Saturday, February 17, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — President Bush’s new budget calls for deep cuts in the leading U.S. program to fight drug trafficking in the Andean region, amid growing clashes over drug policy between Washington and leftist governments in Venezuela and Bolivia.

The cuts to the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI) affect every country in the region except Colombia. They have been criticized by governments in the area, as well as by U.S. counternarcotics officials and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“It would be the largest across-the-board reduction in aid since the war on drugs began,” said one U.S. diplomatic official, who asked not to be named.

The ACI was designed to help local efforts to reduce the flow of illegal drugs, which surged in the late 1980s when cocaine production skyrocketed and powerful drug cartels emerged.

The ACI would receive $442.8 million under the fiscal 2008 budget that Mr. Bush submitted to Congress earlier this month, down 23 percent from the estimated spending for the current fiscal year and off nearly 40 percent from $727.2 million in fiscal 2006. The largest percentage cuts would be in Peru and Bolivia, which remain major producers of coca.

More than $2 million in anti-drug aid budgeted for Venezuela in fiscal 2007 was never spent as American officials feuded with populist anti-U.S. President Hugo Chavez over counternarcotics policy. Venezuela would get no ACI money in the new budget.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro criticized the cuts, but told reporters in Caracas earlier this month that his country would not bend to U.S. “blackmail.”

The Bush budget also proposed a sharp cut in ACI funds to Bolivia, where leftist President Evo Morales, a close Chavez ally, has announced a major increase in the amount of land set aside for legal coca production. Bolivia would receive $30 million in ACI money in fiscal 2008, down from almost $80 million in fiscal 2006.

Hugo Acha, a Bolivian legal consultant on drug policy, said, “There is no point in the U.S. giving aid if the objectives are not being met. The war on drugs appears to have become a mere formality.”

But Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa warned that the cuts will be seen as a punishment for countries in the region that elect governments that clash with Washington.

Even Peru, which has good relations with the United States, is facing a cutback.

Peruvian Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo said in an interview, “Peru should receive more aid rather than having it cut, in view of the magnitude of the problem we face, which is equal to Colombia.”

Romulo Pizarro, Peru’s top counternarcotics official, said he planned to lead a delegation to Washington next month to argue against the ACI reductions. He said Lima was meeting its objectives under the program.

“We understand the State Department wants to use the money from South America elsewhere,” he said. Asked if he thought the money could go to Iraq, he said, “That’s right.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the cuts on Capitol Hill last week while facing pointed questioning from lawmakers.

Miss Rice said the administration was only shifting money to more effective programs on a country-by-country basis, while keeping overall aid to the region high. Much of the counternarcotics money would move to other development accounts and to the Millennium Challenge Corp., Mr. Bush’s signature foreign-aid program.

“It’s not just an across-the-board, mindless cut on Latin America,” she said.

She acknowledged that some funds had been cut to countries that were less cooperative in U.S. counternarcotics efforts.

“There are some places, for instance, Bolivia, where our opportunities are somewhat more limited than they’ve been because of the nature of the government there,” she said.

Another senior U.S. official earlier this week said the State Department was driving the ACI cuts.

The official, speaking on background, said the shift had wide support, but warned that as countries such as Colombia and Peru focus on development or “soft-side remedies,” terrorists and drug cartels in the region could “strike back with a vengeance.”

“Why signal to the rest of the Andean nations that those who line up with us will see a cut in funding for their anti-drug efforts?” the official said.

• Jerry Seper and David R. Sands contributed to this article from Washington.

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