Well, That’s a Selective Reading of History Right There

Back in June, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia announced they would no longer be accepting fiscal or institutional aid from the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, a program begun in 1961 under John F. Kennedy as a means to spur development and undermine “subversion” in the Americas. While the move is entirely within their rights as sovereign nations, Christopher Sabatini sees this move as “hypocritical” from the countries’ leaders. Why?

The popular/partisan transformation that led to the unraveling of the political class in Bolivia and the arrival of President Evo Morales, for example, started with 1994 decentralization laws that USAID supported the passage and implementation of.  Similarly, USAID and the international donor community’s support for electoral reform and free and fair elections allowed for popular ballots that guaranteed democratic processes that led to the elections of Presidents Hugo Chávez, Morales and Correa—voter preferences that would likely have been quashed only decades before.

That is true – such democratic reforms “would likely have been quashed only decades before,” especially three to five decades before. Why is that?

Because “decades before,” the governments of the region were dominated repressive military regimes that came to power via coups that overthrew democratically elected leaders and routinely employed torture and the forced disappearances of tens of thousands across the region.

Military regimes that received aid from USAID and other US programs.

It is not exactly a secret that USAID was a regular contributor to military regimes, be it in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, or Venezuela, all of which underwent military regimes during the Cold War, regimes that restricted and undid democratic processes in Latin America even while committing wide-spread human rights violations. USAID funneled  hundreds of millions of dollars to a number of countries to help “development,” be it in education, infrastructural improvements, trade, or other areas. But dictators with little interest in democracy or human rights regularly received funding that did not go towards “free and fair elections” or “popular ballots.” Quite the opposite – USAID continued to turn a blind eye to the lack of democracy and ongoing human rights abuses throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s in numerous countries in Latin America, all in the name of combating “Communism.”

I’m not going to say USAID has never accomplished any real improvements in the daily lived experiences of Latin Americans across its 51 years of existence. In the 1990s, USAID may have helped create more socially just societies in areas like women’s rights, human rights, electoral reforms, or political openings, openings that contributed to contexts in which Morales, Correa, or Chávez could come to power. But for decades beforehand, USAID not only did little to help such transformations, but actively supported military regimes openly opposed to such transformations. That Sabatini can call out modern governments as “hypocritical” while overlooking the role USAID had in supporting decades of repression – during those “decades before” the 1990s – just reveals what can charitably be called a pretty grotesque selective reading of recent history in Latin America on Sabatini’s part.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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