President Evo Morales expelled a US development agency from Bolivia, marking the latest confrontation between Washington and a bloc of populist governments in Latin America.
Morales said he was kicking out the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as a protest after US Secretary of State John Kerry recently referred to Latin America as Washington's backyard. The term evokes strong emotions in the region, which experienced several US-backed coups during the Cold War.
Morales announced his decision at a Labour Day rally, an occasion he has used in recent years as a forum to nationalise businesses and take other steps to rouse his working-class base in the region’s poorest nation.
Today we're only going to nationalise ... the dignity of the Bolivian people, Morales said. USAID is leaving Bolivia.
He did not say what USAID did to deserve expulsion, though Bolivian officials have previously accused the agency of destabilizing the government. In 2008, Morales expelled the US ambassador for allegedly aiding the opposition.
Morales is a close ally of Venezuela's populist government, which has seen its already strained relations with the United States deteriorate further in recent weeks. The government of President Nicolas Maduro, who won a tightly contested election last month to succeed the late Hugo Chavez, on April 25 detained a US citizen and accused him of destabilizing the country.
USAID said in a statement it has spent nearly 2 billion dollars in Bolivia over the past fifty years on projects in education, health and food security, among other areas.
The US government deeply regrets Bolivia's decision, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters. Those who will be most hurt by the Bolivian government's decision are the Bolivian citizens who have benefited from our collaborative work, he said.
Ventrell said Bolivia's allegations against USAID were baseless, and said the US government had not yet decided whether to take any action in response.
Kerry made the backyard comment at a Senate committee hearing on April 18. When pressed by a senator about Washington's influence in Latin America, Kerry expressed regret that US aid to the region is falling victim to budget cuts.
I don't disagree with you about the need to change the dynamic in the Western Hemisphere, he said. ”It has too often been viewed as a second thought. It shouldn't be. It's our backyard, neighbourhood, as you say. I think there are relationships we could improve”