US - El Salvador relations hit new low

This month relations between the United States and El Salvador have hit lows not seen in the past twenty years.  The deterioration comes as the Biden administration in Washington begins to put an emphasis on combatting corruption, human rights and good governance -- an emphasis lacking under Trump. This new emphasis has taken concrete form in Washington's reaction to president Nayib Bukele's May 1 sacking of top judges and the attorney general. The condemnations coming from Washington are vociferously rejected by Bukele who claims all the changes are justified by his party's electoral mandate after dominating legislative elections in February.

From May 11 to 12, Joe Biden's special envoy to Central America, Ricardo Zúñiga, visited El Salvador for the second time.  (On his first visit in April, Bukele refused to meet with him).  After meeting with political leaders including the Salvadoran president, Zúñiga went on Salvadoran television to announce that while his visit had included a useful exchange of views, the US still believed that the removal of the Constitutional Chamber judges and the Attorney General were not in compliance with legal requirements and that the best course would be to return to the state of affairs on April 30. 

In response, Bukele tweeted shortly after that the changes were "irreversible."

Relations between Bukele and the US government took another blow when a State Department Report to Congress was made public, listing officials linked to corruption or narco-trafficking in the Northern Triangle of Central America. Top of the list from El Salvador is Carolina Recinos, the Chief of the Cabinet in Bukele's administration, noted for having "engaged in significant acts of corruption during her term in office". This list of corrupt actors had been requested by Rep. Norma Torres and is different from the "Engel list" to be released in June and which will carry immediate sanctions on listed officials.  In addition to Recinos, the Salvadorans on the list included:

Jose Luis Merino, former vice minister for foreign investment and financing for development and legislator of El Salvador and current financer of the FMLN party, engaged in significant acts of corruption during his term in office. 

Rogelio Rivas, [the recently departed] Minister of Security and Justice in El Salvador, engaged in significant acts of corruption by awarding his own private construction company several noncompetitive and unadvertised contracts to build police stations and other buildings that fall under his official capacity and inflated the cost of materials. 

Guillermo Gallegos, current legislator from the GANA party of El Salvador, engaged in significant acts of corruption throughout his term in office. 

Sigfrido Reyes, former legislator from the FMLN party of El Salvador, engaged in significant acts of corruption during his term in office. Credible sources corroborate corruption allegations that Sigfrido Reyes misappropriated public funds for personal benefit when he authorized and laundered fraudulent travel expenses.

Nayib Bukele pushed back, calling the release of the list, not a fight against corruption, but "geopolitics" and rejecting the worth of the list because it did not include any names from his political opponents in ARENA. He tweeted:

The “friends” say that they have already checked all the files and information they have well and that there is no one corrupt in ARENA, NOT A SINGLE ONE. That maybe they will check back in the future, but that they believe they are all saints. That is why they insist that we return them to power, as saints.

And to similar effect:

Look at the names they publish, who is promoting it, the media outlets publishing it, those sharing it. They’re the henchmen of George Soros. We already know their playbook and we know how to beat it.

While these exchanges were occurring, El Salvador's Legislative Assembly ratified a compact with China for the Asian nation to spend millions to build a national library, drinking water plant, stadium and seaside pier in El Salvador. These projects were not new but had been announced in 2019 during Bukele's trip to Beijing.  Bukele celebrated the compact this week, valuing it at $500 million and asserting that it was bigger than the two past Millennium Challenge grants El Salvador received from the US.  

An official in the US State Department tweeted to Bukele:

Mr. President, nothing from China comes without conditions.

He responded to her tweeting that the US was China's biggest trading partner.   El Salvador has also been purchasing COVID-19 vaccine from China and received additional doses as a donation from China, whose ambassador has pointedly stated that they do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

Bukele and Russian ambassador

And with the not so subtle message that El Salvador has plenty of other friends in the world, the presidential Twitter feed was filled with images of several ambassadors from various countries delivering their diplomatic credentials to Bukele.  Featured most prominently was the Ambassador of Russia who reportedly told Bukele: "It is an honor for me to meet a very popular President, not only in his country or in the region. I want to strengthen ties with El Salvador in all branches, from the political to the commercial."

There was more to come out of Washington.  Senator Patrick Leahy entered a long statement in the Congressional Record which concluded:

This isn’t about national sovereignty and foreign interference, as President Bukele has falsely suggested. His actions directly affect the United States, U.S. companies, our commercial relations, and the welfare of millions of Salvadorans in the United States, as well as the Salvadoran population.

I join others here and in El Salvador in urging President Bukele and the Salvadoran Congress to reconsider their unconstitutional actions and to restore the separation of powers and the rule of law. Don’t destroy the Peace Accords’ greatest achievement. 

Bukele has called the Peace Accords a "farce."  

On Wednesday May 19, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution (H.R. 408) on a bipartisan basis condemning the removal of judges and the attorney general. The measure was front page news in many of the Salvadoran periodicals which are independent of the Bukele government.  

Finally on Friday, May 21, the the US Agency of International Development (USAID) announced that aid to El Salvador would be directed away from government and towards civil society instead:

USAID has deep concerns regarding the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly's May 1st vote to remove the Attorney General and all five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court, and larger concerns about transparency and accountability. In response, USAID is redirecting assistance away from these institutions, the National Civilian Police, and the Institute for Access to Public Information.

This funding will now be used for promoting transparency, combating corruption, and monitoring human rights in partnership with local civil society and human rights organizations.

The exchanges of the past two weeks mark a post-civil war low for relations between the US and the government of El Salvador.  Prior Salvadoran governments have viewed the US relationship as too important to challenge Washington overtly. Those governments acquiesced to US wishes such as agreeing to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), assisting in drug-trafficking interdiction efforts, sending troops to Iraq as part of the US-led coalition, adopting neo-liberal economic policies, and most-recently, agreeing to measures requested by the Trump administration to support Trump's anti-immigrant agenda including deporting asylum seekers.  There are many other examples, and the US push of its own self interest has often had negative consequences for El Salvador.

Bukele's supporters frequently respond that the US did little to prevent the corruption of prior governments of ARENA and the FMLN, where top officials including at least three former presidents diverted hundreds of millions of dollars (to say nothing of US funding a 12 year civil war leading to deaths of 75 thousand civilians).  Those criticisms are often accompanied with smiling pictures of US leaders with Mauricio Funes or Tony Saca.   And their complaints have some merit when it comes to past US action or inaction, but the complaints also lack a certain coherence -- if past US administrations should have done more to avoid supporting a corrupt Salvadoran government, then why complain when the Biden administration is actually calling out actions which may allow Bukele to be as corrupt as some of his predecessors?

For now, Bukele seems to feel no short term negative consequences for his actions to consolidate power.  His supporters love the image of a strong leader standing up to Washington.   Will they always believe that what is good for Bukele is good for El Salvador?  


Don said…
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Jared Pérez said…
Totally agree. One of my hypotheses of the reasons for our conjuncture is that the low self-esteem of Salvadorans easily paves the way for a playboy like Bukele, with an egocentric conception of power, to provoke a kind of catharsis in detriment of what is just and true, and given that the average Salvadoran thinks that what is just and true can be molded without extrinsic rules, they embrace it with outrageous acquiescence.
With Bukele's huge popularity he could do great things for El Salvador if he so wished. But I am not holding my breath for that.