Commentary: Obama's foreign aid budget cuts send wrong message to Latin America

If President Barack Obama's foreign aid budget request for 2011 is a reflection of his priorities in world affairs, it looks like the president is saying "adios" to Latin America.

The administration's foreign aid request to Congress for next year calls for a 13 percent increase for Africa, a 7 percent increase for the Middle East and a nearly 60 percent increase for South and Central Asia, mostly for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. By comparison, it requests a nearly 10 percent cut in aid for Latin America.

Has Latin America become irrelevant to the Obama administration? As recently as April 17, 2009, at the opening ceremony of the 34-country Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, Obama stated, "I'm here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration."

Now, as I was reading the administration's foreign aid proposal, I couldn't help thinking -- taking a line from columnist Lluis Bassets of the Spanish daily El País in a recent article about how the Obama administration looks at Europe -- that Obama does not see Latin America as a problem, nor as a region that can help solve any problems.

Looking more closely at the proposed aid figures, most of the cuts for Latin America come from military and anti-drug assistance to Mexico, which would drop by 30 percent, and Colombia, which would drop by 11 percent.

U.S. officials say the drop is due to the fact that most of the helicopter and other heavy equipment purchases for Mexico's Plan Merida were included in last year's budget, and that the program will enter a new -- less expensive -- phase in 2011. But many analysts are skeptical.

"It's hard to enter a different phase of a plan that has just started," Peter Hakim, of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington D.C. told me. "I'm puzzled."

The budget request also calls for more foreign assistance for Zambia ($395 million) and Cambodia ($74 million) than for Guatemala ($67 million), which is reeling from a severe drought.

"It's a myopic view of the world," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a New York-based group that represents multinationals doing business in Latin America. "Guatemala is falling apart, right on the border with our strategic partner Mexico."

Peter Romero, a former State Department head of Latin American affairs and most recently an Obama campaign advisor, told me that a nearly 10 percent cut in foreign aid to Latin America won't make that much of a difference because most of the region does not rely heavily on aid.

"But, politically, it sends the wrong message," Romero said. "People will say Obama is not paying attention to the region."

And would that be a crazy assertion? I asked. Romero responded, "Unfortunately, there is no thinking, there is no initiative, there is no nothing in regards to Latin America."

In a telephone interview, State Department Director of Policy, Planning and Coordination William McIlhenny told me that the proposed increase in aid to Asia reflects the growing strategic importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that the rise in proposed aid to Africa reflects the staggering food and health needs in that region.

"The numbers for Latin America have been essentially stable over the past three years," he said. "They also reflect a shift in the aid mix: We are inverting the percentages allocated to military and humanitarian assistance."

My opinion: The Obama administration can hardly be blamed for making marginal budget cuts here and there when it is fighting key wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and when the U.S. budget is already strained by domestic needs in the midst of the worst economic depression since the 1930s. And a small cut in Latin America's military aid programs is no big drama.

What's much more worrisome is the absence of any major Obama initiative to promote closer economic ties with Latin America, expanding trade and opening markets to help create new jobs from Alaska to Patagonia. One year into the Obama administration, we're still waiting for the "new chapter of engagement" with the region to begin.

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