The U.S. Agency for International Development announced on Friday that it would withdraw from Ecuador after President Rafael Correa prohibited the introduction of additional aid programs aimed at strengthening civil society.
Acting USAID mission director Christopher Cushing said the move was "a result of the Government of Ecuador’s decision to prohibit approval of new USAID assistance programs."
Observers said the move was indicative of the continued regression of political freedoms in Ecuador, which, as part of Latin America’s Bolivarian socialist bloc, is increasingly hostile towards the United States.
The Ecuadorian government has accused USAID of supporting "opponents of the Citizens’ Revolution," who allegedly include journalists and non-governmental organizations that have criticized the Correa regime.
According to a letter from Cushing obtained by the Christian Science Monitor, the regime "informed USAID it could not execute any new assistance activities or extend existing activities pending negotiation of a new agreement governing bilateral assistance."
The decision capped months of tensions between Quito and USAID. Correa has threatened to expel the agency for years, though he insists that all USAID-supported projects are the property of the Ecuadorian government.
Ana Quintana, an expert on Latin America at the Heritage Foundation, said USAID’s departure should be interpreted in light of larger regional trends. She called the move "another win for the socialist ALBA bloc."
ALBA is the Spanish acronym for the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America.
"Led by Venezuela, the organization is collectively working to rid the region of the U.S.’s influence and solidify their 21st century socialist movement," Quintana said. "Virtually all member states have kicked out U.S. ambassadors, shut down DEA operations despite the region’s prevailing drug trafficking problems, and are now targeting U.S. development programs."
Correa has frequently accused USAID of advancing U.S. interests in Ecuador by funding groups that supposedly undermine his administration and his larger political agenda in Latin America.
One recent target of Correa’s ire was César Ricaurte, director of Fundamedios, an Ecuadorian NGO that advocates freedom of speech and press in the country.
El Cuidadano, the government’s official news organ, has attacked Fundamedios and Ricaurte as "opponents of the Citizens’ Revolution" and claimed that the group’s work "lacks technical rigor, verification, and checking of sources."
El Cuidadano has rejected allegations from Fundamedios that the government marginalizes journalists who criticize Correa on the grounds that the group receives funding from USAID.
The group most recently documented a police raid on the home of an Ecuadorian journalist who exposed corruption in the country’s oil sector.
Other international observers such as the Committee to Protect Journalists have leveled similar accusations regarding Ecuador’s disregard for press freedoms.
Quintana worries that USAID’s departure from Ecuador will hamper the type of oversight that groups like Fundamedios provide.
"Following in the footsteps of Cuba and Venezuela, [Correa] has been systematically repressing freedom of speech by criminalizing dissenting opinion," Quintana said.
USAID also drew fire from the Correa administration by working with indigenous groups that protested the sale of oil rights in the Amazon.
Efforts by the Correa administration to shut down USAID-supported environmentalist NGOs representing indigenous groups have been rebuked even by strong supporters of Correa’s brand of Bolivarian socialism.
"These activists are … seeing something all too familiar: a state seemingly using its power to weaken dissent," wrote Canadian socialist Naomi Klein in an open letter to Correa in 2009.
Correa has used USAID’s support for the groups to tar them as organs of the U.S. government working to undermine "internal state security" and "public peace."
Bolivian president Evo Morales leveled similar accusations before expelling USAID from the country.
"The political climate in Ecuador and the rest of the anti-American contingent should be continuously monitored," Quintana said.
"In light of the deterioration of Venezuela’s economy, ALBA member states will continue subversive actions against the U.S. in exchange for the friendly regimes of China and Iran."
Correa recently attacked the "corrupt" Washington Free Beacon for a report that detailed the government’s ties to a company attempting to silence critics of the regime.
A subsequent attack by El Cuidadano did not dispute any of the Free Beacon’s actual reporting.