The US Agency for International Development (USAID) returned to communist Vietnam Saturday on a mission to create by trade the free economy it failed to defend in the Vietnam War period.
Twenty five years after America's humiliating embassy-roof retreat from Saigon, USAID opened new offices in Hanoi as President Bill Clinton visited the capital on a landmark reconciliation visit.
The agency, which poured billions of dollars into Southeast Asia in the 1960s in a bid to keep it capitalist, said its mantra was now "interdependence" with Vietnam's communist authorities.
However American officials acknowledged the agency would have a tiny budget compared with the money it spent before the end of the Vietnam War. For the current year, funds are to reach just eight million dollars.
They also admitted such small funds and a focus on implementing a landmark bilateral trade deal agreed in July would disappoint Vietnamese hoping for recompense for the massive destruction of the war.
Three million Vietnamese were killed in the conflict, and scores of children still die here every year from the hundreds of tons of unexploded munitions that litter the countryside.
But agency staff insisted Washington was committed to sealing a rapprochement with its former foe.
"This is the first USAID office in Vietnam in 20 years," said top agency official Robert Randolph at an opening ceremony attended by Vietnamese representatives and aid organization staff.
"Between 1955 and 1975, USAID was in Vietnam and spent seven-and-a-half billion dollars in a well-intentioned but ultimately failed effort to build a successful nation in southern Vietnam.
"We return in the year 2000 with a similarly well-intentioned but, I know, ultimately successful effort to help Vietnam create a better life for all its people."
Randolf said helping Vietnam to implement the July agreement -- which lifts punitive US tariffs on Vietnamese exports to the US in return for a gradual opening of the state-controlled market -- would be the top priority for the new USAID office.
"Over the next three years, we will spend six million dollars to assist Vietnam in implementing the trade agreement, joining the WTO and reforming the economy," he said.
But US officials privately admit both the trade deal and future increases in aid may well fall prey to the legislative gridlock likely in the new evenly-balanced majority Congress.
Conservative Republicans opposed to rapprochement and the labor and environmental wings of the Democrats, wary of free trade, will have a disproportionate influence when Congress returns after this month's election, they say.
Randolph acknowledged any aid increase would also depend on the new Congress and a fresh presidential administration.
In the lame duck months of his presidency, Clinton lacks the authority to commit new funds to his historic bid to seal reconciliation between the former enemies, he said.
In addition Randolf admitted the US commitment would not meet Vietnamese expectations of sharply increased war recompense.
"Those sort of moral dilemmas will have to be faced by the next administration," he told AFP.
Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien said last week that because of the consequences of war in Vietnam, the country needed "a more positive and more urgent response from the United States."
Randolf said USAID would continue to provide disaster relief, particularly for the annual floods which this year devastated the Mekong Delta, and also help stem the flood of rural migration that threatens to overwhelm Vietnam's cities.
The International Red Cross, whose representatives Clinton is due to meet Saturday, is the conduit of all US relief aid.
"We will also continue to work with orphans, the disabled and war victims," said Randolf.
"I call on all of you to make good on the president's declaration of interdependence," he told the assembled staff -- HANOI (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)