A new analysis suggests the US congress is poised to push back against President Donald Trump's proposals for massive cuts in security aid to Latin America, adding to mixed messaging from Washington that is causing uncertainty for regional partners.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS), the legislature's in-house research arm, recently published a report analyzing the differences between the Trump administration’s budget proposal and those of the Senate and House of Representatives when it comes to US assistance for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Trump’s budget proposal, released in May 2017, would decrease overall foreign aid to Latin America and the Caribbean from $1.7 billion in 2017 to $1.09 billion for 2018, a reduction of 36 percent that would bring regional funding to its lowest level since 2001.
The CRS report highlights that the dramatic proposed reductions are part of Trump's so-called "America First" foreign policy, which aims to reduce foreign assistance across the board while refocusing aid toward “US domestic concerns, such as irregular migration and transnational crime.”
However, the report notes that when it comes to aid to Latin America, “congressional priorities appear to differ from those of the Trump administration in several respects.”
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For example, the House and Senate appropriations bills propose some slight cuts in aid to Colombia, Mexico and Central America that are nonetheless significantly higher than the administration's proposed funding levels.
In the case of Colombia, the Trump administration requested $251 million to support the country’s peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). The request represents a reduction of more than one-third compared to 2017 funding levels. The House, on the other hand, would provide $336 million -- a 14 percent reduction -- and the Senate would provide $391 million, the same amount as in 2017.
When it comes to security and rule of law efforts in Mexico, the Trump administration again requested cutting aid by more than one-third, from $139 million to $88 million. In contrast, the House bill would cut just $2 million, and the Senate bill would provide $144 million -- $5 million more than in 2017.
Trump requested a 30 percent reduction in the budget for the US "Strategy for Engagement in Central America," from $655 million to $460 million. The House would provide $615 million, a reduction of 6 percent. The Senate would provide $600 million, an 8 percent drop compared to 2017.
Although the House and Senate are unlikely to cut funds to the extent that Trump’s administration has requested, according to the CRS report, these proposals to “scale back US assistance could have significant implications for US policy in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
The report argues that Trump’s proposal to slash assistance could lead to a “decline in US influence in the region.” In addition, the author writes that the cuts could lead to the Defense Department taking on a larger role in security cooperation, which some experts have warned could result in negative outcomes.
InSight Crime Analysis
The congressional pushback against Trump's request for huge cuts in aid to Latin America underscores the challenges the administration has faced in establishing a coherent strategy for working with regional partners on security issues.
Trump's calls to slash aid are likely aimed at appealing to his domestic political base. But the approach could risk further alienating important partner countries.
For example, last week, Trump threatened to stop providing aid to Mexico and the Central American nations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala “if they can't stop drugs from coming in.”
As InSight Crime has previously noted, large cuts in aid could prove detrimental to efforts aimed at improving security conditions in these crime-wracked countries. Moreover, these consistent threats have raised concerns among key allies -- most recently Honduras -- regarding the future of security cooperation with the United States.
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But in spite of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric, Ben Raderstorf, a program associate for the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, told InSight Crime that “there never was a chance of significant cuts on the scale the Trump administration requested.”
“Nothing seismic” is expected to happen to 2018 aid for Colombia, Mexico or the Northern Triangle countries of Central America because the US Congress widely supports these existing programs, Raderstorf said.
“The vast majority, if not all of [the assistance programs for these countries], have pretty strong defenders on Capitol Hill on both sides of the aisle, particularly Central America and Colombia,” he said.
Lisa Haugaard, the executive director of the Latin America Working Group, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization, agreed that assistance will remain relatively stable despite the slight cuts propsed by congress. However, Haugaard suggested that although Trump’s first budget proposal was rejected by the legislature, the 2019 budget -- expected to be presented next week -- may "reflect actual administration priorities” that could shake up aid.
“For the first round it was more hot air than dramatic restructuring of assistance. The question is what happens from now on,” Haugaard said.