By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Oct 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From drought-hit farmers and hungry children to battered women, tens of thousands of people in Central America have been hard hit by U.S. government aid cuts, according to major charities.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - known as the Northern Triangle - was slashed and frozen by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration in June.
Trump has criticized these countries for failing to stop the flow of migrants and asylum seekers, many fleeing gang violence and poverty, looking for better lives in the United States.
Trump has made reducing illegal immigration one of his signature policy pledges, both during his presidential campaign and almost three years in the White House.
The U.S. Congress is weighing legislation on foreign aid assistance to Central America for 2020, with voting expected by November.
AID SENT ELSEWHERE
The U.S. State Department is moving forward with Trump's plan to cut aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, providing only limited funding focused on security and justice, a State Department official said in an emailed response to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
About $400 million in foreign assistance approved last year for the Northern Triangle has been sent elsewhere, including the political and economic crisis in Venezuela, anti-narcotic efforts in Colombia and development in Africa and Latin America, the official said.
Another $171 million in funds are being held back until the U.S. government is satisfied the three countries are reducing the migrant flow, the official said.
"We expect the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to keep their commitments to stem illegal immigration to the United States," the State Department said.
Meanwhile, charities working in the Northern Triangle are scrambling to deal with slashes in aid, which have mainly affected projects already approved.
Charities that receive funding, mainly through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), say they have had to stop, scale back or postpone humanitarian and development projects.
At the charity Mercy Corps, regional director Provash Budden said several programs in Guatemala have been affected by the cuts, including a $40 million urban violence prevention program and LGBT+ and substance abuse counseling.
"We have had to cancel openings of women's shelters that help 2,850 survivors," Budden said. "We've had to cancel vocational schools for at-risk youth."
Charities say the cuts will do little to stem the flow of migrants north and likely exacerbate the problem.
The cuts leave less money to tackle the root causes of why people are pushed to leave, including high murder and crime rates, hunger and a lack of jobs.
"Cutting U.S. aid to Central America is short-sighted and counterproductive and by ending foreign assistance that's intended to address insecurity, corruption, poor governance, and economic devastation, the administration is under cutting its own goals of reducing migration," Budden said.
Programs helping subsistence farmers feed their families and tackle malnutrition have shut down because of the cuts, said Mary McInerney, country director in Guatemala for charity Save the Children.
In Guatemala about half of children under age 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, one of the world's highest rates, she said.
An emergency food program funded by USAID that provided cash to 6,000 families, including 22,000 children, in Guatemala's poor highlands closed down last month, she said.
"It's quite dramatic because you have families and definitely the children are most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor, who relied on that cash transfer, $56 to $58 a month, in order to put food on the table," McInerney said.
"It's counterproductive in our opinion because there is going to more tendency for adults in the family to migrate internally or externally to put food on the table."
Also hard hit by the cuts are farming communities in the Northern Triangle, struggling to cope with poor harvests due to five years of drought.
Charity Catholic Relief Services said several of its water and nutrition projects in Guatemala helping farmers improve crop yields, involving nearly 30,000 people, have closed due to the cuts.
"You're basically cutting off the life line for people, which leaves them no alternative but to migrate north," said Rick Jones, senior advisor for Catholic Relief Services.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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