September 14, 2005

Chavez foes facing trial to get more U.S. funding

By Patrick Markey

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan activists facing
trial for receiving money from a U.S.-financed organization to
promote a vote last year against President Hugo Chavez have
gotten the group's approval for additional funding,
representatives said on Wednesday.

A Venezuelan judge last month ordered four members of the
Sumate civil association -- which backed the 2004 referendum
against Chavez -- tried for conspiracy after they received a
grant last year from the National Endowment for Democracy


The endowment is a nongovernmental organization funded by
the U.S. Congress to promote democracy internationally.

New Sumate financing could fuel already tense relations
between Washington and Chavez, an ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro
who often clashes with U.S. officials over his self-proclaimed
socialist revolution in oil exporter Venezuela.

Chavez brands Sumate traitors, while opposition leaders and
some U.S. officials say the group has been targeted in a
political witch hunt against critics of the former army soldier
turned president.

Sumate has been cleared for a $107,200 grant from the NED,
financing which will go toward a civil-rights and election
education campaign, Sumate and the NED said.

"What we are doing is within the framework of the law, and
does not violate any regulation. But of course we know that the
case against us is political in character," Sumate
representative Roberto Abdul told Reuters.

The grant, which will help to "strengthen the democratic
process in Venezuela" is approved but in the final stages of
being signed, NED spokeswoman Jane Riley Jacobsen said.

Earlier this year, a Sumate leader, Maria Corina Machada,
held talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in the White
House. The Venezuelan government slammed the meeting as a

The Sumate members face up to 16 years in prison if they
are convicted. No date has been set for their trial.

Sumate had previously received a $31,000 grant from NED.
Chavez has lambasted the endowment for backing opponents trying
to unseat him.

Last month, U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican,
wrote to Chavez asking him to stop the prosecution of the four
Sumate activists in a letter describing the prosecution as a
"grave threat to democracy" in Venezuela.

Chavez, an ex-army paratrooper elected in 1998 vowing to
combat poverty, often accuses Washington of trying to topple
him and backing a 2002 coup which he survived. He won the
August 2004 referendum, although opponents complained about
fraud, a charge international observers did not support.

U.S. officials reject Chavez's plot charges, but they
portray him as an authoritarian who undermines democracy at
home and destabilizes the region by promoting "new socialist"