“As the U.S. Agency for International Development plans to distribute $1.8 billion in aid in Latin America and the Caribbean over the next two years, you would expect the region to be lining up,” writes McClatchy’s Jim Wyss.
Instead, the Venezuela-led ALBA bloc is calling on member states to “immediately expel” the agency on the grounds that “democracy strengthening” projects are “destabilizing our legitimate governments.”
If Ecuador and the ALBA follow through on the threat it would end a half-century relationship in some countries, said Mark Feierstein, the assistant administrator of USAID’s Latin America and the Caribbean bureau. He said USAID has always supported priorities identified by the host countries and has no covert agenda.
“USAID is very popular within these countries among our beneficiaries and I am confident that will continue to be the case and that we’ll be able to continue our work in these countries,” he said.
Feierstein admitted the agency’s strategy may not please everyone, but he said it was necessary.
“We take a holistic approach to development,” he said. “It’s both political and economic development.”
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa is one of the most vocal of ALBA’s ‘Bolivarian’ populists to oppose external funding for the country’s beleaguered democrats and civil society groups, including independent and social media threatened by an uptick in censorship and intimidation. While offering Wikileaks founder refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy, ostensibly in defense of free speech, Correa has hounded independent journalists, labeling them “assassins with ink.”
The ALBA initiative is the latest manifestation of a disturbing crackdown on democracy by the region’s authoritarian leaders.
Nicaragua was one of the countries in the coalition of the Bolivarian Alternative for the peoples of the Americas (ALBA) that signed a document urging other members to expel from their territories USAID. They claimed that USAID is “a disturbing factor which threatens the sovereignty and political stability” of their countries. The text of the document was also signed by the governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Dominica and Venezuela.
The ICNL and the World Movement for Democracy’s Defending Civil Society report documents threats to freedom of association and expression.
“The role that civil society and social media played in the overthrow of corrupt regimes in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, autocratic leaders in Latin America are becoming increasingly nervous,” the Miami Herald reports:
The potential of grassroots institutions to inspire democratic change throughout the region has sparked a widespread crackdown against their activities and an attempt to cut off their funding……In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez and his rubberstamp National Assembly have cracked down on groups like Súmate, an election watchdog organization that has been a thorn in the government’s side by calling attention to the many ways in which the president’s electoral machine has tried to undermine the process of fair elections.
A recent report from Freedom House and the Connect U.S. Fund suggests that the “coordinated global assault on civil society” will be one of the top 10 rights issues facing the next U.S. president, Wyss notes.
Venezuela and Ecuador have joined Russia and other autocrats in cracking down on independent civil society groups to stifle dissent and sabotage efforts to defend political space, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman told a recent Wilson Center forum on Understanding and Responding to Attacks on Civil Society: The Roles of Politics and Law.
In the run-up to Venezuela’s forthcoming presidential poll, recent NGO curbs had a chilling effect, scaring off local funding for civil society groups, Ricardo Estevez, director of election watchdog Sumate, tells Wyss.
“We were hounded not only through our finances but through the judicial system,” Estevez said. “The government ended up intimidating our local backers also, so now we can’t even talk about where we get our funding from.”
César Ricaurte, the director of Ecuadoran media NGO Fundamedios, tells the Miami Herald that his group does not engage in partisan politics. More likely, the president’s conspiracy theory is just a cover designed to conceal a crackdown on defenders of freedom of speech and supporters of grassroots democracy.
Fundamedios (Fundación Andina para la Observación Social y el Estudio de Medios) “has been a thorn in the government’s side, raising the alarm about increasingly restrictive media laws,” Wyss reports:
But it was Fundamedios’ work on a USAID-backed project called “Active Citizenry” that made it a target. The program, which received $1.3 million in 2011, aims to strengthen civil society groups through training and workshops.
“It’s a recipe that’s been used repeatedly in Latin America against countries with progressive governments,” Correa said, suggesting that USAID-backed programs had helped create the environment for an attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002. “They can’t beat us at the polls so they are trying to beat us with these tricks.”
The National Endowment for Democracy supports Fundamedios’s work to defend and protect journalists’ freedom of expression in Ecuador.