| US agencies like USAID and NED have consistently funded right wing organizations | MR Online U.S. agencies like USAID and NED have consistently funded right-wing organizations.

Soft power and the ‘transition to democracy’

Originally published: Venezuelanalysis.com on July 3, 2024 by Andreína Chávez Alava (more by Venezuelanalysis.com)  | (Posted Jul 06, 2024)

If I put a gun to your head and demanded you give me all your money or else you’ll die, it would be an aggravated robbery. If I tricked you into giving me all your money by luring you to join my pyramid scheme, it would also be a robbery but without the obvious trauma. One is blunt violence, the other is manipulation, but both have the same criminal purpose.

If we extrapolate those scenarios to how U.S. imperialism coerces other nations to achieve regime change and steal their resources, the first example would be called “hard power” (gun to your head), and the second “soft power” (seduce you, earn your trust, use it against you). They are two sides of the same coin used to achieve the same desired outcome.

The concepts of hard and soft power were first introduced in the 1990s by Joseph S. Nye, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense. Nye is still around writing articles about stick and carrot policies and advising Washington not to undermine soft power because, “In the short run, swords are mightier than words, but in the long run, words guide swords.” His smug (but quite accurate) remarks are from one of his recent pieces.

According to Nye, hard power is wielded through military intervention, coercive diplomacy, and economic sanctions. In contrast, soft power is exerted by using culture, political values, and “civil society” initiatives to enact change. For example, the U.S. has used soft-power strategies to generate political and economic destabilization in countries with left governments.

Venezuela is a prime example of this lethal combo of hard and soft power. In the most recent case of the “gun to your head” tactic, since 2017 Washington has tried to achieve regime change by imposing sanctions against every sector of the Venezuelan economy, especially the oil industry, as well as broad diplomatic efforts to isolate the Maduro government.

The sanctions strategy has been widely effective in suffocating the country’s economy and its people, leading to severe episodes of food, medicine and fuel shortages that have taken years to overcome. The diplomatic isolation, however, crumbled after the self-proclaimed “interim government” led by Juan Guaidó ended without achieving regime change, but not before enjoying yearly budgets of around U.S. $50 million, drawn from frozen Venezuelan state funds and approved by the U.S. Treasury Department.

While Venezuela has managed to avoid military intervention thus far, it has faced its share of significant attempts. Examples include the 2019 attempt to orchestrate a foreign intervention using a deceptive humanitarian convoy and the 2020 thwarted mercenary incursion known as “Operation Gideon.”

Understandably, these hard power strategies always stand out the most because of their destructive nature, but it is the soft power that relentlessly and silently continues pushing regime change plans. Just like small pipe leaks, they can cause great damage if left unattended.

A notorious example of amplified soft power is U.S. cultural imperialism (Hollywood, the music industry, etc) used to expand its influence worldwide. However, more direct forms of soft power are applied specifically to advance Washington’s agenda in the Global South.

In Venezuela, one usual method is the funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Though they are disguised as human rights initiatives, in reality, they serve U.S. interests, help implement right-wing sectors’ destabilization actions and contribute to the corporate media’s manipulation of the country’s reality.

Only this year, the U.S. Foreign Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean approved $54.0 million “to support democratic actors, human rights advocates, and other civil society organizations.” Plus additional funds for Latin American countries that have received Venezuelan migrants who “have fled the country’s humanitarian crisis.”

The report specifies that Washington has provided “democracy assistance to Venezuelan civil society for two decades” which has increased in recent years given the “authoritarian rule of Nicolás Maduro.” The key word is “democracy” because all “aid” has to serve the purpose of underlining the alleged lack of democracy in the targeted country.

There has never been accountability regarding the implementation of these funds and they often end up funding anti-government propaganda. Ultimately, these NGOs operate in vulnerable communities providing some form of material assistance that later is used to propel the narrative that Venezuela’s economic crisis is strictly linked to failed socialist policies and that foreign intervention and a “democratic transition” are needed.

One notorious example (from a sea of them) is PROVEA, a longtime NGO whose yearly reports on human rights are widely quoted by mainstream media. This organization is funded by Open Society, the Ford Foundation, the UK embassy and other international institutions.

In its 2023 report, PROVEA followed Washington’s script line by line, denouncing Maduro’s tenure as a “dark decade of impoverishment and repression” while stating that U.S. sanctions had little impact on the Caribbean country’s economic crisis and the ensuing migration wave.

Another case is NGO Control Ciudadano whose president Rocío San Miguel was detained in February for alleged involvement in a terrorist plot. The organization, which has been linked to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) since 2017, is known for disclosing information about national security issues.

It is no surprise that Venezuela’s National Assembly is currently advancing a bill to regulate and inspect NGOs, especially their financing sources, to prevent more disguised political destabilization at the service of Western imperialism.

Another soft-power strategy applied consistently throughout the Bolivarian Process has been the financing of anti-government media outlets. In 2021, Declassified UK revealed that the UK government provided funds for several Venezuelan outlets such as El Pitazo, Efecto Cocuyo and Caraota Digital as part of a “democracy-promotion” program. The U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED), widely seen as a soft power version of the CIA, has likewise consistently funded pro-opposition outlets.

Funnily enough, Efecto Cocuyo, whose reporting is often embarrassingly inaccurate and parrots U.S. propaganda, once tried to cast shade on Venezuelanalysis by pointing at journalists who previously worked in teleSUR (including yours truly!) or who received Venezuelan journalism awards. Venezuelanalysis, of course, has been a consistent source of anti-imperialist on-the-ground reporting since 2003 so its targeting is really no surprise.

Finally, one of the most enticing (and sometimes hard to spot) soft power strategies is the offer of scholarships and grants to co-opt people into doing academic work that promotes the “transition to democracy” discourse and brings them closer to so-called “Western values.” That is, capitalist ideals and the “rules-based order.”

A recent example is a U.S. grant program that was open for applications until June 30. The initiative offered $25,000 awards for Venezuelan researchers who proposed projects for “strengthening independent media” and “promoting democratic values.”

The program comes from the Venezuela Affairs Unit (VAU) through its Public Diplomacy Grants Program and the announcement was published on the website of the nonexistent U.S. embassy for Venezuela (Caracas cut ties with the U.S. in 2019). According to the U.S. State Department, VAU is a close partner and its “top priority is the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.”

In case there was any confusion that these grants have regime change purposes, the VAU specifically states that proposals must include “an American component,” be that “US culture, history, and/or shared values.” Anything that guarantees closeness between Venezuelan researchers and U.S. institutions and experts that “promote increased understanding of U.S. policy and perspectives.”

It is a brainwashing operation searching for victims. Rightfully so, Venezuela’s Science and Technology Ministry denounced the “deceitful offers” hailing from a “ghost office” and called it another U.S. interference attempt disguised as financial academic support.

These soft power punches are not easy to resist and the damage they cause is often much worse than we can imagine. While hard power kills people (mainly through sanctions in the Venezuela case), soft power corrupts and manipulates. Words and swords that cut just as deep.

In many ways, the best we can do to combat Western soft power strategies is to reaffirm national identity, cultural roots and the political project that brought our countries to be an enemy of U.S. imperialism in the first place. And of course, constantly exposing and blasting these soft power tactics to reduce their impact and cut off their tentacles, as this article hopes to do, has to remain an ongoing priority.

Andreína Chávez Alava was born in Maracaibo and studied journalism at the University of Zulia, graduating in 2012. She immediately started working as a writer and producer at a local radio station while also taking part in local and international solidarity struggles.

In 2014 she joined TeleSUR, where in six years she rose through the ranks to become editor-in-chief, overseeing news, analysis and multimedia content. Currently based in Caracas, she joined Venezuelanalysis in March 2021 as a writer and social media manager and is a member of Venezuelan artist collective Utopix. Her main interests are popular and feminist struggles.

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