LA PAZ Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled a U.S. development agency from his country on Wednesday, marking the latest confrontation between Washington and a bloc of left-wing governments in Latin America.
Morales said he was kicking out the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as a "protest" after U.S. 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 U.S.-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 nationalize businesses and take other steps to rouse his working-class base in South America's poorest nation.
"Today we're only going to nationalize ... 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 U.S. ambassador for allegedly aiding the opposition.
Morales is a close ally of Venezuela's left-wing 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 U.S. citizen and accused him of destabilizing the country.
USAID said in a statement it has spent nearly $2 billion in Bolivia over the past 50 years on projects in education, health and food security, among other areas.
The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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."
(Reporting by Carlos A. Quiroga in La Paz and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Brian Winter; Editing by Eric Walsh)