Updated at: 05/02/2013 7:35 AM
By CARLOS VALDEZ and FRANK BAJAK
(AP) LA PAZ, Bolivia - 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, and he harangued Washington’s top diplomat for calling the Western Hemisphere the "backyard" of the U.S.
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 the TIPNIS rainforest 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.
"They surely still think they can manipulate here politically and economically," Morales said. "That belongs to the past."
While Morales did not provide evidence of alleged 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. Amid mutual distrust on drug war politics, U.S. counter-narcotics and security aid are on track to all but disappear in the coming fiscal year for Bolivia, a cocaine-producing country along with Colombia and Peru.
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.
"The current Bolivia portfolio consists of health and environment efforts and the overall size and scope of the mission is a shadow of what it once was," said Mark Lopes, USAID’s deputy assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean.
An agency statement said the expulsion means the end of programs that have helped tens of thousands of Bolivians, particularly children and new mothers in underserved rural areas who have benefited from health, nutrition, immunization and reproductive services.
Analyst Kathryn Ledebur of the nonprofit Andean Information Network in Bolivia was not surprised by the expulsion, 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. Lopez said all agency democracy-promotion programs in Bolivia ended the following year.
In a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request, The Associated Press asked USAID for descriptions of the Bolivian recipients of grant money. The response did not go into detail but did include such items as $10.5 million for "democracy-building" awarded to Chemonics International in 2006 "to support improved governance in a changing political environment."
A related USAID brochure said components of the three-year "Strengthening Democratic Institutions" program included "teaching basic citizenship principles and skills" in all of Bolivia’s nine states, including the lowlands opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz.
A similar program in Venezuela, bearing the same name, was described by then-U.S. ambassador to Caracas William Brownfield in a November 2006 diplomatic cable as being aimed at countering attempts by that country’s late president, Hugo Chavez, to centralize power and suppress civil liberties.
The cable, classified as secret, was published by WikiLeaks, and the program was administered by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, whose web page says it operates "in priority countries in crisis."
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" U.S. Secretary of State John 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."
Many Latin Americans, leftists in particular, are sensitive to descriptions of their nations as a "backyard," or other phrases that could imply hegemonic designs, especially in light of Washington’s 20th-century history of backing repressive regimes in the Americas.
"The United States does not lack institutions that continue to conspire and that’s why I am using this gathering to announce that we have decided to expel USAID from Bolivia," Morales told the crowd, turning to his foreign minister, David Choquehuanca and ordering him to inform the U.S. Embassy.
Ventrell, the State Department spokesman, dismissed the criticism as misdirected. "It’s about us being neighbors," he said, echoing President Barack Obama’s 2009 statement that the U.S. considers its Latin American neighbors "equal partners."
Morales has been especially vocal lately in his rejection of Washington’s support for a full recount of the results of April 14 elections in Venezuela.
Chavez’s hand-picked heir, Nicolas Maduro, won that election by fewer than 250,000 votes in balloting that opposition candidate Henrique Capriles was stolen from him by a government criticized by international human rights groups as repressive.
Morales was an especially close ally of Chavez, who died of cancer in March, leaving the ALBA alliance of leftist Latin American nations that includes Bolivia without a dominant voice.
Bolivia’ Constitutional Court on Tuesday ruled that Morales can run for a third consecutive term in December 2014. It interpreted the country’s 2009 constitution, which set a two-term limit, as not being retroactive.
Morales won re-election by a landslide in 2009 and his approval rating was 55 percent in a January opinion poll, the latest available.
Associated Press writer Carlos Valdez reported this story in La Paz and Fran Bajak reported from Lima, Peru. AP writers Matthew Lee and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)