The changing look of US-El Salvador relations

El Salvador’s government under Nayib Bukele is starting off on the wrong foot with the new Democratic administration of Joe Biden in Washington, D.C.   Concerns about whether Bukele has strayed from respecting the rule of law and norms of democratic institutions are likely to play a bigger role than during Trump's presidency.

During the Trump administration, Bukele enjoyed a close relationship with officials in Washington.  Bukele met with Trump on the sidelines of the 2019 UN General Assembly where he memorably described Trump as very nice and cool.”  In 2019-20, US Secretary of State Pompeo and two (acting) Secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security all visited El Salvador as part of a relationship which focused on El Salvador's willingness to cooperate in stemming migration flows from Central America.   

But the incoming Biden administration has shown that topics other than migration will also be front and center. In particular, corruption and governance.  Just after Biden took office, Juan González,  the National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere granted an interview to El Faro.  He was asked about the new administration's views of its relationship with the Salvadoran president:

Donald Trump seemed very comfortable with the Bukele administration in El Salvador. What opinion does the Biden administration have of Nayib Bukele?

Well, we are willing to dialogue with any government that has been democratically elected, but we are going to have our differences with Bukele’s government. And we’re going to voice worries in a respectful and well-meaning manner. But I’ll repeat: a leader unready to go after corruption won't be a U.S. ally. 

Meanwhile in El Salvador, Ambassador Ron Johnson, who had enjoyed a chummy relationship with Bukele, was out of a job as soon as Biden took office. 

This month two Democratic members of Congress, Norma Torres and Albio Sires,  wrote to Bukele to express their concerns arising from his response to the January 31 shooting which killed two FMLN supporters.   They wrote:

As members of the United States Congress, we know too well what can happen when political leaders respond to warning signs of violent unrest with vitriolic messages of misinformation, division, and fear. The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, which was provoked and incited by former President Trump, provided a stark example of the dangers of reckless, undemocratic leadership that runs counter to the rule of law. 

As President of El Salvador, we urge you to use the power of your office not to stoke divisions in the interest of political gain, as former President Trump did, but to convey messages of peace and unity. 

Rep. Torres also gave an interview to a Salvadoran TV station where she stated the same worries.

Meanwhile, El Salvador’s ambassador to the US, Milena Mayorga, failed to hold her own in a Wilson Center online forum about the prospects for Salvadoran democracy in the context of the upcoming elections. With several commentators including former US ambassador Mari Carmen-Aponte describing potential issues in governance El Salvador, Mayorga took a very defensive posture repeating a set of governmental talking points before leaving the forum without taking questions.  

Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, had already been voicing concerns about developments in El Salvador before Biden came into office.  They started making public statements following the events of February 9, 2020.  After that event, Senator Patrick Leahy released a statement that actions like the incursion into the Assembly “cannot be condoned” for a country that want to be a partner of the US.  The Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, wrote to Bukele in April 2020 advising him not to use COVID-19 as a pretext to weaken democratic norms.   And in September, six Republican members of Congress wrote to Bukele to highlight their worries over a "slow but sure departure from the rule of law and norms of democracy" in El Salvador. 

Nayib Bukele, Feb. 9, 2020

Shortly before leaving the US House at the end of 2020, Engel managed the passage of a law which requires the publication of a list of corrupt and undemocratic actors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who will be denied entry to the United States.  This list has already come to be known as the "Engel List" and El Salvador is taking notice with many on social media making suggestions for inclusion on the list.

Most recently, Bukele was snubbed in Washington, D.C.  According to separate reports in the Associated Press and El Faro, Bukele made a trip to Washington February 3-5 during which he attempted to have meetings with officials of the Biden administration. However, he was met with closed doors and did not get a meeting.  

Bukele unwisely decided to dispute the AP account in a meeting he called with the diplomatic corps on February 11.  In that meeting Bukele complained about what he labelled as an attempted coup against him, in the form of the Legislative Assembly sending to committee two proposals: one to study if Bukele should be removed for mental incapacity and the other to study if Bukele should be removed for his actions on the 9th of February 2020.  

Bukele asked the US Embassy Chargé d ‘Affaires Brendan O’Brien to support Bukele's  denial that he had requested but been turned down for meetings with the Biden administration, but O'Brien remained silent on that subject.  The next day, Dan Restrepo, an advisor to former president Obama with knowledge of the situation and the officials involved, gave an interview on El Salvador channel 33 confirming the story of the snub of Bukele and calling it "very bad form" for Bukele to publicly put the US Chargé d ‘Affaires on the spot while publicly lying about what had happened.

Brendan O'Brien

With the Biden administration, Bukele faces a new team with substantial knowledge of Central America. The US has endorsed the work of Attorney General Raul Melara, who Bukele has sought to undermine. The US has also expressed its support for proposals to strengthen the CICIES anti-corruption commission.  The Biden team will probably not be impressed with governance by tweet.  Nor will it be impressed by a government which tries to undermine its own elections in advance with cries of fraud. Bukele needs some sage foreign policy advisers if he wants to understand how diplomacy works in Washington in a post-Trump world.