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Lee Fang on How a Little-Known U.S. Libertarian Think Tank Is Remaking Latin American Politics

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A new investigation published by The Intercept exposes how a libertarian think tank called the Atlas Network is remaking Latin American politics with the help of powerful conservative institutions and funders in the United States, some of whom you may recognize, such as the Koch brothers. The Intercept reports the Atlas Network is behind dozens of prominent groups that have supported right-wing forces in the antigovernment movement in Venezuela, as well as those who ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. We are joined by The Intercept’s Lee Fang, who covers the intersection of money and politics. His new piece is tilted Sphere of Influence: How American Libertarians Are Remaking Latin American Politics.

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. A new investigation published by The Intercept exposes how a libertarian think tank called the Atlas Network is remaking Latin American politics with the help of powerful conservative institutions and funders in the United States, some of whom you may recognize, like the Koch brothers. This is part of a promotional video released by the Atlas Network.

ATLAS NETWORK VIDEO: Welcome to the Atlas Network. We’re your connection to a network of freedom champions across the United States and around the world in more than 80 countries. Atlas freedom champions are knocking down barriers to wealth creation, fighting corruption and fostering free enterprise by reducing the role of government and protecting individual liberty. While politicians operate within the confines of what they consider politically possible, Atlas and our global partners think it’s more cost-effective in the long term to change what is considered politically possible.

AMY GOODMAN: The Intercept reports the Atlas Network is behind dozens of prominent groups that have supported right-wing forces in the antigovernment movement in Venezuela, as well as those that ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

For more, we’re joined by The Intercept’s investigative reporter Lee Fang, who covers the intersection of money and politics, his new piece headlined “Sphere of Influence: How American Libertarians Are Remaking Latin American Politics.”

Lee, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain how you discovered what the Atlas Network was and what it is doing.

LEE FANG: Amy, thank you so much for having me.

This is kind of the very first look at the Atlas Network and its history from a critical perspective. This is a relatively obscure think tank and foundation in Washington, D.C., but it’s played an incredibly prominent role in taking the successful conservative strategies to push a hard-right libertarian policy agenda—you know, ideas like cutting taxes for the rich, privatizing industry and privatizing pension programs, deregulation and attacks on labor unions—and taking the model of, you know, groups like the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute or the more local think tanks that we’ve seen proliferate around the Midwest, and teaching libertarian activists and business leaders all over the world to duplicate the American model in their home countries, you know, flying out local—foreign leaders to Washington, D.C., to teach them management techniques, fundraising techniques, modern communication strategy, including even creating very clever YouTube videos to make these ideas go viral. And they’ve played kind of a quiet role in reshaping the politics in countries all across the country—or, all across the world. But they’ve had a special focus in Latin America, and we’re seeing their efforts really pay a large dividend with the political changes that are going on all across Central and South America.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain its title, the Atlas Network.

LEE FANG: Yeah. I think the Atlas Network is pretty clear tip of the hat to Ayn Rand. The current president of the Atlas Network, Alex Chafuen, grew up in Argentina. He was kind of in a family that was part of the Argentine elite, and kind of grew up in the turmoil of the '60s and ’70s with multiple military coups and, you know, incredible violence towards leftists and perceived leftists. And Alex Chafuen was a devotee of Ayn Rand. He's still the president of Atlas Network today. And, you know, this is a group that’s worked very closely with a small network of libertarian economists, folks like F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, to basically push back and win the war of ideas. And, you know, the model that they’ve kind of set up in the United States is very well known, but what hasn’t really been reported is how they’ve translated these libertarian textbooks, but also exported the political strategies, that have put these policies in place in the United States, to other countries.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to Brazil, one of the places you’ve mentioned they’ve been involved, to the former President Dilma Rousseff, comments she made last year after the Brazilian Senate voted to impeach her.

DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] They’ve just overthrown the first woman elected president of Brazil, without there being any constitutional justification for this impeachment. But the coup was not just carried out against me and my party or the allied parties who support me today. This was just the beginning. The coup is going to strike, without distinction, every progressive and democratic political organization.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was the ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Talk about the significance of what she said and how you think the Atlas Network was involved.

LEE FANG: We can’t point to one single factor that led to the downfall of Dilma, but what I can say is that the Atlas Network has made a special effort to develop their think tank and kind of independent institute model in Brazil, so that the Atlas Network has over a dozen separate entities as part of their partner affiliates in Brazil, each organization kind of working using its own strategies but with the same goal. And the goal recently has been the impeachment and downfall of Dilma and her Workers’ Party. So, you know, one organization that’s in the Atlas Network in Brazil is the Students for Liberty youth group that organized these mass demonstrations focusing anger at Dilma. There are Heritage Foundation-style think tanks that develop policy papers and host media pundits, who have, you know, gone out into the media and try to channel public outrage at Dilma. They develop YouTube videos, which have been very effective in spreading kind of viral political attacks against Dilma. There’s a religious institute that’s an affiliate of the Acton Institute, which is affiliated with Betsy DeVos, now the education secretary. But they’ve created an affiliate of that think tank in Brazil, that makes kind of a theological argument for hard-right economic policies.

So, you know, there’s a network effect here, where the recent downturn in the Brazilian economy, these recent corruptions scandals have presented an opportunity. And the Atlas Network—and this is what they’ve told me—they’ve taken the kind of political and economic crisis and seized it and used it as an opportunity to focus anger at Dilma and to push their very narrow set of economic ideas, you know, ideas that were popular in the United States in the early '90s—you know, privatizing prisons, privatizing the education system. They're using the political crisis in Brazil to now push this very narrow set of, you know, once very unpopular ideas and push them to the forefront by taking advantage of this crisis that, in part, that they’ve helped orchestrate.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Venezuela. I want to go back a few years, to—I think this was 2014, to the Venezuelan opposition figure María Corina Machado thanking the Atlas Network.

MARÍA CORINA MACHADO: Thank you to the Atlas Network, to all freedom fighters and democrats around the world for your support and inspiration. The well-funded silence of international complicity is overpowered by your voices of encouragement. Although the regime will not let me be there in person, through this means, I want to assure you that we Venezuelans remain firm in our quest to tear down the walls of oppression.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Venezuelan opposition figure María Corina Machado thanking the Atlas Network. Lee Fang?

LEE FANG: Right. Well, you know, Venezuela is another country where this model has been applied, for a very long time. The Atlas Network works with a number of different think tanks in Venezuela to criticize, first, you know, the Hugo Chávez government, now the Maduro government. And again, you know, there’s an unrelated crisis. You know, the Maduro government has suffered from a dependence on oil, and oil prices are low. There are a number of other corruption scandals and other kind of problems with managing the country. Well, the Atlas Network has seized upon this opportunity to push antigovernment protest. The leader we just heard from is affiliated with one of these Atlas think tanks, CEDICE, which is in Caracas. It’s been there for a very long time. It’s been funded by the Atlas Network.

And one of the other revelations in our piece today is basically that, you know, the Atlas Network talks about how any government funding is illegitimate, that foreign aid is basically a bribe, and they’re against foreign aid. At the same time, Atlas Network think tanks all over the world, including in Brazil, including in Venezuela, and in other countries, have relied on U.S. government money. The State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, which is a government-funded think tank that’s funded by taxpayer dollars, has quietly financed think tanks and Atlas affiliates in Venezuela and many of these other countries. And I think the simple reason is they hope that the Atlas Network helps to push American-friendly governments, that they help transform the politics of the developing world to be more friendly to American foreign policy aims. But it is kind of an interesting irony or hypocrisy that this libertarian think tank network has relied for a very long time on U.S. government money.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to take Venezuela to the current day. This is CIA Director Mike Pompeo talking about Venezuela just last month at the Aspen Institute.

MIKE POMPEO: Any time you have a country of—as large and with the economic capacity of a country like Venezuela, America has a deep interest in making sure that it is stable and as democratic as possible. And so, we’re working hard to do that. I’m always careful when we talk about South and Central America and the CIA. There’s a lot of stories. So, I want to be careful with what I say. But, suffice to say, we—we are very hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela. And we—the CIA is doing its best to understand the dynamic there, so that we can communicate to our State Department and to others, the Colombians. I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogotá, week before last, talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is very ominous, Lee Fang. This the current CIA director, Mike Pompeo, talking about Venezuela at the Aspen Institute, working very hard, he said, on Venezuela. What exactly that means? And that leads to my question about how does the Atlas Network’s machinations in Latin America compare with those of the CIA, or dovetail with them—CIA, multinational corporations, etc., now and in the past.

LEE FANG: Yeah, that’s a very interesting dynamic, you know, and we know some of the answers to that question thanks to the work of a number of journalists who have filed Freedom of Information Act requests in the past, also the diplomatic cables that were released by the whistleblower Chelsea Manning. If you take a look at those files, you see, at least historically—you know, we don’t know what’s going on today in 2017, but we do know historically that U.S. diplomats have leaned on the Atlas think tank network to set up meetings with opposition groups, to coordinate with protests against governments that we have an adversarial relationship with.

Venezuela is another great example of this. From FOIA documents, we see that, going back to, you know, the late '90s, just after Hugo Chávez's—Hugo Chávez came to power, the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy started providing large amounts of money to the Atlas think tank network in Venezuela to orchestrate protest movements, to criticize his government, to try to delegitimize his government. In fact, when there was the kind of brief 2002 coup, that brought Hugo Chávez from power for, you know, not a very long period, but there was an attempt, and we see from these documents that the Atlas think tanks sprung into actions to try to legitimize the new coup government. There was the Carmona Decree, this kind of document that said—you know, from business leaders in Venezuela, saying, “Hugo Chávez has gone, and we’d like to move on and have a new government.” We see from this cache of documents that they are working hand in glove with the U.S. government, that these libertarian leaders, that had been trained in the United States and funded by the Atlas Network and from the U.S. government, were part of a larger strategy to bring down the Chávez government.

Now, we don’t know exactly what’s going on now, but we know from the diplomatic cables from Chelsea Manning that after that period, there were repeated attempts to orchestrate large antigovernment protests, to channel anger at the Chávez government and to hope for a similar situation where the opposition would be strong enough to bring the government down. So, I think it’s very likely that a similar strategy is playing out right now with the crisis in Venezuela. And indeed, we see the CEDICE and other Atlas-backed think tanks in Venezuela promoting the opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about who is behind the Atlas Network and the money behind it.

LEE FANG: Well, you know, the history of the Atlas Network is very interesting. You know, this kind of goes back to the postwar period in both the U.K. and the U.S. There was a big kind of debate within the big business community: How to push back against the postwar welfare state? You know, in the U.K., they were nationalizing the healthcare system, creating the NHS. The U.S., the New Deal was still going on, you know, big spending on infrastructure and social welfare and the GI Bill. And there was the discussion: How do you push back against these ideas? And they struggled with the problem of credibility. Any time you try to call for economic libertarian ideas of cutting taxes for the rich or, you know, cutting welfare, it was looked at as an idea that simply benefited the upper crust.

So, you know, working with economists like F.A. Hayek and others, a British businessman created what we now call, you know, the conservative think tank. The Institute of Economic Affairs was the model, developed in London, that could do a rapid response kind of media pushback that provided an academic veneer to these, at the time, very fringe ideas. That was, you know, very successful in pushing and promoting the Margaret Thatcher revolution in the late ’70s. Similar strategies were applied in the U.S. and created the Heritage Foundation model. The founder of the first of these types of think tanks, Antony Fisher, this British businessman, saw the incredible success in taking these once-fringe ideas, these hard-right economic libertarian ideas, and the think tank model, and he came to the conclusion that, you know, it should be duplicated in every country all around the world, that there should be a global revolution using these type of methods that have been honed in the U.S. and the U.K.

And big business chipped in very quickly. You know, companies like Pfizer, Shell, General Electric, they started providing a lot of money secretly to these think tanks. And they were hoping that, you know, they would receive tax cuts and deregulation, not just in the U.S. and U.K., but in other countries where they do business. So, it was always kind of a close partnership between these libertarian ideologues and these big business interests that hope to benefit from these policies.

So, Antony Fisher eventually passed away in the '80s, and he gave the reins to Alex Chafuen, the Argentine American who's still the president of the group today and has really been successful in exporting this model. You know, as you mentioned earlier and that clip mentioned, Atlas is active in now almost a hundred different countries. They’re very prominent in Latin America, but they also play an influential role in Europe and in Asia and other parts of the developing world.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee Fang, talk about your conversation with Fernando Schüler. Describe who he is and his role in undermining organized labor.

LEE FANG: Yeah, you know, this is the—that was a very interesting conversation. I went to Buenos Aires to attend an Atlas conference kind of focused on their Latin American efforts. And Schüler basically made the argument that, you know, they got lucky with the Dilma impeachment. You know, this was kind of—the stars aligned in terms of the economic situation and the political climate. But there is a long way to go to implement his kind of radical libertarian agenda—you know, a lot of the ideas, like privatizing prisons or the education system, aren’t popular in Brazil—and that they would need to kind of change the fundamental institutions in Brazil for long-term policy change. And, you know, he pointed to the U.S. You know, in the U.S., there are large foundations that provide money for these strategies.

But also we talked a little bit about the role of labor unions. And, you know, the Atlas Network has studied the strategy used in the Midwest in the U.S., in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, where Scott Walker pushed through really radical attacks on labor unions, you know, pushing right-to-work laws, taking away or weakening collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, hoping to basically change the balance of power in that state, saying that, you know, their main ideological and political opponents are labor unions, so our first attack should be against labor unions. Schüler, in Brazil, made a similar argument, saying that, you know, for long-term political change, he hopes to weaken Brazil’s labor unions, because labor unions are the greatest obstacle to their reform.

And what’s interesting here is that Atlas Network has facilitated an exchange of ideas. The same kind of small think tanks in Wisconsin and Michigan and other states that pushed these labor reforms or labor changes have been brought in to teach the Atlas Network how to duplicate that model, how to outmaneuver the left, how to produce these slick videos and policy papers that delegitimize labor unions. And, you know, with this exchange of ideas, Brazilian think tank leaders and student protest leaders are being flown to D.C. and taught these very techniques.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president. Now, last weekend, the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, was bombed, and the Minnesota governor condemned it as terrorism. President Trump has yet to condemn this attack. Interestingly, the deputy assistant to the president, Sebastian Gorka, went on television and suggested that the Minnesota mosque bombing was a “false flag” attack. Gorka was speaking on MSNBC.

SEBASTIAN GORKA: There’s a great rule: All initial reports are false. You have to check them. You have to find out who the perpetrators are. We’ve had a series of crimes committed, alleged hate crimes, by right-wing individuals in the last six months, that turned out to actually have been propagated by the left. So let’s wait and see. Let’s allow the local authorities to provide their assessment, and then the White House will make its comments.

AMY GOODMAN: The Jewish newspaper The Forward reports Gorka has links to a Hungarian far-right, Nazi-allied group and supported an anti-Semitic and racist paramilitary militia in Hungary while he served as a Hungarian politician. Talk about Sebastian Gorka and the Atlas Network, Lee Fang.

LEE FANG: Yeah, the Atlas Network has incredible connections to the Trump administration. Sebastian Gorka, this very anti-Muslim pundit, he’s, you know, been active with a number of conservative websites and kind of just suddenly sprung to power by being appointed to this very senior White House role. He once managed a small Atlas think tank in Hungary.

But that’s just one of many different examples. Mike Pence has attended Atlas Network events and spoken highly of the group. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has served on several boards along with Atlas Network President Alex Chafuen. And, you know, the Acton Institute, this think tank that’s heavily backed by DeVos, now has affiliates all over the world as part of the Atlas Network, including in Brazil.

And, you know, I think one of the most salient and interesting examples of the Trump administration connections to this Atlas Network is that the National Endowment for Democracy, this government-chartered foundation that’s kind of an arm of American soft power abroad, that provides extensive financing to the Atlas Network think tanks all over the world, including in Venezuela and other places, after Trump was elected president, an Atlas Network economist and fellow, Judy Shelton, was elevated to be the chairperson of the National Endowment for Democracy. So now you have many Atlas Network think tank leaders or fellow travelers in senior positions in the administration, but also an Atlas Network employee helping to manage the U.S. foreign policy arm that’s financing the Atlas Network all across the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And as we’re talking about Sebastian Gorka, in addition to the other roles he’s played, he was an editor for the—for national security affairs for Breitbart News, which, of course, another key White House figure, Steve Bannon, was the head of.

LEE FANG: That’s right. Sebastian Gorka has, you know, really operated on the fringes. You know, he’s been a figure on talk radio, on some of these very conspiracy-laden, anti-Muslim websites. But, yes, he’s been on Breitbart for a very long time, editing pieces, advancing very ugly anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. So it’s incredible to see a figure like him, who’s really operated on the fringes of American society, elevated to such a prominent role in the White House.

In terms of influencing the debate, you know, these aren’t just policy arguments that they’re making. The so-called Breitbart of Brazil—there’s a pundit named Rodrigo Constantino. He kind of uses very acidic, conspiracy-laden arguments to try to delegitimize the left, basically saying that, you know, even the World Cup logo, the use of the color red, is a conspiracy to advance communism. You know, he makes all kinds of arguments, you know, some of them similar to the Cadillac welfare queen argument that we’re familiar with in the U.S. He’s popularized these attacks on social welfare programs in Brazil. He’s actually backed by an Atlas think tank, the Instituto Liberal, in Brazil, and affiliated with a second one, as well. So, you know, the Atlas Network is not only managing the protests on the street and the policy proposals, but they’re also introducing the Breitbart-style commentary and media figures in countries like Brazil.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who James O’Keefe is, the conservative political activist, and how he fits into this picture.

LEE FANG: Well, as part of the Atlas Network exchange of ideas and management training seminars, you know, they frequently fly conservative leaders to Washington, D.C., and to teach them in the latest in communications technology and management techniques for running a successful political operation and think tank. They also bring in conservative kind of tacticians and leaders to teach about their tactics and methods. So, you know, they brought in Grover Norquist, the antitax activist who’s played a very prominent role in tax debates in the United States. They’ve brought in the folks who were involved in pushing the Scott Walker reforms in Wisconsin.

And they’ve also brought in people like James O’Keefe. James O’Keefe is a kind of internet and online provocateur. He teaches young conservatives to go undercover and to go to different left-leaning organizations, you know, places that help register poor people to vote, to Planned Parenthood, to other organizations that are affiliated with the Democratic Party or with the center-left. And he has these individuals engage in undercover videos, and, in some cases, has edited these videos to disparage the victims of these videos or to make—in other cases, to make these—the targets of his films look foolish or perhaps like they’re breaking the law. And, you know, he’s played a very prominent role in recent political debates. He helped kind of destroy the organization ACORN, which is a local community organizing group. Well, you know, he’s given seminars, as well, to the Atlas Network, to teach them his methods. So, you know, we might be seeing those type of strategies in Brazil or Venezuela or elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Lee Fang, what were you most surprised in your research into the Atlas Network? And have they responded to your piece?

LEE FANG: I do not know if they have responded publicly. You know, I interviewed quite a few number of Atlas Network people for the piece.

The most surprising part of this was finding about—finding out about the extensive U.S. government financing for this network, especially given their antigovernment rhetoric. You know, I went to Buenos Aires, I went to New York, Las Vegas and Honduras, to speak to different Atlas Network leaders. But I also went to the Hoover Institute archives at Stanford University and went into the personal papers of Antony Fisher, the original founder of the first of these style think tanks, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the original founder of the Atlas Network. And, you know, the government financing comes from the very beginnings of this group. You know, Atlas Network was originally technically founded in 1981. As early as 1982, I found letters from Antony Fisher writing to Reagan administration officials, asking for government money. So, I thought that was probably the most interesting revelation in all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lee Fang, I want to thank you very much for being with us, author of the piece for The Intercept, “Sphere of Influence: How American Libertarians Are Remaking Latin American Politics.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. To see other interviews with Lee Fang, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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