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What Do the Budget Battles Mean for Latin America?

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Is the United States really more secure if its neighbors view it as narrowly interested only in its own security? Do we want our nation's reputation to be more about guns and less about helping to fight diseases and recover from natural disasters? Do we win good will and allies by being perceived as selfish?

We must ask these questions as the Congress debates radical budget cuts. Adam Isacson at the Washington Office on Latin America and I took a look at how the House Republican leadership's proposal for this year's budget (never finalized last year) will affect Latin America and U.S. relations with the region. What we found is alarming.

The House budget proposal slashes the kinds of foreign aid that show the generous face of our nation abroad, as well as those that most effectively address the impact of U.S. citizens' demand for illegal drugs trafficked from Latin America. And since these categories are a tiny percentage of overall spending, it does so with minuscule impact on the deficit.

In Latin America, International Disaster Assistance saves lives in the aftermath of devastating earthquakes, as in Haiti, or catastrophic flooding, as in Central America. Global Health and Child Survival helps prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Economic Support Funds help Mexico, Colombia and Central American nations strengthen courts and prosecute drug trafficking mafias. Development Assistance supports small-scale farming and helps encourage farmers to grow food, not coca, the raw material for cocaine. Peace Corps places Americans in communities to work in partnership on health care, education, and farming. McGovern-Dole International Food for Education helps provide lunches to pre-school and primary-school children.

These programs were placed on the chopping block for steep cuts in the House budget proposal. What didn't the House reduce? Military aid and training to virtually all of the region's security forces.

The House proposal also takes away a critical tool for reducing the horrific drug-fueled violence in Mexico that has led to 34,000 murders since 2006: it prohibits funding for the U.S. government to require U.S. firearms dealers near the U.S.-Mexico border to report multiple sales of assault weapons. More than 65,000 guns recovered in Mexico have been traced back to the United States.

As the Congress deals with this year's budget, President Obama presented next year's. Let's take a look at that.

President Obama's budget for Latin America also reduces aid to the region. But in our view, it makes largely smart cuts. Economic aid is reduced by 5 percent from 2009, while military and police aid programs would go down by 43 percent. While the Bush administration's aid requests for Latin America were well over 40 percent security assistance, less than a quarter of the 2012 request would go to the region's security forces.

The budget would continue a decline in military aid to Colombia after a decade of expensive investment, while preserving aid to strengthen courts and encourage farmers to turn away from illegal drug crops. In Mexico, with big-ticket equipment for security forces already paid for, the budget focuses on less expensive aid that strengthens the rule of law. The proposed cuts to Colombia and Mexico still maintain military aid at levels far higher than they were in the 1990s. Assistance to the rest of the region's militaries, meanwhile, would hardly be cut, and as much as 30 percent additional military and police aid would come through the Defense Department's mammoth budget.

We support the administration's cuts in military assistance -- although they don't go far enough. Military aid for Mexico improperly draws the army into law enforcement, and military abuses are virtually never successfully prosecuted. In Colombia, the armed forces are alleged to have killed outside of combat more than 3,000 civilians. The vast majority of these cases -- well over 90 percent -- have not yet resulted in justice. Moreover, after a decade of costly U.S. investment in the Colombian war, it is long past time to place our bets on peace.

One exception to the "smart cuts": aid to refugees. The President would slash aid for refugees in the Western Hemisphere, never enough to begin with, by 23 percent compared to FY2010. This program provides aid to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict in Colombia and living in perilous conditions.

As the White House and Congress consider budgets for this year and next, the sensible course is to preserve already very limited economic and institution-building programs for Latin America that lend a helping hand. These programs help farmers grow food, not coca; provide immunizations for deadly diseases; strengthen courts, and help those fleeing from wars and recovering from disasters. Their impact on the U.S. budget is microscopic, but their return, measured in increased goodwill, security, and protection for human rights, is substantial.