By Daniel Runde
I knew John Sanbrailo professionally and personally for more than 15 years. He had been having health struggles for the last 5 years. We’ve been on a committee together recently providing a sounding board to an author who is writing a history of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
John dedicated his life to political and economic progress in the Western Hemisphere and believed the United States and the rest of the hemisphere had a shared future. He was driven partially by a strong sense of history and was the first person to show me that the U.S. had engaged in enlightened self-interest through acts of foreign aid, even in the 18th century. He wrote a paper, published in the American Foreign Service Association, about the first “aid packages” the U.S. sent in the Western Hemisphere. As early as 1792, the U.S. was accepting thousands of refugees from Haiti during the Haitian Revolution. The U.S. supported Haiti’s independence from France and provided aid to Haiti through the establishment of a relief fund. In 1812, Congress appropriated $50,000 in support to Venezuelan victims after an earthquake which took place at the start of the Venezuelan War of Independence. The U.S. supported Venezuela at this time not only for humanitarian purposes, but to help Venezuelans regain their footing against the Spanish and prevent further European influence in the region.
John joined USAID in the 1960s at the height of the Alliance for Progress. The Alliance for Progress was started by President Kennedy in 1961 alongside USAID; it was a part of President Kennedy’s goal to improve U.S. relations with Latin America and promote democracy and economic cooperation in a time that was threatened by communist insurgents. The Alliance for Progress was not only the right thing to do, but it was also a response to the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and our fear that other countries in the region would be tempted to go the way of Cuba. An entire generation of Latin Americanists, international development professionals, and business leaders were inspired by Kennedy’s foreign policy initiative through the Alliance for Progress and John was one of them.
John was particularly quick to note that the Alliance for Progress was not a Democratic party project but had strong support from the Republican party, in particular Nelson Rockefeller who had huge interest in Latin America. Rockefeller also worked in the Office of Inter-American Affairs and was the first Assistant Secretary for Latin American affairs in the early 1940s. He went on to establish two organizations in the mid-1940s focused on economic development in Latin America. Nelson Rockefeller (former Vice President under President Gerald Ford and former Governor of New York) heavily influenced his brother, David Rockefeller. David was interested in doing business in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. During his time at Chase National Bank, David significantly expanded the bank’s international operations. In the 1950s and 1960s, a series of organizations were established to support relations between the U.S. and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. In 1959, the Inter-American Development Bank was established. In 1963, David Rockefeller founded the Council of the Americas. Nelson influenced David who helped encourage American business interests in the Americas. John was a part of this renaissance between Latin America and the U.S.
John Sanbrailo was born in a generation that was familiar with the influential book, the Ugly American (published in 1958 with almost 4 million copies sold) which described our incompetence and cultural insensitivity while trying to engage with others in the outside world. The Ugly American had a profound impact on President Kennedy too.
John Sanbrailo loved working at USAID; he started working there in 1969 and left reluctantly in 1999. He served in a number of important places at critical times. He served as USAID Mission Director in Ecuador, Peru, Honduras, and El Salvador. In Peru, John was an early supporter of Hernando de Soto who established his think tank, the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD) in Peru with major support from USAID. It is ironic that the ILD was supported by USAID because many of my conservative Republican colleague’s dislike USAID but really like Hernando de Soto and the ILD without realizing that USAID helped stand it up and supported it for decades.
In 1999, John joined PADF which was started in 1962 as a nonprofit arm with ties to the Organization of American States (OAS). John was always quick to remind you that PADF’s original charter talked about partnerships with the private sector. During his time as Executive Director, John took PADF from less than $10 million in annual operations in 1998 to $95 million in 2017. The organization was, by all accounts, not in a great place when he started, but he recruited a new board, reformulated the mission, recruited new people, and leveraged his relationships around the hemisphere, leading PADF to become one of the premier social enterprises in the Western Hemisphere with major partners including Haiti, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. John was always very active in Colombia and the Northern Triangle. He had a special place in his heart for Ecuador, where his wife–Cecilia del Pozo–was from.
Over the course of John’s career, things changed dramatically in Latin America and he helped. The United States developed a different kind of relationship with countries in the region barring Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba. In 1970, the adjusted net national income per capita was approximately $450 in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to the Freedom House Index, 11 countries in the Western Hemisphere were labeled as “free” and 4 countries were considered “not free” in 1972. When John retired from the Pan-American Development Foundation (PADF) in 2016, the average national income per capita is $6,407 in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to the Freedom House Index, 23 countries in the Western Hemisphere were labeled as “free” and one was considered “not free” in 2016.
John’s legacy can been seen in the strengthen relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. He also left behind a strong and relevant PADF. As we face challenges in Venezuela and the Northern Triangle and as we embrace opportunities in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, we will miss John’s sense of history and his decades of experience.