“USAID Develops a Bad Reputation Among Some Foreign Leaders,” read a May 7 Los Angeles Times headline, followed by the subhead:
The U.S. Agency for International Development doesn’t just offer aid to the poor, it also promotes democracy, which is seen as meddlesome or even subversive.
Fighting poverty and spreading democracy–what’s not to like?
And so, the report seems to suggest, there’s something a little off about foreign leaders, nine in recent years, who’ve expelled the agency. Why else would Bolivian President Evo Morales expel an anti-poverty group from his “impoverished” country, if he wasn’t just a little bit crazy? And Russian President Vladimir Putin can’t be playing with a full deck either; he recently expelled USAID and a bird lovers group.
Of course, these leaders and other USAID critics aren’t crazy; they argue that USAID undermines national sovereignty and democracy. The story includes charges that USAID manipulates the internal politics of host nations, but it leaves the allegations unexplored and lets supporters bat them away. In one case, reporter Paul Richter quotes an anonymous U.S. official on USAID critics:
“This is the empire striking back,” said a senior Obama administration official, who asked not to be identified because of diplomatic sensitivities. He insisted that USAID does not try to undermine governments.
Someone doesn’t have a firm grasp on the meaning the word “empire,” which applies much more accurately to U.S.’s role in these relationships. A fact that might be better understood by the reader if Richter had bothered to mention USAID’s sordid history of bolstering U.S. imperial goals.
USAID’s publicly stated goals include “furthering America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets.” Readers aren’t told about that, nor are they informed that in pursuing these goals the agency has frequently partnered with the CIA, as in the ’60s and ’70s when its now-closed Office of Public Safety trained foreign police in counterinsurgency techniques–including torture. Not exactly what jumps to mind when one imagines a democracy-promoting institution.
The report also fails to mention how for decades USAID has undermined popular democratic organizing in Third World countries by, among other things, creating parallel “popular” organizations, such as labor unions, in order to weaken authentic grassroots movements.
And just last month, U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks revealed that USAID and its Office of Transition Initiatives had been secretly tasked with destabilizing Venezuela’s democratically elected government. As historian and U.S. foreign policy critic William Blum points out, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives
is one of the many euphemisms that American diplomats use with each other and the world–they say it means a transition to “democracy.” What it actually means is a transition from the target country adamantly refusing to cooperate with American imperialist grand designs to a country gladly willing (or acceding under pressure) to cooperate with American imperialist grand designs.
But mentioning any of that might make USAID critics look rational, even like defenders of democracy. Which is, of course, crazy–if your worldview requires that a belief that U.S. interests are synonymous with democracy.