Tuesday Hearing: Feierstein nomination raises questions about USAID’s role in Latin America

This Tuesday, June 29, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations will hold a  confirmation hearing for President Obama’s nomination of Mark Feierstein to head USAID programs in Latin America.   Feierstein, of the firm Greenberg, Quinlan and Rosner, served as a political adviser to former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada during his 2002 Presidential campaign.  Sánchez de Lozada resigned and fled to Chevy Chase, Maryland in 2003 to escape prosecution for the massacre of 60 protesters by troops operating under his orders.  Last year Feierstein and his colleagues again conducted polling in Bolivia to assist the campaign of right wing candidate Manfred Reyes Villa, who lost by a landslide to President Evo Morales.[1]  The appointment of the political pollster has increased apprehension in the region that aid programs will continue to be used to support U.S.-favored political actors within the region’s democracies.

Feierstein’s appointment coincides with Bolivian government officials’ renewed accusations that USAID is intervening politically in some indigenous organizations.   Although the Morales administration has not yet proven these allegations, unfortunately there is a long history of using USAID funds for direct and indirect political intervention.  I worked in rural Bolivia from 1988-1996. During that time I personally observed how USAID-funded projects carried out through the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) financed conventions, paid union leaders and split the Confederation of Bolivian Settlers into two factions. The program clearly worked to limit support for the coca growers’ federations headed by Evo Morales.  According to the General Accounting Office, from 1980-1994, USAID provided 87% of the budget of AIFLD, along with 10% from the National Endowment for Democracy.[2]  When AIFLD’s programs ended in 1996, the rift in the indigenous settlers’ unions in Bolivia healed immediately.

Undoubtedly, the Morales administration has not forgotten the history of AIFLD and other questionable aid programs since, and the Obama administration has done little to clarify the role and future focus of USAID efforts in Latin America to alleviate tensions.  Denunciations against USAID and Feierstein’s appointment have both complicated negotiations of a new framework agreement for U.S.- Bolivian relations. There is hope that the agreement would guarantee a more transparent aid relationship and establish a foundation for improved relations.

It is important to evaluate whether a nominee, who for many years fought partisan political battles, can successfully transition to running non-partisan and transparent USAID programs in Latin America.  This hearing is an opportunity for the Obama administration to “go on the record” to establish USAID’s respect for national sovereignty and guarantee program and contractor transparency and accountability.  The U.S.  Senate Committee on Foreign relations should ask Mr. Feierstein to clearly and completely address these crucial issues.

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[1] Interestingly, before doing polling in support of Reyes Villa in 2009, Feierstein and company raised questions during the 2002 campaign about Reyes Villa’s military record and unknown sources of the wealth. See the documentary film Our Brand is Crisis, by Rachel Boynton. Reyes Villa is now in Miami escaping corruption charges in Bolivia.
[2] http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PCAAA774.pdf