The International Republican Institute: Promulgating Democracy of Another VarietyBy: COHA Research Fellow Jessica Leight
The International Republican Institute, an organization that describes itself as being dedicated to “advancing democracy, freedom, self-government and the rule of law worldwide,” has in the last two decades earned the questionable distinction of being perhaps the least-known of a group of lethal Washington institutions devoted to the trade of nation-building, or more accurately termed, nation undermining. Despite its elaborate rhetoric and claims to nonpartisanship, the IRI in fact operates as the powerful and well-funded foreign policy arm of the ultra rightist wing of the U.S. Republican Party. It is far more ideological and operational than its Democratic Party counterpart, the National Democratic Institute, and is less concerned with democracy building than hunting down leftists and crushing their causes. It would not be too much to say that the IRI engages in anti-populist witch-hunts with far more enthusiasm than any of its research efforts exploring the history or politics of those countries where it wreaks its havoc. IRI’s seemingly innocuous activities, which are said to include party-building, media training, the organization of leadership trainings, the dissemination of newsletters and the strengthening of “civil society,” mask a far more aggressive and calculated attempt by the organization and affiliated hard right Republican Party ideologues to destabilize liberal political movements and governments (which it sees as containing the germ plasm of communism) in this hemisphere and around the world. Its central, though unstated, mission is to see to it that such vanguard movements have leaders perceived as being more agreeable to Washington’s orientation on a given issue.
Not surprisingly, an IRI targeted regime is characteristically headed by a leftist or populist leader who is committed to ambitious social programs and skeptical of the now widely-discredited neoliberal reforms evoked by the phrase “Washington consensus.” Entities backed by the IRI, on the other hand, invariably show marked solicitude for the interests of large U.S. financial institutions and corporations—such as Chiquita Banana, whose former chairman Carl Lindner has long been one of the country’s primary donors of soft money to the Republican Party and was recently named a “Super Ranger” fundraiser for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign.
A Focused Sense of Mission
The IRI prioritizes the maintenance of what is frequently deemed a “friendly business environment,” often to the detriment of an array of desperately needed social policies. These overt attempts by the IRI to manipulate the domestic political firmament of other nations in the image of the conservative values of the late President Reagan, are strongly reminiscent of (albeit less bloody than) many of the excesses of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) when it toppled Latin American governments that had failed to share so-called “American values.” Not surprisingly, many analysts have characterized the IRI as well as its partner and primary funder, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), as the ideological heirs of the CIA, in which it is strenuously attempting to remake its image while transferring some of the funding responsibility for its “softer” programs to that classic Cold War institution, the NED.
At the very least, the IRI’s extramural machinations deserve to be the subject of Congressional scrutiny that begins by probing the IRI’s actual operations and mandate, which are subject to virtually no oversight by elected officials even as the Institute aggressively implements a wide-ranging and inherently controversial foreign policy agenda. This agenda is funded by taxpayers’ money routed through a variety of sweetheart arrangements with federally funded grant making organizations, such as the NED and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Critics maintain that the IRI should be prevented from continuing its suspect role as the power behind the curtain of its highly tendentious projects. The IRI’s use of taxpayers’ money to fund clearly partisan misadventures begs to be audited; if found to be inappropriate by Congress, the Institute’s federal funding should be curtailed or abolished.
The Myth of Nonpartisanship
Despite its name, the IRI goes to great lengths to assert that it is not in fact connected with the Republican party, stating that it is a “nonpartisan organization, not affiliated with any political party. . .guided by the fundamental American principles of individual liberty, the rule of law, and the entrepreneurial spirit.” Yet a quick glance at the credentials and affiliations of the IRI’s Board of Directors undermines any grounds for the belief that this organization is in any way a bastion of that rare Washington commodity, nonpartisanship. The board is a virtual who’s-who of conservative Republican political and business panjandrums and is chaired by Senator John McCain of Arizona. He is joined by his Hill colleagues Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, hardliner Representative David Dreier of California, and Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona, all Republicans; by Hempstead, N.Y. Republican James A. Garner, the first African-American mayor on Long Island who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; by the former chairman of the Republican Party, Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr, and by former General Counsel to the Republican National Committee, Michael Grebe.
GOP foreign policy luminaries are represented by Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to the first President Bush and now president of the Scowcroft Group, Inc.; Lawrence Eagleburger, Secretary of State under President George H.W. Bush; and by Dr. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the lead Valkyrie of Cold Warriors, Ambassador to the U.N. under the Reagan administration and resident at the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (on whose board another IRI board member, Marilyn Ware, also serves.) The defense establishment is represented by Alison Fortier, a director of Lockheed Martin Missile Defense Programs—a company long-beloved by Star Wars aficionados and Reaganite Defense Department officials, who obligingly have steered billions of dollars in procurement contracts to the company—and by J. William Middledorf II, former Secretary of the Navy and ambassador to the Organization of American States under the Reagan administration. Needless to say, there is also generous representation of the corporate sector, with Ford, AOL Time Warner and Chevron, Texaco among the multinational corporations with current or former officials serving on the board.
Given this virtually overwhelming mass of veteran Republicans on the IRI board, with an enormous quantity of accumulated expertise and experience, and the total absence of figures of comparable stature from the Democratic side of the aisle, the theoretically nonpartisan character of the International Republican Institute is revealed as nothing more than a meaningless boiler plate. Party connections extend into the group’s senior operating staff: George Folsom, who served as President and Chief Executive Officer until several weeks ago, held positions in the Pentagon under Reagan and the Treasury Department under Bush Sr., where he was the chief U.S. negotiator of the Enterprise for the Americas initiative. Incoming President Lorne Cramer, who formerly served as IRI President from 1995 to 2001, has moved his office to the IRI from the State Department, where President Bush had appointed him Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Vice President Georges A. Fauriol is a member of the Chairman’s Club of the Republican National Committee and co-chaired the Americas Forum in Washington with Otto Reich (the virulently hard-line Cuban-American ideologue and propagandistic policymaker). Until recently, Reich served as the President’s special envoy for hemispheric affairs and also as a member of the Board of Visitors for the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly School of the Americas), the longtime training ground for many of Latin America’s most unsavory military thugs. Another IRI staffer, Todd Harris, formerly a consultant to the government of Croatia for the Institute, was recently hired as a communications director by the Bush reelection campaign—perhaps the clearest evidence of the organization’s ideological fealty to Bush and his ultraconservative Latin American policy. Thus, while the IRI may be legally separated from the domestic Republican party, it is clearly intimately intertwined with the party’s establishment at virtually all levels, and steeped in the foreign policy experience, philosophy and biases of its most conservative and energized leaders.
Haiti: Behind the Ouster of Aristide
One of the few locations where the International Republican Institute’s normally discreet and low-profile activities have been exposed to unwanted publicity—and to widespread denunciations—is in Haiti. Accusations have circled widely that the IRI, with the backing of its Republican patrons in the upper echelons of the Bush State Department, openly funded, equipped and lobbied for the country’s two heavily conservative and White House-backed opposition parties, the Democratic Convergence and Group 184. The latter coalition, composed of many of the island’s major business, church and professional figures, has been the source of the most vocal and intransigent hostility to the former administration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In fact, the stubborn refusal of these groups to come to any compromise with the president, even after he made a host of major concessions to their ends, played a major role in the violent transfer of power in Haiti earlier this year. This shift took place after an armed rebellion led by former military and paramilitary leaders swept through the country with the open endorsement of the “non-violent” political opposition parties as well as veiled support from Washington.
Charges regarding the IRI’s reprehensible machinations in Haiti have engendered sufficient controversy to compel the Institute in Haiti to include on its official website a list of frequently asked questions about its controversial programs in that country. This feature, not provided for on any other IRI project, is presumably intended to defuse the more potent criticisms about the organization’s Haiti activities. The website entry notes that the IRI’s initiatives in Haiti are not currently funded by the NED, an admission made in response to criticisms regarding the NED’s past involvement in that country. This strained history included the funding of two anti-Aristide conservative union organizations, the Federation of Trade Union Workers and the General Organization of Haitian Workers, in an attempt to denature the radicalism of Haiti’s leftist trade-union movement, which was regarded as a threat to U.S. and local businessmen like Andy Apaid, Jr. who had set up sweatshop-like assembly plants in the country. The NED also supported an ironically named “human rights” organization, the Haitian Center for Human Rights (CHADEL)—whose director, Jean-Jacques Honorat, had previously served as prime minister under the military junta that governed Haiti from 1991-1994—a brutally repressive government responsible for the beatings and murders of several thousand political dissidents.
Perhaps because of these ongoing controversies over the NED’s activities, the IRI turned to the USAID to fund its most recent program in Haiti. USAID has an equally questionable history on the island, and John R. Bolton—former U.S. Deputy Attorney General, current Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, and longtime rightwing demagogue and political extremist—famously described USAID as “a subsidiary of the CIA which serves to promote political and economic desiderata of the federal government through its financial assistance programs abroad.” In fact, from 1981-1983, the Latin American division of USAID was directed by Otto Reich, the hard right ideologue later admonished for violating the law by manufacturing specious anti-Sandinista propaganda from his new post as director of the Office of Public Diplomacy. Almost a decade later, he was appointed to serve as a special envoy to the Western hemisphere in the current Bush White House after his recess appointment to the Department of State position expired. USAID’s subsequent activities in Latin America, specifically in Haiti, bear the mark of Reich’s extremist beliefs, heightened by his years as an extremely well-paid lobbyist for some of the most politically connected corporations in the country.
In Haiti, USAID-funded organizations, such as the Haitian International Institute for Research and Development (IHRED), often maintained close relationships with the military government of General Henry Namphy, one of the so-called post-Duvalier dictators who held power briefly in 1988. IHRED helped to form a group of anti-Communist political leaders known as the Group of 10, a clique led by Mark Bazin, a Haitian national, former World Bank official and opportunistic technocrat who was backed by Washington as the conservative, pro-business great hope in the 1990 presidential elections (which was won overwhelmingly by the populist former priest, Aristide).
Subsequently, in May 1991, Congress authorized USAID to spend $24.5 million over four years in its Democracy Enhancement Project in Haiti, which was designed to “strengthen legislative and other constitutional structures … local governments [and] independent organizations in the country of Haiti.” Despite the program’s highfalutin language and apparent laudable goals, Americas Watch contends that its real goal was to strengthen conservative organizations that would “act as an institutional check on Aristide.” Though suspended following the military coup later that year, parts of the program, including support to the more conservative Haitian unions, were subsequently reactivated throughout the tenure of the coup government. Tellingly, those organizations backed and funded by NED and USAID were generally spared any repression by the military government, even as more radical or autonomous civil society organizations were being hounded and brutally crushed. This is perhaps the clearest collateral evidence that USAID and NED made a practice of funding those organizations whose objectives were distinctly different from those of a populist or pro-Aristide orientation; not surprisingly, the U.S.-funded organizations were regarded as fundamentally non-threatening by the military government.
Election “Monitoring” or Propaganda?
The IRI first emerged as a major subject of controversy in Haiti following Aristide’s return to the country accompanied by 20,000 U.S. troops in 1994. The following year, the IRI sent a series of observer missions to monitor both parliamentary and presidential elections, and soon found itself wrangling with the Clinton White House regarding the reliability of the procedures and the fidelity of the results. Following elections in June 1995 for 18 of 27 Senate seats, 83 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, 135 mayors and 565 community councils, the White House declared that they reflected a “highly successful process” and suggested that those flaws that did occur were an inevitable byproduct of lack of infrastructure and low levels of education on the part of both voters and elected officials. Moreover, J. Brian Atwood, who served as the head of the official U.S. delegation in his capacity as the director of USAID, specifically praised the conduct of President Aristide in the election, noting that he “stayed out of politics as he promised” and “made TV and radio available to other parties, contrary to the history of the country.”
IRI in Opposition
The IRI delegation, on the other hand, issued a series of bitterly condemnatory reports, calling the election an “organizational catastrophe.” Most tellingly, the leader of the IRI group, Representative Porter Goss (R-FL), issued a series of public statements criticizing the elections and asking whether the new parliament would “have sufficient credibility as an independent, separate branch of government for the customary checks and balances role, or will it be just an Aristide rubber stamp?”
“Aristide rubber stamp” here serves as a code phrase that translates as “Lavalas majority parliament”—an outcome that could have been easily predicted by every well-informed observer of the Haitian political scene, given the extremely high levels of public support for Aristide and his party in the aftermath of his triumphal return from exile and the ending of the much-reviled military government. The real grievance of the IRI seems to have been not so much any concrete flaw in the mechanics of the election, which had been bankrolled by $11 million in funding from USAID, but rather the fact that, in the eyes of Rep. Goss, the wrong man had won, raising the rather unpleasant prospect for the IRI’s Republican patrons and corporate donors of a unified and successful leftwing Haitian government.
A similar dispute between the White House and the IRI unfolded in December, 1995, when presidential elections were held to select Aristide’s successor. Again, the IRI denounced the elections, this time seizing on what it claimed was a low turnout as evidence of voter dissatisfaction and low levels of democratic awareness. While there were undoubted flaws in the electoral procedure, the mere fact that an election was held represented an enormously important milestone in Haitian history, marking the first time when one elected leader prepared to peacefully turn over power to another publicly chosen leader. Needless to say, the IRI was not concerned with the historical significance of the moment. Instead, the IRI became disgruntled over the clear victory of René Preval, a Lavalas member and strong Aristide supporter. Over subsequent years, the institution’s presence within Haiti became more and more controversial, engendering repeated criticism from the Preval administration and Lavalas legislators that it was openly supporting opposition parties aligned with the now-dissolved military as well as challenging the country’s sovereignty. Ultimately in 1999, the Institute, under its Haiti field director, became so controversial that it was forced to shutter its office in Port-au-Prince and began to run its Haiti programs from outside the country’s borders—a move that proved in later years to have had very little impact on its ability to wreak havoc within the country and on its democratic institutions.
The Institute that Helped Launch a Coup
The official IRI description of its current Haiti programming highlights its focus on information technology—the launching of a website, www.haitigetinvolved.org, that includes chat rooms, mailing lists and the posting of “timely and accurate data and analyses”— as well as its efforts to incorporate the diaspora into Haiti’s political process. Needless to say, there is no mention of the seemingly obvious fact that an Internet-based information source is of virtually no relevance to the vast majority of Haitian citizens, who do not have electricity or potable water, much less an Internet connection. At the same time, the organization’s emphasis on the incorporation of Haitian-Americans is perhaps the most eloquent testimony that the IRI’s reputation in Haiti itself has plummeted and alienated the local population to the point that direct engagement with voting citizens of the Haitian polity had become impossible, forcing the IRI to set up shop in the Dominican Republic.
The IRI arrived at this point of deserved disrepute by its unwaveringly consistent backing for the most regressive, elitist, pro-military factions in Haitian politics and its steadfast alliance with the elite opposition coalitions Group 184 and Democratic Convergence, which from the day of their inception devoted themselves entirely to derailing the administration of President Aristide—a political figure still supported by at least a majority of the nation’s rural and urban poor, who view him as the leader of their struggles against the Duvalier and post-Duvalier dictatorships. The IRI organized conferences in the Dominican Republic (which was also, perhaps not coincidentally, the launching pad for the armed rebellion this past February) at which up to 600 opposition leaders were able to liaise with their conservative brethren from Washington, D.C. and build up a political base of support in the Bush administration. This networking was amply rewarded as the State Department led the implementation of an economic boycott of Haiti, preventing Aristide from fulfilling his pledge of social justice for his poor urban and rural supporters and thus whittling away at his public support.
Even more tellingly, Secretary of State Colin Powell refused at the last moment to send an international force to Haiti to protect the Aristide government until after an agreement had been reached between the government and the opposition, knowing full well that the Group of 184 would accept no compromise short of Aristide’s resignation. Secretary Powell obligingly played his part in this travesty, offering Orwellian doublespeak about the protection of democracy as a rationale for his murder of a constitutional presidency. The opposition’s steadfast intransigence culminated in Aristide’s Washington-scripted exile and the arrival of U.S. troops immediately after his departure, an outcome for which the IRI must bear much of the responsibility. In fact, Robert Maguire, director of the Haiti program at Trinity College, has characterized the Institute as the “main actor” in Haiti, stating that it has been working with the opposition groups. IRI has insisted that USAID had given it funding for its work in Haiti. While this is true, it is also true that USAID has done so, only after kicking and screaming all the way. According to Maguire, the IRI has worked exclusively with the Democratic Convergence groups in its party-building exercises and support.
The IRI Aims for the Kill
Perhaps the most sober indictment to be made regarding the IRI’s reprehensible role is that it employed as its principal representative in Haiti the much-reviled Stanley Lucas, a Haitian national with a history of strong ties to the military and whose family members were reputedly linked to the infamous Jean Rabel massacre. In June 1987, armed gangs paid by local landowners killed some 140 peasants who were demonstrating for land redistribution in the northwestern region of Haiti; the ringleader of this bloodbath was a landlord named Remy Lucas, a member of the same family, who was arrested in June 1998, following a widespread popular outcry demanding that he be prosecuted. The former U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Brian Dean Curran, has since contended that Stanley Lucas undermined efforts by a number of international mediators to convince the Haitian opposition parties to take a more moderate stance vis-à-vis the Aristide government and end its persistent political stonewalling. According to Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Curran demanded that Lucas be barred from contact with the IRI, a condition that USAID, which had provided $1.2 million for the Institute’s work in Haiti, accepted and endorsed. The IRI, however, ultimately ignored this directive, and the very controversial Lucas continued to work with the Institute.
This relationship, based on a single-minded hatred of Aristide that represented a collective sentiment, was emblematic of the history of the IRI’s Haiti work. Its easy tolerance of individuals with established links to the country’s brutally repressive military and paramilitary forces, as well as its close ties to millionaire Haitian businessmen—most notably Andy Apaid, Jr., a particularly sleazy operator who, while allegedly illegally holding both U.S. and Haitian passports, runs sweatshops in Haiti while feigning the role of a Quaker reformer—highlights the IRI’s true orientation. Apaid, coordinator of the Group of 184, seeks to gain huge profits by supplying U.S. contractors with goods produced by Haitian workers at sweatshop wages; moreover, he was clearly complicit in Aristide’s unconstitutional ouster, which many Haitian experts view as the thirty-third coup.
It is to be hoped that the recent decision by the Organization of American States to open an investigation into the circumstances of Aristide’s suspicious departure will further reveal the manifold connections between the IRI and the Haitian opposition groups, both civil and military, and will spur the US Congress to recommit itself to a thorough examination of the IRI’s work and the establishment of more careful oversight regarding its use of federal funds. Senator Dodd has already called for a closer examination of the IRI’s role in Haiti; he should be joined in this initiative by other senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle, as well as by presidential hopeful John Kerry, who would do well to regard the taming of the IRI as an integral part of any comprehensive attempt to improve the U.S.’s reputation in the hemisphere.
Venezuela: A Coup Reversed
There are striking parallels between the history of the Institute in Haiti and its presence in Venezuela: both countries experienced coups against leftist presidents that had become targets of Washington’s odium and in which the IRI was heavily involved, if not directly implicated. However, the pro-Chávez forces in Caracas proved strong enough to return their president to office only hours after his ouster—a fate that Aristide has not shared. The role of the Bush administration in the rapidly aborted coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela that unfolded in April 2002 has long been debated, with one school contending that the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Caracas actively conspired with the military leaders planning the coup.
Before the Venezuelan coup, the Bush administration’s chief dirty-tricks operator for the western hemisphere, Otto Reich, met with chief Venezuelan plotter Pedro Carmona and a group of his co-conspirators. In the wake of the failed coup, Carmona subsequently fled the country. Back in Washington, Powell’s rightwing subordinate, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Roger Noriega, acting in tandem with his confederate Reich, recognized the coup government almost immediately after the attempted putsch, subsequently placing Powell in the rather embarrassing position of having to disavow Noriega’s overly hasty statements in support of Chávez’s return to power. Within forty-eight hours, Chávez was restored to authority after the military threw its support behind him.
Yet even if one maintains reservations about the State Department’s and Reich’s involvement in the coup, it is abundantly clear that the IRI was generously funding the anti-Chávez “civil society” groups that had militantly opposed his leadership since 1998. Beginning in that year, the Institute began working with Venezuelan organizations to produce media campaigns, including newspaper, television and radio ads, with a distinctly anti-Chávez tilt. The IRI also funded expeditions to Washington by Chávez opponents to meet with U.S. officials, including a trip by politicians, union leaders and civil society leaders that occurred only a month before the coup, at a time when predictions of a military uprising were already widespread.
Simultaneously, the NED, the IRI’s principal funder, was mounting its own initiative in support of anti-Chávez organizations. Grants made by the NED, and laundered through the IRI, included generous funding for the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), a coalition historically linked to the corrupt political parties which had been repudiated as a result of Chávez ’s electoral victories, and which later played a major role in the anti-Chávez “destabilization campaign” leading up to the coup. Another NED beneficiary was the Assembly of Educators, headed by Leonardo Carvajal, who became education minister during Carmona’s two-day presidency; Carvajal’s group was one of the first organizations to organize anti-Chávez demonstrations. Yet another NED recipient, Prodel, is directed by prominent Chávez opponent Ignacio Betancourt, a former secretary for the country’s notorious former dictator, Carlos Pérez Jiménez, who was heard in a television recording obtained by dissident elements of the Venezuelan media planning the overthrow of Chávez in a conversation with the president of CTV. Perhaps most damning, the NED directly funded Súmate, an organization devoted to mounting a signature-gathering campaign to present a petition calling for Chávez’s recall. While the Endowment claimed that the funding was only for the observation and monitoring of the process, clearly Súmate has taken a far more active role in promoting Chávez’s ouster than simply watching passively as the recall process unfolded.
The NED also made a major grant to the IRI for its programs in Venezuela, increasing its funding from $50,000 in 2000 to $399,998 in 2001, a nearly six-fold enhancement. Thus endowed, the Institute went about its trademark subterfuge “party-building” activities, including organizing a series of workshops to which only opposition candidates were invited; it also funded and worked closely with Primero Justicia, vehemently anti-Chávez organization directly linked to the coup. Two leaders of this organization, Leopoldo López and Leopoldo Martinez (who was named finance minister in the short-lived coup government), signed the Carmona decree during the brief coup that dissolved several of Venezuela’s basic democratic institutions. This decree, a shocking violation of constitutionality and democratic process in one of Latin America’s older democracies, was also signed by the heads of a number of other NED-funded organizations.
The IRI also purportedly partnered with the Venezuelan organization, Federación Participación Juvenal (FPJ, the Youth Participation Foundation.) Yet the FPJ proves to be surprisingly ephemeral; not only is it virtually unknown on the Internet, a large number of Venezuelan politicians and civil society leaders declared that they had never heard of it. In response, the Institute conceded that the FPJ was not currently extant, but asserted that it had been active in the 1998 elections organizing youth forums featuring the major presidential candidates. If real, the forums proved to be less than memorable, as neither the candidates nor the television stations supposedly involved have any recollection of the group.
Ultimately, perhaps the clearest evidence of the IRI’s cavalier behavior and its complicity in the anti-Chávez coup came from Washington, where the Institute’s president, George A. Folsom, jubilantly welcomed the president’s ouster. Since this represented a military uprising against a democratically elected president, Folsom’s enthusiasm was not entirely appropriate for the head of a tax-exempt organization that is almost entirely funded by US taxpayers, not all of whom support the IRI’s rather dubious version of democracy promotion. Folsom, although relatively unknown outside of his immediate circle, proved himself in this instance to be a neocon ideologue to the hilt, declaring that “the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country…[and] were provoked into action as a result of systematic repression by the Government of Hugo Chávez. He then went on to applaud “the bravery of civil society leaders – members of the media, the Church, the nation’s educators and school administrators, political party leaders, labor unions and the business sector – who have put their very lives on the line in their struggle to restore genuine democracy to their country.”
Even after the above rather overblown statement—a blatant, even exultant endorsement of an extra-constitutional transfer of power in a sovereign nation, in clear violation of several OAS resolutions —the IRI continued to receive generous funding (approximately $300,000) from the NED, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, for its Venezuela programming. The Institute also maintained its close partnership with the pro-coup Primero Justicia, not once denouncing its clearly anti-democratic stance in the tumultuous events of April, and even declared itself to be working “closely with Primero Justicia in developing the party’s platform.” One might wonder whether this platform will include respect for the democratic electoral processes that the IRI claims to be building in Venezuela and across Latin America.
Cuba: A Boost for the GOP in Miami?
Given the IRI’s ties to some of the most conservative and virulently anti-Castro Republican foreign policy figures—including former ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who sits on its board—it is hardly surprising that the group has enthusiastically embraced the right’s ratcheting up of its mindless crusade against Havana. The official IRI “background information” on Cuba includes a lengthy denunciation of the Castro government’s political, economic and human rights practices. Needless to say, comparable information is not included for a number of the other countries in which IRI operations are warmly received, yet which have suffered from abysmal human rights records for decades (such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, with their histories of brutal military governments suppressing leftist guerrilla movements, or Peru, with its infamous record of military justice under the antiterrorism decree-laws imposed by its former authoritarian president, Alberto Fujimori).
Furthermore, the IRI fails to take note of the less-than-exalted human rights practices of many of the rightist paramilitary organizations turned political parties that it has worked with and funded in Central America. On the contrary, the Castro government is the sole target of its vehement outrage over human rights abuses—even though, by any reasonable standard, the violations in that country were often far less serious than abuses that have long been commonplace over a protracted period elsewhere in the hemisphere. However, in the latter instance, these violations were committed by conservative regimes considered to be friendly to Washington’s policies. IRI’s capacity for selective indignation when it comes to rights violations is well known. It provides still further evidence that the Bush administration and its foreign policy surrogates—such as the Institute—are pursuing a well established strategy whereby human rights concerns, which have never been of particular interest to conservatives, serve primarily as a foil for a dogmatic anti-Communism strategy carried over from the Cold War years.
In fact, the IRI has made no small contribution to the Republican party’s relentless effort to use its human rights policy towards Cuba to secure crucial segments of the Cuban vote in one of the country’s most pivotal swing states—an effort witnessed earlier this year when President Bush announced a tightening of restrictions on travel of U.S. citizens to Cuba and remittances sent to relatives on the island, even though significant segments of the immigrant community, primarily more recent arrivals, have bitterly opposed such measures.
The Institute sponsors an extensive array of “pro-freedom” Cuban programs, partnering in this effort with the Cuban Democratic Directorate (the Directorio), which is, not surprisingly, based in Miami and closely linked to the city’s old guard, anti-Castro Cuban-American community. The Directorio’s work, funded by the IRI with money originally allocated by the NED, includes various nebulously defined informational, educational and media activities, as well as the creation of Cuban “solidarity committees” in Latin America and Europe. These programs, though theoretically devoted to the advancement of democracy, would not easily stand up to an audit, as they involve a good deal of dining, traveling and entertaining that has less to do with promoting democracy in Cuba than with contributing to the lifestyle of some Cuban-American boulevardiers. Furthermore, these organizations seem to serve primarily as a bully pulpit for the more extreme elements of Miami’s Cuban community to denounce Castro, who eliminated corruption and ended the favoritism enjoyed by many of their relatives during the golden era of longtime Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The Institute is also connected indirectly with another Cuban-American anti-Castro organization, the Center for a Free Cuba. USAID, which funded the IRI’s previous programs in Cuba from 1997 to 2002 with millions of dollars, simultaneously financed a number of other organizations theoretically devoted to democracy-building in Cuba, including the Center for a Free Cuba. Such programs represent an audacious raid on the U.S. Treasury and are little better than bag money given as a payoff to pro-Bush partisans who are being rewarded for getting out the vote. Current and past board members of the Center include Kirkpatrick, Otto Reich—whose membership in such a virulently anti-Havana organization would seem to constitute a clear conflict of interest with his public duties, recently ended, as a former interim Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs and subsequently as special presidential envoy to the hemisphere—and, not surprisingly, Georges Fauriol, vice-president and resident Latin American expert at the IRI. The CFC has a vague mission curiously akin to that of the Directorio, stating that it “gathers and disseminates information about Cuba and Cubans to the media, NGOs and the international community.”
The IRI’s work, which essentially amounts to the energetic propagandizing of a, distinctly skewed perception of Cuba’s current geopolitical realities hardly seems to be a “democracy building” activity of sufficient worth to warrant the allocation of a torrent of federal funds. Rather, it projects a picture whereby the IRI, in conjunction with the NED and USAID, plays the role of a cash cow, lavishing taxpayer funds on rump Cuban-American groups that generate no particular product other than the trumpeting of their own hard-line pitch. It should be asked, what any of these somewhat low grade archly sectarian propaganda groups have to do with the promotion of democracy in Cuba.
Behind this network of Cuban-American organizations, funded by the NED and the IRI, and led and supported by an array of ultra-conservative Republican figures, lies a clear political intent that is far different from simple “democracy promotion” in today’s Cuba. On the contrary, the goal of the generous funding for these organizations is to cement the Republican loyalty of some of the most wealthy and powerful members of the U.S.-based Cuban community, whose leadership eagerly defends the interests of such organizations in each funding cycle of the IRI and NED grant making. The IRI played an important role in paving the way for Governor Jeb Bush’s rise to power in Florida, appointing him as co-chair of an IRI “Cuba Transition Team” in 1995 after he lost his first race for governor of Florida. This position helped allow him to build the strong ties he maintains to this day with the most conservative faction of Florida’s Cuban-American community, which has been crucial to his gubernatorial victories as well as his brother’s victory four year ago in the presidential race. Such party-strengthening maneuvers are precisely the object of the IRI’s Cuba initiatives; the programming is nothing more than a pro-Republican rip off, funneling substantial amounts of federal funds to organizations with little or no purpose beyond offering a platform for the rantings of a handful of obsessively anti-Communist (and not coincidentally hard-line Republican) Cuban-Americans.
An Institute in Desperate Need of a Makeover
For the nearly two decades since its founding under the Reagan administration, the IRI has operated with virtual impunity, ranging across the hemisphere and the world to promote ultra-right Republican foreign policy objectives by selectively supporting kindred political parties and so-called “civil society organizations.” In the process, it has supported coups in Venezuela, allied itself with former military thugs in Haiti and promoted pro-U.S. and pro-corporate interests throughout Latin America disregarding the consequences of these activities for the hemisphere’s many fragile polities. The IRI has long been the dirty little secret of Washington’s conservative foreign policy establishment, a stealth weapon deployed as necessary. It is time that the true extent of the IRI’s activities be revealed and condemned. While the Institute should certainly be left to freely continue its work of sowing discord, factionalism and even staging coups across the hemisphere, it should not be doing so at the taxpayer’s expense nor with the White House’s automatic writ.