mcclatchyDC–A little known bureau of the U.S. State Department is giving nearly $1 million to a Washington think tank to promote peace in Venezuela and start identifying the building blocks for a new democratically run government.
But critics already see it as an effort by State to train the opposition at dialogue that undercuts President Donald Trump’s push to force Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to restore democracy.
“It’s a waste of taxpayer money,” said one congressional source familiar with the program. “They’ve tried to dialogue repeatedly and it hasn’t worked. It just buys Maduro time.”
The State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations paid $900,000 to the Atlantic Council in September with instructions to “promote non-violent conflict resolution” in Venezuela.
The council said the year-long project’s aim is to draw more international attention to the crisis, show the public what Venezuela could look like under new leadership and provide the opposition and other stakeholders the tools needed to work more cohesively together.
But the effort is already generating no small amount of controversy. According to people inside the U.S. government who favor a harder line against Maduro, the Atlantic Council spending is an effort by State to train the opposition to negotiate and prepare for a future if the government collapses while other parts of Trump’s administration have insisted on a sanctions-driven strategy.
With encouragement from South Florida Republicans, such as Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, Trump has been increasing pressure on Maduro to restore Democratic institutions to the nation sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves but now crumbling under the weight of a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis.
The Trump administration has followed suit, imposing a mix of personal and economic sanctions, including ones in August that largely blocked the South American country from being able to get much needed capital.
Venezuela has accused Washington of being the opposition’s puppet master. Just this week, Venezuela’s Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez threatened to discontinue talks with members of the Venezuelan opposition unless Washington lifted its sanctions.
The State Department wouldn’t address specific questions, including the amount or recipient of the funding, but said the goal is to work with organizations outside the government to “promote good governance, democracy, human rights, humanitarian assistance, and transparency around the world.”
Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, confirmed receiving the funding, but said the organization is not part of any negotiations between the opposition and Maduro. But he said they are working with partners on the ground in Venezuela to provide the opposition and other members of civil society with the tools needed to work more cohesively as a united coalition through their work organizing talks, collecting data and analysis.
“What we’re trying to do is address the fractures within the opposition,” Marczak said. “That is then helpful for the opposition’s overall stance because what the government wants is a divided opposition.”
The Venezuelan opposition is composed of many different political ideologies. While unified in their opposition to Maduro, there are many views of how to pull the South American country out of its current crisis. The opposition is often criticized for not having a vision for the country that goes beyond political change.
According to Atlantic Council, the organization will have two people dedicated to the year-long project. Working with several local partners, the Atlantic Council will conduct research and organize gatherings with those involved in the opposition and other stakeholders. It will hold one-on-one consultations and group consultations. It will review the electoral conditions. It also will make recommendations on how to improve the economy and ways alternative leaders can succeed.
The Atlantic Council said it also will bring leaders to Washington for public events. At the end of the year, it will produce a series of reports for the State Department on opportunities to move forward. Some of the reports should be public, but other parts will not, the group said.
The White House’s National Security Council, which has led the effort to increase pressure on Venezuela, referred questions to the State Department without saying whether the White House signed off on the arrangement.
The State Department would not provide details but said the contract was granted under what it called the “Peace Process Support Network.”
Not everyone sees the distinction between what the Atlantic Council says it is doing and training the opposition to negotiate with Maduro.
Members in both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations have expressed reservations about the use of public funds and whether its fits with the administration’s mission. The grant also sparked concerns at other agencies, such as USAID, according to a U.S. source who spoke with officials involved in the grant process. Some officials felt that supporting dialogue between the government and the opposition was useless and that the money should have gone to support other efforts in Venezuela.
“The United States on the one hand is taking a very forceful stance, on the other is talking about dialogue,” said the U.S. source. “This is naïve. This is stupid. This is a waste of money.”
Marczak has heard some of the concerns, but he thinks people are conflating his organization’s project with previous work of the State Department. He doesn’t see how working toward a common vision for the opposition can undermine the administration’s sanctions.
“We’re a think tank. We’re not at the negotiating table in any situation,” he said. “We’re doing what a think tank does. We’re providing research. We’re providing analysis. We’re doing consultations. We’re doing events. We’re doing the typical things that think tanks do.”