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