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El Salvador's recent election may test Biden's plan to stem immigration

Bukele attacked the news agency, he had not asked the Biden administration for a meeting, nor been snubbed

Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Published: March 05, 2021 05:00 PM GMT

Updated: March 06, 2021 09:55 AM GMT

El Salvador's recent election may test Biden's plan to stem immigration

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele delivers a press conference at a hotel in San Salvador, on February 28, 2021. (Photo: STANLEY ESTRADA / AFP)

Weeks before legislative elections in February, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele kept trying to tamp down a report by The Associated Press that Biden administration officials had refused him a meeting during an impromptu trip he made to Washington.

Via Twitter, Bukele attacked the news agency, insisted the trip to Washington had been a private one with his wife and daughter, and he had not asked the Biden administration for a meeting, nor been snubbed.

He defended his account for days, and in a meeting with diplomats, he put Charge d'Affaires of the United States Embassy in San Salvador Brendan O'Brien in an uncomfortable position by asking him on camera to back up his claim.

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What the U.S. and its officials say or do related to El Salvador generates head turns and headlines in a country where the past and future are intertwined.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, under the the threat of the Cold War extending to the Americas, U.S. policy was focused on keeping Central America out of the hands of communists.

After the Soviet Union had gained a foothold in Cuba and changes toward the political left were taking place in nearby Nicaragua, the U.S. decided it could not allow El Salvador, which was then convulsing into political conflict, to follow a similar path. The U.S. poured billions into a Salvadoran government rife with human rights and other abuses as long as the left would not gain control.

The Catholic Church, in El Salvador as well as the U.S., through the involvement of lay members as well as hierarchy, was active in opposing the $4.5 billion of taxpayer money spent in the country throughout the course of the conflict.

Ultimately, more than 70,000 civilians, including the country's archbishop, were killed, and thousands remain "disappeared."

Much of the money was used for military equipment and training for soldiers and other government-sponsored armed groups that unleashed terror on civilians as part of an aggressive U.S. policy.

Today, El Salvador, along with Guatemala and Honduras -- where similar U.S. military and strategic intervention took place -- present a more complex challenge for U.S. policy.

With economies battered by the political conflicts of the past, climate change, gang violence and government corruption, immigration toward the U.S. from those nations has soared.

The problems of the region, known as the Northern Triangle, become manifest at the U.S.-Mexico border, among the masses of unaccompanied minors, illegal border crossers seeking a better economic future, as well as asylum-seekers looking for safety.

This constant flow of mass migration has become one of the biggest challenges for the U.S. and the region. Its lack of solutions is one that catapulted media celebrity Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in 2016, even without political experience, because of his promise to build a "big beautiful wall" to keep migrants out.

The Trump administration's approach was to build a stronger, longer structure at the border between the U.S. and Mexico. It also created different kinds of walls by tying economic aid to government efforts making it difficult for migrants to advance north from one country to another, among other policies to deter migration.

The Biden administration has proposed a different tactic.

"He wants to launch a campaign to help Central American countries uproot corruption and develop better institutions like independent judiciaries, so that criminals and gang members will not enjoy impunity, and so that foreign investors will feel they can trust the system enough to bring in their money and start creating jobs," wrote Frida Ghitis, a world affairs columnist in a March 4 column for the policy analysis publication World Politics Review.

"The ultimate goal is to improve the lives of the people in the Northern Triangle, so that they will stay home instead of migrating north," she said.

But the recent Feb. 28 legislative victory of the New Ideas (Nuevas Ideas) party in El Salvador, giving its founder Bukele almost absolute power, has already placed U.S. diplomats in the country on a political tightrope of sorts, and thrown a monkey wrench into the Biden administration's proposed $4 billion plan for the Northern Triangle.

"The outcome (of the legislative elections in El Salvador) is problematic for Biden because Bukele has already shown troubling signs of disdain for democratic norms -- and strengthening democracy and the rule of law is one of the key elements of Biden's ambitious plan to reduce immigration from Central America by addressing its root causes," wrote Ghitis in her column.

She cites as examples the Salvadoran president's constant attacks on the press, his "gaslighting and lying" when he accused an opposing party of physically attacking its own members to get sympathy before the election, and what some believe was an attempted coup Feb. 9, 2020, when he sent armed soldiers into the legislative assembly seeking to strong arm lawmakers into approving a $109 million loan they had opposed.

Though some blamed the Trump administration with looking the other way at corruption in Central America as long as it kept migrants from its doorstep, others credited Trump-era officials and the power of U.S. policy with stopping Bukele's 2020 power-grab on the day of the suspected coup.

"I am convinced that when Nayib (Bukele) entered the (legislative assembly hall), it was in fact the American Embassy that stopped the coup", said Jesuit Father José María Tojeira, director of the human rights institute at the Jesuit-run José Simeón Cañas Central American University in San Salvador during a Feb. 15 news show with InformaTVX.

Biden now "faces a dilemma," Ghitis said, because the erosion of democratic norms -- "not unique to El Salvador as it is spreading across the region" -- complicates his administration's proposal, meaning mass emigration from El Salvador, as well as the region, will continue.

"Does Bukele have enough of a commitment to democracy and the rule of law to become an active part of Biden's vision for Central America?" she asked.

He may not have an option.

Moody's and Fitch Ratings both downgraded the country's credit rating to "negative" in recent months, providing an unfavorable outlook for the country's ability to pay back debt it has amassed.

"The 2021 budget featured a large fiscal deficit amid still limited financing options, and we forecast general government debt to rise above 90% of GDP this year," said a March 2 report from Fitch Ratings following the election.

Or as Father Tojeira said during a Feb. 28 news show about El Salvador's economic stability: "The fiscal credit card is maxed out, and economic growth is limited."

"We depend a lot on (international) cooperation, on remittances," he said.

And Bukele already is in the crosshairs of a group of at 15 members of U.S. lawmakers, who sent a letter Feb. 24 to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken voicing serious concerns about the threats to democracy under Bukele. They would have to approve any aid package the Biden administration proposes.

Though aid to support regional initiatives must be given, they said, "it must not inadvertently bolster undemocratic or corrupt individual systems."

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