U.S. funding to Latin America remains stagnant

What an outrage! Only three months after President Bush's trip to Latin America, where he prided himself on doubling foreign aid to the region, Congress recently approved a Bush administration-proposed bill that actually cuts U.S. economic assistance to the region by more than 8 percent.

Before we look into how Washington, D.C.'s aid compares with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's checkbook diplomacy, let's take a quick look at the U.S. economic assistance budget for 2008 that the House approved last Thursday.

While the House's $34 billion worldwide foreign aid bill for next year amounts to a nearly 10 percent increase over last year's foreign assistance budget, its $1.5 billion earmarked for Latin America amounts to an 8.5 percent decrease in aid to the region during the same period.

Comparatively, the Bush administration-proposed bill includes a 54 percent increase in foreign aid to Africa, a nearly 7 percent increase for South Asia, a nearly 4 percent increase for the Middle East and a 25 percent drop in assistance to Eastern Europe.

"Latin America was cut more than any other region, except Eastern Europe," says Adam Isacson, of the Center for International Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "It's a big mistake, at a time when Latin Americans are becoming frustrated with democracy, Chavez is increasing his foreign aid, coca cultivation is growing, organized crime is out of control in Mexico and Central America and immigration is continuing."

When President Bush visited Brazil in March, he disputed claims that the United States has forgotten about Latin America after the 9/11 attacks, saying that Washington, D.C., has doubled its economic assistance to the region since 2001.

But many experts said that Bush's figures were misleading because 2001 had been a statistically low year, given that Congress had just approved a two-year budget for Plan Colombia a year earlier. In fact, U.S. foreign aid to Latin America has remained stagnant during the Bush administration, critics say.

U.S officials concede that the Bush administration's 2008 foreign aid request for Latin America is below last year's levels, but stand by their claim that on average U.S. foreign aid to the region has gone up.

Still, one has to wonder whether U.S. economic aid levels are adequate at a time when Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist President Chavez makes big headlines with promises of mega-donations to the region. In a March 15 speech, Chavez said that Venezuela is giving $1.6 billion a year just in oil subsidies to foreign countries, mostly in Latin America.

My opinion: Granted, most of Chavez's foreign aid commitments will never see the light of the day. And sure, if you count U.S. investments, U.S. trade and family remittances to Latin America, the U.S. economic presence in Latin America dwarfs that of Venezuela. (Only in remittances, Latin Americans in the United States send $45 billion a year to their native countries.)

But cutting economic aid to Latin America while increasing economic assistance worldwide is ridiculous.

It is even more absurd if you consider that, while the House voted to spend $1.5 billion in foreign aid to Latin America, it recently approved $1 billion for a fence that will cover a small portion of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border.

It would make much more sense to increase aid to Latin America - helping the region's economies grow, keeping Latin Americans from wanting to emigrate and creating a bigger market for U.S. exports - rather than throwing money away to build senseless walls that won't stop any determined migrant from moving to the United States.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be reached at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.