report in The Guardian.

Students were provided with materials like paper and microphones, and given organized training seminars so as to enhance their effectiveness. U.S. diplomats regularly met opposition student leaders and discussed plans of action against the Chávez government.

“Over time, the U.S. government assisted the efforts of the anti-Chávez student movement significantly. Many of its members are now high-ranking opposition leaders, including [Juan] Guaidó, Stalin González and Freddy Guevara,” writes Gill. “Outside Caracas, USAID helped students in such regions as Maracaibo, where it funded such efforts as a conference run by students opposed to the Chávez government and paid for airfare for individuals to attend.”

In 2011, U.S. aid also helped fund rock bands in Venezuela in 2011, via a roughly $22,000 grant that was ultimately approved by the National Endowment for Democracy in order to “to promote greater reflection among Venezuelan youth about freedom of expression, their connection with democracy, and the state of democracy in the country.”

Recently, U.S. special envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams said that U.S. funding is helping Juan Guaido pay for his staff and the cost of embassies.

So, are the millions of dollars being spent in Venezuela accounted for? Could taxpayer dollars be landing in the hands of narco-traffickers?

It wouldn’t be the first time U.S. foreign aid has ended up in the wrong hands. Former State Department official Peter Van Buren saw numerous examples of the fraud, waste, and abuse of U.S. aid during the rebuilding of Iraq, which he detailed in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

Distributing U.S. aid is “an impossible job for a good person to do well, which makes it unfortunately an easy job for people with bad intentions to exploit,” said Van Buren. “You’re often talking about enormous amounts of money in literal cash, boxes of cash, because the people we are working with don’t have banking systems or accounts.”

That’s because collaborators don’t want their regime to trace the funds.

But that ability to trace funding works both ways, and many of these people have been found to be playing both sides, taking money from the U.S. and then reporting to Nicolas Maduro what they learn, said Dr. Alejandro Velasco, associate professor of Modern Latin America at New York University, in an interview with TAC.

The risk of over $610 million in U.S. funding landing in the hands of the wrong people in Venezuela is extremely high, said Velasco.

That’s why it’s extremely disturbing that, when asked by TAC to provide more specifics on where this funding is going, the State Department declined to comment on the record. The State Department also declined to comment on what is being done to keep these millions out of the hands of the narco-traffickers running Venezuela.

about the author

Barbara Boland is TAC’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Previously, she worked as an editor for the Washington Examiner and for CNS News. She is the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General George Patton in World War II, and her work has appeared on Fox News, The Hill UK Spectator, and elsewhere. Boland is a graduate from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.  Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.

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