A week after President Donald Trump’s order to cut aid from three “Northern Triangle” countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), the directive remains mired in uncertainty. The State Department, Congress, and the affected countries weren’t anticipating the cuts, and they don’t seem to have a clear picture of what will happen next.
Last Friday, Trump directed the State Department to halt about $450 million in aid to the three countries in fiscal year 2018, claiming they weren’t doing enough to stem the arrival of migrants to the U.S. border. The cuts are also likely to affect funds already appropriated in fiscal year 2017, meaning a total of $700 million between the two years could be affected.
That money would come from programs that provide psychological care to traumatized migrants who are displaced as a result of violence or trying to reintegrate into their home countries after being sent back.
The nonprofit groups providing those services in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are waiting to see how things shake out, worried that the instability created will damage the foreign assistance program in the region.
“Nobody knows how this is supposed to go down,” said Noah Bullock, executive director of Cristosal, a non-profit that focuses on the human rights of the victims of violence and displaced people in the Northern Triangle countries.
Cristosal does human rights work in the region, focusing on the conditions that drive people away from their homes in the first place.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, at of the end of 2017, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras accounted for roughly 728,000 of those displaced by violence in the Americas. That includes people who have been deported or have returned, and can’t necessarily go back to their communities of origin owing to safety concerns.
The conditions in some communities in those countries is so bad — whether from violence in Honduras or outright hunger in Guatemala, where food insecurity is reaching famine levels — that people are intent on leaving, even if it means taking huge risks. That could involve all kinds of measures, including mothers putting their daughters on birth control for the journey north because they know the odds of rape are extremely high.
And despite the risks, they keep leaving.
The funding to groups doing humanitarian work on the ground isn’t huge by U.S. aid spending standards.
Allocated under the Alliance for Prosperity initiative, the funds are intended to help the three countries improve security and economic conditions. The United States committed $420 million to the Northern Triangle countries in fiscal year 2017, while the governments of the three countries allocated $5.4 billion of their own resources to that same initiative. The Trump administration was in full support of this initiative, noting that it supported programs that lead to lowered homicide rates, boosted job creation, and helped fight corruption.
The governments of all three countries, which do not receive these funds directly, were caught off guard by Trump’s announcement.
The Honduran government issued a statement on Saturday, calling the U.S. policies “contradictory,” noting they had just had met with national security adviser John Bolton at the White House just days prior to the decision to cut aid. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had also signed an agreement with the Northern Triangle countries that focused on lowering rates of migration the same week.
El Salvador’s official response came in the form of a tweet from the country’s presidential account, noting that it had “not received an official announcement from the government of the United States concerning the cancellation of the economic aid for the countries of Northern Triangle.”
An official from the country’s embassy in Washington, D.C, said this week that this was still the case.
ThinkProgress reached out to the Guatemalan embassy in Washington as well as the country’s foreign ministry for comment, but did not hear back.
The State Department also did not divulge any details about the decision.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino told reporters that the department, “along with the United States Agency for International Development currently are evaluating the impact on fiscal year 2017 funds.”
“When we have further details to provide on that process moving forward, we’ll be sure to let you know,” Palladino said, adding that he did didn’t know the breakdown of how much of the cuts went to USAID, to NGOs, and other civil society groups.
Since this would be considered a “reprogramming of funds,” the State Department has to notify Congress about any cuts. ThinkProgress contacted the State Department, asking whether Congress has been officially notified yet, if there was a timeline for the implementation this order, if there was any clarity on the programs that would be cut, and whether the only programs hit would be those that had not yet received their funds.
A State Department spokesperson said the department was “engaging Congress” and that it intends to “notify Congress regarding any resulting reprogramming of funds, consistent with applicable requirements.” The spokesperson also said the State Department was still in the process of “finalizing overall allocation of FY 2019 funds,” offering no further details.
Meanwhile, members of Congress have been left in the dark. Nonprofits on the ground are also unclear on what the cuts will entail.
“There’s a lot of questions,” said Ken Baker, CEO of Glasswings, a non-profit operating in several Latin American countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. “We are, like the U.S. embassies here, waiting to see what this means.”
Glasswings works primarily in the public schools, extending school hours with programs (glee club, debate teams, sports) designed to provide kids with extra academic resources and skills, and connecting schools with businesses and volunteers that serve in a mentoring capacity and as positive role models.
“If you abruptly stop aid, it has a second consequence: Not only that the programs stop, but that you lose the confidence and trust of your partners, and of the communities,” said Baker. The move will hurt local communities, he added, as well as U.S. interests there.
The decision to cut aid has been roundly criticized by rights groups and immigration experts, all of whom point to the fact that cutting aid programs only worsens the situation in these countries, decreasing security and economic opportunities — factors that are bound to increase migration.
“What’s crazy about it is that it’s an executive decree that reverses decades of U.S. strategy towards the region,” said Bullock, whose programs are part of a USAID project.
A cut in funds would mean operations such as Glasswings and Cristosal would have to shut down. And restarting will be hard.
“You can’t just start that up again — we have to fire everybody, we have to close offices, we have to liquidate equipment — and that’s a shock to the system that should be really well thought out and grounded in evidence,” said Bullock.
“It’s hard for Americans to imagine that in Guatemala, people die of hunger — there’s a severe problem hunger with children,” he continued. “It’s hard for Americans to understand that while there’s no armed conflict here, these countries are consistently more violent than most countries engaged in armed conflicts in the world.”
He added, “Central Americans look around the world and say, ‘I’m a human being, and there must be some place in the world where I can live free from fear and want’ — and that’s why they leave.”