Morales’ expulsion of USAID: truly progressive move or political sleight of hand?

Published on Collective Development.


Since ascending to power in 2006, Evo Morales has made it a yearly tradition to nationalise a foreign owned company on Labour Day, usually within high-profit sectors such as gas, oil or telecommunications. This year, the president declared another major political announcement: the expulsion of USAID from Bolivia. “Brothers and sisters, they (the USA) surely think that they can still manipulate us politically and economically, but that was then. […] never again will USAID manipulate us, will use our leaders and our compatriots on the basis of charity”. Morales’ argument was that the US development body was more often than not acting with political objectives rather than social ones, and that their presence in the country mirrored the mentality of domination and superiority that reflects the attitude of US foreign policy in Bolivia in general.

This recent move follows a line of removals of US officials from Bolivia, starting with the discharge of the US ambassador, Philip Goldberg in 2008, accused of conspiring with right-wing movements to destabilise the government as a result of violence in the Media Luna departments. The same year, Morales accused the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of infringing Bolivian sovereignty and of using violent tactics to tackle drug issues in a country where the coca leaf is an ancient sacred symbol; the body was thus kicked out of the country, never to return.

The strong rhetoric of Morales’ speech on Worker’s Day reflects his intended crusade against North American imperialism and neo-colonialism, which he claims continues to impede the process of change and development in Bolivia. Morales has purposefully aligned his government with the professed Bolivarian revolution led by Chavez and supported by Correa in Ecuador, Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, and widespread popular movements across the region.

Minor holding a banner during the 1st May demonstrations in La Paz reading: 'Respect worker's rights'. - Photo by Claire Veale


Ejecting USAID from any so-called “developing” country must be seen as an overall positive thing. Indeed, the organisation not only acts as a branch of US foreign policy abroad, acting primarily in the interests of the Unites States’ security and economic expansion, but it also represents the epitome of the liberal development ideology promoted by Washington.

The development narrative emanating from organisations such as USAID is problematic because it redefines countries such as Bolivia as “underdeveloped”, while asserting the economic, cultural and moral superiority of the West. Many academics have denounced the development industry, and especially organisations such as the IMF, the World Bank, and inevitably, USAID, as imperialistic, imposing a particular economic ideology on countries, and shunning alternative solutions to cultural, social and economic development (see Escobar, Encountering Development, 1995). Development projects, whether successful or not, contribute to perpetuating a system of power which dominates the political relationship between “developed” countries, and the rest of the world. In our current political system, Europe and North America have usurped the right to decide what development should be and how to implement it. This unequal balance of power often forces poorer countries to accept the neo-liberal ideological agenda promoted by international financial organisations, implementing economic programmes which have reduced state protection, pushing millions into further poverty, and, through increasing privatisation, increased underemployment and precarious working conditions, all in the name of capitalism. Development actors such as USAID must therefore be analysed and understood taking into account the political context they operate in.

Since the 1980s, the role of the state has been increasingly reduced in favour of free market policies, which has allowed for the emergence of NGOs as a new form of governance, exerting considerable influence on societies (Tandon, 1991). In Latin America, this tremendous boom of NGO activities coincided with the emergence of oppressive, often dictatorial state policies with full support from Washington, keen to test neo-liberal economics on the continent. Development projects, such as those funded by USAID, have tended to go hand in hand with the authoritarian, neoliberal regimes ruling many South American countries (Gonzalez, 2013 ), and thus often acting as the social branch of the hegemonic power structures in place. In light of this, NGOs and international development actors can be seen as part of an ideological project of promoting capitalist development around the globe (Cox, 1983).

Protesters in La Paz holding Che Guevara posters as a sign of anti-imperialism. - Photo by Claire Veale


This idea of an ideological project has certainly been the case in Bolivia, where NGOs have played an active role in promoting neo-liberalism and destabilising the left-wing forces in government. Burron explains that USAID has actively worked with the US government to promote liberal values through education and development programmes in order to contain the power of the MAS (2012). Many foreign development actors operating in Bolivia seem to have aligned their agendas with those of global liberal interests, sometimes even working with the right-wing opposition to destabilise the government’s efforts towards socialism. The USA in particular has often attempted to interfere in national politics in the region, supporting military coups and economic liberal trade agreements. Thus, it is no surprise that the Andean nation feels that USAID, the development mask of US foreign affairs, should not be allowed to interfere in the country’s social and economic development planning.

USAID explicitly admits that it’s role and mission through its development activities is to “develop partnerships with countries committed to enabling the private sector investment that is the basis of sustained economic growth to open new markets for American goods, promote trade overseas, and create jobs here at home” ( In other words, the organisation’s activities are explicitly conducted for the benefit of American economic and political interests abroad. Similarly to the World Bank, the IMF and other international development bodies, USAID’s principal objective is clear: guarantee the US’s national security and promote values of capitalist economic growth and neoliberal ideology. In general, USAID is not, and never was primarily concerned with promoting sustainable and genuine social development in Bolivia, but has always been a tool for maintaining US interests abroad and help to shape developing countries’ economic policies (Hayter, 1971: 95).

Jeffrey Webber, a London-based academic specialist on Andean development, writes about the involvement of USAID in Bolivian politics since 2002. He outlines that development funding from USAID was covertly directed towards programmes in support of opposition parties, in order to “help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counter weight to the radical MAS and its successors” (US Embassy cable to the State Department AID, in Webber, 2011: 31). Thus, the harmful role that USAID has played in Bolivia trying to destabilise the democratically elected, and widely supported socialist government cannot be denied, which is why the final expulsion of the organisation from the country can only be welcome as a positive step towards anti-imperialism and political independence for the Bolivian people.


Nevertheless, Morales’ 1st May speech, and his deliberate attack on USAID should also be analysed critically, as it portrays the government’s reluctance to accept responsibility for the failures of their alleged revolution towards radical change. The May Day speech has been symbolic since Morales’ ascension to power; an opportunity for the president to address the Bolivian people, announcing nationalisations and portraying his party as united with the workers and peasants of the country. However, the government’s rhetoric is often much more radical and revolutionary than its policies and practice, and the same can be said about the apparently sweeping statements expelling USAID.

Firstly, USAID activities in the country have, over the past few years, been considerably reduced, due to mutual distrust between the organisation and the Bolivian government, leaving the organisation’s activities restricted to issues of health, with a low budget of $26.7 million in 2011, almost half of the 2010 budget. This proves to show that Morale’s apparently radical declaration appears much weaker in practice than in theory, leading us to believe that such announcements are possibly made to win support from the Bolivian people, rather than actually change development policies in Bolivia. Ironically, Morales claimed that USAID’s objectives in the country were more political than social, of which the same can be said about its expulsion. Indeed, after the insensitive remark from John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, in which he claimed Latin America was Washington’s “backyard”, Morales was keen to accuse the USA of arrogance and respond with, what appeared to be a strong stand against US imperialism.

Furthermore, this year, Worker’s Day in Bolivia was an opportunity for social movements and labour unions to protest the government’s decision to symbolically increase salaries in the public sector by 8%, and the national minimum salary by 20%. This decision appears good on paper, but the reality of the country’s economy and inflation rates have meant that the announced increase will have little impact on the majority of Bolivian workers. Indeed, 1 in 3 workers earn less than the national minimum wage and the rise in food prices have meant that most working families can hardly afford the price of the basic weekly food basket (CEDLA, 2012). Unions have protested the government’s announced increase, claiming it would not improve the situation of poor working families and demanding more significant change.

In light of this recent social and political conflict over salaries, Morales clearly intended to steer the debate away from domestic politics, and turn the attention towards Washington’s harmful imperialist activities, placing the blame for Bolivia’s poverty and slow economic progress on foreign neo-colonialism and capitalist exploitation. Considering the Andean nation’s historical relationship with the US, this way of thinking is understandable and receives widespread support amongst the Bolivian people. However, it is an easy way out; a predictable move to win the hearts and minds of the people, without tackling the social inequalities and injustices that persist in the country, as a result of the government’s failed attempt at radical social change. It is also a means to dismiss criticism of the MAS party, shifting the blame on foreign capitalist policies, rather than accepting responsibility for the failures of the government.

Protesters made caricatures depicting President Morales and Vice-President Linera as ‘puppets of the west’ and labelled ‘Bourgious Government’ - Photo by Claire Veale


It is undeniable that US imperialism has worked hard to destabilise the socialist projects in Bolivia, as well as other Latin American countries, and expelling USAID is, overall, something positive. Nevertheless, the government’s obsession with placing the blame on Washington’s foreign policies and global capitalism, through seemingly radical statements in order to turn the people’s attention away from domestic problems in Bolivia remains problematic. The MAS reforms have partly failed to tackle the structural causes of poverty and indigenous exploitation in the country and the government needs to recognise their limitations. Despite his radical speeches against capitalism, Morales heavily depends on the global capitalist system, and the extraction and export of key natural resources such as the country’s hydrocarbon sector, in order to fund the government’s social welfare programmes, improving health and education. Expelling USAID and condemning US capitalist imperialism will not improve the condition of Bolivian working families until Morales’ rhetoric is followed up with practical structural change to tackle Bolivia’s social issues.


Burron, Neil (2012), Unpacking U.S. Democracy Promotion in Bolivia: From Soft Tactics to Regime Change, Latin American Perspectives, Issue 182, Vol.39, No.1, pp.115-132

El Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario (CEDLA), Alerta Laboral n.71, Mayo 2013:

Cox, Robert (1983), Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations : An Essay in Method, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 162-175

Escobar, Arturo (1995), Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press. (In Spanish: 1996, La invención del tercer mundo: Construcción y Deconstrucción del Desarrollo . Bogotá [Colombia]: Norma.)

Gonzalez, Mike (2013), Latin America: the tide is turning, International Socialism,

Hayter, T., 1971, Aid as Imperialism, (Penguin Books Ltd)

Tandon, Rajesh (1991), Civil Society, The State and Roles of NGOs, IDR Reports, Vol.8, No.3

USAID webpage:

Webber, Jeffery (2011), From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales, Haymarket Books