Free Trade, Free Guns
Frida Berrigan is a senior research associate at the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center, and the co-author of Weapons at War 2005: Promoting Freedom or Fueling Conflict?
President George W. Bush’s foiled trip to Mar del Plata to attend the Summit of the Americas put Latin America in the spotlight. Bush was hoping to push his controversial free trade agenda, but the trade talks failed and the president was met with violent and widespread protest. Before the spotlight of media attention leaves Latin America, it is essential to underline that Bush’s free trade policy has gone hand in hand with rising U.S. military aid, training and arms sales to the region.
U.S. military aid, training and arms sales to the region have all increased sharply since the beginning of the war on terrorism and threaten to exacerbate conflict, empty national coffers and sidetrack development programs.
In 2000, U.S. military aid through Foreign Military Financing totaled $4.7 billion to more than 100 nations, with an almost microscopic fraction—0.07 percent—going to countries in Latin America. By 2006, overall spending on Foreign Military Financing actually decreased to $4.5 billion. But Latin America's share of that total has increased by more than 3,400 percent to $122 million.
Argentina, where Bush met with regional leaders, is the third-largest recipient of military aid in Latin America. Later, he visited Brazil and Panama, two other major recipients of U.S. aid and arms sales. Panama, where the United States long controlled the canal area, received a total of $5 million military aid. Argentina's population is 10 times that of Panama, making the near parity in their military aid levels striking. Brazil tops the region for arms purchases, bringing home almost $720 million in arms from the United States. Five countries—Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina—account for two-thirds of all the weapons sold in the region.
El Salvador tops the list of recipients of U.S. military aid, with almost $23 million in FMF since 2002. Surprising? Not in light of U.S. foreign policy. El Salvador is one of the Bush administration's few remaining allies with troops in Iraq, and six Salvadoran Special Forces soldiers have been awarded the Bronze Star.
Washington has also sought to draw a parallel between El Salvador's transition to democracy and Iraq's rocky progress toward that goal. While in San Salvador last year, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld praised the country's progress, saying "The sweep of human history is for freedom. We've seen it in [El Salvador], we've seen it in Afghanistan and I believe we'll see it in Iraq."
The country, which emerged from a U.S.-backed civil war in 1992, is also the second largest recipient on military training, and it is 11th on the list of arms sales recipients, purchasing a total of $46.8 million in weaponry between 2000 and 2003. During the civil war, in which 75,000 people were killed over 12 years, Washington contributed $1.5 million a day in military and economic aid to support the dictatorship's fight against guerillas.
In fiscal year 2000, the United States distributed $9.8 million in military training funding through International Military Education and Training (IMET) for use in Latin America. Fast forward six years and into the midst of the war on terrorism; funding for military training in Latin America has increased at a proportional rate, to $13.6 million for 2006, which will fund training for 3,221 soldiers in everything from counterintelligence to helicopter repair.
Colombia, where the United States has a massive counternarcotics, counterterrorism agenda, tops the list for IMET, with $9.3 million in military training aid since 2000—an increase of almost 90 percent over six years. But other countries have received larger percentage increases over the same period. IMET funding to El Salvador and Nicaragua increased more than 200 percent, and Panama received a 400 percent increase between 2000 and 2006.
At the same time that military aid and training are on the rise, U.S. economic aid to the region is dropping. The 2006 foreign aid request foresees a sharp drop, especially in development assistance, child survival and health programs. In 2001, the United States budgeted $225 million for U.S. Agency for International Development programs in Latin America, including funds for child survival and health programs, disaster and agricultural assistance. The request for 2006 totals $125 million for the region—a decrease of more than 40 percent.
In addition to strengthening the militaries of Latin America through aid, training and equipment, the United States continues to stake out a claim on the use of Latin American territory for its own foreign policy objectives. Some of these bases are well-known (and in the case of the U.S. base at Guantanamo, notorious), but others—in Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador and Caribbean islands—are open secrets and warrant more investigation.
As President Bush toured the region, the spotlight was rightly on the ability of his free trade policies to deliver on their promises of prosperity and stability. But Washington’s policies of beefing up militaries throughout the region should be subjected to the same scrutiny.