If you’ve never heard of the Atlas Network, the Intercept’s recent story, “Sphere of Influence: How American Libertarians are Remaking Latin American Politics,” will certainly be an eye opener. The Atlas Network aims to rid Latin America of leftist-led governments, limit the organizing wherewithal of unions and liberal and progressive movements, and reshape Latin America in ways the Koch Brothers, and like-minded U.S.-based right-wing billionaires support.
The existence, and recent successes, of the Atlas Network might help explain why from seemingly out of nowhere, President Trump recently took time away from taking time away, watching Fox News, and his latest tweet storm threatening North Korea with “fire and fury,” to bombastically throw Venezuela into the conversation. “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary,” Trump said. As Lee Fang, the author of the Intercept’s piece, recently explained, the Atlas Network is a “libertarian network, which has reshaped political power in country after country, [and] has also operated as a quiet extension of U.S. foreign policy, with Atlas-associated think tanks receiving quiet funding from the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy, a critical arm of American soft power.”
Rather then helping to calm the situation in Venezuela, which is in the midst of a political and economic crisis, Trump’s remarks appears to have made the situation more problematical. As businessinsider.com’s Christopher Woody noted, “Just as Trump’s remarks sent a chill through a region that was growing stronger in its condemnation of [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro, the president’s words have left the Venezuelan opposition in an unfavorable position.”
Not only did Trump’s off-the- cuff comments force the opposition to speak out against any U.S. military intervention, it also allowed two other Latin American leaders and critics of Maduro—Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Argentine President Mauricio Macri —to speak out against U.S. military interference.
“It forced them to speak out against the threat of U.S. intervention at a time when they’d much rather be focusing criticism on Maduro,” Geoff Ramsey, the associate for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Business Insider. In addition, Ramsey added, “Maduro continues to capitalize on the US threat to help rally his base and recover his slipping support among the Chavista coalition,” Ramsey told Business Insider. “This is red meat for them.”
If the opposition hopes that there would be an insurrection by the Venezuelan military, those hopes were at least temporarily dashed by Trump’s comments. “I also think it’s clear that Trump’s remark makes it even less likely that disaffected elements military will break from Maduro,” Ramsey told Business Insider. “The armed forces’ leadership is doing its best to equate turning against Maduro with allying with a foreign aggressor,” he said. “This makes it far harder to justify coming out against the government.”
By threatening U.S. military action Trump, as is his wont, went too far. But Trump’s talk about Venezuela may not have merely fallen from the sky. Someone on Team Trump may be paying attention to the Atlas Network (formerly known as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation), who have specifically targeted Venezuela.
Fang, a journalist examining the influence of organized interest groups and wealthy donors on politics, pointed out that “The Atlas Network spans dozens of other think tanks across the region, including prominent groups supporting right-wing forces behind the unfolding anti-government movement in Venezuela…”
A Freedom of Information Act by author and activist Eva Golinger, and whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s disclosures, “reveal U.S. policymakers’ sophisticated effort to use Atlas think tanks in a long-running campaign to destabilize the reign of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.”
Fang: “As early as 1998, Cedice Libertad, Atlas’s flagship think tank in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, received regular financial support from the Center for International Private Enterprise. In one grant letter, NED funds marked for Cedice are listed to help advocate ‘a change in government.’ The director of Cedice was among the signatories of the controversial Carmona Decree supporting the short-lived military coup against Chávez in 2002.
“A 2006 cable laid out a strategy from U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield for funding politically active nonprofits in Venezuela: ‘1) Strengthening democratic institutions, 2) penetrating Chávez’s political base, 3) dividing Chavismo, 4) protecting vital U.S. business, and 5) isolating Chávez internationally.’
“In Venezuela’s current crisis, Cedice has promoted the recent spate of protests against … Maduro, Chávez’s embattled successor. Cedice is closely affiliated with opposition figure María Corina Machado, one of the leaders of the massive anti-government street demonstrations in recent months. Machado has publicly recognized Atlas for its work. In a videotape message delivered to the group in 2014, she said, ‘Thank you to the Atlas Network, to all freedom fighters.’” According to Alejandro Chafuen, who heads up the Atlas Network, “When there is an opening, you have a crisis, and there is some demand for change, you have people who are trained to push for certain policies.”
Fang noted that “Chafuen pointed to numerous Atlas-affiliated leaders now in the spotlight: ministers in the new conservative government in Argentina, senators in Bolivia, and the leaders of the Free Brazil Movement that took down Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, where Chafuen’s network sprang to life before his very eyes.”
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements