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Looking to fund a regime overthrow in Venezuela, Trump eyes diverted humanitarian aid

The Trump administration wants to use aid cut from Guatemala and Honduras to support the opposition in Venezuela.

President Donald Trump listens to a presentation during a cabinet meeting at the White House July 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/
President Donald Trump listens to a presentation during a cabinet meeting at the White House July 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/

According to a July 11 leaked memo, the Trump administration is planning to divert $41.9 million in humanitarian aid from Honduras and Guatemala to fund the effort to oust  Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and replace him with opposition leader Juan Guaido.

The Los Angeles Times, which obtained a copy of the USAID memo, reported that the administration notified Congress that doing so was in the “national interest” of the United States.

The U.S. government is among roughly 50 countries that recognize Guaido as the president of Venezuela — the opposition leader was not voted into office, but declared himself president and is calling for fresh elections.

The diverted humanitarian funds stem from the Trump administration’s efforts to punish Central American countries for failing to prevent their citizens from migrating north through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States.

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Guatemala is experiencing a famine resulting from climate change, with food scarcity prompting people to flee the country. Honduras, meanwhile, is in the grips of a dual crisis: Extreme gang violence as well as a major drought. In fact, this recent drought has affected all of Central America, leaving nearly 3 million people hungry.

Per the memo, the spending of these diverted funds would be overseen by Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute.

Two of those organizations told ThinkProgress they did not support shifting money from the Central American countries.

“Freedom House works with democracy and human rights activists around the world in countries where freedom is under threat, including Venezuela, Honduras, and Guatemala. Freedom House does not endorse the plan to divert U.S. funding from the Northern Triangle,” the organization’s president, Michael Abramowitz, said in a statement. “Funding in support of democracy and good governance in Central America is critical to promoting economic development and reducing violence in the region.”

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The National Democratic Institute issued a similar statement, with a spokesperson telling ThinkProgress the cuts would impact a number of important programs in the Northern Triangle.

“NDI strongly believes that international support, including from the U.S., is essential to help the countries of the Northern Triangle to address the huge challenges they face to reduce insecurity, improve democratic governance and provide greater economic opportunities to their citizens. The cuts announced by the Administration for the Northern Triangle in fact have also affected important NDI programs in those countries,” said Toyin Awesu.

Awesu said NDI had first been informed of the memo through The Los Angeles Times’ reporting and warned that the group would not support or endorse any violent action in Venezuela.

“Under no circumstances would NDI be a party to any action, in Venezuela or elsewhere, to promote violent action or to support actions to overthrow a country’s constitutional order or laws through violence,” Awesu said. “For more than 35 years, NDI has worked to support democratic activists around the world – including in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Venezuela – in efforts to improve their lives through peaceful advocacy for human rights, genuine democratic elections and building inclusive and representative democratic institutions.”

The International Republican Institute did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The House could opt to hold off on sending the money to the Venezuelan opposition — that is just one of the delays that might push back this issue until the end of the fiscal year in September when the money would essentially disappear.

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For those watching the administration’s attempts to replace Maduro with Guaido — a regime change openly supported by President Trump as well as his National Security Adviser John Bolton — the sum of money in question is interesting.

In mid-April ThinkProgress received a tip from a source who asked to remain anonymous that Erik Prince, who has made a fortune in his military contracting business, was seeking to access $40 million in frozen Venezuelan assets from the U.S. Treasury Department to help instigate a major coup against Maduro.

There is no evidence that the money being diverted from Honduras and Guatemala will be used by Prince. His proposal, we were told had four prongs: Gathering intelligence, speaking to opposition and dissident groups; disseminating false or misleading information; hiring a mercenary force; creating a “dynamic impact” event that would essentially be the start of an all-out coup.

ThinkProgress filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on April 18, asking if Prince or any company associated with him had sought to access such funds.

Before we got our response, Reuters reported that, indeed, Prince was seeking $40 million in frozen assets, and that while a spokesman for Prince said he “has no plans to operate or implement an operation in Venezuela,” the director of investor relations at Prince’s private equity firm had earlier confirmed that Prince “does have a solution for Venezuela, just as he has a solution for many other places.”

ThinkProgress reached out to Brian O’Toole, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former senior adviser to the director of OFAC, who expressed surprise that anyone would even try this.

“That’s crazy. When money is frozen pursuant to OFAC regulations, OFAC doesn’t have control over any of it. The title still rests with whoever it’s frozen from,” said O’Toole.

“So they would have to have a title transfer of some sort to Erik Prince, which is almost certainly not legal,” he added. The only scenario in which this could happen is if Venezuela is in armed conflict with the United States.

But taking, or “vesting” the funds for use in an armed, covert conflict would be illegal, said O’Toole.

“I would have a hard time believing that anybody at OFAC would be OK with trying to move forward with something like this,” he said

On May 17, ThinkProgress received a response to our FOIA request saying “OFAC has searched its files for records responsive to your request. Unfortunately, we were unable to locate any responsive records.”

The $41.9 million — a sum quite close to the $40 million Prince was reportedly seeking — is to be used to pay the salaries of the opposition, but a military invasion, however ill-advised, according to experts, remains a talking point in Washington.

For instance, in June, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Fox News that the United States ought to invade Venezuela in order to put some “points on the board” in its standoffs with other countries, such as North Korea.

The situation is dire in Venezuela, which has been dealing with a deepening political and economic crisis for roughly five years. Mismanagement and corruption have plunged the oil-rich country into chaos, its currency is in free-fall, and its inflation rate is projected to reach 10 million percent this year.

Food and medical shortages have prompted more than 3 million Venezuelans to flee into neighboring countries, causing a humanitarian crisis at its border with Colombia.

This story has been updated to include comments from NDI and the head of Freedom House, as well as to clarify that Prince was seeking Venezuelan frozen assets, not aid funds.