USAID and US Aid: A Question of Sovereignty

June 25, 2018
Considering the United States’ long history of infractions on the sovereignty of “friends” and neighbors, it is both surprising and entirely predictable that even the initially innocuous industry of foreign aid would be tainted by concerns of infringement on sovereign authority. Over the course of only four years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was forced to close offices in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador due to alleged attempts to influence domestic politics1, 2. With plenty of criticism from leftist administrations in Latin America, we must ask, is USAID and US aid more broadly an operation dedicated to the advancement of long subjugated peoples throughout the developing world or simply another outlet for the exercise of US interests?

            Beginning with a study of the dismissal of USAID from Venezuela, the establishment of USAID operations in Caracas in 2002 was met immediately with intense skepticism as to the motivations for US contributions. The Office of Transition Initiatives was established in Venezuela under the guidance of Russell Porter as a subsidiary of USAID. The stated mission for all OTI offices is to “support U.S. foreign policy objectives by helping local partners advance peace and democracy.” 3

            OTI operations in Latin America have been long troubled by scandalous accusations of political meddling. In Venezuela specifically, WikiLeaks published an internal memo in 2013 from the OTI office that detailed plans to undermine the Chavez regime as early in the mid-2000s. However, the Venezuelan government acted in 2010 without this external validation of their suspicions and dismissed USAID officials from the Caracas OTI office by 2011.

Following suit shortly thereafter, both Bolivian president Evo Morales and Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa dismissed USAID officials in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Both governments cited concern for US influence in domestic affairs, none of which has been corroborated by any externally sourced evidence. Regardless of the legitimacy of the claims of political subversion by USAID in Bolivia and Ecuador, scandals like the funding of ZunZuneo, a social media platform for Cuban dissidents, has continued to tarnish the reputation of USAID4.

Accusations of misconduct are also not limited only to USAID and only to Latin America either. Amongst the same accusations that caused the dismissal of USAID from Ecuador were claims that German NGOs operating in Quito were similarly attempting to destabilize domestic politics. The ABLA block of countries, organized by late Venezuelan president Hugo Chaves and late Cuban president Fidel Castro, also called on its 11 members, including Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname, to dispel USAID officials in 2012. USAID was also removed from Russia in 2012, and Kenyan Cabinet Secretary Francis Kimema made accusations of USAID meddling in Nairobi in 2014, although no action was ultimately taken4.

            Even with expulsion and seemingly irreparable damage to the reputation of USAID and US aid alike, millions of dollars continue to flow annually into Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela to support development in the “Government and Civil Society” sector, as reported by USAID’s digital records5.  There is no definition for work that qualifies as Government and Civil Society related activities, but historical contributions have been allocated for the “Justice System” and “Strengthening Democratic Institutions.”  While much remaining money within that sector is allocated for narcotics and law enforcement purposes, the hugely active National Endowment for Democracy continues to send ample funds in the name of youth organizing and new democratic development, closely resembling the former contributions of USAID.

            In tracking the amounts contributed by the United States to Government and Civil Society related work in these three countries, it remains difficult to discern whether the level of funding for potentially intrusive activities, like funding political opponents, has changed at all. As illustrated by Figures 1 through 3 (attached below), both Ecuador and Venezuela did experience declines in relevant funding following the expulsion of USAID officials, with Ecuador’s funding dropping off notably the following year. Bolivia, however, experienced a huge surge in funding in 2014, 2 years after the departure of USAID. It should also be noted that Bolivia is currently serving on the United Nations Security Council for the 2017-2018 term. While the 2017 data on foreign aid is still incomplete, which also attributes to the unreliability of any trends in post-expulsion funding, the well documented correlation between UNSC membership and increased US aid will provide an interesting sample as to how the US will handle foreign aid in an era where aid related to Government and Civil Society activities is clearly not welcome in Bolivia.

            Regardless of trends in aid provisions following USAID departures, the conversation as to whether US support of political development in other states is an intrusion on sovereign authority remains valuable. Even if the US is again circumnavigating the wishes of target nations by continuing to provide funding for subversive political activities, the question as to whether funding for any political activities, in the absence of human rights violations, could affect an entire sector of foreign aid. Without more illustrative data on the nature of activities funded by spending on “Political Parties” and “Constitutions, Laws, and Legal Systems” made available to the public, it is also difficult to evaluate the veracity of claims like that of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela and the integrity of US aid operations abroad. Thus, it’s difficult to tell if the question of USAID and US aid is even relevant to the larger conversation of the sovereignty of countries targeted by foreign aid.

Written by Grace V. Nelson, B.A. Candidate, Political Science


  1. Golinger, Eva. (13 Feb 2011). "USAID Closes Venezuela Program, Transfers to Miami". Venezuelanalysis.
  2. Otis, John. (30 Sept 2014). "USAID Is Leaving Ecuador". GlobalPos.
  3. United States Agency for International Development. (4 Nov 2016). "Office of Transition Initiatives ". United States Agency for International Development.
  4. Traywick, Catherine A. (3 April 2014). "Cuban Twitter’ and Other Times USAID Pretended to Be an Intelligence Agency". Foreign Policy.
  5. Foreign Aid Explorer. (16 March 2018). "Data Query: Bolivia". USAID.
  6. Foreign Aid Explorer. (16 March 2018). "Data Query: Ecuador". USAID.
  7. Foreign Aid Explorer. (16 March 2018). "Data Query: Venezuela". USAID.

About Author(s)

US Latin American Relations
This course focuses on the history, politics, and legitimacy of US policy towards Latin America. The course is taught by Professor Scott Morgenstern. The contributing articles are written by students who took the course in Spring '18.