Bukele's rocky relationship with US

Ricardo Zúniga

Ricardo Zúniga, the Biden administration's special envoy to Central America to address root causes of migration, arrived in El Salvador today. He arrives at a time in which president Nayib Bukele has been receiving criticism from different actors in the US government. On this trip Zúniga is visiting with officials from Guatemala and El Salvador and has talked to Honduran officials from Washington. The trip comes during a surge in the number of persons from Central America approaching the US southern border with hopes of crossing into the country, despite the insistence of the Biden administration that the border is closed. In addition to discussing root causes of migration, Zúniga has indicated that the Biden administration wants to fortify legal paths for migration from Central America.

Zúniga's visit to El Salvador is the first visit by a representative of the US government since Joe Biden assumed the presidency in January. In early February, Bukele traveled to Washington unannounced, but was not granted meetings with administration officials.

Perhaps in response to that perceived snub, today Bukele decided that he would not meet with Zúniga.  According to a piece by Salvadoran journalist Roberto Valencia in the Washington Post, the envoy had a spot set aside in his agenda for a meeting with the Salvadoran president, and the State Department had been attempting to confirm a meeting with Bukele since the end of March.  Instead, Zúniga met with Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill.

Zuniga did meet and held a press conference with Salvadoran Attorney General Raul Melara and the commissioner of the CICIES anti-corruption commission which is supported by the Organization of American States ("OAS") in El Salvador.  They spoke about commitment of US to support anti-corruption measures in the future.  The US Embassy announced that it was making a $2 million donation to the OAS to support the work of the CICIES during 2021.   

During his visit today, Zuniga also met with several civil society groups committed to good governance and the rule of law. Most have been critical of Bukele's tendencies towards authoritarianism and have also backed a proposal to strengthen and increase the independence of the CICIES. Not coincidentally, Bukele disparaged many of those same groups in a tweet this morning and said that their proposal would be the worst thing the country could do.

With the US focus on migration, Bukele announced that he would veto a newly passed anti-human smuggling law supported by both El Salvador’s Attorney General and the US Embassy. Bukele asserted the law would criminalize not just “coyotes” but persons who organized caravans or groups of migrants on WhatsApp or Facebook.

Bukele may  also have been smarting after the US State Department's recent release of its annual country human rights reports. The report on El Salvador for 2020 highlights a litany of human rights abuses, and specifically calls out Bukele's use of the military, his refusal to follow certain court rulings, and his intrusion into the Salvadoran congress on February 9, 2020 with soldiers, along with persistent impunity for wrongdoers.

Zuniga's trip comes on the heels of a very public Twitter spat between Bukele and Norma Torres, a Democratic Congresswoman from California who emigrated from Guatemala at age 5. Now in her third term in Congress, Torres currently serves on the House Appropriations and Rules Committees. She is the founder of the Congressional Central America Caucus, and is the only member of Congress originally from Central America.       

Torres has been critical of Bukele in the past year, especially the February 9 usurpation of the Legislative Assembly. She has been critical of corruption in Central American governments and recently pointed to it as a reason for recent surges in migration:

 This is a great shame for the governments of #Guatemala #Honduras #ElSalvador your compatriots deserve governments that are truly committed to fighting corruption and drug trafficking! [and attaching video of human smugglers dropping young children over border fence].

 Bukele shot off a tweet of his own:


Look ma'am, did you read that the children are from ECUADOR and not from EL SALVADOR? In addition, this occurred on the border of Mexico with the United States. What does El Salvador have to do with this? You should use a portion of your financial backers' check to buy glasses.

Torres retorted: 

 Followed by this from Bukele:

 I hope that all my brothers Salvadorans, Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Dominicans, Venezuelans and all Latin Americans from District 35 of California DO NOT VOTE for @NormaJTorres. She does not work for you, but to keep our countries underdeveloped.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the US responded to Bukele’s attack as well:
Unfortunately, the recent string of personal attacks against Congresswoman Torres serves only to undermine her efforts and those of our caucus to build a relationship between the U.S. and El Salvador that benefits the people of both countries. These attacks are also indicative of what far too many women, and particularly female advocates, routinely experience when they challenge those in power. Further. it is wholly inappropriate for a foreign leader to interfere in a U.S. congressional election. We will continue to boldly work to advance a vision for this hemisphere in which the values of democracy, human rights, civility, and mutual respect prevail.

On April 2, Torres issued a statement describing Bukele’s attack on her as a response to her efforts to address corruption in the Northern Triangle.  She also granted lengthy interviews to RevistaFactum and El Faro where she amplified her concerns about the president's past actions and US-El Salvador relations.