By Erick Erickson
In 2017, speaking to a group of leaders from Central America, Vice President Mike Pence declared, “To further stem the flow of illegal immigration and illegal drugs into the United States, President Trump knows, as do all of you, that we must confront these problems at their source. We must meet them — and we must solve them — in Central and South America.” What Pence said then was correct. What President Donald Trump is doing now — cutting aid — needs to be reconsidered.
Fifteen years ago, Colombia was on the verge of collapse. The nation was overrun with drug traffickers, cartels and local gangs. Crime and violence were rampant, and people were fleeing the nation. The United States deployed its foreign aid budget and military resources to help the Colombian government stabilize, fight its domestic drug war and beat the cartels. The nation went from the brink to being a stable leader in South America and a strategic ally of the United States. In the past decade, trade with Colombia has tripled to $14 billion, benefiting American businesses.
Since 2016, American assistance to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has declined 20%. Concurrent with that decline in American assistance, those countries have seen an increase in domestic crime, corruption and flight of refugees headed toward the United States.
According to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, "in neighborhoods where USAID operates in El Salvador and Honduras, homicide rates have plummeted by up to 78%." Likewise, "for every 10 additional murders in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, 6 additional children sought safety in the United States."
Notably, the Trump administration itself claims El Salvador has used our aid to stem the tide of illegal immigrants headed to the border. The Washington Post's Kevin Sieff wrote last week about remarks made by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan: "'What (El Salvador is) doing is working, both on the security front and on the economic opportunity front,' ... McAleenan, speaking last year at the Bipartisan Policy Center, described El Salvador as a model: 'We want to achieve those same successes in Honduras and Guatemala as well.'"
The last time the United States worked in concert with Central American countries to fund internal projects related to fighting crime, corruption and abuse, those governments committed 10 times as many resources and, with our dollars and direction, saw crime and population flight decrease. In 2017, we spent $420 million in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to help. Those countries combined spent $5.4 billion of their own resources but let the U.S. take the lead in a partnership that benefited us all.
As former White House Chief of Staff and Southcom Gen. John Kelly has noted, "If we can improve the conditions, the lot in life of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Central Americans, we can do an awful lot to protect the southwest border."
I used to believe we should cut foreign aid from our budget. But I have realized we can spend far less in these countries helping stabilize situations than we could on the border wall, a project I support. If we just build a wall, we are going to see an increase in violence, drug trafficking and nation-state collapse. Those problems will eventually penetrate our border with or without a wall. Right now, cutting off funding and having no wall will thoroughly destabilize the situation. On top of that, these countries are, in many cases, desperate. By ignoring them, we are seeding the ground for China to lay down roots in the Western Hemisphere as it and Russia have tried to do in places such as Venezuela.
We risk undermining our long-term national interests by cutting this foreign aid. We should, instead, spend it wisely in those countries to ensure stable governments that view us as allies and work with them to root out crime, corruption and cartels. The present policy to cut foreign aid cuts off our national nose to spite our face.