The chairman of the Congressional committee that oversees U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean expressed outrage last week over significant budget cuts the Trump administration is proposing for the region.
Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, said that U.S. assistance is vital, particularly given the growing influence of China in the area, which he called “an invasion without arms.” He also noted several countries in the region currently face protests and other internal crises.
“We will not overcome the challenge posed by China by cutting foreign assistance,” Sires said. “I am convinced that China’s increased presence in the region poses a threat to U.S. interests. True alliances, based on mutual respect, are America’s comparative advantage over China.”
Earlier this year, the White House submitted a funding request to Congress that included $344.4 million to Colombia for a variety of initiatives including counternarcotics efforts, and $445 million to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras partly for efforts at curbing undocumented immigration. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Michael Kozak testified that “the President will ultimately decide whether each government has taken sufficient steps to warrant our foreign assistance.”
The budget request slashed funding for “democracy efforts” in Cuba and Venezuela – by 70 and 40 percent respectively. That type of funding supports local groups working on human rights and other civil society endeavors. Under the plan, those organizations in Cuba would receive $6 million compared to $20 million this year; for Venezuela, it would be $9 million compared to $15 million. The administration also wants Congress to authorize the transfer of $500 million to “expand U.S. support for a democratic transition” in Venezuela.
One particular concern, Sires added, is the Trump administration’s recent decision on a $400 million cut in assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, a move Sires said was done without consulting with Congress and without “assessing the impact of our assistance programs on migration flows to the United States.”
He added: “The challenges facing the United States leadership in the Western Hemisphere are immense. Cutting our foreign assistance to the region by nearly 30%, as this administration proposed in its budget request, will only worsen the situation. We need to deepen our engagement with the region in order to regain our competitive edge.”
The House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security and Trade has begun holding a series of hearings on the Trump administration’s FY 2020 budget request for the region and also looking at the administration’s policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean particularly given a number of issues confronting several countries including Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, and Venezuela.
Sires opened the Oct. 24 hearing by saying that he had been pushing for the committee to hold hearings to talk about several concerns he and other legislators have, but the committee had been “stonewalled” by administration officials who had “refused” to testify “despite numerous invitations and requests” that Sires called “a disservice to Congress.”
The FY 2020 $1.9 billion request for the Western Hemisphere seeks to promote programs that address illicit pathways (for illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants), and promote U.S trade and investment and security, said Kozak.
But Rep. Vicente González (D-Texas) said he wants to see more accountability once the funds are disbursed. He is concerned that a highway safety program covering a portion of the main road in northern Mexico that leads to southern Texas hasn’t been properly implemented so it remains unsafe. “I’m all for this trade agreement (proposed by the Trump administration between the U.S. and Mexico and which includes Canada) but I’m about to pull my vote if they don’t do something about this,” said González.
Florida Republican Rep. Ted Yoho, who represents a district in the northern part of the state that includes Gainesville and suburban Jacksonville, voiced similar concerns, saying, “We need tougher action in what we are doing. I am not seeing it (U.S. funding) work as good as it should for the amount of money put into it and the amount of effort being put in.”
Kozak and other administration officials at the hearing said they are committed to ensuring their counterparts in the region follow through with changes. “For those who seek to maintain the status quo, we will not let them use our assistance as a façade for their lack of political will to make real reforms,” he said.
The hearing briefly touched on the current political climate in several countries in the region, including not only Mexico but also Chile and Ecuador.
Sires added that he continues to be concerned about the impact the ongoing crisis in Venezuela will have on U.S. policy and on Venezuelans still in the country or living elsewhere, including the United States, the third-largest recipient of Venezuelan refugees after Colombia and Peru.
A majority of Venezuelans in the U.S. reside in Florida. While Sires mentioned in his opening remarks that he would be asking Kozak for “a clear strategy for our Venezuela policy going forward,” that topic was not discussed.