A Second Look at the President’s Latin America Budget: Some Smart Cuts, But What About the Refugees?

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President Obama’s budget steeply cuts Latin America spending, as our colleague Adam Isacson outlined here.  But that’s not the whole story.

Smart cuts. The President’s budget for Latin America smartly aims its axe at programs that merit cutting (with one major exception, aid for refugees, below). Most of the cuts come from military and police aid, leaving the total Latin America foreign operations request at 23 percent military and police aid. The budget, if enacted, would place military aid to Colombia, and presumably the controversial aerial spraying program, on a gradual decline. For the very first time, economic and rule of law assistance to Colombia is slightly greater than military aid, at least in the foreign operations budget (there is always more military aid in the defense bill). Economic and social assistance is budgeted at $201.7 million, while military and police assistance is still hefty ($196 million).

With big-ticket equipment purchases already made for Mexican security forces, the President’s budget prioritizes rule of law (support for judicial systems, for example) programs for Mexico. 

We support the President’s cuts in military assistance—although we do not believe they go far enough. Military aid for Mexico improperly brings the military into domestic law enforcement, and military abuses are virtually never properly investigated and prosecuted. In Colombia, the armed forces were involved in extrajudicial killing of some 3,000 civilians. The vast majority of these cases have not yet resulted in justice. Moreover, after a decade of enormous U.S. investment in the Colombian war, it is long past time to place our bets on peace.

Painful cuts. One major exception to these “smart cuts”: aid to refugees and displaced persons. Why the Obama Administration persists in underfunding aid to Western Hemisphere refugees is inexplicable. The proposed Migration and Refugee budget for the Western Hemisphere for FY2012, never enough to begin with, took a 23 percent hit compared to FY2010 levels. This Western Hemisphere funding provides urgently needed aid to Colombian refugees fleeing the conflict in Colombia and living in perilous conditions in Ecuador, Panama, Brazil and Venezuela. Read about the desperate situation of Colombian refugees in Ecuador in this blog from Jesuit Refugee Service USA.

The 2012 aid request also foresees a 5.0 percent drop in economic and social assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean from 2009 levels. Given the already limited economic aid to the region, there should not be cuts. 

But there’s a budget battle in Congress, so it’s anyone’s guess what part of this budget will eventually get passed.

The battle over this year’s budget. Meanwhile, the Republican leadership of the House has proposed a radical slashing of the current year’s budget. The annual appropriations bills were never passed last year, so the government is being funded via “continuing resolutions.” The House Republicans’ proposed continuing resolution, which would cover the second half of the fiscal year, drastically slashes foreign aid, with the kinds of aid we care about—development assistance, child survival, global health funding, economic support funds, migration and refugee aid, disaster relief funding—on the receiving end of dramatic and painful cuts.

These are the kinds of aid that can actually help people. They  provide immunizations for deadly preventable diseases, help people recover from earthquakes and floods, provide food and shelter for those fleeing from war. And this aid, far too small to solve any budget deficit anyway, is on the chopping block.