Trump Cuts Aid to pro-Israeli Governments in Latin America

The administration says Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador aren't doing enough to stop the flow of immigrants into the U.S. ■ In the past the countries have tried to leverage their ties with Israel in order to improve their standing in Washington

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., March 29, 2019.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Saturday plans to cut all American foreign aid to three Latin American that are known to have close ties to Israel: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The announcement could impact Israel’s relations with these countries, whose leaders hoped to leverage their ties with Israel in order to improve their standing in Washington. With one of the three, Honduras, there was even an Israeli mediation attempt, aimed at persevering U.S. aid to the country in return for moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That effort seems now to have failed.

The U.S. State Department received a directive from Trump to cut approximately $500 million from the foreign aid budget to the three Latin American nations. The official reason for the cut is that Trump believes these countries aren’t making enough efforts to stop the flow of migrants through their territory, and onwards to Mexico and then the U.S. southern border. Trump has threatened several times before to take such a step, especially during the 2018 midterm elections, in which his party lost control of the House of Representatives.

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Guatemala’s case is surprising, because it was the first – and so far the only aside from the U.S. – country in the world to move its embassy to Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of Trump’s declaration on the subject. The country’s president, Jimmy Morales, is dealing with an ongoing corruption investigation, and since deciding to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to his crackdown on the body investigating the alleged corruption. Experts and former U.S. officials told Haaretz they believe the two things are related although such a connection was denied by the State Department. 

The decision now to cut all the aid to Guatemala could be seen as an ungrateful move by the U.S. administration. It should be noted that in early 2018, after Guatemala and Honduras both voted against a resolution in the UN rejecting the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the U.S. organized an event honoring the two countries.

For over a year, Honduras was considering moving its embassy to Jerusalem. In fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to mediate between the Trump administration and the Honduran government in order to secure a deal on the continuation of U.S. foreign aid, in return for an embassy move to Jerusalem. Last week, however, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández said that his country will open a commercial office in Jerusalem, not an embassy.

A source on Capitol Hill told Haaretz that Honduras was probably already aware of Trump’s intentions when that statement was made. In recent years, both Morales and Hernandez have spoken at the AIPAC Policy Conference, in the hope that the pro-Israeli lobby would support their countries. Hernandez has been widely criticized for corruption and human rights violations committed against his own citizens.

El Salvador used to operate an embassy in Jerusalem until 2006, when the country moved its embassy to Tel Aviv under pressure from Arab governments. After Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy, there was speculation that El Salvador would return their embassy to Jerusalem, but the country’s government, despite having good ties with Israel, put out a statement clarifying that it would not take such a step anytime soon.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez warned that Trump’s decision to cut aid to these three countries was “irresponsible” and “reckless.” New York Democrat Rep. Nita Lowey, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote that the decision is “immoral and more likely to deteriorate conditions that push people into the kind of poverty and despair that exacerbates migration.” Both Menendez and Lowey have close ties to leading pro-Israeli groups in Washington.