Bolivia expels U.S. aid agency

President Evo Morales acted on a longtime threat Wednesday and expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development for allegedly seeking to undermine Bolivia’s leftist government.

He also criticized U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for calling the Western Hemisphere his country’s “backyard.”

Bolivia’s ABI state news agency said USAID was “accused of alleged political interference in peasant unions and other social organizations.”

In the past, Morales has accused the agency of funding groups that opposed his policies, including a lowlands indigenous federation that organized protests against a Morales-backed highway through a rain-forest preserve.

In 2008, Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for allegedly inciting the opposition. On Wednesday, he said Washington “still has a mentality of domination and submission” in the region.

While Morales did not provide evidence of USAID meddling, funds channeled through it have been used in Bolivia and its leftist ally Venezuela to support organizations deemed a threat by those governments.

But there is not much aid left to cut.

As U.S.-Bolivian relations soured and Washington canceled trade preferences, total U.S. foreign aid to the poor, landlocked South American nation has dropped from $100 million in 2008 to $28 million last year. Counter-narcotics and security aid will all but disappear in the coming fiscal year for Bolivia, a cocaine-producing nation.

Morales made Wednesday’s announcement to a crowd outside the presidential palace during a rally to mark International Workers’ Day.

Morales told the crowd that he “laments and is condemning” Kerry’s remark, in April 17 testimony to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that “the Western Hemisphere is our backyard. It’s critical to us.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell called Morales’ allegations “baseless” and said the purpose of USAID programs in Bolivia has been, since they began in 1964, “to help the Bolivian government improve the lives of ordinary Bolivians” in full coordination with its agencies.

Analyst Kathryn Ledebur of the nonprofit Andean Information Network in Bolivia was not surprised by the expulsion itself, but by the fact that Morales took so long to do it after repeated threats, which she believes diminishes its political impact.

“USAID alternative development efforts tied to forced coca eradication provoked his mistrust,” she said of Morales, a longtime coca-growers union leader before his December 2005 election as Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Since U.S. assistance has “dwindled to a trickle,” the financial impact will be limited as well, she said.

Ledebur said Morales was also upset that USAID money reached lowland regional governments he accused of trying to overthrow him in 2008.