Message to Congress: Don’t Turn Your Backs on Vulnerable People in Latin America

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U.S. aid that helps people in need, as they recover from natural disasters, flee from conflicts, and struggle in poverty, is on the chopping block as the Congress takes up the President’s FY2012 foreign aid budget request.   Based on a letter we sent with our partners, the Latin America Working Group’s director Lisa Haugaard testified before the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee with the following appeal.

We urge you not to turn your backs on the most vulnerable people in Latin America nor abandon wise investments that create lasting peace and security for our hemisphere as you make difficult budget choices.   

In Latin America, U.S. aid programs protect those at risk from disasters, deadly disease, and conflict.   Well-targeted aid programs such as development assistance for small farmers help impoverished people raise themselves to a better life.  Multilateral Debt Relief reduces the debt burdens of some of the hemisphere’s poorest nations so that these countries can invest in poverty reduction.   The Inter-American Foundation’s compact budget supports small-scale self-help.

U.S. assistance programs reduce the threats from drug trafficking and drug-related violence that directly affect the communities that you represent.  USAID supports efforts by Andean farmers to abandon coca and grow food crops instead.     USAID and the Justice Department help Mexico, Colombia, and Central American nations strengthen courts and prosecute drug trafficking mafias.   The U.S. Institute for Peace encourages fresh approaches to ending conflicts.  All of these programs in the long run are less costly and provide more sustainable solutions than emergency military programs to address drug-related violence that has spiraled out of control.

With the maze of funding categories, it can be hard to understand why cuts to a particular account fall so hard.  For example, most members of Congress say they support assistance to Colombia. Yet to ensure that good programs for Colombia are not cut, you have to know that programs to support alternative development, aid Afro-Colombian communities, strengthen human rights and help people displaced by violence are under Economic Support Funds.    Indeed, “Economic Support Funds,” which has a name even its own mother couldn’t love, is a catchall category that fails to convey the importance of the programs it funds in Latin America.   In Mexico, ESF supports crime prevention in Ciudad Juarez and human rights training for police and prosecutors.   If your goal is to effectively reduce illicit drug production and the power of drug cartels and strengthen the rule of law in Colombia and Mexico, we know you will find a way to support those programs.

The President’s  budget  cuts assistance to Latin America, reducing economic assistance by 5 percent and sensibly beginning to shift responsibilities, as long scheduled, for military aid and equipment maintenance to the Colombian government.  There are programs in the President’s budget that merit further cuts.  Aid that encourages militaries to carry out internal security is damaging, as is assistance to security force units that commit abuses with impunity. Military and police aid makes up at least one-third of aid to the region in the foreign ops budget, and is an even greater percentage if you factor in what is in the defense bill. If you cut humanitarian aid and do not cut military aid, the U.S. footprint in the region looks more like a bootprint, and that is not the image our nation should wish to convey.

The President’s budget fails to fund adequately Migration and Refugee Assistance for the Western Hemisphere, which helps Colombia and its neighbors grapple with the largest conflict-driven humanitarian crisis in the world.  This has protected children from forced recruitment, helped refugee women who have survived sexual violence, and offered a lifeline of food aid and income generating opportunities for refugees living in perilous conditions. 

Finally, we urge you to hold true to our commitment to help Haiti recover from the earthquake.  While U.S. assistance has saved lives, rubble still has not been removed, hundreds of thousands of people remain in precarious conditions in camps, a cholera epidemic has had deadly impact, and many Haitians have not been able to rebuild their livelihoods and their lives.  The U.S. government needs to listen harder to  input from Haitian civil society about the best path toward recovery.  But the United States should not cut funding or walk away.  If you have visited Haiti, walked past the photos of Haiti in the Rayburn foyer or met with the Haitian civil society leaders here recently who are working so hard to help their communities, you know why we must commit to join with them to address this humanitarian crisis and strengthen the Haitian government’s capacity to meet the needs of its own people.

As the Congress considers tough choices, we urge you to preserve already very limited economic and institution-building programs for Latin America. Their impact on the U.S. budget is minimal, but their return, measured in increased goodwill, citizen security, alleviation of suffering and protection for human rights, is substantial.  They benefit U.S. interests by building support from our neighbors in the hemisphere, showing that the United States can be a partner willing to lend a helping hand.