Given the role that civil society and social media played in the overthrow of corrupt regimes in the Middle East during the “Arab Spring,” autocratic leaders in Latin America are becoming increasingly nervous. The potential of grassroots institutions to inspire democratic change throughout the region has sparked a widespread crackdown against their activities and an attempt to cut off their funding.
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez and his rubberstamp National Assembly have cracked down on groups like Súmate, an election watchdog organization that has been a thorn in the government’s side by calling attention to the many ways in which the president’s electoral machine has tried to undermine the process of fair elections.
Currently, it is trying to force the courts to recognize that the president has diverted state funds toward support for his reelection in October.
Since 2010, however, Súmate and other groups like it have been banned from receiving any international funding, making it hard for the group to continue its activities.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa is following the despotic path carved out by Mr. Chávez, a group called Fundamedios, which sounds the alarm on government attempts to muzzle the media, has been a target of government harassment.
What has really drawn the ire of Mr. Correa has been the organization’s efforts to strengthen civil society groups through training and workshops.
What the predicaments of these two groups have in common is that they both received some funding from USAID as part of the agency’s broad mandate to bolster democracy in the region. As a result, the political council of the eight-nation, anti-American bloc led by Venezuela called ALBA has asked members to “immediately expel” USAID because it is allegedly “destabilizing our legitimate governments.”
As Fundamedios Director César Ricaurte said, his group does not engage in partisan politics. More likely, the president’s conspiracy theory is just a cover designed to conceal a crackdown on defenders of freedom of speech and supporters of grassroots democracy.
For Mr. Correa, as well as other leaders throughout the region, expelling USAID would be tantamount to cutting off their noses to spite their faces. The U.S. government agency distributes $1.8 billion to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean for programs to improve literacy, healthcare and living standards. It builds schools, helps women to fight discrimination, and supports economic programs to make indigenous communities self-sustaining.
None of this threatens governments in the region. Indeed, expelling USAID would be a setback for poor people who don’t get help from their own governments and welcome assistance from others. But the agency’s efforts to promote democracy is clearly seen as a danger by the presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador and leaders of other nations in the ALBA bloc.
Thus, the crackdown. Mr. Correa said he is writing new rules for USAID to clamp down on its activities, which will no doubt mean a cutoff of aid to “democracy strengthening” projects.
Programs supported by USAID are critical to the political and economic development of Latin America and the Caribbean. Congress and the White House should make every effort to ensure that the agency can overcome threats to its activities in the region.