USAID Venezuela Guaido Mike Pence

While Trump cuts food stamps, USAID bankrolls Venezuela regime change with half a billion in tax dollars

The Trump administration has spent $654 million in “aid” to try to overthrow Venezuela’s government, including $435 million through USAID and $128 million directly to Juan Guaidó and his corrupt coup gang — all while imposing crippling austerity at home.

By Ben Norton

(Puedes leer este artículo en español aquí.)

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has dumped over half a billion dollars into regime change-related “aid” efforts targeting Venezuela’s elected, UN-recognized government.

From 2017 to December 2019, the Trump administration spent at least $654 million on Venezuela-related aid schemes. While Washington claims this spending assisted humanitarian efforts, much of the US taxpayers’ money financed efforts to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is a central arm of Washington’s hybrid war on socialist and independent states around the world. It has a long and sordid history of funding “civil society” groups and political opposition parties to topple the governments of designated enemies.

USAID has provided $435 million of this $654 million, bankrolling Venezuela’s right-wing, US-controlled opposition. At least $128 million of this USAID money went directly into the pockets of the coup leaders that the Trump administration attempted to install as the rulers of the country in 2019.

USAID recently divulged this shocking level of support, acknowledging that it is going to fund Venezuelan anti-government activists, NGOs, and opposition media outlets, along with the supposed “interim government” led by US-appointed coup leader Juan Guaidó, as well as Venezuela’s National Assembly, which until January was led by Guaidó and controlled by the right-wing opposition.

While the United States is spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to overthrow Venezuela’s leftist government, the Trump administration is aggressively cutting social programs at home.

To slash $4.2 billion in public expenditures over five years, Trump gutted food stamps that fed 700,000 poor Americans, most of whom are children. Funding this crucial program would cost just around $840 million per year – close to the amount Trump has poured into US regime-change efforts in Venezuela.

The Trump administration has also drastically cut taxes for the rich and large corporations. Thanks to these cuts, the richest 400 billionaires in the US now pay a lower tax rate than the poorest Americans.

As working-class Americans increasingly bear the burden of this taxation, their tax dollars are being spent on destroying socialist governments in the Global South.

USAID’s role in US coup attempt against Venezuela

USAID has long acted as a front for the CIA and other government agencies, disguising regime-change activities as supposed humanitarian work. Under the administration of Donald Trump, the organization’s role as an arm of US hybrid warfare has become more aggressive than ever.

In February 2019, a USAID plan was revealed to train “aid workers” as special operations forces who serve in teams with military and intelligence operatives to advance US “national security” interests.

That same month, the ostensible humanitarian agency was activated as the lead element in a plot to overthrow Venezuela’s elected government. USAID collaborated with the Defense Department and State Department in a scheme in Cucuta, Colombia, on Venezuela’s border.

USAID military DOD DOS Southcom Venezuela aid coup

USAID worked hand in glove with Venezuelan coup leaders, many of whom disguised themselves as so-called aid workers. On February 23, they tried to ram a US “aid” convoy across the Venezuelan border.

The putsch attempt was ultimately unsuccessful. So as a last resort, violent right-wing coup-mongers set the aid on fire, and Washington and the international media immediately blamed the Maduro government — in a scheme first exposed by The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal, and finally acknowledged weeks later by The New York Times.

Actual aid organizations publicly condemned USAID’s involvement in the violent coup attempt. The International Red Cross said the stunt “is, for us, not humanitarian aid.” And the United Nations slammed the “politicized” nature of USAID’s activities.

USAID Venezuela Mike Pence Colombia
US Vice President Mike Pence with USAID in Colombia, after the failed February 23 coup attempt against Venezuela

USAID funding of Juan Guaidó’s corrupt coup cabal

In its December statement, USAID claimed, “No funds are provided directly to elected National Assembly members, high-level officials of the Guaidó Administration, Ambassadors, or the interim President himself.”

But in the same breath, just one sentence prior, the agency acknowledged, “USAID is providing compensation, travel costs, and other expenses for some technical advisors to the National Assembly and the interim Guaidó Administration through assistance funds.”

USAID’s denial of direct funding appears to be bald-faced lies. In October, The Grayzone reported that, through USAID, US taxpayers are paying the salaries and expenses of Venezuelan opposition leaders from Guaidó’s shadow regime.

The Grayzone contributor Leonardo Flores noted that USAID signed an October 8 agreement with Guaidó’s ersatz administration that included $98 million in assistance allotted for Venezuela.

The Los Angeles Times obtained an internal government memo which showed that approximately $42 million of that funding was taken from aid that had originally been proportioned to assist desperate Central American migrants. Instead, the money was re-routed to “Guaidó and his faction… to pay for their salaries, airfare, ‘good governance’ training, propaganda, technical assistance for holding elections and other ‘democracy-building’ projects.”

Even more scandalous is how Guaidó’s coup cabal has spent these huge sums of US taxpayer money.

In June, a right-wing Miami-based website edited by a hardline anti-Chavista Venezuelan revealed that Guaidó’s coup cabal had embezzled enormous amounts of aid money, blowing it on wild parties and luxury goods.

The original plan, backed by Washington, was to use the “aid money” to bribe Venezuelan soldiers to defect over to the Colombian side and launch an armed uprising against Maduro. In reality, senior members of Guaidó’s US-backed party, Voluntad Popular, instead used the money to live it up in Colombia.

In just a few weeks, the Venezuelan coup-mongers flushed well over $125,000 down the drain, spending wildly on swanky hotels, expensive dinners, nightclubs, and designer clothes. (In Colombia, where the minimum wage is just $268 per month, this is an unimaginable sum of money.)

Guaidó later publicly acknowledged the corruption, but attempted to deflect the blame onto Maduro.

And this well documented corruption did not stop USAID from giving Guaidó’s political wrecking crew tens of millions more in US tax dollars to play with.

In September, USAID head Mark Green announced an additional $52 million in so-called “development assistance” for coup leader Guaidó and his fictitious parallel government, which controls no actual assets inside Venezuela and is not recognized by the United Nations.

USAID referred to the Venezuelan government of elected President Maduro, which is recognized by the UN, as the “illegitimate Maduro regime.” It reiterated that the money would go to funding opposition media outlets and anti-government civil society groups, as well as Guaidó’s shadow regime and the National Assembly.

Green announced the new funding while standing next to the Venezuelan coup regime’s unrecognized ambassador to the United States, Carlos Vecchio, a former lawyer for the corporate oil giant Exxon who has himself been involved in a series of corruption scandals.

This September’s pledge of $52 million to help fund Venezuela coup leaders stands in stark contrast to the measly $4 million in humanitarian assistance that USAID pledged just two weeks before to help the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian.

USAID director Mark Green, a former Republican congressmember from Wisconsin, has openly cheered on the rightist Venezuelan opposition.

Green regularly travels to Colombia to meet with right-wing Venezuelan opposition activists and discusses ways to overthrow what he calls the “illegitimate, authoritarian regime in Venezuela.”

USAID’s direct involvement in US coup efforts continued well past the failed putsch in February. In November, the US embassy in Madrid paid to promote photos on Twitter showing Ambassador Duke Buchan with USAID on the Colombian border with Venezuela. “It is time for Maduro to leave,” he declared.

Buchan, a right-wing Trump ally and former businessman, speaks miserable Spanish, but has used his role as US representative in Spain to aggressively lobby for regime change in Venezuela.

The line between USAID’s putative aid work and Washington’s coup-mongering abroad has always been blurry. Liberal presidents like Barack Obama sought to preserve USAID’s image, while still using its aid and activities as a form of soft power to advance US foreign-policy interests. Under Trump, however, any pretense of independence or commitment to humanitarianism has been dispelled, and USAID has become a blunt weapon of regime change.

(UPDATE) USAID director Mark Green meets with Juan Guaidó in Washington

A few weeks after this article was published, on February 7, 2020, USAID head Mark Green held a friendly meeting with coup leader Juan Guaidó in Washington, DC.

In a PR video he shared on Twitter, Green praised Guaidó and told him, “We support you and your government as you seek to restore democracy to Venezuela.”

USAID’s role in coup attempts against Nicaragua and Cuba

Venezuela is by no means the only country targeted for regime-change operations in which the US Agency for International Development is deeply complicit.

USAID also played a significant role backing the right-wing coup attempt against Nicaragua’s democratically elected leftist government in 2018. The Nicaraguan opposition, which carried out many violent acts targeting supporters of the ruling Sandinista Front, receives tens of millions of dollars from the US government on an annual basis.

In 2018, USAID spent $24.5 million in Nicaragua. Its top recipients were the Democratic Leadership Development Program, Municipal Governance Program, and Lifting Nicaraguan Voices Program — that is to say, programs to help train, cultivate, and fund right-wing opposition leaders.

USAID Nicaragua 2018

Of this $24.5 million in so-called “aid,” USAID spent $15 million (61%) on “governance” — that is to say, supporting opposition groups — while another $5.1 million (21%) went to covering administrative costs.

A mere $2.7 million (11%) was spent on education, with a meager $1.2 million spent on health (5%). In other words, just around 16% of the USAID budget in Nicaragua in 2018 was actually spent on aid, smaller than its own administrative costs.

USAID in Nicaragua essentially just acts as a job-creation program for coup-mongers.

USAID Nicaragua 2018 purpose governance administrative costs

Cuba has been another primary target of USAID. For decades, it has financed efforts to destabilize and overthrow the tiny island’s independent socialist government. The so-called aid agency even created its own fake Twitter platform called ZunZuneo, which it used to spread propaganda and disinformation to demonize the Cuban government and call for protests.

Bolivia has been a target as well. After the Trump administration oversaw a far-right military coup, in which fascist-led violent mobs toppled the democratically elected government of socialist President Evo Morales, USAID announced that it would be traveling to Bolivia to influence the May 3 election.

Falsely accusing Venezuela of the hemisphere’s worst migrant crisis

In addition to directly participating in regime-change efforts and bankrolling right-wing opposition groups, USAID has helped to popularize demonstrably false talking points demonizing Venezuela, which have been breathlessly echoed by corporate media stenographers.

In its press statements announcing tens of millions of tax dollars in support for Venezuela’s right-wing coup regime, USAID has accused Venezuela of creating “the largest external displacement in the history of the Western Hemisphere.”

Mainstream media outlets have frequently repeated this claim, citing the US regime-change organization without investigating its veracity.

It is impossible to obtain a precise estimate of the number of Venezuelans displaced in the US-fueled crisis. Venezuelan government officials have told The Grayzone that most figures echoed by the US government and corporate media outlets are greatly exaggerated, but that millions of Venezuelans have been displaced because of the conflict — likely somewhere around 3 million. The crisis has been undoubtedly fueled by Washington’s blockade of the Venezuelan economy and relentless attempts to overthrow its government.

However, the largest external displacement in the modern history of the Western Hemisphere has taken place not in Venezuela, but rather in its neighbor Colombia, where a brutally repressive right-wing government, backed to the hilt by Washington, has waged a decades-long internal war against leftist insurgent groups. Millions of Colombians have been displaced because of this US-backed war, which is still ongoing.

Colombia’s war was aggravated and prolonged by the US government’s notorious Plan Colombia, which scholar Greg Grandin has blamed for “catastrophic violence on the country, resulting in a mountain of corpses and millions of displaced civilians.”

7.7 million internally people were displaced in Colombia in 2017, according to the United Nations. That is more than any other country on Earth, including Syria and Iraq.

Ironically, millions of these displaced Colombians were welcomed in Venezuela. (This reporter interviewed a Venezuelan national of Colombian descent who was born next door but has lived most of her life in the impoverished Caracas barrio of Petare, and who staunchly supports Venezuela’s leftist movement.)

While fueling Colombia’s migration crisis, Washington has sought to sabotage its internal peace process, backing the hard-line, far-right President Iván Duque in his fanatical opposition to the peace accord negotiated by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos.

At every level, the US government has tried to destabilize and overthrow Venezuela’s democratically elected leftist government, blaming the horrid consequences of its aggressive policies on Caracas itself.

USAID has served the spearhead of its hybrid war on Venezuela. As the Trump administration pours money into the regime-change machine, citizens at home are suffering from another kind of sanctions, facing painful immiseration and growing economic hardship as it slashes their already meager social welfare programs.

(Editor’s note: This article was updated on February 8, 2020 to include USAID director Mark Green’s meeting with Juan Guaidó.)