El Salvador Becomes an Island of Calm in a Sea of Trouble

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CN) — Salvadorans rejoiced throughout the United States and El Salvador this week upon learning that President Nayib Bukele had negotiated an agreement with the Trump administration that permits more than 200,000 people and their families to remain in the U.S. and continue working legally.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is wildly popular after five months in office. Here, he takes a selfie during his address to the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 26. (AP photo/Kevin Hagen).

People with Temporary Protected Status have been living in the United States since at least 2001, when two devastating earthquakes in El Salvador caused massive casualties and destruction. President George W. Bush reacted to the humanitarian crisis by granting TPS to all Salvadorans in the country, whether with authorization or not.

This humanitarian relief was renewed by succeeding Republican and Democratic administrations without opposition until 2018, when Trump ordered that protected status be terminated not just for Salvadorans but for Haitians, Hondurans and Nicaraguans, many of whom had been living with protection since the 1990s.

Faced with this reality, President Bukele agreed to discuss measures to discourage people, especially women, from trying to cross Guatemala and Mexico only to end up in a U.S. prison camp or on the streets of Mexico.

For acknowledging the social and economic problems that forced so many of his citizens to emigrate, Bukele’s critics say he has truckled to the demands of a hostile U.S. administration.

Details of Salvadoran cooperation with ICE have not been disclosed, but it is believed that ICE will teach biometrics identification systems to Salvadoran immigration officials.

A key point of the criticism of Bukele — and it is a minority opinion — is the “safe third country” provision that requires El Salvador to accept deportees from the United States who allegedly passed through El Salvador on their way north.

Notwithstanding the fact that virtually nobody passes through El Salvador on the way north, El Salvador has awarded 40% of the 79 asylum applications submitted in the past five years, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — a rate about 39% higher than in the United States.

Whether the “safe third country” provision is a fiction or not, the agreement appears to have been linked with the extension of TPS, and that extension increased Bukele’s already high esteem in his country. Remittances sent home from the United States are a major part of the Salvadoran economy, so the extension of TPS is a lifeline. And it’s just the latest in a string of victories the 38-year-old president has rung up in his five months in office.

Descendants and survivors of an army massacre in El Salvador gather in late July in memory of it. (Photo by MIGUEL PATRICIO/Courthouse News Service)

Since Bukele took office on June 1, 12,000 alleged gang members have been taken off the streets. Prisons have been cleansed of cellphones, and jailed gang leaders are no longer able to buy a weekend pass to chill with the homies. Gang doctors can no longer sign letters to get the leaders out of prison on medical grounds.

El Salvador has been transformed since Bukele’s inauguration, but the past lingers. Victor, in his seventies, describes it outside a market in Cuscatlán.

“We lived through the war, we had hopes. The army came and killed the young rebels. They even killed the aged. We lost hope when the peace came and things didn’t get better. My village hates the old politicians. Bukele may be a good man, but it’s hard for us to trust anybody.”

Maria has another opinion. A 60-year-old former guerrilla from Guazapa, she laments the acceptance of neoliberal policies by previous governments. She gets a pension of $50 a month, as do all ex-guerrillas, as well as many of the displaced civilians.

“When we met Charlie Clements, we thought gringos were awesome, we felt that the USA was with us in the fight against La Guardia Nacional, the guys who burned our homes and our pigs,” she said. Clements, now retired, was a doctor, pilot and humanitarian aid worker whose 1983 book, “Witness to War,” described the terror wrought by the Salvadoran government, a U.S. ally, during the country’s civil war.

Maria still holds some regard for the United States. “Like our Vietnamese sisters, we don’t hold grudges,” she says. “But the U.S should stop deporting our brothers and sisters.”

In Bukele’s presidential campaign that derailed the country’s right-wing ARENA party and nominally leftist but equally corrupt FMLN, he promised to prioritize the struggle to prevent the deportation of the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans already in the United States. Monday’s announcement was another feather in his cap.

A wealthy millennial businessman, Bukele, 38, has ridden waves of popularity as mayor of the capital, San Salvador. Recent polls show that his policies have the approval of over 90% of the population.

Ana Landaverde, 56, from Suchitoto, has a small business selling natural health products. “I visit all parts of the city and the rural areas, and whether rich or poor, everybody supports Bukele,” she says.

“I was forced from my small farm by the civil war in 1985 when it was bombed. We have been governed poorly for 30 years. For once, we are united behind a leader we trust.”

Raul, a small farmer in Tenancingo, agrees.

“Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We are peasants and we applaud the president. We elected him because we are tired of the gangs and the corrupt police. In my village everyone voted for him.”

One of the biggest complaints of people in the dense barrios surrounding the capital is lack of water. Often for weeks at a time residents have no water running to their homes. They are forced to pay for water from trucks that charge exorbitant rates.

Recent appraisals of the capital’s water delivery system found it on the point of collapse, according to the online news service UltimaHora. Auditors found that $16 million had been allocated for maintenance of the water system for the capital but that no maintenance was done for decades.

The head of the water utility went to prison for the embezzlement, but the repairs to the system were never performed. With no maintenance for at least 20 years, some of the pumps had been abandoned, even as the population swelled.

“Now the community is getting the young men to bring the heavy water jugs up the hill for the old people,” says Estela, a drama teacher in a barrio on the outskirts of San Salvador. “They don’t have to pay.”

Under Bukele, army trucks are dropping thousands of bottles of water in neighborhoods that lack it. Tank trucks of clean water are deployed to respond to text messages that ask for it. The water may be off for another few days but people are not protesting anywhere, according to local television news.

Somewhat ironically, Bukele took office just before the massive protest movement against China began in Hong Kong five months ago, and his latest coup, the revival of TPS, came as street protests unsettled the governments of Chile, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia and virtually paralyze Haiti.

In El Salvador today there are no demonstrations against the government.

“If there were to be one,” says Maria, “it would attract nobody.”

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