While this article is about the role of the IRI in Latin America, and presumptive Presidential Nominee John McCain’s important role in this organization, it is important to remember that the IRI works outside of Latin America – indeed, there is a very active IRI group in Cambodia.
Presidential hopeful John McCain is hiding a skeleton in his closet. Not your typical political scandal, Senator McCain’s dirty little secret is his longtime involvement with the International Republican Institute (IRI), an organization that operates in 60 countries and is budgeted by millions of US taxpayer dollars each year. The IRI is “officially” a politically independent entity, though in reality it is aligned in most respects with the Republican Party and its ideals. Senator McCain has been chairman of the IRI since 1993 and Lorne Craner, president of the organization, is one of the presumptive Republican candidate’s informal foreign policy advisors. If McCain’s involvement with the IRI does not worry Latin America yet, it certainly will if the policies that have had such a destructive influence in the past are backed by the power of the presidency. His connection to the IRI could endanger already stressed US-Latin American relations in the event of a McCain victory.
The IRI in Haiti
Founded in 1983, the IRI’s website reminisces about how it “planted seeds of democracy in Latin America.” Several of these so-called “seeds” were sown during John McCain’s tenure as the IRI’s Chairman. The main IRI project in Haiti involved the overthrow of the country’s democratically-elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. A former Roman Catholic priest, Aristide rose to power in the wake of the brutal Duvalier family dictatorship and was immensely popular with the poverty-stricken and oppressed masses of Haiti. Aristide was overthrown in 1991 (supposedly with the financial support from the outgoing elder Bush administration) but returned to power in 1994 with the help of the Clinton administration. Aristide was re-elected by a land-slide vote in 2000 but once again ousted in a 2004 coup.
The IRI in Venezuela
After a failed coup attempt against Venezuela’s democratically elected but left-leaning President Hugo Chávez in 2002, the Bush Administration faced accusations of being involved in the attempted overthrow. Despite Washington’s energetic denials, it became apparent that the Bush administration had tentatively interfered in Venezuela by providing opposition groups with considerable donations through the IRI. The US government has encouraged sensationalizing the negative aspects of the Venezuelan government and demonized its President more aggressively than might be warranted. Though Chávez has become more confrontational and his popularity has fluctuated since coming to power in 1999, he took office with and maintains considerable public support. Since 1998, the poverty rate has dropped from 54 percent to 38.5 percent (30 percent if food and health subsidies are considered). The people of Venezuela gained free health care and more than half the population was enrolled in free, public education. Yet, on April 11, 2002 Venezuelan military leaders briefly removed Chávez from power and replaced him with a pro-US businessman named Pedro Carmona. Despite the objections of almost all Latin American nations, the US hailed the overthrow of Chávez as a victory for democracy and the Venezuelan people. Before the coup had even been completed, the IRI president at the time, George Folsom, claimed, “The Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy.” However, Chávez was reinstalled just two days later after his supporters took to the streets and Carmona was deposed. Upon his return to power, Chávez condemned the United States for its quick recognition of the new and illegitimate government.
Between 2000 and 2001, the National Endowment for Democracy (one of the main sponsors of the IRI) tripled its funding in Venezuela from $257,831 to $877,435. This allocation was granted to anti-Chávez groups, including two that participated in the protests that resulted in his brief overthrow in 2002. The IRI office in Caracas received $339,998 in 2001, a seven-fold increase from its meager $50,000 grant in 2000. Though the IRI claims to have used these funds in its work with the Youth Participation Foundation (FPJ), the organization ostensibly no longer existed at that time. Instead, funds were used to sponsor political party-building workshops, which conceivably could have been a legitimate use of funds had the participants not have been handpicked solely from opposition groups. During the month before the coup, the IRI flew a group of anti-Chávez politicians, union leaders and activists to Washington to meet with US officials.3 While it is possible that the meeting was perfectly innocent, the timing and secrecy delegitimize any explanation of coincidence. If the IRI is indeed guilty of intervening in Venezuelan politics, one must wonder which of its professed high moral standards it was pursuing at the time.