In the last few years, U.S. military aid to Latin America has increased substantially, adding little to solve the pressing social problems besieging the region. To reverse this trend in favor of social and economic programs would benefit not only Latin America but also the US, since the Latin American region is one of the U.S. most important trading partners.
According to several recent reports, U.S. military aid to Latin America has more than tripled in the last five years. At the same time, Latin American soldiers and police were among those receiving more training than those in any other region -13,000 Latin American trained personnel out of a total 34,000 world-wide. It is estimated that 40 percent of U.S.-funded military assistance to non-NATO countries goes to Latin America. Colombia has been the largest recipient of US training in 2001 and 2002, despite the fact that the U.S. State Department, the U.N. and several international human rights organisations have documented serious human rights abuses by the Colombian military.
A report entitled "Paint by Numbers: Trends in U.S. Military Programs with Latin America & challenges to oversight" a joint publication of three different organizations,
states that U.S. military aid to Latin America now almost equals the amount of money that Washington assigns to social and economic programs. The report charges that although the sharp increase in military aid to Latin America started under president Clinton, it became more pronounced under the present U.S. administration. By strengthening the military rather than civilian institutions, those funds actually hinder the development of democratic structures and regional stability.
This situation is happening at a time when many countries in the region are going through serious economic and social problems. In Latin America, which has the highest levels of inequality in the world, the poverty rate, which had fallen during the 1990s, started to rise again and reached 44 percent in 2002. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), within that 44 percent, indigence increased from 18.6 percent to 20 percent since 2001.
Even Argentina, which was once one of the most developed countries in the world, has now an external debt of over $180 billion, which has seriously affected the quality of life of most of the population. In one of its gravest recessions, Argentina received over $6 million in security assistance in 2002 and 2003, and no bilaterial economic aid. Costa Rica, which does not have an army, receives slightly more security than social assistance. Plans are underway to reduce economic aid to Ecuador from $46 million to $40 million, while its military and security assistance will increase from $30 million to $49 million.
The fight against narcotrafic is the main reason for U.S.-sponsored military assistance to Latin America. However, military aid has failed to curb the flow of narcotics into the U.S., which can only be effective by diminishing the significant demand for narcotics in the U.S.
Although much progress has been achieved in Latin America in several health indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality and the fight against several infectious diseases, most countries in the region still face daunting problems due to sprawling urbanization and environmental problems which affect all ages. At the same time, HIV/AIDS, malaria, dengue, and tobacco and substance abuse continue to be serious problems throughout the region. The risk of dying during pregnancy, childbirth and postlabor is 50 times greater in most of the developing countries in the region compared to the U.S. and Canada.
In this context, the Latin American countries need assistance to ovecome these significant threats to stability, equality and development. They desperately need better trade conditions that will allow them to increase their export earnings. They need help in solving pressing health problems in the region. They also need support to strengthen democratic governments and the rule of the law. What the Latin American countries do not need is more military aid.
CÚsar Chelala is an award winning writer on human rights issues.