Sharp Increase in US Military Aid to Latin America

by Jim Lobe

Dissident Voice

September 25, 2003


Spurred by the wars on drugs and terrorism, levels of U.S. military aid to Latin America have more than tripled over the last five years, according to a new report released here Monday by three foreign policy groups.


And even as Washington has intensified its training of military and security forces in Central and Southeast Asia and the Middle East as part of its "war on terrorism," Latin America soldiers and police received the most U.S. training of any region--13,000 Latin American personnel out of a total of 34,000 worldwide.


Moreover, at a time when the region's economies are stagnating or even shrinking, throwing millions more people into poverty, total U.S. military aid to Latin America now almost equals the amount of money Washington is devoting to social or economic development there.


"Despite pervasive problems of poverty in Latin America, the United States' focus on military rather than economic aid to the region is increasing," according to Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF), one of the groups that sponsored the new study.


Colombia, the biggest recipient of U.S. aid globally after Israel and Egypt, has received by far the most assistance--both military and economic--in the region for the last several years, and the sheer volume of aid as a proportion of all aid going to Latin America dominates the regional picture.


Nonetheless, some of the patterns--particularly the rise in military aid as a proportion to all U.S. assistance--that have applied to Colombia also apply to the region as a whole.


Entitled 'Paint by Numbers: Trends in U.S. Military Programs with Latin America,' the report also expresses concern over the growing number of obstacles to obtaining reliable information about U.S. military-related programs in the region.


It charged that the administration of President George W. Bush (news - web sites) has tried systematically to repeal a number of Congressional mandates to report on military training, joint exercises, and equipment that Washington provides to Latin American countries, calling such requirements "overly burdensome" or of "minimal utility."


For the most part, Congress has resisted the administration's pressure, but, in a number of cases, the administration has moved training programs from the State Department to the Pentagon (news - web sites), whose $400 billion annual budget makes oversight much more difficult.


Moreover, Pentagon control not only effectively reduces the amount of information the administration is required to produce but also transfers jurisdiction for their oversight to Congressional committees that are less attuned to foreign policy priorities, human rights, and civilian control over militaries. It also reduces the State Department's leverage.


"Congress' tendency to fund security assistance programs directly through the Defense Department is making the State Department increasingly irrelevant to important foreign policy interactions," said Joy Olson, the director of the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA). She noted that civilian control of the Latin American militaries has long been weak.


While the militarization of U.S. aid in Latin America actually began under former President Bill Clinton (news - web sites)--particularly with the launch of Plan Colombia in 2000--trends established then have become more pronounced under Bush, the report found.


Most alarming, according to the report, is the sharp rise in military aid as a proportion of all U.S. assistance for the region.


For fiscal year 2004, which begins October 1, the administration has requested a total of $874 million in military and police aid for Latin America compared to a total of $946 million in aid for economic and social programs.


Even during the height of the Cold War, military and police aid to the region were generally less than half as great as economic and social levels. Indeed, despite the rise in the region's poverty rate to well over 40 percent since 2001, Washington has actually reduced its economic aid in the same period.


While the enormous quantity of military aid to Colombia--$605 million in 2003 and $553 million requested for 2004 compared to $137 million and $136 million in economic and social aid, respectively--naturally skews the balance, a number of other countries receive or will soon receive more security-related aid than social and economic assistance.


Brazil, for example, is slated to receive about $21 million in military and security assistance next year, slightly more than it will receive in social and economic aid. The Bush administration plans to reduce the economic aid Ecuador receives from $46 million to $40 million, while raising its military and security assistance from $30 million to $49 million.


A similar reversal is planned for Panama, which is to get $14 million and $13 million for military aid and economic assistance, respectively, while the balance for Mexican aid will be particularly spectacular: military aid is slated to almost double from $27 million to $52 million--$20 million more than what it will get in economic aid. Costa Rica too will receive more security assistance than economic aid, continuing a trend that began in 1999.


For Peru, economic aid will be down more than 20 percent--from $147 million to $115 million--while military aid will increase by ten percent, to $71 million.


The report notes that over half of all U.S. military and security aid and trainings in Latin America is attributed to counter-narcotics work by security agencies. But it stresses that this distinction is increasingly unimportant as the U.S. blurs the line, especially in Colombia, between counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics. Indeed, most of the training for counter-narcotics programs are directly applicable to counter-insurgency work as well.


Two-thirds of all U.S. military training is now also paid through the defense budget rather than the foreign-aid budget, according to the report, which stressed that Pentagon programs are not subject to the same human rights and democracy provisions as required by the foreign-aid bill.


The report also found that the Pentagon is training an increasing number of police in Latin America, including those, like Panama and Costa Rica, that have no military institutions, as well as those, like Peru, which do.


Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org). He also writes regularly for Inter Press Service. He can be reached at: jlobe@starpower.net




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