WASHINGTON — When Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development from his impoverished country last week, he complained that Washington “still has a mentality of domination and submission” in the region.
It was a familiar charge for the State Department’s principal foreign aid agency. In the last two years, it has been booted out of Russia, snubbed in Egypt and declared unwelcome by a bloc of left-leaning Latin American countries.
USAID “threatens our sovereignty and stability,” the eight-nation Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas fumed in June in a resolution that accused the United States of political interference, conspiracy and “looting our natural resources.”
The problem is USAID doesn’t just try to boost economies, healthcare and education in poor countries. It also spends about $2.8 billion a year teaching campaign skills to political groups, encouraging independent media, organizing fair elections and funding other grass-roots activities intended to promote democracy and human rights.
Some foreign leaders view those American efforts as thinly veiled attempts to weaken the status quo or even engineer a change of governments.
“A lot of governments are nervous about this growth in civic participation they’re seeing,” said Thomas Carothers, vice president at the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “When it’s connected to foreign governments, it’s even more unsettling — maybe subversive.”
Their anxieties were intensified by George W. Bush’s aggressive advocacy of a “freedom agenda,” which called for democratic transformation in the Arab world, and President Obama’s support for the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolts that toppled or challenged leaders in the Middle East and North Africa.
The backlash has been dramatic. About 50 countries have adopted laws to limit foreign funding of civic groups or more strictly control their activities. About 30 other countries are considering restrictions, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, a research group in Washington.
“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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly has a different view. He expelled the aid agency in September after it had funneled nearly $3 billion into remote corners of Russian society over the last two decades.
“Our people can distinguish between the desire for renewal and political provocation that has but one goal: to destroy Russia’s statehood and usurp power,” Putin explained at the time.
USAID-backed groups helped draft the Russian Constitution and tax code. The agency also supported efforts to fight tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, upgrade electricity infrastructure and educate lawyers and judges. But U.S. support for an election-monitoring group and an anti-corruption organization seemed to unnerve the Kremlin most.
Russia also has kicked out UNICEF, the United Nations children’s fund, and investigated a bird conservation society to see if it poses a threat to public order.
“This is a much broader attack on civil society,” said Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
In Egypt, USAID sought to help build a fledgling democracy after a popular uprising ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But the effort ignited a struggle between Washington and post-revolutionary governments in Cairo.
The USAID country director was forced to leave Egypt after police raided several civic and legal aid groups. They also took computers and records from local offices of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, Washington-based nonprofit groups that seek to support democratic institutions worldwide.
The crackdown apparently drew broad public support among Egyptians. A Gallup poll in Egypt last year found 85% of those surveyed disapproved of foreign governments directly funding the nation’s nonprofit groups.
Criminal charges are still pending in Cairo against U.S. and Egyptian officials from several pro-democracy groups, and the Egyptian parliament is expected to adopt a harsh law governing the activities of nongovernmental groups.
The senior Obama administration official said Egypt has allowed some civil society groups to continue operating, including those that work on fair elections and educating young people about democracy.
In Bolivia, state news agencies blamed USAID for “alleged political interference with peasant unions and social organizations.” The agency had funded a private environmental group that opposed Morales’ plan to build a road through a protected forest preserve.
U.S. officials called Morales’ accusations “baseless” and noted that U.S. aid to Bolivia has been cut from $100 million in 2008 to $28 million.
U.S. agencies that fund pro-democracy activities insist that they don’t side with a particular party or ideology. In many places, they collaborate closely with governments. In a few, the political establishment clearly sees a threat and has struck back.
In 2011, a Cuban court sentenced Maryland native Alan Gross to 15 years in prison for illegally importing and distributing satellite phones and Internet equipment in 2009. Gross was an independent contractor working on a USAID-funded democracy-building program mandated by Congress.
The Obama administration has failed in repeated efforts to win Gross’ release.
Analysts say it’s easy to understand why many governments, and their citizens, are suspicious of the pro-democracy programs.
“If this were flipped — if Egypt were funding groups in the United States — it would hit a real wrong chord,” said Ted Piccone, deputy director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “As evenhanded as we try to be, this is the most sensitive kind of assistance out there. We are intervening directly in their political affairs.Top