Daily Maverick

Revealed: UK sets up media influencing project in Venezuela amid secretive £750,000 ‘democracy promotion’ programme

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab meets Juan Guaidó, recognised by Britain as Venezuela’s 'interim president', in London, 21 January 2020. (Photo: UK government)

The UK government has established a journalism project to ‘influence’ Venezuela’s ‘media agenda’ while a Foreign Office-funded foundation is spending £750,000 on a secretive ‘democracy-promotion’ programme in the country, as Britain appears to deepen efforts to remove the Maduro government.

As Venezuela’s political crisis continues, the UK government has initiated a new project promoting investigative journalism in Latin America which furtively covers Venezuela. 

The project, launched last summer and intended to “influence” the media agenda in the country, follows a long history of the British government using journalism as an influencing tool. It raises suspicions that it aims to help remove the leftist government of Venezuela president Nicolás Maduro. 

In a separate programme, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), a majority UK-government funded organisation, has spent over £750,000 to “strengthen democracy” in Venezuela since 2016, according to documents obtained by Declassified

The WFD’s programmes in the country are shrouded in secrecy due to apparent concerns about the security of its staff, although its country representative advertises his affiliation to the organisation online. 

The British government controversially recognises Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guaidó as president and is running a number of anti-government programmes in the country using the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) which supports projects designed “to tackle instability and to prevent conflicts that threaten UK interests”.

The aim of the fund’s new journalism project is stated to be the creation of a “new platform that strengthens media organisation [sic] throughout the region and provides journalists with a platform in which they can collaborate and build regional stories”.

Programme literature notes that successful applicants should display “a capacity to link into – and ultimately influence – local and national media agendas”. 

But they are warned that “the British government — and its resourcing of the project — should not be expressly referred or linked to the individual outputs of the project (i.e. individual articles, events etc).”

Run by the British embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, the call for applications noted that successful bids would start in August 2020. There has been no public update since, although the Foreign Office told Declassified there had been delays due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On the public advert, applicants are advised to budget up to £250,000 for their projects, but the Foreign Office told Declassified: “it is not currently possible to confirm what budget will be available for this project.”  

Declassified’s repeated questions about the project to its two coordinators in Bogotá went unanswered. However, a Foreign Office spokesperson told Declassified: “It is inaccurate to conflate this call for bids with the UK position on Venezuela, which has not changed. We want to see a democratic transition with free and fair elections take place in Venezuela.”

UK ambassador to Venezuela Andrew Soper participates in a press freedom event in Caracas, Venezuela, 26 April 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Miguel Gutierrez)

The CSSF put out a public call in June last year for applications from journalists seeking to cover crime and corruption in Colombia, Peru and Panama, adding there was the “potential to cover linked events in other neighbouring countries”. The word Venezuela did not appear. 

However, CSSF documentation published three days before the advert outlined the same programme with the addition of Venezuela in its title. The furtive inclusion of the country appears to reflect Foreign Office reticence to publicise its increased involvement in Venezuela. 

The summary of another CSSF programme, again in Colombia for the year ending March 2020, includes the recommendation to “engage” Foreign Office officials “about options to develop CSSF programmes in Venezuela”. 

A September 2019 job advert for a CSSF programme manager in Lima, Peru, notes that the successful applicant will work “with colleagues in Colombia, Panama and, potentially, Venezuela”. 

Declassified recently revealed that the CSSF has spent £450,000 setting up an anti-government coalition in Venezuela, again by furtively adding the project to an existing programme focused on Colombia and beginning in 2019. 

Journalism as information war

The UK government has long used the media to undermine foreign leaders and political movements it perceives as a threat to British business interests. 

Declassified recently revealed that a secretive Cold War propaganda unit, named the Information Research Department (IRD), tried to prevent Chilean socialist Salvador Allende from winning presidential elections in 1964 and 1970. 

Declassified files also reveal that during the Brazilian dictatorship of 1964-1985, the IRD “assiduously cultivated” one of Brazil’s leading left-wing publishers, Samuel Wainer. 

Though the unit was shut down in 1977, Britain has continued to sponsor journalistic ventures in Latin America. In response to a freedom of information request, the Foreign Office revealed that, between January 2016 and September 2018, it funded Venezuelan news outlet Fundación Efecto Cocuyo, as well as the Instituto Radiofónico Fe y Alegría and Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Prensa.

While receiving funds from the British government, Efecto Cocuyo teamed up with two British organisations — Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture — to “call for more evidence” regarding the killing of Óscar Pérez at the hands of Venezuelan police. Pérez, a police officer, had hijacked a police helicopter and, on 27 June 2017, used it to attack a number of government buildings in central Caracas.

In July 2019, Efecto Cocuyo’s editor, Luz Mely Reyes, spoke at the UK government’s “Global Conference for Media Freedom” event in London. Then foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, addressing the conference, said Reyes “has defied the Maduro regime by co-founding an independent news website, Efecto Cocuyo”, without mentioning the website’s links to the British government.

London’s support for media projects in Venezuela appears to mirror that of the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED). According to its accounts, the NED has funded “freedom of information” projects in Venezuela aimed at fostering a “greater understanding of the spillover effects of Venezuelan corruption and criminal activity” by working with “investigative journalists and partner organisations”.

A 2017 NED project, with a budget of over $60,000, aims to “increase transparency and accountability in the Venezuelan government procurement processes. And to foster collaboration with journalists across the region”.

Media freedom group, Reporters Without Borders, which is also funded by the NED, notes: “Venezuela’s president since 2013, Nicolás Maduro persists in trying to silence independent media outlets and keep news coverage under constant control.” 

It adds: “The climate for journalists has been extremely tense since the onset of a political and economic crisis in 2016, and is exacerbated by Maduro’s frequent references to ‘media warfare’ in an attempt to discredit national and international media criticism of his administration.”

Venezuelan journalist Luz Mely Reyes speaks at the UK government’s Global Conference for Media Freedom alongside Jeremy Hunt, then UK foreign secretary, London, 10 July 2019. (Photo: Twitter / Press Gazette)

The embassy in Bogotá

One of the two Foreign Office points of contact for the project at the British embassy in Bogotá is Claudia Castilla, a Colombian national who was a UK government-funded Chevening Scholar in London from 2017-18. 

Castilla appears to be a strong supporter of the Venezuelan opposition, writing in February 2014 “I think I fell in love with Leopoldo López”, referring to a leading opposition figure. At the time US-educated López was promoting street protests in a strategy known as “The Exit”, after Maduro won presidential elections in April 2013.

From 2014-15, Castilla worked as a research assistant for the Colombian chapter of Transparency International, where she “formulated public policy recommendations”. Declassified recently revealed the UK government funded Transparency International’s Venezuelan chapter to set up an “anti-corruption” coalition in the country.

From 2012 to 2013, Castilla worked for the Cerrejón Foundation, the charitable arm of the controversial Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia which is run by three London-listed mining multinationals. For the latter period of her employment, Castilla was the foundation’s “social control advisor”. 

Machines work on coal extraction at the El Cerrejon mine in Colombia. (Photo: EPA / Rafa Salafranca)

‘Democracy promotion’

Documents obtained by Declassified also show that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy — Britain’s “democracy promotion” arm — has been running expensive programmes in Venezuela.

The WFD claims to be “the most effective organisation sharing the UK democratic experience”, but its operations are shrouded in secrecy. 

Venezuela hosts the WFD’s only full-scale programme and permanent office in Latin America as part of a project which began in 2016. Since then the WFD has spent £760,680, according to figures obtained by Declassified.

The largest outlay was £248,725 in 2017-2018, as the EU announced a sanctions regime against Venezuela and British officials intensified calls for “different people at the helm” of the Venezuelan government. 

Alan Duncan, then minister of state for the Americas, said in 2018: “Maduro’s double crime is that his destruction of the economy has been followed by the systemic undermining of democracy.” He added: “The revival of the oil industry [in Venezuela] will be an essential element in any recovery, and I can imagine that British companies like Shell and BP, will want to be part of it.”

Last year, the WFD spent £113,193 on its Venezuela operations, while Declassified understands a bid for funding of just over £27,500 for next year is awaiting approval. The WFD has two full-time staff in Venezuela.

In December, UN human rights experts found that “since November 2020 Venezuela has systematically stigmatised and persecuted civil society organisations, dissenting voices and human rights defenders”.

The WFD has no similar programmes in UK government-allied dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, or the United Arab Emirates. 

The Foundation told Declassified: “WFD works to strengthen democracy around the world. We are funded by the UK as well as other governments (including Canada, Germany, Norway and Switzerland) and international organisations (such as the United Nations Development Programme) and are operationally independent.” 

But the vast majority of the WFD’s funding comes from the British government. In the year to March 2020, it provided £11.4-million to the Foundation, while all other sources of income added up to £1.5-million. 

The WFD said that in Venezuela it works “with a range of MPs, National Assembly staff, civil society, and academics” but it refused to disclose to Declassified information about who those partners are. It said this was “to avoid endangering the physical health or safety of those partners”. 

However, the WFD’s country representative in Venezuela advertises his position on his public Linkedin page, and his email and phone number are available through WFD job adverts. 

As its Venezuela programme began in 2016, the WFD published an article on the independent news site openDemocracy in association with Daniel Fermín, a Venezuelan researcher.

The article asked: “Can Venezuela’s president [Nicolás Maduro] be unseated peacefully?”. In the following two years, openDemocracy was awarded $99,661 (£74,131) by the US analogue of the WFD, the National Endowment for Democracy. 

According to a 2018 WFD posting for a job in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, its country representative is expected to work with the British embassy and must “contribute to development of future business opportunities in Venezuela”. 

When asked why it focused on Venezuela, the foundation told Declassified: “WFD programmes have been active in other countries across Latin America. We stand ready to launch new programmes and country offices when the opportunity arises.”

Alan Duncan, then UK minister for Europe and the Americas, briefs the press at an emergency Lima Group meeting aimed at increasing pressure on Venezuela’s President Maduro to leave power, Ottawa, Canada, 4 February 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andre Pichette)

Neutrality 

The WFD says that it “works on a cross-party basis” in Venezuela, “seeking to engage all sides of the political divide while supporting democratic institutions in the country”.

In January 2019, shortly after Guaidó proclaimed himself president, the WFD’s country representative wrote that “last years elections [sic] were a sham and therefore Maduro is an usurper”.

The next month — after trucks of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) attempted to enter Venezuelan territory — he said: “Non-intervention cannot be an absolute principle that doesn’t consider other factors”.

On 30 April, when Guaidó launched an armed coup attempt in Caracas, the WFD’s representative announced that Guaidó’s actions were “not an assault on democracy but the other way round”. Elsewhere, he has described Chavismo — referring to former president Hugo Chávez — as a “plague”.

UK parliamentarians overseeing WFD’s operations have also disparaged the Venezuelan government. Conservative MP Richard Graham, the chair of WFD’s board of governors for the duration of its Venezuela project, said in December 2019 that “Islington Corbynsistas [sic] don’t get that extreme left ideas never work, whether in 2019 Venezuela or 80s Liverpool”. 

The WFD’s board is appointed by the UK foreign secretary and is modelled on the NED, which has been described by the Washington Post as the “sugar daddy of overt [US] operations”. Since Chávez’s election in 1998, the NED has been the guiding hand behind a number of efforts to overthrow the government in Venezuela.

While the NED’s operations abroad have received some independent scrutiny, the WFD – has largely operated under media silence. DM

Matt Kennard is head of investigations at Declassified UK. John McEvoy is an independent journalist who has written for International History Review, The Canary, Tribune Magazine, Jacobin, Revista Forum, and Brasil Wire.

Declassified UK is an investigative journalism organisation that covers the UK’s role in the world. Follow Declassified on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Sign up to receive Declassified’s monthly newsletter here.

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