(CN) — El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has been traveling the world for two weeks seeking financial assistance for his country, and China has stepped up to the plate, swinging a big bat.
Before Bukele took office on June 1 he was encouraged by the nostalgic right to break off relations with China and restore ties with Taiwan.
Taiwan gave $10 million to El Salvador after earthquakes caused massive death and destruction in 2001. The ARENA party, then in power, used the money to help finance their successful 2004 campaign against the liberals, instead of humanitarian assistance to the victims of the national tragedy.
The president, Francisco Flores, was criminally charged with rerouting the check from earthquake relief to the rightist campaign, but he was found dead the night before trial in 2016 and the case was closed. Many Salvadoran believe the ex-president was given a new identity and sent to another country.
The pilfered humanitarian gesture from Taiwan, tarnished El Salvador’s already bruised reputation. International donors lost enthusiasm for cash transfers to governmental organizations and ministries.
Former president Antonio Saca (2004-2009) is confined to a prison cell charged with a variety of crimes involving the theft of $250 million from government coffers. He has been convicted of multiple corruption charges and is awaiting trial on several more. The president who replaced him in 2009, Mauricio Funes is a fugitive from charges of stealing even more.
Bukele, a 38-year-old businessman, formed his own party, Nuevas Ideas, and trounced both major political parties in elections this year: the right-wing ARENA, known for years as the party of the death squads, and the supposedly leftist FMLN, which proved to be just as corrupt when they took power in 2009.
Though attacked by both the left and right, Bukele is wildly popular in El Salvador, having managed in only six months to restore people’s faith in government.
Bukele was scheduled to be in Asia for 10 days, but his tour has been extended. The agreements reached in the first country, Japan, have not been released. China’s willingness to provide substantial financial aid and investment in El Salvador — details of which are trickling out — came as something of a surprise.
Reportedly, China is willing to provide a sewer and fresh water plumbing system for the hemisphere’s smallest, most densely populated county, of 7 million. According to the Salvadoran daily La Prensa Gráfica, China has agreed to commit millions of dollars to rebuild the port facilities of the small Pacific port, La Libertad, and convert the beach area into a tourist attraction.
For residents of metropolitan San Salvador, the national capital, where 1 million live in slums, China’s promise to convert to potable water the huge volcanic Lake Ilopango is a welcome offer to people who have no running water or who have too little.
Bukele’s trip to China appears to have garnered major commitments of investment in El Salvadoran infrastructure, including sewer systems throughout the Pacific coast, the nation’s major tourist attraction. Shanghai has promised to develop a lighting system for all the cities. China said it will build a new national sports stadium and reconstruct the decrepit National Library in the historic center of San Salvador.
Bukele’s third major stop was Qatar, where he was invited to address the Qatar Forum, an effort to gather world leaders to discuss priorities and discuss ideas that purport to eliminate poverty in the Third World. Bukele’s speech was titled “What Are We Waiting For?”
In his closing speech at the forum, Bukele insisted that the wealth in the world is sufficient to provide food, medicine, housing and employment for all.
Reports from Qatar suggest there were discussions about building a new international airport designed for cargo exports and a new passenger terminal in the east of the country, for tourists, and ultimately to create a fast-rail system between the two airports, connecting to towns with electronics and fabric factories to export Asia.
La Prensa Gráfica reported that Qatar is also interested in forming a Salvadoran-flagged airline based in the new transport airport and also in passenger service for its own Qatar Airlines.
Bukele’s wife, Gabriela Rodriguez de Bukele, met with the first lady of Qatar to plan a project to bring schools to 20,000 Salvadoran children who do not attend school today, including programs for children with disabilities, who are excluded from K-9 guarantees. Only two-thirds of Salvadoran children of high school age attend schools, and only half of those graduate.
Twenty percent of Salvadoran children never attend school at all, most of them rural kids who do agricultural labor.
And President Bukele has baited the 60,000 veterans of the 1980-1992 civil war with a call to rally at a conference center for a major announcement on Dec. 21. Rumors are spreading that he will announce an increase in pension benefits to veterans and others who suffered during the brutal civil war, and will affirm increases in pay for police, soldiers and prison guards.
Even before he returns home, Bukele’s trip is being viewed as a smashing success, installing China — not the United States — as a financial ally of a country that has suffered so much, for so long.
(Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.)