WASHINGTON - U.S. aid in Latin America is becoming increasingly militarised, according to a new report, which warns that both the U.S. Congress and the State Department are losing control over Washington's assistance to the region as more of it is channeled through the Pentagon.
The report, "Erasing the Lines", is the latest in an annual series on trends in U.S. military programs in Latin America published since 1997 by three Washington-based human-rights and foreign-policy groups -- the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF), and the Center for International Policy (CIP).
It identifies 10 specific trends that it says are effectively reducing civilian control -- both here and in Latin America -- over the region's military and security forces, and that have intensified over the past year.
"The Defense Department is expanding its control over foreign military training programs that were once the exclusive province of the Department of State, lessening congressional oversight, and weakening the relationship between military assistance and foreign policy goals," according to the report.
And, because more aid is being channeled directly through the Pentagon, a growing number of economic and social trends -- including the rise of populism throughout much of the region -- are being interpreted as security threats, according to one of the co-authors, Adam Isacson of CIP.
"If the main tool you have is a very big hammer, then every problem starts looking like a nail," he said.
Of particular concern, according to the report, is pending legislation -- the so-called Inhofe Amendment, after right-wing Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe -- that would give the Pentagon up to 750 million dollars to train and equip foreign military and police forces with minimal Congressional and State Department oversight.
While most of that money would be targeted at areas, such as the Middle East and Asia, that are considered more strategic than Latin America, it would offer a major new, general-purpose pool of funding -- in addition to counter-terrorism and counter-drug assistance -- for Latin American security forces that would not be tied to a specific purpose or justification.
"This is a precedent," said WOLA director Joy Olson. "We think this will have lasting foreign policy implications, and not only in Latin America."
The proposed fund is part of a larger trend that is strengthening the Pentagon's control over the design and distribution of military assistance programs in Latin America. Fifty-seven percent of all U.S. military training for the region was funded through the Pentagon already last year.
Unlike the Cold War period, when Washington provided significantly more social and economic aid than military assistance to Latin America, it has supplied roughly equal amounts of the two kinds of assistance -- a total of about two billion dollars a year -- since the late 1990s, when military aid to the region skyrocketed due to the launch of the largely U.S.-financed Plan Colombia.
While aid levels have since remained more or less the same, the proportion of military aid controlled by the State Department -- and hence subject to human rights and other conditions prescribed by Congress in the annual foreign aid bill -- has declined steadily.
"There are changes taking place, with no public debate, that are removing the State Department from the foreign-security assistance program and making 40 years worth of human rights and democracy legislation irrelevant," according to Olson.
This trend -- and Congress' and the State Department's acquiescence to it -- has not only alarmed rights-oriented groups here and in the region, but also other Latin America experts concerned about growing populist pressures and anti-U.S. sentiment, as well as prospects for the control of civilian-led elected governments over their armed forces.
"One does indeed wonder if the State Department is abdicating its role," Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a hemispheric think tank chaired by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, told IPS.
"It's hard for (Secretary of State Condoleezza) Rice to talk about her commitment to democracy, when all that money is going through the Pentagon, and the most visible cabinet official in the region is (Secretary of Defence Donald) Rumsfeld. That is a real problem, especially given the growing anti-Americanism in the region."
Equally worrisome is the "securitisation" of social issues. Increasingly, the Pentagon describes a wide range of phenomena -- from youth gangs and drug trafficking to immigration and even populist political movements -- as "security threats" that call for a military response when the most effective answers are economic development, stronger justice systems, and social safety nets, according to the report.
"When you start calling something a security threat, the temptation is to use security forces to address it," said Isacson, who noted that the rise of populist presidential front-runner and cocalero leader Evo Morales in Sunday's election is "essentially the product of U.S. drug policy in Bolivia. To respond to social movements like his with more military aid would make the problem much, much worse."
A second example is the development in Central America, with at least tacit U.S. support, of national and regionall "rapid reaction forces" that combine their police forces and militaries to deal primarily with gang violence.
While gang violence in the region is indeed a serious problem, investments in urban areas, improved policing and judicial systems, and financing social, educational and vocational programmes for youth are likely to address the problem more effectively in the medium- to long-term, according to the report.
Similarly, the U.S.-financed "Enduring Friendship" program, which is designed to improve regional capacities to fight "trafficking in aliens, narcotics, arms and other contraband", could expand military involvement in missions that are already covered by civilian agencies.
Finally, U.S. efforts to shield its soldiers from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) undermine not only the cause of human rights in the region, but have also done serious damage to Washington's moral authority there, the report says.
Last year, right-wing lawmakers in Congress added certain kinds of economic aid to a ban on military assistance to those governments that refused to sign "bilateral immunity agreements" exempting U.S. personnel from the ICC's jurisdiction. A dozen Latin American and Caribbean nations are now at risk of losing U.S. aid as a result.
"Latin American nations are being punished by the United States for taking a stand against impunity for human rights violators," said LAWGEF director Lisa Haugaard.
She also noted that the Bush administration's resumption of military aid to Guatemala this year -- albeit "non-lethal" assistance -- for the first time since 1990 marked another setback to consolidating civilian control over the armed forces in that country.
Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service