WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
19 Mar 2007 | Publication | News

Below the Radar: A 10-Year Retrospective of U.S. Aid to Latin America

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U.S. military programs with Latin America, 1997-2007

As President Bush tours Latin America, WOLA, CIP and LAWG are releasing a new report analyzing the last ten years of US military programs with Latin America.

When President Bush talks about US aid to Latin America, this means guns and helicopters as well as disaster relief and development aid.  In the 1990s, economic and development aid to Latin America and the Caribbean equaled more than twice the amount of military and police aid.  Today, the gap has narrowed significantly:  economic assistance exceeds military aid by only about a third.

Moreover, the Administration is playing tricks with the numbers when it claims that it has doubled US aid to Latin America. “Measuring US aid today compared to 2001 is voodoo economics, because aid was low that year after Congress had passed a two-year spending bill for the Andes the year before,” said Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy.  “If the United States wants to win friends in Latin America, it should seriously increase its investment in programs that help poor communities: aid for small farmers, microcredit, schools, health care, refugee aid and disaster relief,” said Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group.

Drug War – The US has spent billions of dollars in Latin America over the past ten years to decrease the supply of drugs into the United States. But despite massive fumigation in Colombia intended to reduce coca production, US government statistics show more coca grown in 2005 than in 2000. And after large outlays for interdiction, cocaine and heroin prices in the US remain at or near all-time lows. Joy Olson, Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America, comments that “Much of the US’s negative relationship with Latin America revolves around drug war politics, with Latin Americans frustrated by US criticism for coca production, when the United States is the major consumer of drugs. No matter which way you slice it, the drug war is still a failure and a new approach must be developed.”

War on Terror – After the Cold War, the Drug War became the primary rationale for US military engagement with Latin America.  Since 2001, the Drug War has given way to the War on Terror. The overriding question for the US government has been, how might Latin America pose a potential terrorist threat toward the US? “Unfortunately, seeing everything in relation to the War on Terror does little to help policy makers find real solutions to complex problems like crime, drug use, and trafficking,” said Joy Olson from WOLA..

Colombia remains by far the number-one recipient of US military and police aid in the hemisphere. President Bush is visiting Colombia to deliver a warm message of support to Uribe Administration, despite the fact that it is embroiled in an ever-widening scandal involving the governing party’s connections to paramilitary forces engaged in massacres and drug trafficking. “The two governments may talk about the need to fine-tune Plan Colombia to invest more in the social side,” said Adam Isacson of CIP, “but in the budget President Bush submitted to Congress, aid to Colombia remains more than 80 percent security aid. Now’s the time to make a dramatic change.” Lisa Haugaard of the LAWG adds that, “The human rights situation in Colombia remains very serious, as the para-gate scandal indicates. It’s hardly an excuse to claim that democracy isn’t ‘neat and tidy.’  It will be a great disappointment if President Bush fails to voice publicly concerns on human rights during his brief stay in Bogotá.”

Human rights –  “Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, the CIA’s secret prisons, the unjustified war in Iraq – the President has no idea how much these policies have cost the United States in Latin America,” said Lisa Haugaard of the LAWG.  “And you can see it not just in the streets, but in government offices, universities, and editorial pages across the region.” During this decade, the Southern Command organized with Latin American military and defense personnel a series of positive conferences on human rights, while the US Congress increased human rights conditions on aid. “But no conference, training or condition can outweight the loss of the United States’ ability to use itself as a good example,” she concludes.

Mission Creep – Foreign military aid programs have traditionally been managed by the State Department. Over the last ten years these programs have progressively migrated from State to the Defense Department.  The US government’s most recent figures show that DoD directly managed 74% of all Latin America’s trainees. This matters because it diminishes State’s role in determining foreign policy and because it by passes almost all human rights restrictions on foreign assistance in US law.


The Just the Facts Project is a joint project of the Center for International Policy, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and the Washington Office on Latin America.

The Washington Office on Latin America promotes human rights, democracy and socioeconomic justice in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Center for International Policy promotes a foreign policy based on cooperation, demilitarization, and respect for human rights.

The Latin America Working Group encourages US policies towards Latin America that promote human rights, justice, peace and sustainable development.