The turnabout on US policy towards El Salvador

Nayib Bukele and US Ambassador William Duncan

There has been a complete reversal of the public discourse from the US State Department towards El Salvador.  The change appears to coincide with the arrival of the current ambassador William Duncan in January 2023.

To understand how dramatic this shift has been, consider what appeared to be a low point in the two country's relationship after Nayib Bukele managed to gain control over all the branches of government in 2021.  That was the year when his Nuevas Ideas party first won super majority control of the congress and then deposed all the judges in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Judicial Court and replaced them with Bukele allies.

The Biden administration responded by expanding its Engel List on September 20, 2021 by adding the five magistrates of El Salvador's Constitutional Chamber to the list of corrupt actors who undermine democratic institutions. The announcement from the US State Department declared:

Elsy Dueñas De Aviles, Oscar Alberto López Jerez, Hector Nahun Martinez Garcia, Jose Angel Perez Chacon, and Luis Javier Suárez Magaña, current Magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, undermined democratic processes or institutions by accepting direct appointments to the Chamber by the Legislative Assembly. The previous five Magistrates were abruptly removed without legitimate cause following the May 1 seating of the newly elected Legislative Assembly. After being installed, the new Magistrates declared their installation by the Legislative Assembly to have been constitutional. The Magistrates undermined democratic processes or institutions by approving a controversial interpretation of the Constitution authorizing re-election of the President despite an express prohibition in the Constitution forbidding consecutive terms of the Presidency.
Acting US Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes said the US action was taken because the magistrates voted to allow the president’s re-election “which is clearly not allowed under the Constitution." She appeared on a local Salvadoran news talk show to explain the US motivation. “What are we seeing now? It is a decline in democracy, and that is exactly what is happening,” Manes said. "It is incredibly lamentable that we are in this situation" Bukele is "following a playbook" like Nicaragua or Venezuela.

Since that time, the State Department also issued its annual Human Rights Report concerning El Salvador for 2022:
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearances; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression and media.... 
However, US Ambassador to El Salvador William Duncan has been striking a much, much different posture in recent public statements.  Duncan spoke in June on a panel with other US ambassadors to Central America on the topic of diplomacy in the region.  Duncan was, to put it mildly, effusive in his praise for how the Bukele government had improved the public security situation in the country during the State of Exception.  Here is the link to the video, check out his remarks at times 05:44 and 37:15.  Duncan declined to criticize the State of Exception, saying only that the open question is "what now?" and praising the government's plans for economic development. Duncan remarked "I haven't met anybody yet who is not happy about the current state of public security in the country; even those people who have reservations about the way it's being done, recognize that this has been a game changer for El Salvador."   "Reservations" or "differences of opinion" were the harshest words he used to talk about the State of Exception.

A different approach was urged by 17 members of US Congress who released a letter on July 18 asking Secretary of State Andrew Blinken to advocate for freedom and justice for the "Santa Marta 5" community leaders and water defenders jailed in El Salvador during the State of Exception on flimsy charges from a 40 year old case.  

In contrast to Manes' September 2021 statement that Bukele's plans for a second term in office are in violation of the Salvadoran constitution,  Duncan sat down with Bukele for a meeting on July 13, only four days after Nuevas Ideas nominated Bukele again for president, making official his candidacy for a second term. The Embassy and State Department have been silent on the re-election issue. 

This week, the US government added more Salvadoran persons to the Engel List of corrupt and anti-democratic actors, but not the ones you you might have expected.  The State Department added the two former leftist FMLN presidents of El Salvador (Funes and Sanchez Cerén) who proceeded Bukele into office, as well as a former government official under Funes and private bankers accused of money laundering. Although there is not much doubt about the corruption of this group, their crimes have been known for years. Adding them now appears to be a response to Bukele's claim that prior versions of the list were one-sided. No one from the current government was added to the list this time.  

Among other signs, Duncan has been appearing with Bukele government officials to announce more US aid to the country.  For example, in May the Embassy announced a $27.4 million grant from USAID for projects to support the education system in the country.  

William Duncan poses with members of Bukele's cabinet on July 14, as part of delivery of aid package for agriculture in El Salvador.

On El Salvador's side of the relationship, there does not seem to be a significant change in the tone of discourse about the US broadcast by Nayib Bukele through his social media channels. Bukele continues to be the darling of the far right in the US, and has been retweeting their praise of him and their condemnation of current US crime policies.

Clearly Duncan has decided to be silent in public about any concerns over human rights, the rule of law in El Salvador, or the autocratic direction of the Bukele government. The US seems to be reading the public opinion polls in El Salvador, and recognizes that its public criticisms of Bukele have had zero effect, and may have even made Bukele stronger by letting him portray himself as the David standing up to a US Goliath.  Whether there is any diplomacy behind closed doors on behalf of democracy and human rights is unknown, but there is no sign it is having any effect.

The number of Salvadorans arriving at the southern US border has declined significantly over the past 12 months. That may be the only metric the US cares about in this relationship.   



ForestBosque said…
This reflects the sad reality of the US acting upon what it narrowly considers it's self interests, such as limiting immigration and favoring business interests over human rights and sustainable development. Another example of this is Biden's nomination of convicted war criminal Elliott Abrams to the bipartisan "US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy." Thanks for sharing this.