Dispatch

The $20 Million Case for Morocco

The kingdom is using an army of flacks to keep the illusion of peace and stability.

LAAYOUNE, Morocco — The peculiar form of Western Saharan hospitality, at least as practiced by the Moroccan government, is to watch visitors closely. Upon our arrival last winter to Laayoune, the capital of this disputed territory, as part of a delegation of six female journalists, the first gesture was two pairs of headlights behind us as we drove from the airport to our hotel. We'd been invited by the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) to travel to Western Sahara to report on this often forgotten story.

Men in dark sunglasses and leather jackets were ready for our arrival at the hotel, posted on the corners across the street. As our group of six journalists and two IWMF staffers traveled around town in the days to come, the men stayed close, on motorbikes and in dark cars. These men, who looked like the security agents ubiquitous around the Middle East, usually pulled around a nearby corner as we rolled to a stop. When we looked their way, they made feeble attempts to duck around a corner or hide behind a car.

This kind of surveillance, we'd been warned, was standard for foreign visitors to Western Sahara. Even tourists report being followed and watched. We knew that journalists -- and anyone else who might meet with the local activists who seek independence from Morocco -- were subject to special scrutiny and sometimes expelled. Morocco claims Western Sahara as its own and has occupied the territory since 1976, when an indigenous independence movement led by the Algeria-funded Polisario Front began fighting Moroccan troops. Western Sahara is the only territory in Africa still on the United Nations' list of non-self-governing territories -- places that wait in limbo to be decolonized.

Today Western Sahara is one of the world's longest-running unresolved conflicts. Despite the ceasefire signed between Morocco and the Western Sahara liberation movement, called the Polisario, in 1991, the territory's status has to this day never been finally settled. With so many other conflicts today absorbing the international community's attention, the half-peace in Western Sahara means the issue has been relegated to the sidelines of international diplomacy.

As we experienced firsthand, Morocco does not just rely on anonymous security agents -- it also uses press flacks and de facto Washington lobbyists to burnish its image abroad. The day after we arrived, a representative of the Ministry of Communications in Rabat, Mohamed El Bour, showed up to orchestrate our meetings with local officials and focus our attention on Western Sahara's economic promise rather than its political strife. On our third day in Laayoune, he was joined by a woman in a dark suit, stilettos, and sunglasses.

She introduced herself as Fatima-Zohra Rachidi, also with the Ministry of Communications in Rabat. She was in Laayoune with another delegation and had been asked to join us at the last minute, she said in a flawless American accent. The line "I just happened to be here" was one we would also hear from many Rabat-based officials we encountered in Western Sahara, and one we came to doubt. "Let me know if you need anything," she added breezily.

Fatima remained with us the rest our time in Western Sahara, accompanying us to several of our meetings with officials and groups with close ties to the government. (She and the minders did not accompany us when we met opposition activists.) She was mostly quiet during meetings -- but was obviously listening closely, stepping in occasionally to re-translate a salient point about the government's position into English.

On our final day in the territory, as we sat in the departure lounge of the airport, we were summoned to the VIP lounge, where the Moroccan-appointed provincial governor lectured us about being fair in our coverage. And there was Fatima again: She stood among the local officials who flanked the governor, and, because she was there to help the government communicate, interrupted our translator to clarify a few points of the governor's monologue. When he was through, we asked for her card -- she had no more left, she said, but gave us a Gmail address with which to reach her in Rabat. 

We quickly discovered that Fatima was not only a government emissary, but an example of the close ties the kingdom maintains to Washington lobbying shops. After we left Western Sahara, we found Fatima's picture on the website of the Gabriel Company, a Washington lobbying firm headed by former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco Edward Gabriel. On the Gabriel Company's website, she goes by the name Fatima-Zohra Kurtz.

The Gabriel Company has had the Moroccan government as a client since 2002, and during that time has been paid more than $3.7 million, according to records filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). FARA requires foreign governments and the groups they hire to lobby on their behalf in the United States to file detailed reports of their lobbying activities with the Justice Department.

The Gabriel Company's fees are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the funds Morocco has lavished on lobbyists to stay on Washington's good side. Since 2007, the kingdom has employed nine U.S. lobbying firms, according to FARA records. Altogether, since 2007 the kingdom has spent roughly $20 million lobbying policymakers and soliciting sympathetic coverage from journalists in the United States on all issues, including Western Sahara. In 2009, it lobbied members of Congress, the executive branch and journalists more than any other Arab country -- more than twice as much as Egypt, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for government accountability and transparency.

Fatima accounted for the difference between what she told us was her surname, and what she goes by with the Gabriel Company, by saying she uses her maiden name, Rachidi, in Morocco and Kurtz, the name of her ex-husband, in the United States.

Whichever name she's using, her career provides a window into the interlocking network of nonprofits and lobbying firms that are tasked with boosting Morocco's image in Washington. In addition to what she called a consulting job with the Ministry of Communications and her vice presidency at the Gabriel Company, Fatima also works for other organizations funded by the kingdom. She heads the Moroccan American Cultural Center, which tries to build cultural ties between the United States and Morocco through events and is one of the three organizations under the umbrella of the Moroccan American Center. The Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP), a registered Washington lobbying firm the Moroccan government relies on heavily, is another organization under the same umbrella. And while it's not listed on the website, a contract filed under FARA revealed that Fatima is also MACP's senior vice president for operations.

Morocco has paid more money to MACP than any other U.S. firm it has hired to influence lawmakers and journalists. According to filings made under FARA, the kingdom has paid more than $13.8 million to MACP since 2007 to contact journalists, congressmen, and State Department officials to advance Morocco's interests.

When contacted at the Gabriel Company office on K Street in Washington, Fatima vehemently denied that she has ever been a lobbyist for the two lobbying firms where she's an executive. She said that from 2003 to 2009, she was registered as a lobbyist with FARA, which requires people engaged in direct lobbying or "quasi political activities" on behalf of a foreign government to disclose the details of those activities. But she said she deregistered in 2009 at the advice of her lawyer, because she "did not participate in lobbying activities." But since U.S. law is vague about what qualifies as "quasi political activities," Fatima seems to operate in a legal gray area where what constitutes lobbying and what doesn't is hard to pinpoint.

* * *

Since the start of the Arab Spring, Morocco has been keen to project an image of stability in a troubled region. As fellow North African countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have struggled to follow through on the promise of their revolutions, Morocco has pitched itself as a regional player able to offer the kind of security guarantees Europe and the United States are looking for.

According to FARA records, Western Sahara has consistently been a key topic in Morocco's lobbying of Washington. The kingdom's lobbyists have framed Morocco's struggle for control of the territory as another front in America's war on terror. In April 2013, MACP circulated an editorial by email arguing that the refugee camps in Algeria filled with Western Sahara citizens have "reportedly become a recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda-linked groups," a development that should prompt "active diplomatic action from the United States."

A May 2012 PowerPoint presentation attached to the FARA records submitted by LeClairRyan, another Washington group lobbying for Morocco, warns darkly about the chaos that would follow Morocco's withdrawal from the territory.

"Morocco can never allow -- nor would any other country in its position allow -- [Western Sahara] to become an 'independent state,' because as such it would be incredibly weak, a failed state from Day One, and a magnet for terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking and other evils," the presentation warns.

Morocco's millions appear to have been effectively spent, as the United States has never pressured the kingdom to follow through on its pledge to hold a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara. The 2014 appropriations bill recently passed by Congress mandates, for the first time, that some of the foreign aid to Morocco be used in Western Sahara. The bill specifically stipulates that the State Department develop a plan to "resolve the longstanding dispute over the Western Sahara, based on autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty." The MACP cheered this development in a press release.

The lack of public attention on Western Sahara may be one reason its lobbying is so successful: Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco, who wrote a book about the conflict, said that because it is relatively unknown to the public, Moroccan lobbying can have a "disproportionate amount of influence" on attitudes in Washington.

"The reason [the U.S.-Moroccan alliance] hasn't been challenged, the reason it's not an issue, is because of the influence the lobby has on Congress," said Zunes.

Of course, the other side lobbies, too. Algeria, a long-time supporter of the Polisario and Western Sahara independence, also retains lobbyists in Washington -- but the funds it spends are dwarfed by Rabat. Between 2007 and 2013, Algeria spent roughly $2.4 million lobbying Capitol Hill, according to FARA -- or slightly more than 10 percent of the funds Morocco has spent. FARA records show that almost all meetings organized by Algiers-funded lobbyists are about Western Sahara. The Polisario hired Independent Diplomat to represent the group in Washington in 2008, and has paid it $42,433 since 2009.

Several congressional offices declined to talk about their meetings with lobbyists, and others did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

* * * 

So far, Morocco's image consultants seem to blur their association with U.S. lobbying firms. When we contacted Fatima in April, she said she saw no reason to mention her work at the Gabriel Company, the MACP, or MACC when we first met her because it was unrelated to her work in Western Sahara as a consultant for the Ministry of Communications. And though we found a contract she'd signed on behalf of MACP hiring the lobbying firm Western Hemisphere Strategies, headed by former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, to "positively affect relations between the United States and Morocco," she called her role purely administrative.

Bill Allison, the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to government transparency, says anyone who attempts to shift the U.S. public debate on behalf of a foreign power should register as a lobbyist. "If you're trying to influence U.S. public opinion, and that would include talking to journalists, you're supposed to be registered [with FARA]," says Allison. "That includes if you're in a role presenting the Moroccan government's views, trying to create a favorable impression. The whole point of FARA is so that you can know who you're talking to, and there is no ambiguity. " (The Justice Department declined to comment on Fatima's unregistered status.)

However they get the job done, Morocco's lobbying efforts still appear capable of influencing American policy. The U.S. mission to the United Nations, for instance, recently proposed adding a human rights mandate to the U.N. mission in Western Sahara -- it is, after all, currently the only U.N. peacekeeping force without one. But the United States dropped the proposal after the government of Morocco and its allies lobbied against it -- and even canceled an annual joint military exercise for U.S. and Moroccan troops in Morocco. The U.S. then reverted to its longstanding position of posing no serious challenge to Morocco's position on Western Sahara.

That non-confrontational attitude looks set to continue. On Nov. 22, President Barack Obama received King Mohammed VI in the Oval Office -- and used the meeting to hug the kingdom even tighter. In a statement following the meeting, Obama and the king also reaffirmed their commitment to working together "to counter the threat of violent extremism in the region." The White House also praised Morocco's plan for the Western Sahara, which is widely rejected by Sahrawi activists, as "serious, realistic, and credible."

Meanwhile, as Morocco continues to spend millions on lobbyists and public relations efforts, the decades-long conflicts drags on with no end in sight.

AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Poster Boy

Can Leopoldo López unite Venezuela's fractious opposition and exorcise the ghost of Hugo Chávez?

CARACAS — Before his arrest last week, Leopoldo López was part of the second tier of Venezuelan opposition leaders, less well known and far less influential than leading lights like Miranda State Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski -- who lost last year's hotly contested presidential election to Nicolas Maduro -- and Lara State Governor Henry Falcon.

But after attaching his political fortunes to his country's suddenly revived and student-led protest movement, López, 42, has charged to the forefront of the country's fractured opposition movement. And thanks to his dramatic arrest last week, López has become the poster boy for Venezuela's street protests and a hero for opposing President Nicolás Maduro.

López is now playing a high-stakes game of chicken with the government. Arrested last Tuesday and confined to a military prison outside Caracas, López is awaiting the results of a police investigation into his role in deadly clashes on Feb. 12 that left three people dead. His arrest and persecution have made him arguably the country's most prominent political prisoner. On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters turned out at an opposition rally in Caracas to demand his release. Speaker after speaker demanded López's freedom, accompanied by thunderous applause.

Like Hugo Chávez, the recently departed strongman whose shadow still looms over Venezuelan politics, López has a good sense of theater, and his arrest last week was a perfect piece of political performance art. After eluding the police for nearly a week, the charismatic López walked into a square full of supporters, scaled a large statue of Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti, and addressed the crowd with a megaphone. "If my imprisonment serves as a wakeup call for Venezuelans who want a change, then it's well worth it," López said. "I had the option of leaving, but I never will leave Venezuela. The other option was to hide clandestinely, but we have nothing to hide." As he spoke, one member of the National Guard held his P.A. system, while another sought to restrain him. "I am innocent, I have done nothing wrong,'' López said repeatedly. "I haven't committed any crime."

It was all broadcast live on television. When López was done, he walked to a line of National Guardsmen and turned himself in.

For the next six weeks, while he awaits the results of the investigation into the Feb. 12 clashes, López will be held in a stark prison cell at a military base outside Caracas, the capital. If he is convicted, those six weeks could stretch to 10 years. If found innocent and freed, he will likely be the opposition's presidential candidate in 2019. But for López, his incarceration is just the latest twist in a political career that has been defined by his opposition to first the late Chávez and now Maduro, his hand-picked successor.

The demonstrations to which López has hitched has political future have rocked Venezuela and presented Maduro with the sternest challenge to his authority since he was elected president in April 2013. Since the start of February, at least 13 people have died in violent clashes between students, police, and Maduro supporters. Hundreds have been arrested, scores wounded. The government announced last week that it would send army troops to the southwestern state of Tachira to help regain control of the state capital San Cristóbal -- a stark admission that police and National Guard were unable to suppress the protests.

López has denied all wrongdoing, saying that the government is trying to use him as a scapegoat for its own shortcomings. Although Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves, it has been slow to develop them. Production of oil, which accounts for about 95 percent of the country's hard currency, has actually declined by a quarter during the 15 years Chávez and Maduro have run the country. Food shortages are rampant and growing. Venezuelans now spend hours each day looking for staples such as milk, corn meal, cooking oil, rice, and poultry. Shortages have been accompanied by soaring prices. Last year, Venezuela's inflation rate was 56 percent, the highest in the world. Meanwhile, crime continues to increase, and Venezuela has the third-highest murder rate in the region. Corruption is rife.

In other countries of the world, López would be regarded as slightly left of center. López, who rejects the socialism of Chávez and Maduro, supports a more market-oriented approach to the economy, which would roll back many of the current administration's policies and largely eliminate any government control. He would likely privatize some, if not all, of the companies, nationalized under the banner of Chávez's Bolivarian revolution.

Moreover, López criticizes Cuba's influence in Venezuelan politics, which he says has resulted in a curtailment of political rights. He is a defender of strict freedom of the press and assembly and argues that the courts, the national electoral body, and the state attorney general's offices have all become appendages of Maduro's political party. With their autonomy eroded, López accuses Maduro and his cronies of attempting to set up a one-party state.

"López represents the future of our country,'' says Roberto López, a 24-year-old university student in Caracas. "He has a vision for a better Venezuela. And he isn't afraid to take to the streets to fight for it." 

Unsurprisingly, Maduro disagrees. In a nationally televised speech on Wednesday night, he called López a fascist and a right-wing hate monger."Leopoldo López isn't going to be the person to save the country," Maduro said. The president added that the government had learned of a plot by some of López's associates to assassinate Maduro in the hope of provoking a civil war.

Maduro has refused to accept any responsibility for the chronic problems that plague Venezuelan society and, taking a page out of the Chávez handbook, has consistently blamed others for his country's woes. These purported villains include the Venezuelan fascist right-wing, the entrenched bourgeoisie, and foreign powers such as the United States and Colombia. He has repeatedly said that his enemies are scheming to kill him. (He has presented little proof to back up those allegations.)

That paranoia may be an expression of weakness as much as anything else. "Maduro doesn't seem to be in full control of the government and its various parts,'' says Caracas-based historian Margarita López Maya. "He says one thing, and [National Assembly President Diosdado] Cabello says another. Maduro ordered the secret police to their barracks but then they disobeyed him. It's difficult to say what is going on." Cabello is a member of Maduro's ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela but is also seen as the president's chief rival for power.

And Cabello isn't Maduro's only threat. On Monday, Tachira State Governor Jose Vielma Mora called on Maduro to release López and rein in the police and security forces, saying they had used excessive force. Vielma Mora is the first member of Maduro's party to break ranks with the president.

López has been quick to capitalize not only on these divisions in the government but also cracks among the opposition. Hours before the Feb. 12 protests, Capriles, who narrowly lost the April presidential election to Maduro amid widespread allegations of fraud and vote rigging, questioned the students' wisdom by going to the streets. "Given the current situation in Venezuela and the chaos in which we live, what we are striving for can't be more chaos."Capriles said in an interview with Union Radio.

While Capriles preached caution when the protests began, López enthusiastically joined the students as their demonstrations gained momentum. He took a prominent role in the Feb. 12 protests, which coincided with the country's Youth Day celebrations. López has now succeeded in dragging the mainstream opposition -- largely against their will -- into the streets.

Whereas Capriles has bet on building up grassroots support with an eye to the 2015 congressional elections, López has been brasher. He united with Maria Corina Machado, a member of the National Assembly, to form campaign called "The Exit," the main goal of which is to force Maduro from office by hammering him on issues like inflation and crime.

Many analysts believe that López's ultimate goal may be to sideswipe Capriles and assume his role as the country's foremost opposition leader. "López wants to step over Capriles and this has put him in the spotlight,'' says Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant. But by fomenting unrest and giving Maduro an excuse to crack down on the protest movement, López may also be playing into the president's hands, Yorde says.

López has a reputation as an ambitious maverick, one who prefers to lead than to follow. Disliked by many in the Venezuelan opposition, López has a record of jumping from party to party as it suits his interest. A co-founder of the Primero Justicia party in 2000, López subsequently jumped to Un Nuevo Tiempo in 2007, where he seemingly broke a pledge to support a unity candidate for his old post and subsequently backed one of his own followers. "López likes to be in undisputed control in any of the parties he belongs to,'' says López Maya, the historian.

Under López's leadership, Voluntad Popular moved to erode support for Chávez among the working class neighborhoods that were the late president's stronghold. Voluntad Popular initiated various outreach programs by stressing that community residents should solve their own problems without interference from the government.

Gladys Castillo remembers when she would accompany López on his trips into the slums in the hills around Caracas. Chávez supporters often threatened them when they made these forays. "They threw rocks and bottles at us,'' says Castillo, a community activist who has known López for 14 years. "We were nearly kidnapped. But Leopoldo saw with his own eyes how people lived, and what their needs were. He has that understanding. That has made him who he is."

With degrees from Ohio's Kenyon College and Harvard University, López worked briefly as an advisor at the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA before entering politics. In 2000, at the age of 28, he succeeded former Miss Universe Irene Saez as mayor of the upscale Chacao district in the greater Caracas area. He served two four-year terms from 2000 to 2008.

Seen as an efficient and hardworking mayor, he was singled out by Chávez and his government, which banned him from running in the 2008 mayoral election after smearing him with corruption allegations, none of which have been proven. About 400 other Venezuelans were eventually put on the same list and prohibited from seeking public office.

Unlike many others, López challenged the ruling and filed suit with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 2011, the court found in his favor. But López has remained inhabilitado, or unable to run, following a Supreme Court decision that upheld his ban from political office. Despite that ban, López's party, Voluntad Popular, had a strong showing in December's mayoral elections, winning more city seats than any other opposition party. That, in turn, strengthened López's position.

That dogged refusal to fold in the face of government pressure has landed him squarely in Caracas' cross-hairs.  "Leopoldo's weakness is that he doesn't back down,'' Castillo says. "And he is stubborn." Maduro argues that López is guilty of conspiracy and planning riots and has said that he will have to face the consequences of his actions. Under strict security, López's preliminary court hearing was held at 10 p.m. last Tuesday at the army base outside Caracas where he is being detained.

López had a most unusual ride to the facility: He was personally driven by Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly and a man rumored to have once been in line to succeed Chávez. 

But why did the head of the National Assembly drive López to the army base? (The rough American equivalent would be House Speaker John Boehner giving Julian Assange a ride to his court hearing.) It's a question on everyone's mind in Venezuela, but one currently without a clear answer. Maduro said last week that it was Cabello who persuaded López to surrender and who brokered his detention. López's father has denied that account, saying that the meetings took place after his son surrendered and only then to discuss safeguarding López's security. Now, rumors are flying in Venezuela that Cabello had tried to persuade López to leave the country and seek asylum elsewhere.

But if Cabello genuinely thinks he can persuade López to go into exile, he may have underestimated his opponent. After all, López surrendered voluntarily and made a spectacular scene of it. "He allowed himself to be taken into custody, and to be a martyr for the cause,'' Neumann says. "In that, he is following the example of Chávez who also did prison time [after his abortive 1992 coup]. And look what that did for him."

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images