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A Venezuelan judge issued arrest warrants for the heads of the Venezuelan opposition group Súmate (Join up!. A formal charge by the public prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz cited the four members of the group for allegedly conspiring to destroy the republican polity. An investigation into Súmate was launched last March as a result of accusations made before the Attorney General by National Assembly members William Lara and Ismael Garcia-both of the pro-Chávez coalition in the Assembly.

Súmate describes itself as an “objective and non-partisan civil-association,” though it was established in 2002 for the express purpose of mobilizing support to recall Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The group has worked closely with the opposition umbrella-group the Democratic Coordinator, with both groups maintaining accusations of fraud, following Chávez defeat of the recall referendum.

According to Ortega, the investigation revealed that Súmate leaders requested financial support from the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in their attempts to oust Chávez. The NED website says it is “a private, nonprofit organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts.”

Yet the NED has received strong criticism from diverse sectors who claim it has been used to promote US interests in foreign countries, often to the detriment of the Democracy it was established to promote. As political analyst Peter Kornbluh noted recently, “In principle, NED is an independent tool to promote democracy, but in practice it has been a weapon for regime change against governments the U.S. deems as undesirable. Its actions are particularly controversial in Venezuela, where the regime is democratically elected.”

According to documents received under the Freedom of Information Act and requested by the independent research organization www.VenezuelaFOIA.info, Súmate has been the recipient of at least $53,000 from the NED. Further documents revealed this month that Súmate has also received $84,840 from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), an organization that shares a similarly controversial history of involvement in Latin America. Charges currently pending against Súmate make no mention of the USAID funds, however.

As Ortega noted in her official statement before the court, “it’s one thing to pursue a political life, and it’s something quite distinct to solicit resources from a foreign government to intervene in the internal affairs of the nation.” “There is conclusive proof,” continued Ortega, “such as the contract in which the accused receive financial support from the NED to organize politically against the current government; as well as the open accounts in which said funding was received.” According to Ortega, these actions are in violation of article 132 of Venezuela’s Penal Code.

In a statement to the press published on Súmate’s website, María Corina Machado’s legal representative Jesús Loreto declared that “this accusation is nothing more than a pretext for arresting [Machado] under the absurd reasoning that she is a conspirator for exercising and promoting a right consecrated in the Constitution.”

Loreto continued, noting that both Machado and Alejandro Plaz, another Súmate leader represented by Loreto, have collaborated completely with the investigation and have put themselves at the disposal of the attorney general’s office. However, according to an article in today’s issue of the Venezuelan daily El Universal, Machado assured the paper that “for now I’m not returning to Venezuela.”

Machado in particular has been a source of controversy because of her participation in the April 11 coup that briefly ousted Chávez. Her signature appears on a decree of the coup government abolishing the Constitution, the National Assembly, and the Supreme Court, among signatures of other prominent Venezuelans such as members of the Venezuelan private media and religious leaders.