BOGOTA -- As the U.S. Agency for International Development plans to distribute $1.8 billion in aid in Latin America and the Caribbean over the next two years, you would expect the region to be lining up.
Instead, some nations are eyeing USAID with suspicion, accusing the 50-year-old agency of playing politics even as it helps the needy. In June, the political council of the eight-nation ALBA bloc of countries, led by Venezuela, asked members to immediately expel USAID, accusing it of destabilizing our legitimate governments.
In July, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, who may run for re-election in February, warned supporters that USAID was fueling the opposition by pumping millions into democracy strengthening projects.
Correa said hes writing up new rules for USAID.
If they dont want to follow them, then So long, he said. Go help some other country.
If Ecuador and the ALBA follow through on the threat it would end a half-century relationship in some countries, said Mark Feierstein, the assistant administrator of USAIDs Latin America and the Caribbean bureau. He said USAID has no covert agenda and has always supported priorities identified by the host countries.
USAID is very popular within these countries among our beneficiaries and I am confident that will continue to be the case and that well be able to continue our work, he said.
Since its founding in 1961, the agency always has had the dual role of providing aid and advancing U.S. foreign policy. Beneficiaries generally welcome the agencys help with poverty alleviation, education and the environment, but other initiatives raise hackles.
In 2002, USAID funded a project in Bolivia designed to support moderate political parties that would counterbalance President Evo Morales radical MAS party, according to de-classified documents obtained by investigative reporter Jeremy Bigwood. Morales has threatened USAID with expulsion since at least 2006.
In 2009l, USAID subcontractor Allan Gross was arrested in Cuba as he delivered satellite phones and communications equipment to the islands Jewish community. Havana has said his work was tantamount to spying and part of a U.S. government destabilization campaign.
In Venezuela, USAID earmarked $95.7 million to its Office of Transition Initiatives from 2002-2010. OTIs mission is to provide assistance targeting key political transition and stabilization needs. Critics wondered why political transition would be needed in a purported democracy. In December 2010, at the behest of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the National Assembly made it illegal for any civil-society organization of a political nature to receive international funding.
While that measure may have been aimed at the agency, it highlights a wider backlash against civil society groups in Latin America and around the globe, many of which rely on international support, like USAIDs, to stay afloat.
A report issued last month by Freedom House and the Connect U.S. Fund, two advocacy groups, said the coordinated global assault on civil society was one of the top 10 human rights issues the next U.S. president will have to face.
In Venezuela, the 2010 legislation had a chilling effect, scaring off local funding for civil-society groups, said Ricardo Estévez, director of Sumate, an election watchdog group that has routinely challenged the government. Currently, Sumate is trying to force the courts to recognize that Chávez has been misusing state funds in his Oct. 7 re-election campaign.