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Trump Froze Aid To Guatemala. Now Programs Are Shutting Down

Eulalio Barrera Barrera's family was one of 6,000 to receive a monthly stipend funded by USAID that was cut off last month because of President Trump's foreign aid funding freeze. Like many families in the program, he spent the last cash on chickens.
Tim McDonnell for NPR
Eulalio Barrera Barrera's family was one of 6,000 to receive a monthly stipend funded by USAID that was cut off last month because of President Trump's foreign aid funding freeze. Like many families in the program, he spent the last cash on chickens.

For Carlos Marroquín, the chickens are all that's left.

For the past several years, Marroquín has struggled to feed his wife and five children with the proceeds from their 10-acre corn farm. They live in a mud-brick house with a sloped terra cotta roof, nestled among pines, acacias and prickly pear cactus in Guatemala's mountainous northern Quiché region, part of the country's Dry Corridor that has been gripped by a multiyear drought.

Last November, his family was one of the 6,000 poorest families here to be selected for a U.S. government-backed humanitarian relief program. The family began receiving a monthly cash transfer of around $60, which it was encouraged to spend on fresh fruit, cereal, dairy products and other grocery staples to supplement a diet that rarely varied beyond black beans and homemade corn tortillas.

"The first time we got the money, we thought it was a dream," he recalls. "How was it possible to get money we hadn't earned? It was only when we had it that we believed it was real."

But this summer, as Marroquín watched his corn wither once again, he noticed that the cash was also starting to dry up. The $60 became $40, which became $18. Then he learned that in the last week of August, the program would come to an end, at least a year earlier than its organizers had hoped.

The reason: a decision in April by President Trump to freeze $450 million in U.S. foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — what's known as the Northern Triangle — over what he described as their failure to stem the outflow of northbound migrants.

In 2018, at least 116,000 Guatemalans crossed the southern U.S. border — more than from any other country except Mexico. Its people were fleeing rural poverty, food insecurity, climate change and drug-related violence. Over the past few decades, the U.S. government has sought to remedy these internal problems by channeling hundreds of millions of dollars through dozens of local and international nongovernmental organizations that carry out development and humanitarian programs on its behalf.

The months since the freeze was announced have been chaotic for those groups, which in the Northern Triangle usually rely on the U.S. for the lion's share of their operating budget. Now, as their coffers run dry, they're scaling back programs or ending them early, closing their offices and laying off dozens of staff. And from the highlands to gang-ravaged urban neighborhoods, as America closes down its foreign aid operation in this region, people like Marroquín are being left stranded.

Marroquín, like several of his neighbors, spent his last transfer on a few adolescent chickens, an investment in eggs and meat that could last into the uncertain months ahead.

"The money kept us from falling into extreme poverty," he says. "At least we are left these little chickens, like a souvenir."

Leslie Karina Azañón González, another beneficiary of the cash transfer program in the neighboring town of Las Rosas, says U.S. aid was the community's only lifeline.

"There's no support from our government at all," she says. "Any aid or investment the government sends goes to the municipal government, and then everyone takes a piece and nothing gets to us."

The cash transfer program was implemented by Save the Children, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO that has worked on food insecurity, primary education and other issues in Guatemala for more than 40 years. It was financed by Food for Peace, a long-standing global initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development that since 2017 has invested nearly $60 million to fight hunger in Guatemala.

It's far from the only program facing the ax, according to interviews with more than a dozen NGO administrators, independent researchers and American and Guatemalan government officials. Groups like Mercy Corps, Project Concern International, Catholic Relief Services, CARE International, Cristosal and others active in Guatemala all report that they are being forced to curtail or terminate programs. The projects in jeopardy include a series of discount agricultural supply markets in the highlands; rural health clinics; community savings and loans funds; after-school tutoring for kids in violent urban neighborhoods; shelters for victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking; re-integration services for returned migrants; trainings aimed at improving the transparency and effectiveness of local governments; and support for conserving ecologically sensitive landscapes.

Guatemala's rural highlands have suffered from a multiyear drought. This year the corn crop across much of the region was completely lost.
/ Tim McDonnell for NPR
Tim McDonnell for NPR
Guatemala's rural highlands have suffered from a multiyear drought. This year the corn crop across much of the region was completely lost.

A USAID spokesperson responded to NPR's questions about the closures via email, noting that the agency is "working to ensure responsible closeout of those programs, consistent with our obligation to be good stewards of taxpayer funds." The spokesperson added that the U.S. government "expects the Northern Triangle governments to keep their commitments to stem illegal immigration to the United States."

Not every USAID-affiliated program is shutting down immediately. The freeze only affects money that was moving through the multiyear USAID approval pipeline and hadn't yet been transferred into an NGO's bank account. So in some cases groups are finding ways to stretch the money they already have or piece together funding from European development agencies, private donors or other sources. But others, like Save the Children, have had to shut down programs completely. The situation is "really like the Hunger Games for funding right now," says Alejandra Colom, an independent development researcher in Guatemala.

"This is unprecedented," says Paul Townsend, the Guatemala country representative for Catholic Relief Services. "Public funding is always subject to political decisions, but you almost never see this scale of a cut."

The freeze comes at a particularly bad time: Fall is the beginning of the dry season, when food and rural employment opportunities are scarce even in the best years. And the cutoff may undermine the very foreign policy objective — reducing migration to the U.S. — that prompted it. An April survey by Mercy Corps of 400 people who had participated in a two-year agricultural support program in Guatemala found a 30% drop in "youth who reported seriously considering migrating 'all the time' or 'frequently' " after participating in the program.

"Nobody thinks these programs are going to magically stabilize Central America or reduce migration figures overnight," says Geoff Thale, vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. "But cutting them off just increases peoples' vulnerability and can make a real difference in peoples' calculations to leave."

Elvis Flores runs a hole-in-the-wall juice and sandwich shop in La Verbena, a notoriously high-crime neighborhood in Guatemala City where he grew up. Four years ago, several of his family members fled to Los Angeles after their cousin, a 21-year-old mother of three, was killed in a gang shooting in the neighborhood.

In February, Mercy Corps spent $100,000 from USAID to clean up a street facing Flores' shop that had become a de facto trash dump and gang member hangout. In its place, the organization installed a small concrete park with benches, lighting, a pastel-colored mural and exercise equipment.

Since then, the street has emerged as a community gathering place, Flores says — and his business has boomed as people stop in for a post-workout refreshment. The park alone hasn't done much to curb gang violence, he says, but it has made his neighbors feel safer and renewed their sense of investment in the community.

"This park really helps people feel like they can stay here," Flores says.

Mercy Corps originally had plans to build up to 80 parks like this across the city. After the cuts, that number was reduced to around a dozen.

Although the April freeze was extreme, it was in line with a longer-term drawdown in U.S. foreign aid funding in Central America that has been in process since Trump took office. Between fiscal years 2016 and 2019, the aid budget for the region dropped from $750 million to $530 million, according to WOLA. Under that umbrella, the biggest reductions have been to programs that target rural economic growth and food security. The budget for programs that support border enforcement and drug control has gone slightly up.

Congress may be able to reinstate some of the frozen funding in the latest round of budget negotiations that will be gathering steam in the coming months. The current version of the House of Representatives bill that dictates foreign aid funding contains a new clause that would require the executive branch to spend money appropriated for that purpose. That's a critical change from the existing, long-standing language that merely allows it to do so, says Congressman Jim McGovern, a Democrat who represents central Massachusetts.

McGovern was a member of a congressional delegation to the Northern Triangle led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August. Dismantling foreign aid to those countries is especially cynical, he says, given that, in his view, the U.S. has a decades-long history of interfering in the region's tumultuous politics and civil conflicts behind the poverty and instability that drive migration today. During the trip, he says, career development officers privately expressed concern about the impact of undoing years of their work.

"The embassy staff in all three countries dutifully gave us the administration line," McGovern told NPR. "But under questioning, they basically conceded that this freeze is a rotten thing to do. Rather than trying to fix the situation, we're making it worse."

By the end of this month, the Save the Children office in Santa Cruz del Quiché, the regional capital where the cash transfer was administered, will close. Before the cuts, it employed more than 200 people, all Guatemalans. During my visit this month, the office had the feeling of a ghost town. The few remaining staff sat on the floor to sort through a pile of three-ring binders, office supplies, plastic boxes, a megaphone and other trappings of development work.

Josefa Inés Molina González had worked as a janitor there for 16 years. U.S.-backed NGOs were a rare opportunity for steady, relatively high-paying employment in the community, she says. During her time there, she says, she also picked up some computer skills she would never have learned otherwise.

"With the work I had here, I was able to educate all of my children, thank God," she says. She's not sure what she'll do next.

Even if some funding is reinstated, or if NGOs manage to scrounge up money from other sources, the sudden disappearance of U.S. funding threatens to topple the years of painstaking trust-building with local governments and community leaders that makes foreign aid possible.

"There's always going to be that sense of distrust: 'You came and then left us,' " says Pascale Wagner, Guatemala country director for Project Concern International. "You close a program, and it will affect all of us for years to come."

Given the failure of the maize harvest, some people may not be able to wait to see whether aid comes back, says Francisco Chibalán, a community leader in Cimientos, another town in the cash transfer program.

"With the drought there's no work here, and without the transfer many of us may need to travel again," he says. "That small stipend was so important to us. We really hope the U.S. president will reconsider."

Tim McDonnell is a journalist covering the environment, conflict and related issues in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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