At a speech celebrating May Day in Bolivia today, President Evo Morales announced the expulsion of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) from the country. According to the AP, Morales stated:
"The United States does not lack institutions that continue to conspire, and that's why I am using this gathering to announce that we have decided to expel USAID from Bolivia.”
The role of USAID in Bolivia has been a primary point of contention between the U.S. and Bolivia dating back to at least 2006. State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell characterized Morales’ statement as “baseless allegations.” While State Department spokespeople and many commentators will characterize USAID's work with oppositional groups as appropriate, a look at the agency's work over the past decade paints a very different picture.
Documents obtained by investigative journalist Jeremy Bigwood show that as early as 2002, USAID funded a “Political Party Reform Project,” which sought to “serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS [Morales’ political party] or its successors.” Later USAID began a program “to provide support to fledgling regional governments,” some of which were pushing for regional autonomy and were involved in the September 2008 destabilization campaign that left some 20 indigenous Bolivians dead. Meanwhile, the U.S. has continually refused to disclose the recipients of aid funds. As a recent CEPR report on USAID activities in Haiti concluded, U.S. aid often goes into a “black box” where it becomes impossible to determine who the ultimate recipients actually are.
Some of these USAID programs were implemented by the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) from the period 2004-2007. A document obtained by CEPR through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveals the role OTI plays in U.S. foreign policy. The document notes that OTI “seeks to focus its resources where they will have the greatest impact on U.S. diplomatic and security interests,” adding that “OTI cannot create a transition or impose democracy, but it can identify and support key individuals and groups who are committed to peaceful, participatory reform. In short, OTI acts as a catalyst for change where there is sufficient indigenous political will." It was through OTI that USAID was funding regional governments prior to the September 2008 events.
While USAID has since closed the OTI office in Bolivia, and overall funding levels have been greatly reduced, USAID has still channeled at least $200 million into the country since 2009.
Wikileaks cables reveal that the U.S. has long taken an adversarial approach to the Morales government, while even acknowledging the clandestine and oppositional nature of U.S. aid.
In one cable written by Ambassador Greenlee from January 2006, just months after Morales’ election, he notes that “U.S. assistance, the largest of any bilateral donor by a factor of three, is often hidden by our use of third parties to dispense aid with U.S. funds.” In the same cable, Greenlee acknowledges that “[m]any USAID-administered economic programs run counter to the direction the GOB [Government of Bolivia] wishes to move the country.”
The cable goes on to outline a “carrot and sticks” approach to the new Bolivian government, outlining possible actions to be taken to pressure the government to take “positive policy actions.” Three areas where the U.S. would focus were on coca policy, the nationalization of hydrocarbons (which “would have a negative impact on U.S. investors”) and the forming of the constituent assembly to write a new constitution. Possible sticks included; using veto authority within the Inter-American Development Bank to oppose loans to Bolivia, postponing debt cancellation and threatening to suspend trade benefits.
Another cable, also written by Greenlee, reporting on a meeting between U.S. officials and the Morales government notes that the Ambassador stated in the meeting, “When you think of the IDB, you should think of the U.S….This is not blackmail, it is simple reality.”
Later cables, as reported by Green Left Weekly, show the U.S. role in fomenting dissent within indigenous groups and other social movements.
Not Why, But Why Not Sooner
The AP spoke with Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network, reporting that she “was not surprised by the expulsion itself but by the fact that Morales took so long to do it after repeated threats.” Given the amount of evidence in declassified documents that point to U.S. aid funds going to opposition groups and being used to bolster opposition to the Morales government, the expulsion indeed comes as little surprise. Further, as evidence continues to mount of the role of USAID in undermining governments, governments from across the region have become more openly critical of the U.S. aid agency.
As Brazilian investigative journalist Natalia Viana recently detailed in The Nation, USAID was funding groups in Paraguay that would eventually be involved in the ouster of President Lugo. Viana writes that through USAID’s largest program in Paraguay, they would end up supporting “some of the very institutions that would play a central role in impeaching Lugo six years later, including not just the police force but the Public Ministry and the Supreme Court.”
Additionally, the role of USAID in funding opposition groups in Venezuela has been well documented. A recently released Wikileaks cable reveals the U.S. government’s five point strategy for Venezuela, which the cable makes clear USAID worked to implement. The goals were; “1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez' Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital US business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally.”
Last June, immediately following the Paraguay coup, the ALBA group of countries (of which Bolivia is a member) signed a declaration requesting that “the heads of state and the government of the states who are members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, immediately expel USAID and its delegates or representatives from their countries, due to the fact that we consider their presence and actions to constitute an interference which threatens the sovereignty and stability of our nations.”
At the time, President Correa of Ecuador stated that he was writing up new rules for USAID engagement in the country and that “If they don’t want to follow them, then ‘So long.’” While Bolivia may be the first of these countries to actually expel USAID, the question may not be why Bolivia is doing this, but rather why didn’t Bolivia do this sooner?