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Toward a Fresh Start? Obama’s Response to Haiti and the Budget for Latin America

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We charitably termed the Obama Administration’s first year of Latin America policy a “false start.”  After the year was kicked off with a promising beginning with a rousing speech at the Summit of the Americas, a promise to close Guantanamo, the lifting of the ban on travel to Cuba for Cuban Americans, and some principled words on human rights to Colombian President Uribe, we had some hope for a new, less ideological, more people-centered approach to the region. As the year progressed, those hopes were dashed. But now we dare to hope again.

We hoped for the United States to stand up for human rights and democratic principles, but in a fair-minded way, not based on whether or not a government was considered a close ally. We hoped for our country to uphold the same human rights standards we asked of others. We hoped for a reshaping of U.S. aid to focus generously on human needs, like health care and small-scale development for the poorest communities and humanitarian aid for those displaced by war and natural disaster—rather than military aid. We presented these ideas to the administration in letters, petitions, reports and meetings (and we give this administration credit for its open door for meetings). But our hopes were dashed by the administration’s failure to take a strong enough stance towards the coup in Honduras, the roll out of a major base agreement with Colombia, an aid budget that mirrored the Bush Administration’s, and the decision to give a free pass to Mexico and Colombia on the human rights requirements attached to military aid.

Now we are looking for signs that the Obama Administration—with its top officials finally in place for Latin America and human rights—is ready for a fresh start to the region.

The administration’s response to the Haitian earthquake and, to a lesser extent, its fiscal year 2011 budget may be signs of steps in the right direction. 

Haiti. The U.S. government responded in a committed fashion to the Haitian tragedy, mobilizing emergency aid, extending Temporary Protected Status to Haitians currently in the United States, and announcing that the U.S. Treasury will work to encourage cancellation of all of Haiti’s multilateral debts. There are and will be problems, but the effort so far has been swift and generous. Now the question is what next. We are calling for at least $3 billion in U.S. relief and reconstruction aid, for a Haitian-led recovery. The White House has not yet announced how much it will ask Congress to commit to Haitian reconstruction, and since it is not included in the budget, will have to ask for a “supplemental” bill to be approved. We expect the White House will do this soon.

Budget. In the FY2011 foreign operations budget the White House unveiled, we’re beginning to see the faint outline of the administration’s own stamp on a U.S. approach to the region. (The foreign operations budget funds most foreign aid, both military and economic, though increasing amounts of military aid now are included in the defense budget.) We’re not seeing a real departure, but there are certain glimmers of hope.

Glimmers of hope:

  • U.S. military aid to the region declines. The administration has requested $742 million in military aid to the region in the foreign operations budget, compared to $1.1 billion the previous year. Watch out, though: We don’t yet know what’s in the defense budget for Latin America. We need to see if that increases.
  • U.S. aid to Mexico no longer includes helicopters and planes for the army. Military aid to Mexico has declined as the big-ticket items promised as a part of the Merida Initiative have already been appropriated—the main reason for the overall decline in military spending for the region. Aid for the justice sector and police reform and oversight continues. Watch out, though: We need to know what’s in the defense budget, we need to be sure there’s not more helicopters in a supplemental bill, and we need to know how the $8 million in foreign military financing for Mexico included in the budget will be spent.
  • There’s a sizeable cut for hard-side counternarcotics assistance to Colombia. The budget cuts this by $44 million, saying it’s time for Colombia to finance these programs by itself. We hope what is being cut is the controversial, inhumane, ineffective and environmentally damaging aerial spraying program.
  • Economic assistance stays level and will increase with Haiti. The budget slightly increases economic aid for the region by $20 million, from $1.415 billion in the 2010 request to $1.435 billion in 2011. However, this total will go way up if a supplemental bill for Haiti is passed, changing dramatically, in numbers, the overall balance of military vs. economic aid to the region. We will need to see the more detailed documents that are released weeks after the sketchy overall budget to know more about how this is spent, but some positive developments in U.S. aid worldwide are a greater focus on programs for food security and climate change, and continued high priority for global health programs. Watch out, though:  We need to make sure that the already limited U.S. development and humanitarian aid for Latin America is not cut to make room for aid to Haiti.

Reasons not to be cheerful:

  • Militarization of economic assistance, the Pentagon as the face of the United States in Latin America. The cuts in military aid mentioned above are not enough to change these trends. We’re also worried about the movement towards military-led economic assistance, most notably in Colombia (and a factor to watch in Haiti, though there is an appropriate role for the military in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster).
  • Military aid to Colombia remains high despite human rights abuses. We were disappointed to see that the administration cut military aid to Colombia by only 3.5 million, to a still-massive $51.5 million in the foreign operations budget alone.
  • The defense budget contains more military aid. We can’t judge the overall trends until we get more information about what’s in the defense budget, not just the foreign operations budget. And military aid in the defense budget is always far too untransparent and unaccountable to the public.
  • The migration and refugee spending for Latin America declined. Why, oh why, did the Obama Administration do this? Spending for the refugee crisis from the Colombian conflict is never anywhere near adequate, and the administration has inexplicably cut the Western Hemisphere budget from $48.5 million to $37 million. Congress must fix this.

Check out Adam Isacson’s slideshow on the budget & Latin America on the joint CIP/LAWGEF/WOLA “Just the Facts” website which monitors trends on U.S. military aid & policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. See also his blog noting that the main change in the budget is Mexico and Colombia. “We need not lament that the tempo of helicopter-buying for Mexico and Colombia has slowed, and we note that economic and social assistance is holding remarkably steady despite the Millennium Challenge program’s decline in the region,” he concludes.

Let’s hope that these glimmers of change in the budget and the immediate, generous response to Haitian relief mean that we will see some real movement towards a more caring, just, and people-centered approach towards our neighbors. We are waiting!

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