What Biden's election means for El Salvador

Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the US presidential election, signaling a potential change in the US policy towards Central America under Donald Trump which focused solely on blocking immigration.  According to surveys, Salvadoran US citizens gave a share of their votes to Biden (74%) greater than any other national group within the broader category of Latinx voters in the country.

President Nayib Bukele sent a letter congratulating Biden on his election:

Biden will take over from Trump, who in 2018 called El Salvador a “shithole country”  Despite that comment, Nayib Bukele famously stated after meeting with Trump on the sidelines of a UN meeting that Trump was ”nice and cool.”  Bukele met several times with Homeland Security officials from the US and his government was seen as one of Trump's closest allies in Latin America.

With Trump, the relationship with the US rested on a basic proposition – in return for help on reducing the flow of migrants towards the US southern border, the US would continue financial assistance to El Salvador.  Under Nayib Bukele, this help has taken the form of such measures as deploying several hundred troops to his country’s borders to limit migrant smuggling rings, signing an asylum cooperation agreement to permit the US to send asylum seekers from other countries to El Salvador, and permitting the US to continue to deport Salvadorans throughout the pandemic despite the international airport in El Salvador being closed to any other kind of passenger flight.

Bukele and Trump at UN

Trump’s vision of the Northern Triangle of Central America was filtered through a single narrative – MS-13 gang members were coming into the US illegally to rape and pillage.  It was a narrative which was factually baseless, but it fit the xenophobic nationalism promoted by Trump and his immigration adviser Steven Miller.  Trump never visited the region himself, and made only one trip to Latin America, a trip to Argentina for a summit.

Biden, on the other hand, made numerous trips to Latin America during his time as Vice President in the Obama administration.  His meetings included personally getting to know past Salvadoran presidents Tony Saca, Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén.  White House documents show Biden speaking to then-president of El Salvador Sánchez Cerén less than two months before Donald Trump’s election in 2016.  

Biden with Saca and Funes in 2009
Biden at regional meeting with Central American leaders

In an article titled The Biden Doctrine Begins with Latin America in the Atlantic, Christian Paz notes:

Biden’s interest in Latin America, and experience there (he was Obama’s chief emissary to the region)—combined with Trump’s apparent lack of concern for it—thus offer the former vice president an opportunity: Regional leaders have come to accept the ebb and flow of American engagement as a condition of living next to a superpower, but Biden could use Latin America to signal a restoration of Washington’s historic leadership, leveraging his existing relationships and focus on multilateralism to cement American primacy in a region largely eager for a respite from years of erratic diplomacy.

To that end, Biden’s campaign website has a specific section devoted to a plan for Central America, something  I am fairly certain I never saw on a campaign website before.

 But how will Biden’s interest in the region play out in concrete relationship with El Salvador?


Nayib Bukele has received significant international criticism in the past year over perceived authoritarian tendencies and abandonment of the rule of law.  The Trump administration has not joined in that criticism, however, except in the most muted way.  Bukele enjoys a close relationship with current US Ambassador Ronald Johnson who has steadfastly refused to criticize the Salvadoran leader for contravening the rule of law.  Johnson’s joint appearances with Bukele are used by the Salvadoran president to support the position that his practices have Washington’s sanction.

With Trump’s defeat, Bukele will face different leadership in the US State Department.  For example, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel criticized Bukele’s use of troops to enter the country’s Legislative Assembly on February 9 to pressure lawmakers to approve a security loan.    On April 29, the Foreign Affairs Committee leader warned Bukele about using the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine Salvadoran democracy and the need to respect human rights in prisons.

As a consequence, Bukele can expect to see a Biden administration more concerned with his disregard of human rights and democratic institutions than was true under Trump.

Héctor Silva Ávalos writing in El Faro stated:

The Democrats’ record in Central America, at least that of Obama and Biden, is better than that of Trump. During the Obama administration, Washington conditioned some international aid on countries’ democratic records, at least on paper. … Given Biden’s track record, though, it seems fair to conclude that the foreign policy of a Biden administration would not look as kindly upon quid pro quos or the issuing of blank checks.

One area of concern will be Bukele’s constant attacks on the press, which parallel the diatribes of Trump against “fake news.”  Bukele, who dismissed out of hand criticism from Democratic leaders in the US House and Senate about his attacks on the independent media, will now have to deal with a State Department which reports to a Democratic president.

Veteran journalist Jon Lee Anderson said in an interview:

I believe that Biden and his people will draw a line around the idea of press freedom and freedom of speech, respect for journalism. I’m sure they will. Because this was exactly what Trump went to war with from day one.


Perhaps most important to a broad spectrum of Salvadorans will be the changes in US immigration policy laid out in Biden’s immigration plan.   As a country with a quarter of its native born population living abroad, primarily in the US, how the US treats immigrants impacts almost every family in El Salvador.    

Biden says he will take executive action early in his administration to restore the DACA program for young Dreamers and to reverse the termination of Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans and others.   These steps would provide a measure of ongoing relief for both groups, totaling more than 200,000 Salvadorans in the US without legal status, but still would not place people with these protections on a path to citizenship which would take separate Congressional action.

Although Biden reportedly plans a 100 day moratorium on deportations upon entering office,  one should not expect immigration courts to immediately stop issuing orders of removal.  There are more than 186,000 Salvadorans with removal cases currently pending in the US immigration court system.  The denial rate for Salvadorans seeking asylum exceeds 80% today, and that rate was only somewhat lower during the Obama-Biden administration.  We can, however, expect to see some additional discretion and the ability to exercise compassion given back to immigration court judges.

Although border wall construction will stop, no sections of the wall will be torn down and Customs and Border Patrol will continue to apprehend border crossers.  Along the southern US border, Biden has said that he would end the Remain in Mexico program which forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait for their immigration court hearings in Mexico.

An early challenge for Biden will arise if the departure of Donald Trump and Stephen Miller from the White House prompts a new surge of asylum seekers from El Salvador and the rest of the Northern Triangle of Central America. The economies in those countries have been devastated by the pandemic, Hurricane Eta has just displaced thousands, and gangs continue to control neighborhoods throughout the region. The coyotes, human smugglers, are certain to use the change of administration in promoting their services to ferry people to the suddenly friendlier border.   The US could again see many thousands of migrants arriving weekly at the southern border attempting to enter.

If there is a rapid surge in Central American migrants seeking to get across the US border, how will Biden respond?  He was vice president during a previous surge -- the unaccompanied minor crisis which commenced in 2014.   Biden may resort, as Obama and Trump did, by using detention and deportations in an attempt to deter people from making the trek north.  As late as 2015, ICE under Obama planned raids to pick up Central American families with outstanding removal orders as a way of deterring future migrants coming north.  Like Obama before him, Biden could believe he needs to be seen as strong on border enforcement in order to try and negotiate a package of immigration reforms for those migrants already in the country.

 The economy

We can expect to see a Biden administration which views successful development in the region as an important factor in dampening migration flows.  During the Obama administration, programs funded through USAID aimed to reduce gang violence and increase community safety.  The second round of  Millennium Challenge  funding in 2014 brought more than $200 million in infrastructure spending to El Salvador in the past six years.  In 2015, the US proposed the Alliance for Prosperity with Northern Triangle countries.   As Biden takes office, we can expect to see a return to these types of initiatives.      

 El Salvador's economy is hugely dependent on the ups and downs of the US economy. Remittances from Salvadorans abroad, primarily living in the US, plunged in the early months of the pandemic but have regained a surprising amount of strength.  If Biden is able to bring the pandemic under control in the US, and returns the economy to pre-pandemic employment levels, El Salvador will feel the benefits as well.

In summary

Only four years have elapsed since Biden was fully engaged with El Salvador and the rest of Central America.  The next four years will probably look much like the policies of the Obama administration after reversal of the Trump attacks on immigration.  Bukele will no longer get a free pass from the US when he disregards the rule of law and press freedom, but whether heightened US attention to those issue will make a difference for El Salvador is another matter.


artichoke said…
Don't assume Biden won. We all know he lost, now it's a matter of getting the official apparatus to recognize that. I think we have a good chance.