El Salvador complicates Biden’s plan to break with Trump’s immigration agenda
One of the areas where US foreign and domestic policies most concretely intersect, as we have seen over the past four years under Donald Trump’s administration, concerns immigration and refugees. President Joe Biden campaigned on the promise to launch a radically different strategy to deal with migrants and refugees, especially on the border with Mexico, but now his plans are facing new headwinds.
In a legislative election last weekend in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele’s party, New Ideas, with its ally the Grand Alliance for National Unity, won a landslide victory. Early results suggest the Bukele bloc will enjoy a parliamentary supermajority, controlling at least two-thirds of the seats in the chamber, enough to enact legislation and install just about any loyalist it chooses in positions of power.
The result is problematic for Biden because Bukele has already shown disturbing signs of contempt 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.
During the presidential campaign, Biden presented a vision for a democratic and secure Western Hemisphere, from Canada to Chile, which included invest $ 4 billion in the so-called Northern Triangle countries which send the largest share of migrants and asylum seekers to the United States: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The plan calls for improving the rule of law and tackling endemic corruption in the Northern Triangle. But one wonders if Bukele, who had a good relationship with Trump, has a vision that matches Biden’s.
The young Salvadoran president had already raised concerns within the Biden administration long before the elections last weekend. He was reportedly turned down when he requested a meeting with the administration last month. on a private trip to Washington. Bukele denies having requested a meeting. The White House was unwilling to give him the advantage of a meeting so close to last weekend’s election. But there is more: the Biden administration, according to several sources cited by the Associated Press, has serious concerns about its respect for democracy and the rule of law.
Bukele came to power with a stunning victory in 2019, when he was just 37 years old. A former advertising director and mayor of San Salvador, the country’s capital and the country’s largest city, he defeated the two parties that had dominated El Salvador in the three decades since the end of its brutal civil war in the country. era of the cold war. war. By seeking the presidency, Bukele took advantage of the wave of anti-corruption movements that swept through Latin America. Instead of ideology, he promised to fight corruption and deliver results.
From the start, his presidency was unlike any other in El Salvador. He broke with old left-versus-right paradigms and enthusiastically turned to social media. It was an intriguing time, full of promise. He remains extremely popular with voters, but over the past two years he has displayed a growing penchant for authoritarianism. These signs did not bother the Trump administration. But that’s another matter with the current White House.
Strengthening democracy and the rule of law is a key part of Biden’s ambitious plan to reduce immigration from Central America by addressing its root causes.
Bukele’s first barrage of Twitter directives was initially a curiosity, but then began to take on troubling tones as he emphatically sacking officials online, mirroring Trump. Then came his Trump-style attacks on the media, with journalists publishing critical reports facing criminal investigations and regularly being banned from its press conferences. The Association of Journalists of El Salvador states that the number of complaints of threatening behavior against them increased under Bukele, with countless cases of assault and intimidation from members of his team.
Bukele is not above gas and lies. When two members of the opposition National Liberation Front Farabundo Marti were gunned down during an election campaign earlier this year, Bukele accused the party of organizing the attack to garner sympathy from voters.
But the real turning point came in February last year, when the Legislature discussed its request for a large loan to finance its proposed security package, which aimed to purchase new police vehicles and other vehicles. equipment. In order to pressure lawmakers, Bukele mobilized the military in a disturbing show of force, with military snipers taking up positions on nearby rooftops as armed soldiers entered and briefly occupied the Legislative Assembly. Bukele entered with civilian supporters and defiantly sat down in the Speaker’s chair. The footage was shocking in a country already traumatized by civil war, in which soldiers, paramilitary forces and, to a lesser extent, guerrillas killed tens of thousands of Salvadorans.
The Supreme Court later ordered the president to refrain from using the military in “activities contrary to established constitutional purposes”.
Then, weeks later – and less than a year after Bukele took office – the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world. This makes it difficult to assess the success of its policies, as it is impossible to fairly compare statistics in almost all areas between a pandemic year and a non-pandemic year. But Salvadorans approved of his handling of the crisis and he remains extremely popular. If the legislative elections were a referendum on the president, what voters think is clear.
Until now, Bukele has governed almost without a presence in the legislature, as his party did not exist when lawmakers were last chosen in 2018. The need to compromise in legislating will now disappear. All other controls of his power could also disappear. It will be able to appoint judges, members of the electoral commission and heads of various government agencies. Among other things, he will also be able to potentially eliminate presidential term limits.
To be fair to Salvadoran voters who seemingly ignored all of these risks at the polls, it is understandable that they continue to reject the choices of the past. Like so many others in Latin America, they have seen their country ruled by chronically corrupt politicians as its problems escalate and the lives of millions remain mired in misery. In the eyes of voters, Bukele’s assaults on democratic practices are not surprisingly pale in comparison.
But Biden now faces a dilemma. He wants to launch a campaign to help Central American countries eliminate corruption and develop better institutions such as independent justice systems, so that criminals and gang members do not enjoy impunity and investors. strangers feel they can trust the system enough to make their money. and start creating jobs. The ultimate goal is to improve the lives of the people of the Northern Triangle, so that they stay at home instead of migrating north.
But the erosion of democratic norms, which is not unique to El Salvador as it spreads throughout the region, complicates Biden’s plans. Is Bukele committed enough to democracy and the rule of law to become an active part of Biden’s vision for Central America? The recent elections make him much more powerful politically, so he will be able to implement some of the reforms Biden wants. But some of them are designed to limit its own power. It’s the kind of paradox that makes the White House hesitate to make a big bet on Bukele, until he really proves himself.
Frida Ghitis is a global affairs columnist. A former producer and CNN correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and the Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghite.