USAID in Latin America

Friday is going to be my day for longer, more analytical pieces for now. Today, we’re going to talk about USAID and its role in U.S. foreign policy. I have more thoughts on the USAID that will be featured in later posts as well.

Crash Course: USAID

First, the basics. What the hell is USAID?

USAID is the United States Agency for International Development. According to their website,“USAID carries out U.S. foreign policy by promoting broad-scale human progress at the same time it expands stable, free societies, creates markets and trade partners for the United States, and fosters good will abroad.”

They engage in a number of different projects, including providing food aid in developing countries and sending teams of advisors to discuss economic policy with the foreign leaders.

Their work can be controversial for a number of reasons. One common attack is simply cost. It is easy to try to sell the idea that the U.S. should take care of its own people and problems before sending costly foreign aid to other countries. However, USAID takes up less than 1% of the federal budget, so it is far from the biggest money sink our government has.

Some of the other criticisms, however, have greater merit, and those are what I will discuss next.

Damaging Emerging Markets

One big problem with the way USAID currently operates is how they give food aid to developing countries. U.S. law requires that they purchase the bulk of their food in the U.S. and then ship it to its destination. This creates two problems.

The first is the delay in the arrival of aid. That isn’t such an issue with countries that regularly receive aid, where we can schedule deliveries to arrive with plenty of time before the last shipment runs out, but it severely limits USAID’s ability to respond in a timely fashion to any sort of humanitarian crisis.

The other, much bigger problem is that this influx of food from the U.S. depresses local markets and makes it harder for local farmers and merchants to sell their wares. That impacts the local economy and makes it harder for sustainable local development to take place. It essentially creates a situation where people will be come increasingly dependent on USAID, when our real goal should be for them to become increasingly independent.

USAID’s new budget proposal would seek to redress this issue somewhat, but still provides for over half of food aid to come directly from the U.S. In other words, this inefficient and ultimately counterproductive practice continues to be built into our aid delivery system. And it is because domestic agricultural and shipping interests have lobbied successfully to keep it that way. Selling to and shipping for USAID is a profitable enterprise.

Developing Instability

Another recent controversy with USAID at its core was Bolivian president Evo Morales expelling the agency from his country, accusing the agency of meddling in internal Bolivian political affairs and conspiring against his government.

It would sound like a paranoid complaint if it weren’t for the fact that this accusation has arisen many times in Latin American countries where USAID operates. Wikileaks released documents showing that USAID money and advisors have worked to destabilize the government in Venezuela and ultimately seemed to have a goal of regime change. And in the past, a committee of mayors in a region of Bolivia expelled USAID for trying to influence local politics.

In Paraguay, the impeachment of liberal president Fernando Lugo has been called a coup by some, and leaked diplomatic cables show that the U.S. was aware that opposition forces had been seeking an excuse to remove Lugo from power. (That linked article provided really great, detailed information about the situation in Paraguay, for those interested.)

And USAID funds overwhelmingly went to the groups that favored Lugo’s ouster. The shift in leadership has benefitted major corporations at the expense of Paraguay’s poor and indigenous populations. There are now disturbing reports of torture and extrajudicial killings of peasant leaders by police forces, and other Latin American countries have withheld support of the new president due to their concerns over the legality of Lugo’s impeachment. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights even said that the (very swift) impeachment was questionable. But USAID continues to work happily alongside the new government, which is led by the party of its former dictator.

Of course, the U.S. also happily worked alongside the former dictator himself, Alfred Stroessner, during his heyday, because of Cold War paranoia about the spread of communism in Latin America.

And then there is the Alan Gross case.

Alan Gross is a USAID contractor who was working in Cuba. He was arrested for brining illegal communications equipment into the country. The Cuba government claims that Gross was providing the equipment to anti-government activists. Gross, in turn, says that he was working with the island’s Jewish population to help them connect with other members of their faith around the world.

Either way, under USAID auspices, Gross was breaking Cuban law. And while I disagree with the laws he was breaking, that doesn’t mean someone working for a U.S. government agency should break them and expect no retribution. Gross has been in prison in Cuba for several years now, and given the fact that he has health problems and a heart condition, there are plausible humanitarian grounds for releasing him. But that is unlikely, based on the inhospitable relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and the fact that the U.S. continues to assert that Gross did no wrong and that his sentencing was arbitrary and unlawful.

Gross’s case is also deeply enmeshed in another U.S.-Cuba conflict, this one dealing with Cuban prisoners in the U.S., but that is a discussion for another time. For much greater depth on the Gross case, try here.

So once again, it seems that USAID actions undermine their stated aim: assisting in development projects abroad. This kind of under-the-table interference in another country’s political affairs damages the agency’s credibility and makes it more difficult for them to partner with other countries to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. The U.S. has other mechanisms for trying to shape the behavior of the countries we interact with. Using USAID to do so prevents us from building goodwill among the populace of countries where we might not already be popular. And that, in the long run, will have more significant and more damaging impacts on our relations with those people.

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