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"America first" and pandemic: the united states and foreign aid in latin america

July 29, 2020


by Floriane Blanc, doctoral student in American Studies at the Université d’Aix-Marseille. She received the 2019 Thesis Prize from the Institut des Amériques.



"Our money must support things that create value and support our values".



This past June 10, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with this statement was justifying the reforms demanded by the US from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). If this precept explains the Trump administration's view on multilateral organisations, it is also a good summary of its attitude with respect to foreign aid, especially in Latin America. A political viewpoint that does not seem to have relented despite the health and economic crisis that is devastating the continent.


Since it took over, the Trump administration has consistently cut the foreign aid enveloppe, implementing its "America First" doctrine. In 2017, it proposed a budget for Latin America reduced by 36%, from 1.7 billion dollars in 2017 to 1.09 in 2018. Though expected decreases reached all areas, including military aid programs and the State Department's fight against drugs, financing for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which manages the largest portion of international development and humanitarian aid, was specifically targeted. A number of programs financed with this aid, particularly in Colombia and Central America, have bipartisan support in Congress, and so they rejected the White House's proposal and maintained the same level of aid as the previous years.

The same process happened again the following years, so that the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, the Democrat Eliot Engel, received the 2021 budget proposal with the following: "I'm seeing reports that the Trump Administration will again push for steep cuts to foreign assistance. If that's the case, the White House should save some trees rather than sending us a budget that's headed straight here..."


The Congress' moderator operations however have limits, as seen in March 2019 when the administration decided to suspend aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, under the pretext that they were unable to stop the flow of emigration toward the US. Some of the financing was reinstated later on, after signing cooperative agreements with these three countries that designate them as secure host countries for asylum seekers trying to reach the US and who have crossed into their countries, transforming them into security halls blocking the migration influx far from its southern border (see Isabelle Vagnoux' article on this blog).


The concerned countries' cooperation with respect to emigration has become the major criteria for receiving aid, with little regard for their human rights track record. An area that holds little interest for the Trump administration, as can be seen by the 75% budget cuts for programs dedicated to the promotion of democracy and human rights in Guatemala, or even the inability of the State Department to oppose president Jimmy Morales' decision to dismantle the International Commission Against Impunity (an anti-corruption organization supported by the United Nations) in Guatemala. Honduras also gained back a portion of the suspended aid, despite president Juan Orlando Hernandez being accused of using drug trafficking money to finance his election campaign. The Trump administration's ranking of "values" therefore seems pretty clear...

The pandemic outbust has in no way modified this subordination of American aid to satisfying Donald Trump's immediate political interests. In fact, when in April the president finally made comments about the epidemic in Latin America, announcing the shipment of medical equipment to Honduras, Ecuador and El Salvador, he quickly pointed out that El Salvador had "worked well with us on immigration".


Despite it all, the toll of the pandemic ended up impeding the emigration cooperation: so several times Guatemala refused to accept incoming flights returning its citizens after several COVID-19 cases were detected among the passagers of previous flights. In April, the Minister of Health estimated that returned emigrants represented almost 20% of the 500 cases of COVID-19 then detected in the country.

USAID Video boasting of shipping ventilators to Jamaica
USAID Video boasting of shipping ventilators to Jamaica

In May, the State Department was boasting about the US leadership in the fight against COVID-19, pointing out that 775 million dollars of emergency aid had been cleared for governments and NGO in over 120 countries. On July 2nd, 112 million additional dollars were announced to help Latin America fight the pandemic. However, the Trump administration's attitude toward the key organization capable of organizing the medical response, the Pan American Health Organization, reveals its determination to put the crisis after its own strategic priorities.


In the 2021 fiscal year budget proposal, the allocation to the organization has been decreased to 16.3 million dollars, so a cut of 75% compared to 2019. In a letter published in The Lancet, PAHO technical experts have warned that the organization is close to being bankrupt because of non or late payments, 67% of them being the US'. Last June, Mike Pompeo stated that the United States would only maintain their contribution if an investigation was done on the "Maís Medicos" program which sent medical personnel, mostly Cuban, in remote regions of Brazil. The Trump administration accused the PAHO of covering up what it considered forced labor, echoing the accusations Jair Bolsonaro had made shortly after his election, which had made Cuba decide to end its participation in the program in Brazil. While denying the accusations, PAHO just announced the start of an independent investigation. An understandable need to appease, the US's contribution representing 60% of its budget.


Another example of the desire to weigh-in on inter-American institutions, choosing Mauricio J. Claver-Carone, a believer in taking a hard line on Cuba and Venezuela, as a candidate for the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), a decision that breaks with the tradition of naming a Latino-American. Among the onlookers, the optimists remember that Claver-Carone was one of the creators of the América Crece program (Growth in the Americas program), a response to the infrastructure development projects generously deployed by China in the region. His nomination would be a sign that Washington is finally showing an interest in the IDB. The pessimists worry that the new director is exploiting the Latin-American countries' vulnerability to the health crisis in order to force them to align themselves on the US' position on the topic of the "troika of tyranny", the Cuba-Venezuela-Nicaragua threesome.

John Barsa promoting a shipment of ventilators to Paraguay
John Barsa promoting a shipment of ventilators to Paraguay

Indeed, the pandemic has not modified the Trump administration's propensity to politicize foreign aid as seen with the current tensions within the Agency for International Development. The White House used the departure of its director Mark Green in March to place several conservative and controversial people, to the great displeasure of the employees. Many see it as trying to take control of the agency, threatening its objectivity and the bipartisan support it has. Its interim director, John Barsa, has already come under fire for writing to the UN's general secretary demanding that any mention of "reproductive and sexual rights" be taken out of its global humanitarian response plan to the COVID-19 pandemic, provoking anger among the Democrats. They also worried about the way the agency is managing the distribution of ventilators the administration boasted so much about, considering that "the National Security Councils' influence on these decisions(...) is stirring up the sudden burst of political agendas" which interfere with the way the medical aid is allocated.


While the competition with China intensifies as a result of the pandemic, and that Beijing is deploying its medical diplomacy in Latin America, the Trump administration seems however committed to an international development based on satisfying short term objectives and is incapable of responding to the major challenges that the continent is facing. 

Floriane Blanc is a doctoral student in American Studies at the Université d’Aix-Marseille. She received the 2019 Thesis Prize from the Institut des Amériques.