As much as we enjoy puns in titles, Stephen Zunes’ recent defense of Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution (AEI) in the article “Sharp Attack Unwarranted,” doesn’t have much else going for it. Zunes spends most of his time diverting attention from the real issues: the AEI’s role in imperial projects, a role which is politically irresponsible at best and consciously undertaken at worst. Unfortunately, in the process of mounting such an unwavering and uncritical defense, Zunes compromises what he claims to be his own political values (especially with regard to the AEI’s training of the right-wing Venezuelan opposition).
Beating around the Bush (Administration)
Diverting attention is a sure sign that someone doesn’t have much in the way of an argument, and this seems to be the method of choice for the self-appointed defenders of the Albert Einstein Institution and its “Senior Scholar” Gene Sharp. Stephen Zunes’ article seems to tell us a great deal: that Sharp is an octogenarian with a cluttered home in a working-class area, a “mild-mannered intellectual” who gives “rather dry lectures,” that he has a long history of civil disobedience and an arrest record to match, that he was even under surveillance by the FBI. What Zunes doesn’t tell us is why this matters, or what it has to do with the AEI’s support of the Venezuelan opposition. Rather he merely asserts the paramount importance of the personal, claiming that “Gene Sharp’s personal history demonstrates the bizarre nature” of the charges we have leveled in the past.
But none of this matters, and while Zunes focuses on issues of personal history, what is more crucial is political fact. It matters little if Sharp is a sweet, old man (this being Zunes’ implication), that he loves his family, that he takes every opportunity to help those in need, that he donates to charity, that he has a small budget (although the $900,000 in assets that AEI declares suggest that Zunes is downplaying the organization’s financial capacity). To focus on such individual characteristics is something that American capitalism teaches us, ingrains in our very habits, and something that many “nonviolent” activists fetishize: as long as we remain individually pure, it doesn’t matter what happens around us (or better, what we allow to occur through our myopic individualism).
Nor is receiving funds directly from the US government what is crucial. Certainly, it should raise questions. Why, for example, was the Department of Defense willing to fund Gene Sharp’s 1960s doctoral dissertation? Why did the neoliberal National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and International Republican Institute (IRI) make donations to the AEI in the past? Why has Sharp himself insisted misleadingly in a letter to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez that “We have received no government funding ever,” knowing full well that the NED and IRI were created by the US government to conceal its covert activities behind a non-governmental façade, and that these very institutions constitute the spearhead of the imperial attack on the Venezuelan Revolution? (Incidentally, in an unpublished email, Zunes himself contradicts Sharp by admitting that these institutions do indeed constitute “government funding.”) Finally, why does the AEI divert attention by arguing that this NED and IRI funding occurred long ago, when the IRI is credited in the organization’s annual reports as sponsoring the AEI’s recent and ongoing efforts in Serbia and Burma?
But as we said, the real issue isn’t government funding: it’s the AEI’s willingness to play a role in imperial projects, a willingness that doesn’t require direct government funding to make it politically irresponsible and reprehensible. There can be little doubt at present that, as the media and international public opinion have gained strength, and as the United States’ imperial project has come under fire, it has turned its sights toward subtler forms of intervention, in which it erases its own tracks through a dense tangle of institutional linkages. This is a clever imperial strategy, and Zunes seems to buy it, hook, line, and sinker. In an era when the U.S. operates through grants from the NED or the IRI, Zunes goes out of his way to justify these institutions while demanding that critics of this strategy provide an unsurprisingly non-existent paper trail.
Responsibility, Not Conspiracy
But even here, we seem to agree (at least in private) with Zunes. In an email which evidently served as a rough draft for Zunes’ recent article, he argues that efforts to overthrow Chávez “must be exposed and categorically condemned,” and openly admits the irresponsibility of the AEI consultation policy:
Unfortunately, Sharp — who is now well into his 80s and whose health is failing — appears to show little discernment as to who he meets with and his audience has sometimes included some right-wing Cubans or Venezuelans who have sought him out to see if any of his research would be of relevance in their efforts to organize some kind of popular mobilization against the Castro or Chavez governments. Some of those may have indeed been later found to have engaged in assassination plots. But does that really constitute having “links” with assassins?
But rather than including this concern, Zunes’ published piece instead defends the AEI’s so-called “transpartisan” policy of meeting with “essentially anyone.” Why was this privately-expressed concern watered-down significantly before being published? Why does Zunes feel obligated to publicly defend positions that cause him concern privately? Evidently, even in his private communications, Zunes feels that old age and health give us an excuse to shirk political responsibility. He even, somewhat breathtakingly, sees this as justifying meeting with terrorists, something which we are sure the readers — his and ours — will find disconcerting.
Similarly, while in a previous defense Zunes claims not to have been aware of the activities of AEI operatives in Venezuela (an effort to distance himself from such activities, no doubt), even this nagging concern appears to have been jettisoned in his recent effort to put forward a blind, united-front defense of the AEI. Zunes, it seems, has decided that he is comfortable with the AEI’s destabilizing and reactionary role in the very country he claims to defend.
But on top of this, Zunes argues that “None of the institute’s critics has been able to provide evidence of a single violation of this [allegedly apolitical transpartisan consultation] policy.” We are fairly sure that such evidence has indeed been provided previously, but just in case doubts remain, we will show both the internal incoherence and political irresponsibility of the AEI’s consultation policy as well as the fact that the AEI itself has violated this policy in the case of Venezuela.
AEI’s “Transpartisan” Consulting
The policy of Sharp’s AEI in Venezuela demonstrates how potentially violent and how insistently political the agency’s consultation policy is, and yet how willing they themselves are to violate it.
But what, exactly, does this policy say? According to an AEI document, “the Einstein Institution is committed to democracy and freedom, the right of peoples to live, liberation from oppression, and to exploring and developing the viability of nonviolent struggle against military attacks and other types of political violence.” As a result, at least according to this policy document, the AEI does indeed make political decisions regarding who to consult (again despite Zunes’ claims): “It is not the Institution’s role to consult on how to defeat a nonviolent struggle movement which is resisting dictatorship, genocide, oppression, or aggressive war. Consultation with both sides in a given conflict is more likely and desirable when the distribution of rights and wrongs between the two contending groups is mixed.”
Furthermore, and revealingly, this policy even hedges the Institution’s bets by insisting that, if its objective is to reduce the incidence of violence in the world, it cannot limit itself to meeting with only proponents of nonviolence, but must also consult those who have used violence in the past and even those who continue to do so in the present. Under the guise of preaching to the unconverted, this purported institution of nonviolence justifies having associations with any and everyone, thereby freeing its hands of pesky ethical concerns. The logical extension of this “transpartisan” consultation policy is expressed in an email from Arthur Edelstein, who is credited as a “longtime supporter” in AEI literature, and who appears to be, besides Zunes, Gene Sharp’s only other self-appointed defender. Edelstein, like Zunes, justifies the policy of meeting with anyone, but unlike Zunes, takes this logic to its extreme: “The simple truth is that AEI members present their research to organizations that ask them to (finances permitting). If the State Department asked them to make a presentation, I believe they would be happy to.”
While it is clear that there is nothing neutral about such a policy, the AEI’s political orientation and sympathies still remain vague at best, but it is precisely this vagueness that proves so useful to the institution’s activities in Venezuela. How, we might ask, did it come to pass that the AEI consulted only with the anti-Chávez opposition, which has historically been on the side of violent coups and massacres? How could the institution have judged so erroneously the “distribution of rights and wrongs” in Venezuela, in violation of its own consultation policy?
Some light can be shed by the AEI’s own self-important resume of activities in Venezuela, which constitutes nothing more and nothing less than a rewriting of history through the eyes of the oligarchic opposition. We reproduce the entire passage, so that there will remain no doubt as to the institution’s own understanding of its role:
After his failed coup attempt in 1992, Hugo Chávez emerged victorious from the presidential elections in December 1998. Since then the regime has become increasingly authoritarian despite having been democratically elected. Soon after coming into office, Chávez drafted a new constitution, which significantly increased the powers of the presidency. Chávez’s popularity began to wane in December 2001 when he announced by decree a set of 49 new laws affecting industries including banking, agriculture and oil. People reacted by taking to the streets for a one day nationwide civil strike. The government responded with violent repression against the protesters. In this climate, the opposition has had difficulty mobilizing. Venezuelan society is extremely polarized as a result, and poised for the potential outbreak of violence.
Venezuelans opposed to Chávez met with Gene Sharp and other AEI staff to talk about the deteriorating political situation in their country. They also discussed options for opposition groups to further their cause effectively without violence. These visits led to an in-country consultation in April 2003. The nine-day consultation was held by consultants Robert Helvey and Chris Miller in Caracas for members of the Venezuelan democratic opposition. The objective of the consultation was to provide them with the capacity to develop a nonviolent strategy to restore democracy to Venezuela. Participants included members of political parties and unions, nongovernmental organization leaders, and unaffiliated activists. Helvey presented a course of instruction on the theory, applications and planning for a strategic nonviolent struggle. Through this, the participants realized the importance of strategic planning to overcome existing shortcomings in the opposition’s campaign against Chávez. Ofensiva Ciudadana, a pro-democracy group in Venezuela, requested and organized the workshop. This workshop has led to continued contact with Venezuelans and renewed requests for additional consultations (AEI Annual Report, 2000-2004, pp. 20-21).
Lest we fail to realize who attended the consultation, the meeting was also covered by Reuters on April 30th 2003, in an article noting that it took place in the utmost secrecy at an elite private Venezuelan university in eastern Caracas, with a sign on the door reading only “Seminar on Strategic Marketing.” The article continues: “The attendees included representatives of Venezuela’s broad-based but fragmented opposition, who are struggling to regroup after failing to force Chavez from office in an anti-government strike in December and January.” And, we could add, a murderous and anti-democratic (if botched) coup.
Anyone familiar with recent Venezuelan history will immediately spot a number of politically-motivated distortions of history, most egregiously the claim of Chávez’s authoritarianism, the claim of waning popularity, the claim that the government was responsible for the violence of April 11th 2002 (when it has been decisively demonstrated that it was the very same opposition supported by the “nonviolent” AEI that massacred dozens on that day), the revealing absence of any mention of the subsequent anti-democratic coup whatsoever, and the claim that far-right opposition group Ofensiva Ciudadana (whose members were associated with that coup) is “pro-democracy.”
Could there remain any doubt that the AEI indeed has taken a political position on Venezuela, and that Sharp’s claim to be “neither pro-Chávez nor anti-Chávez” is utterly farcical? On the surface, perhaps, but a more subtle view would see how the vague nature of AEI’s consultation policy allows the institution to follow a more winding and sinister path: from nominal neutrality through tacit judgment, through fake history, and on to the very reversal of reality. And once we reach this point, all traces of the “distribution of rights and wrongs” that would favor the Venezuelan left have been erased. We don’t need to explain the circularity of this path: the AEI’s intervention is justified by the history it re-writes.
A direct question is in order: Stephen Zunes, do you endorse this view? Had the 2002 coup not been heroically reversed, would the AEI have admitted that a popular government had been overthrown? Evidently not, as they had already rewritten history to suit their very clear political agenda. And yet Zunes insists: “What motivates me is that there are real threats out there to rolling back Venezuela’s exciting and ambitious socialist initiatives and we need to focus on countering them, not being sidetracked by paranoid fantasies against phantom enemies.” The United States is a “phantom enemy”? Is the coup-mongering Venezuelan opposition a “phantom enemy”? The United States, with its openly imperial designs? Clearly not, and yet Zunes’ sleight-of-hand is meant to conceal the AEI’s involvement with these very real enemies.
We are left wondering: is this mere coincidence? Was it a simple error (or rather, several errors) of historical fact that led AEI into the hands of a violent opposition seeking a new strategy? While the AEI’s nominal defense of abstract nonviolence — embodied by Gene Sharp himself — might lead us to this conclusion, his is but one of the Janus-faces of the AEI, and to grasp the deeper truth of the Institution’s role, we must also turn to the other face of the AEI: Robert Helvey.
But first, Sharp. Despite the AEI’s clearly political orientation, Sharp nevertheless conceals himself in a subterfuge of abstract nonviolence. In an email, Sharp himself uses this abstract faith to justify AEI’s intervention in Venezuela:
If we had refused the request for a workshop for the Venezuelan resisters, some of them would possibly have concluded the “only” option to be another coup d’état, riots, assassinations, or even a foreign invasion, as in Iraq. . . Would you have recommended that the dissident Venezuelans instead use violence?
Here, perhaps, we have the best proof yet of the reactionary nature of an abstract insistence on nonviolence. Sure, we know that the historic role of principled nonviolence has been a mixed bag: when peoples the world over picked up arms for their own liberation, nonviolent activists largely allowed their silence to speak, at best criticizing moments of excessive repression by the forces of reaction, at worst passively allowing and facilitating that repression. Sure, when the Black Panthers were targeted for FBI assassination, their allegedly confrontational and violent orientation prevented any sort of organized defense by the “nonviolent” left. Sure, we already knew that “nonviolence” in the face of violence is more often than not — by virtue of refusing to adopt a position — a tacit endorsement of that violence. (As Michael Barker puts it in an article critical of Zunes, “All peace activists want peace, but do activists want peace at any cost?” For Sharp and Zunes, the answer appears to be affirmative.)
But here, we have an apologistic justification, plain and simple, one which would equally apply to a variety of more reprehensible contexts. It would justify training the FBI to facilitate the “nonviolent” liquidation of the Black Panthers or any other insurgent movement in the US or abroad. It would justify consulting the Nazis in an effort to convince them that a “nonviolent” solution like deportation or mass imprisonment would be preferable to the Final Solution. Or, closer to the case in point, advising the United States government that — so long as its empire is achieved “nonviolently” — it can count on the legitimacy provided by the recognized standard-bearers of the philosophy of nonviolence.
Let’s cut through all the other arguments: could anyone on the left possibly endorse this view? Are we so politically impoverished that we cannot judge when and where armed resistance is justified? Are we so ethically impoverished that we can use nonviolence to support collusion with the right? We will be accused of misrepresentation, but the underlying logic is the same, and no quantity of celebrity signatures, no wealth of biographical detail, can erase this fact. Even if AEI were a consistently apolitical proponent of nonviolent strategies, we can see that this would represent a politically-irresponsible position. To refuse to take a position, as existentialism reminds us, is to take a position. While Sharp claims with regard to this abstract nonviolence, “We operate on what we regard as a deeper level,” it’s clear that this position is in fact much shallower.
Disavowing Robert Helvey
But what of the other side of the AEI, the more covert side, which doesn’t bother with the adornments of ethical arguments?
It was only recently that we realized a peculiar trend in the (unsolicited) responses to our work by the self-appointed defenders of the AEI and Gene Sharp. Firstly, in a prior email, Zunes asserted — without elaborating — that Robert Helvey and Chris Miller (both mentioned in the above report on AEI’s activities in Venezuela) “are not ‘AEI staffers.'” This claim is especially peculiar, not so much because the two are named in the AEI’s own documents as having carried out the AEI consultation in Venezuela, but moreover because at the time the 2000-2004 Annual Report was written, Helvey was AEI’s President! To disavow a former president of the Institution you seek to defend: a strange tactic indeed.
That is, until we begin to delve into Helvey’s history and philosophy. Helvey is a retired US Army Colonel, a graduate of the US Army General Command Staff College and the Navy War College. Helvey’s prior experience includes service in Vietnam, association with the US Defense Intelligence College and Defense Intelligence Agency, and several years as the US Military Attaché in Burma. While still in the Army, Helvey recalls having stumbled across a seminar given by Sharp at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs:
He started out the seminar by saying, “Strategic nonviolent struggle is all about political power. How to seize political power and how to deny it to others.” And I thought, “Boy, this guy’s talking my language.” And, you know, that’s what armed struggle is about.
So much for Sharp’s self-image — which Zunes apparently believes — as the advocate of a principled, ethical approach to nonviolent action.
It has been Helvey above all who has weaponized Sharp’s nonviolence, arguing in his book On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict (published in 2004 by the AEI) that “nonviolent strategy is no different from armed conflict, except that very different weapons systems are employed” (xi). It was not a major transition, then, for this self-professed “professional soldier” to shift toward nonviolence, especially since he even admits that nonviolent strategies can coexist with violent ones! Indeed, while Zunes accuses us of falling prey to the “realpolitik myth,” he would do better to turn his gaze to this former president of the institution he goes to such lengths to defend. Helvey is a realpolitiker par excellence (as is Sharp, it would seem), but one who couches his power games in the language of nonviolence.
The tactic of disavowal is repeated by the AEI’s other self-appointed defender, Arthur Edelstein, who argues in an email that it was Helvey who served as liaison to the über-reactionary International Republican Institute (IRI), currently chaired by John McCain and responsible for, among other things, training and funding coup plotters from Haiti to Venezuela. This close relationship with the IRI is confirmed by Helvey himself, but while Edelstein deploys this assertion, inexplicably, to clear the AEI of any blame, surely the link cannot but reflect badly on the Institution as a whole and Sharp in particular, who no doubt had a hand in naming Helvey president.
In reality, the Janus-faces of these two figures — Sharp with his façade of ethical nonviolence and Helvey with his nonviolence as realpolitik — are a very convenient ploy for the AEI’s operations. When critics like ourselves highlight US government funding via the IRI, self-appointed defenders like Zunes and Edelstein reply in ethical terms. When we note the AEI’s links with the violent and anti-democratic right in Venezuela, we are told that AEI’s “consultation policy” allows it in the name of abstract nonviolence. And, no doubt, if Chávez is overthrown by “nonviolent” means, if the Venezuelan struggle for social justice is set back decades and violent repression returns, we will no doubt be told that while the collateral damage is unfortunate, what we are really seeing is the victory of nonviolence. Such is the carnival mirror that is the Albert Einstein Institution.
Contradictory Self-Deprecation and Smears
Given all the contradictions entailed, how can someone like Zunes, who allegedly defends the Venezuelan process and who privately admits the political errors of AEI and Gene Sharp, continue to defend the Institution’s “transpartisan” consultation policy and activities in Venezuela?
A first strategy is to contradict the entire basis for AEI’s work by essentially arguing that nonviolence isn’t actually a particularly powerful strategy. As he puts it in his article, “No government that had the support of the majority of its people has ever been overthrown through a nonviolent civil resistance movement.” In other words: don’t worry, nonviolence won’t take you out as long as you’re popular. Unfortunately, this minimization of the strategic utility of nonviolence contradicts AEI’s controversial former President Robert Helvey, who argues in his book on the subject that “experience has shown that nonviolent struggle is an effective means of waging conflict” (xi). According to this view, the AEI position seems to be to attempt to rid the world of violence by giving violent people powerful weapons.
Furthermore, it seems quite impossible to prove Zunes’ empirical point that no popular government has been nonviolently overthrown, especially since the AEI seems willing to write Chávez’s lack of popular support into its Orwellian history, and since much is known about the efforts of professional polling firms like Penn, Schoen, and Berland to provoke coups through polling (much like AEI, from Serbia to Venezuela).
Either nonviolence is effective or it isn’t. To claim that it couldn’t be strategically deployed by a minority is nonsense: 49%, and even as few as 10% of a population is a lot of people to be engaging in nonviolent actions against a government. This view, moreover, neglects all of the other myriad powers that intersect with the political realm. Few would deny that, say, a dedicated 5% of the population, in conjunction with 90% of the media, economic control of 90% of a nation’s resources, and full support of a foreign superpower would be able to dispense with a government without recourse to openly violent strategies. This, in fact, was the case of the opposition oil sabotage against Chávez that took place in late 2002 and early 2003, in which a small number of oligarchs and right-wingers nonviolently destroyed the Venezuelan economy during more than two months. Surprisingly, Zunes cites this as proof of his theory that popular governments can’t be overthrown by nonviolent means. Unfortunately, it’s quite clearly a case of the exception proving the rule: certainly, heroic popular support for Chávez played a role in the government’s survival, but given the economic crisis that the sabotage involved, the government’s survival was utterly unprecedented.
A secondary strategy deployed by Zunes, it seems, is that of smearing his opponents, but fortunately such smears are hysterically risible and transparent in their objective. All critics of the AEI, it seems, are either racists or (here echoing McCarthyism) Marxist-Leninists, or preferably both. Evidently, anyone questioning the AEI’s dubious political affiliations is guilty of harboring the “racist attitude that the peoples of non-Western societies are incapable of deciding on their own to resist illegitimate authority without some Western scholar telling them to do so.” Coming from someone who demands a concrete paper trail before criticizing the AEI, such a glaring non sequitir is really surprising.
And this all the more so when we reflect for a moment on the abstract devotion to nonviolence that nominally undergirds the work of both the AEI and Zunes himself. An abstract devotion to nonviolence imposes a preordained strategy on local actors for ethical reasons derived from the comfort of the US. AEI and Zunes, so it seems, would have no problem imperialistically imposing a nonviolent strategy upon those inhabiting other parts of the world, struggling against oppression under a variety of conditions in which nonviolent action may prove ineffective at best or disastrous at worst. Against this, we believe that all people are capable of both rebellion and crafting a balance between revolutionary ethics and strategic necessity, and those who know how best to do so are those involved directly with the struggle. Who’s the racist?
The New Strategy
The Albert Einstein Institution plays a key role in the new generation of imperial designs of the United States. As we have seen, however, this is not because the individuals that constitute it are evil (though some certainly have dubious politics) or because it has received funding from the empire (it has). Rather, the issue is far more one of function: the AEI fits perfectly into the new imperial strategy of the US, perhaps best summarized in the much-vaunted revision by General Petraeus of the US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which argues pointedly that “some of the best weapons . . . do not shoot” (1-27). As a result, it should be of no surprise that violent organizations like the Venezuelan exile group ORVEX — who have in the past called for Chávez’s assassination and advocated bombing the Caracas Metro — are now advocating a “nonviolent” strategy and celebrating the work of Gene Sharp.
After realizing the power of asymmetrical warfare in Vietnam, the United States began to pioneer ways of turning this warfare of the weak to its advantage. Chile, Nicaragua, and dozens of other countries served as the testing ground, and Venezuela is the current focus. Having failed to topple Chávez through a coup and massive economic sabotage (methods employed in the Chile intervention) or through financial intervention into electoral politics (a method used to ensure “regime change” in Nicaragua), few options remain on the table. Given the opposition’s failures, it is widely known that their efforts have turned to the “soft coup” model. This is where the AEI and “nonviolent” regime change become central. With or without the blessings of Gene Sharp (or Stephen Zunes), nonviolent strategies have been used, are being used, and will continue to be used against the people of Venezuela and their radical democratic and socialist experiment. Irresponsible? Yes. Dangerous? Certainly.
But we need to recognize the AEI for what it is and be willing to honestly critique its errors if we are to move forward in the struggle against imperialist domination. If Zunes is so concerned for the Venezuelan Revolution, then surely the correct course of action is to urge his good friend Gene Sharp to immediately cut all ties with a Venezuelan opposition that has proven its reactionary nature and disposition to violence, rather than engaging in unfounded attacks and smears against those defending the process.
Eva Golinger and George Ciccariello-Maher have based their ad hominem attack on me (“Making Excuses for Empire”) on the fallacy that if you defend someone from false accusations of a crime, you must therefore support the crime itself. For example, I have spoken out in defense of some Arab-Americans falsely accused by the U.S. government of involvement in international terrorism and having links to Al-Qaeda because I believed the evidence against them was weak or non-existent and there was considerable evidence supporting their innocence. That does not mean — despite what right-wing pundits have claimed — that I support terrorism or Al-Qaeda. Similarly, just because I believe that many of the accusations against Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution which claim that they are working with the U.S. government as part of an imperialist plot to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Venezuela are false, are not supported by any credible evidence, and are contradicted by considerable evidence to the contrary, it does not mean that I support efforts to overthrow the Venezuelan government or in any way support U.S. imperialism.
Yet this is exactly what Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher claimed in their article. Despite my longstanding solidarity work regarding Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Grenada going back to the 1980s and my more recent efforts in support of Venezuela and Bolivia — not to mention my better-known work in opposition to U.S. imperialism in the Middle East — I have been accused on this web site of “Making Excuses for Empire.” In reality, as anyone familiar with my work know — including the hundreds of students who have taken my classes on Latin American politics and U.S. foreign policy — I have never made excuses for empire and never will. (Those who would question my anti-imperialist credentials should check out my web site: www.stephenzunes.org.)
The apparent basis for these ridiculous attacks against me was an article I wrote back in June for the progressive web site Foreign Policy in Focus challenging a series of false accusations against Gene Sharp, the noted scholar of strategic nonviolent action, and his tiny NGO known as the Albert Einstein Institution, some of which were posted on this web site.
At the outset, it should be noted that I am far from being alone in defending Sharp and his institute against these false charges. Though Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher falsely claimed in their article that Arthur Edelstein “appears to be, besides Zunes, Sharp’s only other self-appointed defender,” in reality, scores of prominent anti-imperialist scholars and activists have gone on record defending Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution from these spurious attacks, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Stephen Shalom, Dan Ellsberg, Frida Berrigan, Paul Ortiz, George Lakey, Greg Bates, Sandino Gomez, Mary Bull, Matt Meyer, Elizabeth McAllister, Matthew Rothschild, Paul Loeb, Mark Lance, Greg Guma, Paul Engler, Cynthia Boaz, Bill Sutherland, and David Swanson, among many others.
Do Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher really expect readers to believe that all of them are also “making excuses for Empire” by defending Gene Sharp from such spurious attacks?” These men and women are among the most active and prominent critics of U.S. imperialism anywhere and it is totally unreasonable for Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher to imply that their challenging false, misleading and unsubstantiated accusations against a scholar and his institution constitutes a defense of U.S. imperialism.
I will address the directly their allegations as well as address the more legitimate concerns regarding Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution below, but first I feel obliged to respond to the false claims contained in their recent article against me personally.
Correcting the False Accusations about Me
I would encourage readers to look at the original article of mine which is the subject of Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher’s because they grossly distort what I actually said.
For example, Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are not telling the truth when they claim I “go out of my way to defend” the actions of the National Endowment for Democracy or the International Republican Institution. Indeed, I have been harshly critical of those institutions, particularly their involvement in Venezuela. I have simply said that Sharp and his institute are not part of such efforts since they have never received any financial support from or coordinated with these institutions for any of their activities related to that country. Indeed, the only links the Albert Einstein Institution has ever had with these two Congressionally-funded foundations was receiving two small grants back in the 1990s to translate some of Sharp’s scholarly works.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are also not telling the truth when they claim that I am “comfortable” with those who would play a “destabilizing and reactionary role” in Venezuela. In reality, I have found such counterrevolutionary activities totally reprehensible and have repeatedly condemned them. I have simply stated that I believe that Sharp and his institution are not playing such a destabilizing and reactionary role.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are not telling the truth yet again when they claim that I “would have no problem imperialistically imposing a nonviolent strategy upon those inhabiting other parts of the world.” In reality, I oppose any efforts of any outsiders imposing any strategy — nonviolent or violent — upon others, have said so repeatedly and have seen no evidence that Sharp or his institute engage in such practices either.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are not telling the truth still further when they claim I give my “blessings” to the reactionary forces in Venezuela and anywhere else. Indeed, I have been outspoken in my opposition to such sinister efforts.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are also wrong in claiming that I am somehow defending the Albert Einstein Institution’s activities in Venezuela. I was only defending them against false and exaggerated charges. I do not support the very limited but still, in my view, highly-problematic work they have done with Venezuelan oppositionists. Defending someone from false accusations does not mean that one does not also recognize that some other criticisms may be valid and justified.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are also not telling the truth when they claim that I have never publically expressed my serious concerns regarding contacts by Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution with the Venezuelan opposition and other right-wing elements or that I have never expressed my disagreement with a paragraph on the group’s web site which includes what I consider to be a rather simplistic and over-critical analysis of the political situation in Venezuela. I have done so on a number of occasions and freely reiterate my strong objections to both. I simply argue that this does not constitute proof of the many wild accusations which have appeared on this web site claiming that they are major players in destabilizing the country.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are again not telling the truth in claiming that Gene Sharp is my “good friend.” The extent of my relationship with Dr. Sharp has been in meeting him on about a dozen occasions in professional contexts and through occasional correspondence.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are also totally inaccurate in implying that I somehow believe that the U.S. government or the coup-mongering Venezuelan opposition somehow constitutes a “phantom enemy.” It is all too real and I have said so on many occasions. The “phantom enemy” I was referring to was this tiny NGO falsely accused of being part of some U.S.-led conspiracy to overthrow Venezuela’s democratically-elected government.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher also totally misrepresent me by claiming that I somehow “want peace at any cost.” I am not a pacifist and, as anybody familiar with my writings and public lectures will tell you, I recognize that peace can only be rooted in economic and social justice. I do believe that armed revolutionary struggle is, in some cases, morally justifiable, though I also believe that strategic nonviolent action can in the vast majority of cases be more effective and with less damaging consequences.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are also incorrect in claiming that I depict Sharp as representing a “principled, ethical approach to nonviolent action.” In reality, while he was active in the radical pacifist movement as a young man, I have pointed out both in articles and in public lectures that Sharp has subsequently approached nonviolent action from a strategic and pragmatic orientation.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are also false in claiming that I said anyone questioning the Albert Einstein Institution for working with dubious political figures as being guilty of harboring the “racist attitude.” The accusation of racism in my article was only in reference to those who have made such false accusations as those which claim Sharp was personally responsible for recent uprisings in Burma, Tibet and other places where — unlike Venezuela — the majority of the people clearly oppose their government and argue that the people of these countries, despite a history of generations of resistances, are somehow incapable of taking action themselves in defying what they see as illegitimate authority without some white American academic telling them to do so.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are also incorrect in claiming that I believe that “critics of the AEI, it seems, are either racists or (here echoing McCarthyism) Marxist-Leninists, or preferably both.” In my original article, I speculated that many of those who put forward arguments that massive nonviolent insurrections in the Global South could only take place as a result of manipulation of a handful of white Westerners appeared to reflect a vanguard mentality that understates the power of ordinary people to create change and, in a few extreme cases, a racist attitudes that people of color can only be prompted to rebel by white outsiders. In no way was I implying that all critics of AEI were racists and/or Marxist-Leninists.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are also misleading readers in implying that my argument rested primarily on Gene Sharp’s personal attributes. A reading of my original article demonstrates that the thrust of my argument was rebutting the false charges themselves.
Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher are wrong yet again in implying I was being disingenuous or manipulative in differentiating between published articles and private communications, since the excerpt they quoted was not a private communication but was actually from a submission for posting on the Counterpunch web site.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that those who would manufacture false information about Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution would make false statements about me as well. It is still profoundly disappointing, however.
Where’s the Proof?
Apparently, in making the various charges against Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution, neither Golinger or Ciccariello-Maher even bothered to interview Sharp or anyone else affiliated with AEI, nor have they apparently interviewed anyone who had participated in any of their workshops, nor have they ever attended any lecture or workshops.
By contrast, I have.
As a result, I believe I have a better sense of what Sharp and AEI have done than does Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher. And, based on the lack of evidence they present that Sharp is working with the U.S. government or right-wing Venezuelans to stage a coup against Hugo Chavez and considerable evidence suggesting that Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution would never do such a thing, I believe the facts weigh against them. Readers can decide for themselves.
Yet, because I challenge the accuracy of their uninformed accounts, I have suddenly been charged with “Making Excuses for Empire.” In other words, if you dare disagree with their groundless assertions by resorting to the evidence, you must therefore be an imperialist, even if you have spent your life fighting imperialism as an activist and scholar. One would hope that they would at least have the decency — even if they disagree with my conclusions — to trust that my belief that Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution are not guilty as charged is sincere and not try to make readers believe that I am somehow engaged in some kind of cover-up in support of U.S. imperialism.
Indeed, one has to wonder how attacking and distorting the views of a highly-visible leftist professor on a progressive website such as this advances the Venezuelan cause or the struggle against U.S. imperialism at a time when unity and solidarity is so critical.
Rather than speculate on their motivations or who encouraged them to write such an article attacking me, however, let’s look at the facts about Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution’s role in Venezuela:
Discerning Real Threats from Phony Threats
In the interest of accuracy and in the interest of maintaining the credibility of those of us who oppose efforts by the U.S. government to subvert, undermine or overthrow the democratically-elected government of Venezuela, it is important to distinguish between real threats from phony threats.
As most readers of this web site know, the Bush administration has been involved in a quiet but persistent and illegitimate intervention in Venezuela, utilizing a number of U.S. government agencies and Congressionally-funded organizations to fund, train and otherwise support right-wing opposition groups, often in the name of promoting “democracy,” in part through the utilization of such Congressionally-funded foundations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). Such efforts must be exposed and categorically condemned.
However, most of the charges which have appeared on this web site regarding Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution — as well as similar NGOs, such as the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) and the Center for the Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) — for their alleged involvement in such sinister efforts are categorically false.
Like the boy who cried “Wolf!,” the ongoing circulation of these inaccurate claims hurts the credibility of those of us working in solidarity with the people of Venezuela and make it all the more difficult to expose and counter the very real plots to overthrow Chavez.
For example, in a previous article, Golinger claimed that Sharp had written “a big destabilization plan aiming to overthrow Chavez government and to pave the way for an international intervention” including sabotage and street violence. Similarly, in her otherwise-excellent book Bush vs. Chavez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, Golinger falsely claims that the Albert Einstein Institution has developed a plan to overthrow that country’s democratically elected government through training right-wing paramilitaries to use “widespread civil disobedience and violence throughout the nation” in order to “provoke repressive reactions by the state that would then justify crises of human right violations and lack of constitutional order.”
Interestingly, no one to my knowledge has ever seen this supposed “big destabilization plan” or shown any evidence of AEI training of right-wing paramilitaries. If such a written destabilization plan really exists, I challenge Golinger to either make it public or let it be known through what sources she learned of its existence. Similarly, if the Albert Einstein Institution has indeed trained right-wing paramilitaries, she should make such evidence public.
Given that Sharp and the Einstein Institution have consistently and vehemently opposed all forms violence and sabotage, such accusations are particularly ludicrous. Having read thousands of pages of Sharp’s writings and attended a number of lectures and seminars by Sharp, I have never heard him advocating violence or sabotage of any kind. Similarly, none of the scores of people I have interviewed who have attended a seminar or consultation with Sharp recall him ever advocating such violence, particularly in the cause of U.S. imperialism, nor has anyone who has actually worked with him ever known him to draw up a destabilization plan for any country. Indeed, those who have actually read his work would immediately recognize that it is not the nature of his research and writing and recognized that such claims are bogus.
Again, I challenge Golinger or anyone else to produce any supposed “big destabilization plan” for Venezuela produced by the Albert Einstein Institution or to cite any credible source who has actually seen such a plan.
(The only citation Golinger provides to support her allegation of this “big destabilization plan” for Venezuela is Sharp’s book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, written more than 35 years ago, in which he outlines close to 200 exclusively nonviolent tactics which have been used historically, very few of which were ever used to overthrow governments and none of which were ever used to overthrow democratically-elected governments. Furthermore, it includes no destabilization plan aimed at Venezuela or any other country.)
Similarly, in another article which was posted on this website, Thierry Meyssan insisted that “Gene Sharp and his team led the leaders of [the opposition group] Súmate during the demonstrations of August 2004.” In reality, neither Sharp nor anybody else affiliated with the Albert Einstein Institution even took part in — much less led – those demonstrations. Nor were any of them anywhere near Venezuela during that period. Nor have I seen any evidence that suggests that any of them were in contact with any of the leaders during that demonstration. In fact, Gene Sharp has never even been to Venezuela.
Again, I challenge anyone to produce any evidence whatsoever that Sharp or anyone affiliated with Albert Einstein institution led or were even present during those demonstrations.
In another article which appeared in this web site, George Ciccariello-Maher falsely accuses Sharp of having links with right-wing Venezuelan assassins and terrorists and offering training “toward the formulation of what was called ‘Operation Guarimba,’ a series of often-violent street blockades that resulted in several deaths.” I challenge Ciccariello-Maher to provide any evidence whatsoever that Sharp offered training in support of Operation Guarimba or any street blockades or any violence. (The only thing Ciccariello-Maher could come up with in the article regarding Sharp’s alleged role in masterminding this operation is an unsolicited meeting with a right-wing Venezuelan opposition leader who visited him in Boston, though I am unaware of any evidence suggesting such actions were discussed in such a meeting and Ciccariello-Maher has thus far failed to produce any.) There has never been any credible report of Sharp having ever been involved in training in support for any violent actions whatsoever and Ciccariello-Maher has failed to produce any evidence as to why, for the first time in his nearly sixty-year career, Sharp would suddenly do so now.
(This notion of being in the same room at the same time constitutes “links to terrorists” — as Ciccariello-Maher alleges — reminds me of when Gene Sharp was in the West Bank several years ago and, among the hundreds of Palestinians who showed up to meet with him, were a couple of Palestinians who were affiliated with militias that later engaged in attacks which killed Israeli civilians. As a result, right-wing Zionists started claiming that Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution was “linked to terrorists.” It is disappointing that those on the left are willing to stoop to such a level of guilt-by-physical-proximity.)
The only other example cited in Ciccariello-Maher’s article of a supposed role of Sharp and his institute in the emergence of the anti-Chavez movement was a photo of a stylized clinched fist found in some AEI literature (taken from a student-led protest movement in Serbia eight years ago) which matched those which appeared on some signs later carried by anti-Chavez protesters in Venezuela. If you are alleging a conspiracy, you really do have to provide stronger evidence than that.
The Funding Issue
Despite Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher’s claims to the contrary, neither Gene Sharp nor the Albert Einstein Institution has ever “received funds directly from the U.S. government.” Nor, as Golinger claimed in a previous article on this web site, has the Albert Einstein Institution ever been “State Department-funded.” I challenge either of them to make available any evidence supporting such claims.
It is true that Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution have received a some U.S. government funding indirectly through Congressionally-funded foundations, but such support was very limited, took place some years ago, and was for special projects, not operational expenses. The Albert Einstein Institution received a couple of small grants from NED and IRI back in the 1990s to translate some of Sharp’s scholarly work. In addition, nearly forty years ago (and fifteen years prior to the founding of the Einstein Institution), Sharp received partial research funding for his doctoral dissertation from Harvard University professor Thomas Schelling, who had in turn received support from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense to fund doctoral students.
That is the extent of Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution’s “government funding.” These grants from these Congressionally-funded programs account for less than one-tenth of one per cent of what Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution has received for its work over the years, the vast majority of which has come from individuals and private foundations supportive of nonviolent action in support of human rights and democracy. Their sources of funding are of public record and anyone who would actually bother look at it would find the vast majority of contributors are liberals and leftists and left/liberal foundations. Not one penny, direct or indirectly, has come to Gene Sharp or the Albert Einstein Institution from the U.S. government since either George Bush or Hugo Chavez came to office. I would challenge Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher to find any evidence otherwise.
Accepting those small grants some years ago does not make one an agent for U.S. imperialism any more than would an artist accepting a couple of small grants from the National Endowment for the Arts or a writer accepting a couple of small grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, or a community clinic accepting a couple of small grants from the National Institute of Health. There are literally thousands of progressive individuals and community groups which have received small grants over the course of the past several decades for special projects from Congressionally-funded foundations which, as with the case of the Albert Einstein Institution, constitutes only a tiny percentage of their income and does not represent support by a given administration or subservience to their agenda.
To claim that these rather insignificant federally-subsidized grants constitutes government approval or government oversight of their actions is as ridiculous as those charges leveled in 1992 against President George H.W. Bush by his far right-wing rival for the Republican presidential nomination Patrick Buchanan, who insisted that NEA grants to gay photographers and filmmakers constituted Bush administration approval of a pro-gay and anti-Christian agenda.
As anyone actually familiar with how such Congressionally-funded foundations work, thousands of grants are awarded annually to individuals and nonprofit organizations which do not meet any particular ideological litmus test of the U.S. government. While any Congressionally-funded institution will inevitably be ideologically-slanted to some degree, it does not mean that every allocation of funding to every individual or group gets the approval of top political officials. There have been a number of well-documented cases, for example, where NED-funded projects helped opposition activists against U.S.-backed dictatorships. Such cases are in the minority, to be sure, and do not justify much of NED’s activities which appear to be designed to promote U.S. imperialism, but it would be wrong to assume that the U.S. government and all of the foundations funded with Congressional money are somehow monolithic and closely coordinate their activities.
For example, if Golinger a Ciccariello-Maher are able to produce any evidence suggesting that the content Sharp’s doctoral dissertation in any way advanced the cause of U.S. imperialism or its content was influenced in any way whatsoever by the Pentagon, I challenge them to make such evidence public.
I wish Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution had never accepted such funding. I wouldn’t accept such funding personally. The fact that they did, however, does not make them agents of U.S. imperialism or constitute evidence that they are plotting with the U.S. government to overthrow Chavez.
What Sharp and Einstein Have Actually Done vis-à-vis Venezuela
Notwithstanding all these false allegations, there have indeed been some real connections between Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution and some elements of the Venezuelan opposition.
Given the nature of much of the Venezuelan opposition and my support for the goals of the Bolivarian Revolution, I have not and do not support such contacts, and efforts by Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher to imply otherwise are totally inaccurate and unfair.
However, these contacts have been very limited and not particularly significant.
To the best of my knowledge, the sum total of contacts between Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution with members of the Venezuelan opposition have limited to the following:
In 2002, a small number of oppositionists of varying ideological orientations visited Gene Sharp in Boston to learn more about his research on strategic nonviolent action in the hope that they might utilize some of these strategies against Chavez. It was the Venezuelans, not Sharp or anyone related to the Albert Einstein Institution, who initiated the contact. They were among the scores of unsolicited visitors Sharp receives annually, which have also included Palestinians struggling against the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, Equatoguineans struggling against the U.S.-back Obiang regime, Thais struggling against the U.S.-backed junta, Egyptians struggling against the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime and scores of others.
In 2005, a different and more diverse group of Venezuelans — primarily younger center-left activists who opposed Chavez but didn’t support the old bourgeois opposition either — took part in a workshop sponsored by the Albert Einstein Institution. The content was consisted primarily of generic information about the theory, history and dynamics of nonviolent action and — according to those I’ve interviewed who were present — included absolutely nothing about plotting to overthrow the Venezuelan government.
To the best of my knowledge, that is the total extent of involvement by Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution’s involvement with the Venezuelan opposition. They were initiated by the oppositionists, not by Gene Sharp, the Albert Einstein Institution, the U.S. government, or any U.S. government-funded entity.
As limited as this has been, I do not — despite Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher’s accusations to the contrary — support or defend such contacts.
However, given the very real serious threats against Chavez, it is ludicrous to obsess about an individual and group whose contacts with the opposition have been of so little significance or to exaggerate their influence.
Bob Helvey, who at one time was a consultant for the Albert Einstein Institution and for two years served in the largely-honorary title as president, along with Chris Miller, did one workshop in Venezuela in 2003 with some oppositionists. This workshop came together in part as a result of interest in the topic of strategic nonviolent action by some oppositionists following a meeting they initiated with Gene Sharp during the previous year, but the workshop itself was not under the auspices of, financially supported by or coordinated with the Albert Einstein Institution or Gene Sharp. I do not know what transpired at that workshop.
(In reference to this workshop in their article attacking me, Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher state that “Zunes claims not to have been aware of the activities of AEI operatives in Venezuela (an effort to distance himself from such activities, no doubt)” when the actual reason for this previous omission regarding the 2003 workshop was simply that neither Helvey nor Miller were acting as an “AEI operatives” as Golinger and Ciccariello-Maher falsely claim. Indeed, the bulk of Helvey and Miller’s work has had nothing to do with AEI.)
This ideological indifference on the part of Sharp and his institution of meeting not just with progressive activists but right-wing activists as well has been troubling for many of us on the left, including those of us who have been long-time admirers of their work. I object strongly to his willingness to meet with anti-Chavez elements and other right-wingers and the purpose of this article is not to defend this practice. Similarly, a number of us have expressed our disappointment at the uncritical adoption of some of the inaccurate depictions of the situation in Venezuela used by the opposition which have been included in the brief segments on that country on the AEI web site.
However, none of this constitutes evidence that they are part of a U.S.-funded conspiracy to overthrow Hugo Chavez or other governments or that they have any interest in advancing U.S. imperialism and capitalist hegemony. Indeed, the Albert Einstein Institution’s consulting policy explicitly prohibits them from taking part in any political action, participating in strategic decision-making with any group, or taking sides in any conflict. For example, if anyone from the Venezuelan government desired to set up an appointment with Gene Sharp to talk about ways of nonviolent defense against an attempted military coup, I have little doubt that he would agree to meet with them, particularly since he has already personally offered President Chavez his book on that topic.
Indeed, if AEI really has an ideological bias in support for U.S. imperialism, why would they also meet with and hold workshops for those struggling against U.S.-backed regimes like Israel, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Thailand and other governments supported by U.S. military and economic aid?
Also contrary to the slew of recent charges posted on this web site, the Albert Einstein Institution has never funded activist groups to subvert foreign governments, nor would it have had the financial means to do so, given that their annual budget is a paltry $160,000. Furthermore, AEI does not initiate contact with any individual or organizations; those interested in the group’s educational materials come to them first. Again, if Golinger or Ciccariello-Maher have any evidence suggesting that Gene Sharp or the Albert Einstein Institution ever initiated contact with Venezuelan oppositionists, I challenge them to make it public.
Nor have these critics ever presented any evidence that Sharp or the Albert Einstein Institution has ever been requested, encouraged, advised, or received suggestions by any branch of the US government to do or not do any research, analysis, policy studies, or educational activity, much less engage in active subversion of foreign governments on behalf of the U.S. government. And, given the lack of respect the U.S. government has traditionally had for nonviolence or for the power of popular movements to create change, it is not surprising that these critics haven’t found any.
Chavez Duped into Believing These False Accusations
One of the dangerous consequences of such false claims about Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution is that some people of consequence may actually be convinced that they are true, thereby harming their credibility.
For example, President Hugo Chavez himself was apparently convinced by these conspiracy theorists that Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution really were part of a CIA-backed conspiracy against him, claiming last year that “They are the ideologues of the soft coup and it seems like they’re here [in Venezuela.] They are laying out the slow fuse . . . they’ll continue laying it out [with] marches, events, trying to create an explosion.”
In reality, no one affiliated with AEI was in Venezuela at that time nor were they organizing marches, events, or any other activity, much less trying to create an “explosion.” Again, I challenge anyone to produce any evidence otherwise.
In response, Sharp wrote a letter to President Chavez explaining the inaccuracy of the Venezuelan leader’s charges against him and expressing his concern that “for those persons who are familiar with my life and work and that of the Albert Einstein Institution, these inaccuracies, unless corrected, will cast doubts on your credibility.” He also offered Chavez a copy of his book The Anti-Coup, which includes concrete steps on how a threatened government can mobilize the population to prevent a successful coup d’état, hardly the kind of offer which would be made by someone conspiring with the CIA to promote such a coup.
Furthermore, as anyone familiar with the theoretical literature of Gene Sharp and other scholars of strategic nonviolent action, such unarmed insurrections simply cannot work if they are led by and primarily consist of a tiny minority bourgeoisie. In a country which has been as stratified by social class as Venezuela, they simply don’t have the numbers to pull something like that off. Chavez himself noted the difference between his country’s situation and that of other countries which have experienced these uprisings, observing how “In almost every country where that strategy worked . . . there were governments with little popular support.”
Successful nonviolent revolutions, like successful armed revolutions, often take years or decades to develop as part of an organic process within the body politic of a given country. There is no standardized formula for success that a foreign government or a foreign non-governmental organization could put together, since the history, culture and political alignments of each country are unique. No foreign government or NGO can recruit or mobilize the large numbers of ordinary civilians necessary to build a movement capable of effectively challenging the established political leadership, much less of toppling a government.
Trainers and workshop leaders emphasize certain strategies and tactics that have been successful elsewhere in applying pressure on governments to change their policies and undermining the support and loyalty required for governments to successfully suppress the opposition. In some cases, local activists may try to emulate some of them. However, a regime will lose power only if it tries to forcibly maintain a system that the people oppose, not because a foreign workshop leader described to a small group of opposition activists certain tactics that had been used successfully in another country at another time.
As most of us who have actually been to Venezuela recognize, support for the Bolivarian Revolution is far too strong and runs far too deep for a handful of North American intellectuals or workshop leaders meeting with a few dozen pretentious bourgeois oppositionists to in any way threaten its survival.
The only way a minority could seize power is through violence and Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution explicitly reject all forms of violence.
It is disappointing that those who purport to defend the Chavez think he is so weak that a tiny underfunded two-person research center in Boston led by an elderly scholar in frail health could somehow pose a threat to his government and the revolution. Based on my time in Venezuela, however, I confidence in the ability of the Bolivarian Revolution to survive such a “threat.”
Protests Does Not Always Mean Regime Change
On the one hand, President Chavez and other Venezuelan officials, as well as supporters of the revolution both within and outside the country, have a certain right to be paranoid, given the very real plots, both foreign and domestic, against it. At the same time, it is important to recognize that engaging in nonviolent protests — and, by extension, sharing generic information about nonviolent action — should not be automatically interpreted as support for counterrevolution or regime change. Millions of people take part in nonviolent protests in countries around the world every year and very few have a realistic goal of overthrowing their governments or have any interest in collaborating with foreign powers against their homeland. In Venezuela, I know of any number of people — from indigenous leaders to environmental activists to social workers in the barrios — who have taken part in demonstrations against particular policies of the Chavez government but who at the same time oppose U.S. imperialism, have no allegiance to the old bourgeoisie, do not want to see Chavez overthrown, and would strongly oppose an attempted coup. Venezuela, like most democracies, recognize the right of its people to engage in nonviolent protests.
Unfortunately, without showing any evidence to support her claim, Golinger insists that the concept of “nonviolent defense” put forward by the Albert Einstein Institution is just a code word for “regime overthrow.” While there are indeed some Venezuelans who organize and take part in demonstrations who are sympathetic with U.S. imperialist goals — including some who have attended meetings with Gene Sharp — protesting government policies does not automatically equate being part of U.S.-sponsored efforts to overthrow Venezuela’s democratically-elected government. None of the Venezuelans who attended the AEI workshop in Boston in 2005 whom I subsequently interviewed expressed any support for a right-wing coup or U.S. intervention.
It should also be noted that many progressive Venezuelans, including some in government ministries, have found Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution’s very beneficial. For example, when I was in Venezuela during the World Social Forum in 2006, I gave some copies of Gene Sharp’s monograph The Anti-Coup to some Chavez government officials. I was told that they found it quite useful.
With the U.S. corporate media and even otherwise progressive elected officials refusing to challenge the very real efforts by the Bush administration to subvert and undermine Chavez’ government, the credibility of those of us attempting to expose such genuine imperialistic intrigues are being compromised by those who insist on putting forward these bizarre conspiracy theories involving the Gene Sharp, Albert Einstein Institution and related individuals and NGOs. Anyone who is actually familiar with those individuals and organizations falsely accused immediately recognizes such charges as totally ludicrous, thereby allowing people to dismiss legitimate exposés of what really is true. Golinger’s books and articles, for example, bring to light some very real and very dangerous efforts by the U.S. government and U.S. government agencies. It is hard for many people to take her real accusations seriously, however, in the face of her simultaneously putting forward such falsehoods about Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution.
It is very unfortunate that those who purport to defend Venezuela from U.S.-backed subversion are so willing to repeat these bizarre conspiracies about Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution when progressive forces instead need to be focusing our energy on fighting the Bush administration and others who really are targeting Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. To claim that this tiny NGO and its senior scholar are major players in advancing U.S. hegemony only serves to discredit those of us who are trying to expose the very real U.S. subversion in Venezuela, Bolivia and elsewhere.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus. He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage) and is a contributor to ZNet, CommonDreams, RightWeb and AlterNet.