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Russia gives USAID the boot

The U.S. State Department announced today that USAID is shuttering its office in Russia after the Russian government demanded that the group leave the country. USAID has operated in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union and has spent around $2.7 billion in the country: 

We are extremely proud of what USAID has accomplished in Russia over the past two decades,” Nuland said. “While USAID’s physical presence in Russia will come to an end, we remain committed to supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.”

Nuland didn’t criticize Russia for its action. But she said the money went to a wide variety of initiatives, such as fighting AIDS and tuberculosis, helping orphans and victims of trafficking, and improving the protection of wildlife and the environment. About a third of annual funds go to governance, human rights and democracy programs, she said.

“It is our hope that Russia will now itself assume full responsibility and take forward all of this work,” she said.

The move is likely conencted to a larger crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs, which are now required to register as “foreign agents." While recent project like a "Human Trafficking App Challenge" co-sponsored by the Demi and Ashton Foundation don't seem explicitly political, other projects like a Human Rights Week in Voronezh last month probably irked Russian authorities, already suspicious of foreign attempts to undermine the government. 

This is obviously yet another troubling development for the much-maligned U.S.-Russia reset, but many Americans would probably be surprised that Russia was still such a major recipient of U.S. aid in the first place. The world's ninth largest economy received about $379 million in U.S. assistance in 2010, putting it in 20th place between Egypt and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Russia's fellow BRIC countries -- Brazil, India, and China -- aren't among the top 25 U.S. assistance recipients, despite having significantly higher poverty rates

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Mexican Mitt?

Mother Jones has released clips today of a leaked video of Mitt Romney speaking to Republican donors at a meeting earlier this year. It's not what's been getting the most attention, but this bit discussing his trouble with outreach to Hispanic voters and the fact that his father was born in Mexico, is interesting:

Describing his family background, he quipped about his father, "Had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot of winning this." 

Romney was obviously joking, but it did bring to mind a couple of moments from the GOP convention, which presumably took place after this video was taken. 

Here's a line from Romney's convention speech

My dad had been born in Mexico and his family had to leave during the Mexican revolution. I grew up with stories of his family being fed by the US Government as war refugees. 

Here's Sen. Marco Rubio introducing Romney

And it's the story of a man who was born into an uncertain future in a foreign country. His family came to America to escape revolution.

They struggled through poverty and the great depression. And yet he rose to be an admired businessman, and public servant.

And in November, his son, Mitt Romney, will be elected President of the United States.

Reading these clips out of context makes it seem like Romney is the product of a hardworking and civically-minded immigrant family. Someone like, say, Marco Rubio.

Back in January, FP ran a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article by Larry Kaplow urging Romney to embrace his Mexican background, writing, "Romney's Mexican heritage is a reminder of the inevitably interwoven ties between the two countries, and his embrace of it might actually inject more realism into the immigration debate." 

It's not hard to understand why Romney has been reticent to position himself as the "first Mexican president" or dicuss his relatives who still live there. As the current occupant of the White House has learned, exotic family backgrounds aren't exactly big winners with some segments of the electorate. And too much discussion of George Romney's birthplace would probably lead to a discussion of what the Romneys were doing in Mexico in the first place -- his great grandfather, Miles Park Romney, moved to Chihuahua with his four wives in the 1880s to escape anti-polygamist persecution -- that the candidate would probably rather not get into. 

But, trailing badly among Hispanic voters, Romney is stepping up his outreach efforts, including a speech on immigration today to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that takes a far more immigrant-friendly line than his rhetoric during the GOP primary. Romney may also have decided that playing up his own family's immigration story might be worth a shot. Though the son of a governor and auto executive joking that things would be easier for him if only he were Mexican might not go over so well.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GettyImages