Bukele unveils "foreign agents law" explicitly targeted at his critics

The Bukele regime in El Salvador has taken another swipe at its critics this week as the Salvadoran president proposed in the Legislative Assembly a new "Foreign Agents Law".   Critics say that law is intended to stifle the voices of organizations who point out the authoritarian drift of Bukele's administration and to cut off the ability of the international community to meaningfully support those organizations.   

The law has two key components. One part requires the registration of persons and entities who are directly or indirectly funded, or at the direction of, foreign interests.  The second component is a 40% tax on foreign donations to such persons and entities.  Failure to register or to comply with any provision of the Foreign Agents Law can result in cancellation of the legal status of an organization and a fine of up to $10,000.   Excluded are activities characterized as humanitarian, health, religious, academic, scientific or fine arts, or related to foreign economic development.  Implicitly included, and the targets of the law, would be organizations promoting rule of law, judicial independence, anti-corruption, transparency or human rights. 

For months, Bukele has been publicly accusing the international community of funding "the opposition" which he appears to broadly define as anyone voicing criticism of his actions in office.  He spoke out against civil society entities in his annual address to the nation on June 1. In his Independence Day address on September 15, Bukele blamed the large street demonstrations earlier in the day on international interests with funding and organizing.  

Bukele was further provoked by an announcement on November 4  by USAID of a $300 million initiative in Central America "toward engaging, strengthening, and funding local organizations to implement programs to advance sustainable and equitable economic growth, improve governance, fight corruption, protect human rights, improve citizen security, and combat sexual and gender-based violence."   Bukele apparently viewed working on those issues as work which targeted him:

What would the government of the United States say if we were to finance its political opposition? 

Because that is what these NGOs do, and the whole world knows it.  

Explicit targets of the new Foreign Agents Law are independent journalism sites like El Faro, as that publication noted:

Head of the Nuevas Ideas delegation [in the Legislative Assembly] Christian Guevara, used El Faro as an example of the institutions that would pay this tax: "Organizations like Open Society [Foundation] are going to pay 40%, they will be out their salaries, their juicy salaries," said Guevara in reference to the salaries of journalists from this periodical.

Guevara also pointed at civil society organizations:

“Many of these organizations, many of these NGOs, speak of transparency. There is Funde, there is Cristosal, several associations that receive millions of dollars every year and that today for the first time are going to make transparent the origin of those funds and the destination and execution of those funds,” he declared at the press conference. According to Guevara, "there are funds from them that were used to finance protest marches, and that is interference, ”he said.

The organizations in question say they do not oppose transparency and are already required to do regular reporting to the Salvadoran government. They already identify foreign funding on their websites. Cristosal, for example, publishes its US federal form 990 filing with its financial report along with a list of all its donors.  Funde publishes its financial statements along with a list of its international project partners, as does Accion Ciudadana.  RevistaFactum has a list of the international organizations providing it funding going back seven years.  

Instead, civil society has no doubt that the real purpose of the law is to punish them by attacking their financial stability.   They are being targeted for their critiques of Bukele's actions, such as his removal earlier this year of supreme court magistrates and the attorney general.

The NGO Acción Ciudadana tweeted "The law threatens the work of organizations that monitor power, an activity that is legitimate and supported by the international community." 

Cristosal, a leading human rights organization in El Salvador and Central America, issued a statement that "Those principally affected by a law of this nature are not the orgnaizations, but the thousands benefitted from the defense of human rights, the attention to families who are victims of forced displacement, and the victims who have not had access to justice."   

El Faro English described more of the reaction to the proposed legislation:

“The party is over,” wrote Bukele ally Walter Araujo, tagging Ruth López, a lawyer at human rights NGO Cristosal. “With a magnifying glass EVERY CENT they receive will be reviewed.”

López responded that civil society already provides reports to government entities. “More transparency is BETTER, this will never be understood by the mercenaries who worry so much about my work.” López has regularly questioned the lack of transparency of the Executive branch’s emergency spending during the pandemic, for which the Nuevas Ideas-controlled Assembly sealed the records for seven years.

Bukele has been defending the Foreign Agents Law in tweets arguing that it is based on the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law in the US.  And certainly large portions of this draft can bee seen to have roots in FARA.  But, as pointed out in a report of the International Center for Not for Profit Law  titled FARA's Double Life Abroad, repressive regimes around the world have been adopting "foreign agent" laws lifted from parts of FARA and using those laws to stifle dissent:

The past decade has witnessed a rise in authoritarianism and tightening space for civil society worldwide. Foreign agent laws have been a key part of that trend, with governments weaponizing both their overbreadth and ambiguity to target civil society and dissent.

The United States has the unfortunate distinction of having passed the world’s first foreign agent law: the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Originally enacted in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda, in the decades that followed enforcement of the Act concentrated primarily on lobbyists of foreign governments. After Russian attempts to influence the 2016 Presidential election, enforcement was broadened and strengthened with a focus on combatting foreign interference in elections....

FARA’s wide latitude has not gone unnoticed by foreign governments. From Russia to Nicaragua, FARA has been used to justify a wave of legislation that targets civil society groups by either explicitly citing FARA as positive precedent or copying sections of the statute nearly word for word. While FARA has critical differences with these other laws, ... FARA has helped shape laws that have been used to silence or chill legitimate political speech, inhibit civil society organizations, and criminalize civic participation.
To justify the proposed law, Bukele has also been emphasizing the exceptions in the law for humanitarian, health, religious, academic and artistic endeavors.  He tweeted:

The tax does not apply to donations to social programs and projects, but ONLY to political activities carried out at the request of a foreign agent. Like in the United States. Or do you think lobbyists are tax exempt?

It is probably worth pointing out, however, that the text of his law is not in fact limited to partisan political donations, or making payments to public officials, but extends to any type of civil society work which is not in the exceptions -- such as human rights work or anti-corruption and transparency efforts.  Nor does US law impose a separate 40% tax like the one in this law.

With Bukele's domination of the Salvadoran congress, the law is certain to be approved quickly.  Human rights groups and others will have only a short time to decide to how to structure their operations if they decide to comply with the law and its exceptions. More work may be done from outside of the country.  Bukele is easily angered by criticism of his actions, so early attempts to enforce this law against those speaking out could be expected.