Freedom House is the oldest Washington-based NGO working in the international arena. It was founded just before the beginning of the U.S. entry into World War II and blossomed during the Cold War. Freedom House today positions itself as a nuanced, liberal, or even left-of-center organization, obscuring its real agenda: to destabilize foreign governments whose policies challenge U.S. global hegemony. Since the 1980s Reagan revolution, its Board of Trustees has been largely composed of neoconservatives, including R. J. Woolsey, the former director of the CIA; Donald Rumsfeld; Paul Wolfowitz; Jeane Kirkpatrick; and Samuel P. Huntington.1 Although it likes to call itself “independent,” it receives about 80% of its funding from the U.S. government, either through the State Department, USAID, or the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).2 As such, it is clearly an instrument of the U.S. government.3 The rest of its funding is underwritten by foundations that pay for its annual Freedom in the World report, which ranks countries according to how free they are—as perceived through the eyes of Freedom House’s main office in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. This report is widely cited as gospel in the news media but has been heavily criticized by academics for its biased methodology.4
During the Cold War, Freedom House acted as the principal U.S.-based intellectual organ for attacking the ideologies and policies of Soviet and Chinese communism. But it almost always artfully avoided any discussion of the embarrassing inconsistencies between U.S. ideals and practices, such as the U.S. government’s Cold War activities in Latin America, Africa, and South East Asia, and its domestic racial policies. Even so, few NACLA readers would find fault with all of Freedom House’s work during the Cold War or after. As such, the organization belongs to a gray area of U.S. foreign policy.
Freedom House underwent a significant shift toward promoting neoliberal economic and political policies after the 1973 coup in Chile against the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende.5 Since the end of the Cold War, Freedom House has adjusted to the new geopolitical environment by shifting its attention from attacking Communism to undermining what Washington considers to be “authoritarian” and “populist” countries. Freedom House now quietly funds projects in those countries that the United States considers to be economic or ideological threats, or more openly in allies that the United States wants to keep in line. Freedom House tends to stay away from U.S.-friendly totalitarian regimes and monarchies.
Freedom House arrogantly holds that it has the right to operate anywhere in the world with or without the permission of the local government. In response to queries about its activities in other countries, an online Freedom House fact sheet explains: “Language in the annual State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill states that U.S. democracy and human rights programming shall not be subject to the prior approval by the government of any foreign country.”6 In other words, Freedom House believes that, with the permission of the U.S. Congress, it has the right to decide when and where it can meddle in any other government on the planet.
To rationalize this imperious position, the fact sheet continues: “In order for a foreign group to legally operate within the United States, it must simply fill out the proper tax forms. Civil society organizations within the United States do not have to report their activities to or receive approval from the United States government.” While this may be true for U.S. private- or government-funded and operated civil society programs, it would not apply to U.S.-based organizations funded by foreign governments—especially hostile ones. Fortunately for U.S. national sovereignty, the law clearly states that any individuals or entities working “as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity” in order to influence the U.S. political system must register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).7 FARA would clearly be applicable to any organization receiving foreign funding and working to influence the outcome of elections, international court cases, and the like. In the United States, there are serious penalties for unregistered paid agents of a foreign country who actively meddle in U.S. domestic politics, which is precisely what Freedom House does in other countries.
Jeremy Bigwood is an investigative reporter whose work has appeared in American Journalism Review, The Village Voice, and several other publications. He covered Latin American conflicts from 1984 to 1994 as a photojournalist. See his article in this Report, "Freedom House in Venezuela."
1. Diego Giannone, “Political and Ideological Aspects in the Measurement of Democracy: the Freedom House Case,” Democratization 17, no. 1 (January–February 2010): 68–97, available at tandfonline.com.
3. Ibid., 75.
4. Gerardo l. Munck and Jay Verkuilen, “Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: Evaluating Alternative Indices,” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Comparative Political Studies 35, no. 1 (February 2002): 5–34; Scott Mainwaring, with Daniel Brinks and Anibal Perez Liñán, “Political Regimes in Latin America, 1900–2007,” available at kellogg.nd.edu.
5. David Harvey, “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 610 (March 2007): 26, as quoted in Giannone, “Political and Ideological Aspects in the Measurement of Democracy.”
6. Sarah Trister, “Fact Sheet: Freedom House in Egypt,” January 2012, available at freedomhouse.org.
7. U.S. Department of Justice, “Foreign Agents Registration Act,” available at fara.gov
Read the rest of NACLA’s Summer 2012 issue: “Latin America and the Global Economy.”