El Salvador

Will cutting aid stop Bukele?

Bnamericas Published: Thursday, May 27, 2021
Will cutting aid stop Bukele?

The reduction in aid to El Salvador and President Nayib Bukele is part of a strategy to increase pressure on him to fall into line, according to experts.

Following the May 1 removal of all the constitutional court judges, the attorney general and the anti-corruption chief, international reaction has been critical of Bukele. This included the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) saying that some programs in the country would be cut.

“I think that the United States has exhausted the phase of strong messaging and they’re in a very slow way beginning to ratchet up consequences,” analyst Noah Bullock told BNamericas.

On May 11 and May 12, Joe Biden's special envoy to Central America, Ricardo Zúñiga, met with Bukele after he had refused talks in April. Zúñiga suggested that El Salvador revert the removals.

Bukele’s reply was the changes were “irreversible.” 

A list of corrupt officials that Guatemala-born US representative Norma Torres had pressed for was eventually released. This highlighted Bukele’s chief of staff Carolina Recinos as having "engaged in significant acts of corruption during her term in office."

Four other members of El Salvador’s political elite were mentioned but not from the traditional, and now opposition, ARENA party. This was something Bukele seized upon to call it an issue of geopolitics, not corruption.

In a statement, USAID cited the actions of May 1 for its withdrawal of support. According to lawyer and author Tim Muth, this could play into Bukele’s hands.

“He views the groups that are advocating for transparency and separation of powers as the political opposition. He will view money going toward those of kinds of NGOs as directly funding his opponents,” Muth told BNamericas.

In response, Bukele has ordered his attorney general Rodolfo Delgado and the national assembly to analyze the current NGO law. Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei has a similar bill to decide on as Central American politicians look to silence critics.

The programs being cut include those directly related to security and some designed to assist at-risk youths, to combat gangs and support women's groups like UNI mujer ODAC.

In response Bukele admitted USAID can send its money wherever it wants but it would be illegal to fund political opponents.

Muth expects further conflict in this area, especially if USAID were to fund independent media either directly or indirectly. He also questions whether this makes sense if one of the US’s primary foreign policy aims is to reduce migration from Central America.

“Walking away from things that will reduce crime and reduce dealing with gang issues could backfire in terms of leading to more migration,” said Muth.

As an alternative to US funding, El Salvador’s national assembly has passed over US$1bn worth of international loans from a variety of multilateral organizations. Those loans had been negotiated prior to May 1 but not passed by the previous national assembly.

Bukele’s internal popularity remains high as his second anniversary in office approaches. His party Nuevas Ideas received 75% support in recent national assembly and local elections.

Part of this is down to delivering sufficient vaccinations, with seven Honduran mayors asking for doses for their residents and a Guatemalan mayor, Neto Bran, doing likewise. 

“The relationship between Honduras and the vaccine is a fascinating question. Beyond Bukele wanting to show himself off as a humanitarian and to show up Honduras, does he have broader aspirations?” asked Muth.

The government continues to provide food packages to communities throughout the country and the murder rate remains at post-war lows. Combined it is easier to see why the average person in El Salvador may believe things are getting better under Bukele.

Whether this is financially sustainable remains in doubt, especially if international organizations, warned by people on the ground in El Salvador, are concerned about the rule of law.

“There’s an increased pressure to be able to draw a line with Bukele and be able to effectively counter what looks like, especially in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, to be setbacks in the democratic rule of law and fight against corruption,” Bullock said.

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