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USA v. El Salvador: War by Other Means

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has been labeled an autocrat, a dictator and a human rights violator by Republicans, Democrats and top American newspapers. The reason is clear: he is pursuing the interests of the Salvadoran people rather than that of the U.S. Embassy.

EL SALVADOR (CN) — The Biden administration is showing every indication of bungling relations with Central America, as the United States has done for more than a century.

Briefly stated: U.S. policy, even under Biden, is to support “strongmen,” no matter how murderous and corrupt, so long as they assume their proper role as U.S. clients; and to foment violence and economic ruin against elected leaders who — just as the United States does — look to their country’s own interests first.

U.S. policy toward Latin America — perhaps better described as a bad habit — was summed up best by Henry Kissinger, a concoctor of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup against, and assassination of, the rightfully elected President Salvador Allende. Quoth Kissinger: “We’re not going to watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

Well. Take that, Democracy.

All signs indicate that the Biden team’s strategy — already failing in advance — is to cast aspersions upon El Salvador’s popular president, Nayib Bukele, in hopes that the success of his Nuevas Ideas party will not spill beyond El Salvador’s borders — which it already has. New Ideas parties have sprung up in Guatemala and Honduras.

Recent articles in The Washington Post, The New York Times and other responsible U.S. media have accepted without question the Biden team’s uninformed and misguided attacks upon Bukele.

The common theme is that Bukele is showing “dangerous autocratic tendencies” as he dismantles the gangs that have terrorized his country for 25 years: gangs that were formed in the United States, mostly in Los Angeles, then deported to El Salvador.

Also dangerous and “autocratic,” apparently, is Bukele’s plan, already being carried out, to distribute free laptop computers to every child in a public school from pre-K up to their senior year in high school, and a vast expansion of free public health care. All cities and most towns have clinics where the most common medications are stocked and provided without charge. In addition, health promoters based in the clinics do outreach, visiting remote villages with medications, health screenings and advisories, according to Joaquina, a promoter on a motorbike in the state of Cuscatlán.

As a government employee working for the Health Ministry, Joaquina checks on people with disabilities, passes out medications, birth control services, gives injections, and arranges for clinic visits and transportation. Much of her time is spent in education on mosquito control, hygiene, diet recommendations, glucose monitoring and domestic violence prevention. She and others who do this work are widely respected except by traditional men who blame them for a lack of pregnancies in their partners.

President Biden has delegated to Vice President Kamala Harris the lead role in trying to develop a strategy, or policy, or road map, of how the United States can help Central America prosper, so that its hungry, poor, oppressed and demoralized people can stay at home and prosper, rather than abandon hope and head North, on clipped wings and whispered prayers.

Well, as Al Smith said: Let’s look at the record.

Since the Covid-19 crisis began, every household in El Salvador has received at least 100 pounds of dried beans and rice and powdered milk and corn flour — and $300 in cash. There have been at least three food deliveries, door to door, in every town and village, to every isolated ranch. The deliveries are made by members of the armed forces and continue today. The deliveries consist of 30-pound packages to all households and if three generations live in a household, as is common, the donation is doubled, according to recipients interviewed on news broadcasts. 


Just as Biden’s Covid-19 rescue packages have buoyed his standing in the United States, Bukele’s distributions of food and money have buoyed his popularity and that of his Nuevas Ideas party.

A water truck makes deliveries in a locked-down village in rural El Salvador in the days before the left- and right-wing parties joined forces to lift the nationwide lockdown. (Miguel Patricio photo/Courthouse News)

The huge swing in the Salvadoran electorate that gave Bukele the presidency in 2019 stemmed from massive corruption scandals that drove from power the two ruling parties that shared the loot after the end of the Salvadoran Civil War: the formerly left-wing FMLN and the extremely right-wing ARENA, whose “leading light” was Roberto D’auBuisson, who ordered the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, and the assassination of the archbishop’s assassin.

D’auBuisson’s son, Roberto Jr.lost his bid for re-election as mayor of Santa Tecla, a fast-growing city to the west of San Salvadorin this year’s national elections in February that swept Nuevas Ideas into control of El Salvador’s unicameral National Assembly, with 56 of the 84 seats — a two-thirds majority.

Until the February elections, and the seating of the representatives on May 1, Bukele and his party did not have a single seat in the National Assembly. The reality the reformist president faced in that situation, in a nation whose politics were riddled for decades with corruption and violence, allowed the discredited politicos in both ARENA and the FMLN to hurl the “authoritarian” smear at the new president, who has exposed their tens of millions of dollars in graft from the national treasury — and U.S. media, including the usually reliable Post and Times, neither of which have full-time correspondents in El Salvador, fell for it. 

What’s indisputable, and unusual in Central America, is that Nuevas Ideas achieved a radical transfer of power on May 1 this year without a teargas canister fired, without a shot being fired.

The FMLN made a major blunder in 2017 by booting Bukele from the party. He was mayor of San Salvador at the time, with a growing reputation for fighting crime and corruption. His ouster from the party led to ARENA’s retaking of the mayor's office in the 2018 election.

Bukele and his supporters then began to organize the Nuevas Ideas party. An organizer told Courthouse News that discontent with the two major parties was so widespread that building the new party into the dominant political force in the country was relatively easy.

Obvious to everyone was that El Salvador was run by criminals who spent their time dividing up the public purse and pursuing luxurious lifestyles and mansions. It was a failed state, but one enthusiastically supported by the United States.

That began to change in August 2018, when El Salvador broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established relations with China. That split left Taiwan with diplomatic ties with only 17, mainly small, developing countries.

Money Works Better Than Bullets

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu accused China of trying to buy diplomatic support, a criticism, even if true, that lacks punch. Wu told The Associated Press that the break came because Taiwan had refused El Salvador’s request for large amounts of funding for its deep-water Pacific port project. Wu called it “an inappropriate development plan that risks causing both countries to fall into great debt,” according to the AP.

An interesting sidelight to the diplomatic split, according to the AP was that “Wu said El Salvador’s ruling party (FMLN) was also expecting Taiwan to provide funds to help it win in elections, but Taiwan refused.”

“It is irresponsible to engage in financial aid diplomacy or compete with China in cash, or even in providing illegal political money,” Wu told the AP. “My government is unwilling to and cannot do so.”


The diplomatic break came under the reign of Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, Bukele’s predecessor. Washington promptly called it a Chinese intrusion upon the American hemisphere and said it would review its relations with El Salvador.

President Nayib Bukele holds his ballots as he prepares to vote in local and legislative elections, at a polling station in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. El Salvador went to the polls in legislative and mayoral elections that could break the congressional deadlock that has tied the hands of President Nayib Bukele. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

Enter President Bukele, who gratefully accepted China’s offer of tens of millions of dollars in financial assistance for major infrastructure projects, including the deep-water port and railroads to facilitate trade and commercial development. The Trump administration found its scapegoat.

Bukele has been labeled an autocrat, a dictator and a human rights violator by Republicans and Democrats, The New York Times and The Washington Post. The reason is clear: Bukele is pursuing the interests of the Salvadoran people rather than that of the U.S. Embassy. So the most popular elected leader in Latin America is on Uncle Sam’s shit list. 

In El Salvador, extreme caution is exercised in trying to bring down a government. When it was tried in 1932 the response was a wholesale massacre of tens of thousands of indigenous peasants by the military government of Gen. Maximiliano Hernandez. In the days of the Great Depression and the coming ascendancy of the Nazis, this slaughter was barely noticed by the world press.

When a “progressive military coup” was attempted 1979 (the words are jarring), it failed, and El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war began, marked by massacres of entire villages, with U.S. backing.

Even today, one generation (29 years) after the end of the civil war, people do not open up to strangers, especially about gangs, corruption and politics. 

The United States objected to the first acts of the National Assembly, enacted shortly after the swearing-in on May 1. A prosecutor who refused to charge corrupt officials was replaced: as happens in most democracies, as in the purging of U.S. attorneys under the Trump administration. But only the National Assembly can replace the attorney general, not the president. So in his first two years in office, with no members in the national legislature, Bukele had no influence over charging decisions, and many political criminals were beyond his reach.

With Nuevas Ideas in charge of the National Assembly and the presidency, things have changed.

Many former officeholders are facing jail sentences if they don’t flee the country.

Former president Mauricio Funes (FMLN: president from 2009-2014) was granted citizenship in Nicaragua to avoid extradition to El Salvador to face charges he stole $350 million during his time in office.

Funes’ predecessor, Tony Saca (ARENA: ruled from 2004-2009) is serving a 10-year minimum sentence Mariona Prison, for embezzling and laundering more than $300 million in public funds. Six of his associates were convicted of allied charges. All have been ordered to return the stolen money, but it is likely that when Saca leaves prison he will enjoy his stolen millions somewhere else.

Saca’s predecessor, Francisco Flores Pérez (ARENA: ruled from 1999-2004) was accused of embezzling $15 million in aid from Taiwan for survivors of two massive earthquakes in 2001. He was the first former Salvadoran president to be indicted on corruption charges. He died on Jan. 30, 2016, under uncertain circumstances, the night before his corruption trial was to begin.

The United States expressed little outrage or interest in this long train of abuses, not to mention the massacres perpetrated during the civil war.

Why, then, has Bukele become the new target?

El Salvador has a weak executive system, so the president has no say in who gets on the Supreme Court, nor even who is attorney general. Those posts are determined by the National Assembly.

Is Bukele, then, ruling over a “dictatorship by the elected congress,” which won the votes of two-thirds of the nation’s districts?

Or is it because he’s putting his own country’s interests ahead of the supposed interests of the United States?

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