In a 2009 episode of HBO‘s Flight of the Conchords, Brian, the fictional prime minister of New Zealand, wants to meet the American president. Unable to convince the White House switchboard operator that New Zealand is a real country, Brian travels to Washington and instead takes a public White House tour hoping for a “chance” meeting with the president.
Real life heads of state do not normally travel to Washington uninvited in hopes of scoring a meeting with the president.
Yet Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele did just that in January.
Perhaps expecting the informal, transactional approach of President Joe Biden‘s predecessor, Bukele showed up unannounced and asked for a meeting with the newly inaugurated president. Neither the fictional Brian nor the very real Bukele got their presidential meeting.
Bukele’s snub had nothing to do with a switchboard operator doubting that El Salvador was real. The Central American country is front and center in the immigration debate dominating the early days of the Biden administration.
Last year caravans formed in El Salvador on candidate Biden’s promise of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. As that promise makes its way into legislation and the caravans make their way north, unimpeded by Trump-era immigration law enforcement efforts in Guatemala and Mexico, the likelihood of a humanitarian crisis on the U.S. southern border grows by the day.
Salvadorans do know their way to the southern border. An estimated half-million fled to the United States during a civil war that stretched from 1979 to 1992. Around 1.4 million documented Salvadoran immigrants are known to live in the United States today, nearly a quarter of its population. Add in their children, and the number approaches 2.2 million. Another estimated half million undocumented Salvadorans are in the U.S. Despite being roughly the same size and population as Massachusetts, El Salvador is second only to Mexico as an immigrant source country.
Mass migration from a war-torn El Salvador in the 1980s was predictable. The continued migration of Salvadorans to the United States four decades later paints a picture of a nation in a perpetual state of crisis. El Salvador’s principal export, coffee, has left its wealth concentrated in the hands of a few landowners. Its unabated security crisis since the war has discouraged tourism and foreign investment.
The country’s homicide rate, which in the years following the war approached a staggering 150 per 100,000 citizens, had fallen to 100 per 100,000 in 2015. By 2020, it was down to 52 per 100,000. As encouraging as the trend seems, El Salvador remains statistically the most dangerous place on the planet. With its growing population overwhelming the availability of legitimate sources of employment, most Salvadorans are left to decide between becoming a part of the country’s growing criminal underworld or joining a migrant caravan destined for the United States.
El Salvador’s 39-year-old, counter-establishment president won election in 2019 on the promises of reforming a corrupt system, reducing gang violence and building El Salvador’s economy through foreign investment and tourism. Two years later, he remains enormously popular among Salvadorans, with his party winning a supermajority in last month’s legislative assembly elections. It is the first time since El Salvador’s civil war that the same party has controlled both its executive and legislative branches.
Yet the results of Bukele’s tenure have been uneven at best. His government has most recently come under criticism for its handling of COVID-19, from a premature economy-crippling lockdown to allegations of improper use of funds allocated to fight the pandemic.
To his credit, Bukele has waged a public campaign against El Salvador’s two gangs, MS-13 and 18th Street. But falling crime rates have been more the result of a negotiated truce between gangs and government, with the gangs agreeing to reduce violence (aside from extortion, their primary source of income) and deliver a reliable voting bloc for Bukele’s party in last month’s congressional elections. Bukele’s predecessors reached similar truces with the same gangs, with crime rates later surging as the truces inevitably fell apart.
Then there is Oscar Rolando Castro, a Bukele cabinet-level official with well-documented ties to MS-13 and drug trafficking. While politicians linked to organized crime are not uncommon in Latin America, Bukele’s appointment of Castro is not befitting a politician promising to reform a corrupt system.
Topping it off, in an apparent fit of autocratic youthful exuberance, Bukele last year brought a Salvadoran military battalion to the Salvadoran Congress in order to force through a vote on security spending.
What’s the fun in having a military at your disposal if you never use it?
Bukele’s ill-fated trip to Washington last month was emblematic of his patent desire to partner with the U.S., which presents an opportunity for the Biden administration. Biden’s opening salvos on immigration reform included $4 billion of direct aid to Central America. Any such aid, to date administered through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, should hinge on a renewed commitment to transparency in Bukele’s government, including prompt removal of Castro. But direct assistance to governments lacking good track records in transparency does not seem the best approach.
A better approach would incentivize corporate investment and security in Latin America.
U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) championed Opportunity Zones, an innovative idea that provides tax incentives for investment in economically distressed areas of America. A similar approach in Latin America would bring in the private investment and capital necessary to transform the region into a place that people want to come to, rather than a place that people escape from.
But for foreign investment to transform El Salvador, its security situation must improve dramatically. Additional government funding of non-governmental organizations operating effectively in El Salvador, like International Justice Mission, and expansion of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, would lead to the criminal justice reform crucial to its future. Countries with effective criminal justice systems do not negotiate truces with criminal organizations. They arrest them.
“Outside, it’s America”—with those words in the 1987 song “Bullet the Blue Sky,” U2 lead singer Bono laid the humanitarian horrors of the Salvadoran civil war at the feet of the United States. The narrative was that the U.S.-sponsored Salvadoran military was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, leading to a mass migration of Salvadorans “into the arms of America,” the very nation funding the Salvadoran military.
The situation was more complex than that.
The Soviet-backed Communist Party seized control of Cuba and Nicaragua, which in turn were supporting the Salvadoran rebels. The same Communist Party was responsible for over 100 million deaths of innocent people in the 20th century, and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua and rebels of El Salvador were involved in their share of human rights atrocities. The U.S. had no operational control over the counter-insurgency efforts of the Salvadoran military. Yet the criticism is valid. The U.S. did support a regime that was responsible for military operations targeting innocent civilians.
The U.S. has an opportunity to reshape that narrative.
Bukele, in a 2019 speech at the Heritage Foundation, said that El Salvador does not “want aid, we want to do business with you.” Biden should hold the young president to that.
Incentivize investment to build the Salvadoran economy, promote reformation of its criminal justice system and the nation at the heart of the burgeoning border crisis could become a symbol of renewed hope in Latin America.