WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez

24 May 2017 | Commentary

Trump’s 2018 Foreign Aid Budget Would Deal a Devastating Blow to Latin America

The Trump administration’s 2018 budget request to Congress would slash assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean by 35 percent from 2016 levels. The $1.2 billion in State Department-run assistance proposed for next year would be the least the region has received since 2001 (see historic economic and military aid here).

The cuts would be across the board. Economic and humanitarian assistance programs would drop by an incredible 37 percent from 2016 to 2018. Military, law enforcement, and “hard side” counter-drug programs would drop by 30 percent.

This is unacceptable. Especially in the countries and regions discussed below, the impact on citizen security, disease prevention, employment, migration, and goodwill toward the United States will bring future-year costs far greater than the $636 million that this request purports to save. Congress must declare this request “dead on arrival,” and fund assistance to the region at least at current levels.


Here are a few preliminary observations:

  • Assistance to Central America would drop by 39 percent from 2016 to 2018. In May 4 remarks to the Atlantic Council, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly cited economic development in Central America’s troubled “Northern Triangle” region (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) as “the solution to a lot of things that plague them, that then cause them to leave their country, move north, illegal migration, then back to the drug issues.” Yet the budget proposed on May 23 would drop economic assistance to Central America by 42 percent from 2016 to 2018, from about $520 million to just over $300 million. The effect on judicial reform, job creation, and violence prevention efforts would be severe. In mid-June, Secretary Kelly will be co-hosting a conference in Miami with Central American leaders, at which economic prosperity is a main topic, alongside security. The 2018 budget request will certainly affect the dynamic at this conference.
  • Assistance to Colombia would drop by 16 percent from 2016 to 2018, and by 36 percent from 2017 to 2018. In 2016 President Barack Obama proposed an increased package of assistance to Colombia, to help that country–the United States’ largest aid recipient in the hemisphere–begin implementing a peace accord that recently ended a long guerrilla conflict. In early May 2017 Congress granted this request, approving $391 million. Along with Defense Department counter-drug money and some smaller accounts, total aid to Colombia will be about $450 million this year–about $300 million less than it was at the height of Colombia’s war a decade ago, but still an increase of about $100 million over 2016 aid levels. The 2018 budget request would not only undo the “Peace Colombia” increase, it would cut still further, bringing aid in this bill from $391 million to $251 million from 2017 to 2018. This would deal a moral and fiscal blow to Colombia’s effort to implement an ambitious peace accord, at a time when low commodity prices and a weaker currency have hit the national budget hard. Meanwhile, even though U.S. officials voice frequent concern about record reported levels of coca cultivation in Colombia, the budget request would reduce State Department International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement funds by $10 million from 2016 levels and $18 million from 2017 levels.
  • Assistance to Mexico in the foreign aid bill would drop by 45 percent from 2016 to 2018. The State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program, which still has hundreds of millions of unspent assistance from previous years, would be cut back by 40 percent, impacting support for police professionalization and federal judicial reform, while economic assistance programs used to strengthen judiciary institutions, support human rights, and prevent violence would be cut even more deeply. Making improvements in the human rights situation in Mexico, and supporting effective strategies to combat the influence of organized crime depends on improving the quality of the police, the attorney general’s office, and the judiciary, and cutting the funding for programs that support these efforts is counter-productive.
  • Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Homeland Security appropriation calls for new fencing at a cost of $21.2 million per mile. The 2018 proposal calls for using $1.571 billion to build 74 miles of wall: 60 in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector and 14 in California’s San Diego sector. At this rate of expense, completing a wall along the 1,650 miles of border that lack “pedestrian fencing” would cost $35 billion. In fact, it would probably cost more, because this figure does not take into account the additional cost of buying land from private property owners and building on more difficult terrain.
  • Foreign Military Financing, the main military aid program in the foreign aid budget, would fall to zero throughout Latin America, from about $70 million in 2016. These cuts would most strongly impact Colombia, which is receiving over $38 million in FMF this year, and smaller Central American and Caribbean countries that received FMF-funded maritime patrol craft in recent years.
  • While the economic aid cuts are catastrophic and cannot be supported through other budgets, the military aid cuts may get a boost from Defense Department budget aid accounts. The State Department’s budget, which the Trump administration proposes to cut so deeply, includes 14 authorities that can provide military or police aid. The Defense Department, however, can also use its $600 billion budget to provide assistance, and a recent WOLA study identified 87 Pentagon programs through which such aid can flow (two more programs are run jointly by State and Defense). Even as it slashes diplomacy and foreign aid, the Trump administration is proposing to increase the Defense Department budget by a further 9 percent. With this additional spending power, the Defense Department is likely to employ its programs, like its Counter-Drug and Counter-Organized Crime spending authority, to make up for cuts in State Department-run military aid programs. The Pentagon budget, which is much less transparent, may be used for human rights-sensitive activities like illicit crop eradication in Colombia and Mexico, military and police anti-gang operations in Central America, or efforts to turn back migrants in southern Mexico.
  • The request devastates independent development agencies. It zeroes out U.S. contributions to the Inter-American Development Bank, which totaled $102 million in 2016. It proposes the closure of Inter-American Foundation, which has funded small-scale grassroots development projects since the early 1970s, by 80 percent, from $22.5 million in 2016 to $4.6 million in 2018.
(Thousands of U.S. Dollars) 2016 2018 Change 2016–18
All Programs 1,834,146 1,198,116 –35%
Military, Law Enforcement, Narcotics 617,314 432,470 –30%
Economic, Humanitarian 1,216,832 765,646 –37%

View this data by country

Cuts in across-the-board assistance to countries from 2016 to 2018:

  • Mexico: $160.2 million to $87.7 million (–45%)
  • Guatemala: $131.2 million to $80.7 million (–39%)
  • Colombia: $299.4 million to $251.4 million (–16%)
  • Haiti: $190.7 million to $157.5 million (–17%)
  • Honduras: $98.3 million to $67.9 million (–31%)
  • Peru: $74.9 million to $49.7 million (–34%)
  • El Salvador: $67.9 million to $46.3 million (–32%)
  • See this table for more