The AEI axis
Some of the key figures and loudest voices supporting the efforts of the Trump administration to overthrow the Venezuelan government in the United States are well-connected to one particular think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). For instance, John Bolton — now Trump’s national security advisor and a major player in the administration’s aggressive Venezuela policy — was a senior fellow at AEI until he became Trump’s top national security official. As national security adviser, Bolton advises the president on foreign policy and issues of national security while also advising both the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. As of late, he has been pushing for military action in Venezuela, according to media reports.
Another key figure in Trump’s Venezuela policy — Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s Special Representative for Venezuela — has been regularly featured at AEI summits and as a guest on its panels and podcasts. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Abrams’ current role gives him the “responsibility for all things related to our efforts to restore democracy” in Venezuela. Other top figures in the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were featured guests at the AEI’s “secretive” gathering in early March. As MintPress and other outlets have reported, Guaidó declared himself “interim president” of Venezuela at Pence’s behest. Pompeo is also intimately involved in directing Trump’s Venezuela policy as the president’s main adviser on foreign affairs. Other connections to the Trump administration include Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who was previously on AEI’s board of trustees.
AEI has long been a key part of the “neoconservative” establishment and employs well-known neoconservatives such as Fred Kagan — the architect of the Iraq “troop surge” — and Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the Iraq War. Its connections to the George W. Bush administration were particularly notable and controversial, as more than 20 AEI employees were given top positions under Bush. Several of them, such as Bolton, have enjoyed new prominence in Trump’s administration.
Other key Bush officials joined the AEI soon after leaving their posts in the administration. One such was Roger Noriega, who was the U.S. representative to the Organisation of American States (OAS) during the failed, U.S.-backed 2002 coup and went on to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2003 to 2005, where he was extremely influential in the administration’s policies towards Venezuela and Cuba.
Since leaving the Bush administration and promptly joining the AEI, Noriega has been instrumental in pushing claims that lack evidence but aim to paint Venezuela’s current President Nicolas Maduro-led government as a national security threat, such as claiming that Venezuela is helping Iran acquire nuclear weapons and hosts soldiers from Lebanon’s Hezbollah. He also lobbied Congress to support Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, Guaidó’s political mentor and leader of his political party, Popular Will.
Not only that, but Noreiga teamed up with Martin Rodil, a Venezuelan exile formerly employed by the IMF, and José Cardenas, who served in the Bush administration, to found Visión Américas; a private risk-assessment and lobbying firm that was hired to “support the efforts of the Honduran private sector to help consolidate the democratic transition in their country” after the U.S.-backed Honduran coup in 2009. In recent months, Noriega and his associates have been very focused on Venezuela, with Cardenas offering Trump public advice about how “to hasten Maduro’s exit,” while Rodil has publicly offered “to get you a deal” if you have dirt on Venezuela’s government.
While the AEI is best known for its hawkishness, it is also a promoter of big agricultural interests. Since 2000, it has hosted several conferences on the promise of “biotechnology” and genetically modified seeds and has heavily promoted the work of former Monsanto lobbyist Jon Entine, who was an AEI visiting fellow for several years. The AEI also has long-time connections to Dow Chemical.
The most likely reason for the AEI’s interest in promoting biotech, however, can be found in its links to Monsanto. In 2013, `The Nation’ acquired a 2009 AEI document, obtained through a filing error and not intended for public disclosure, that revealed the think tank’s top donors. The form, known as the “schedule of contributors,” revealed that the AEI’s top two donors at the time were the Donors Capital Fund and billionaire Paul Singer.
The Donors Capital Fund, which remains a major contributor to the AEI, is linked to Monsanto interests through the vice chairman of its board, Kimberly O. Dennis, who is also currently a member of the AEI’s National Council. According to AEI, the National Council is composed of “business and community leaders from across the country who are committed to AEI’s success and serve as ambassadors for AEI, providing us with advice, insight, and guidance.”
Dennis is the long-time executive chairwoman of the Searle Freedom Trust, which was founded in 1988 by Daniel Searle after he oversaw the sale of his family pharmaceutical company — G.D. Searle and Company — to Monsanto in 1985 for $2.7 billion. The money Searle had made from that merger was used to fund the trust that now funds the AEI and other right-wing think tanks. Searle was also close to Donald Rumsfeld, who led G.D. Searle and Co. for years and was Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford and George W. Bush. Searle was also a trustee of the Hudson Institute, which once employed Elliott Abrams.
After the family company — which gained notoriety for faking research about the safety of its sweetener, aspartame or NutraSweet — was sold to Monsanto, G.D. Searle executives close to Daniel Searle rose to prominence within the company. Robert Shapiro, who was G.D. Searle’s long-time attorney and head of its NutraSweet division, would go on to become Monsanto’s vice president, president and later CEO. Notably, Daniel Searle’s grandson, D. Gideon Searle, was an AEI trustee until relatively recently.