The Last Thing El Salvador’s New President Needs Is for the United States to Cut Billions in Aid

A version of this op-ed was originally published June 20, 2019, by the Miami Herald.

The morning of June 1, I sat in the scalding heat outside El Salvador’s newly painted National Palace. I was awaiting the inauguration of Nayib Bukele, the sixth president to be sworn in since the peace accord ended that country’s civil war in 1993. It was the country’s first open-air inauguration in modern times, and the people loved it.

The contrast between the catcalls from the crowd as the luminaries of the two former dominant left/right parties were announced and the booming cheers for Bukele and his vice president, Felix Ulloa, a democracy guru, underscored the huge expectations facing the incoming government.

Complicating Bukele’s task, however, is President Trump’s March 30 announcement that the United States is cutting all aid to the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras until migration stops. The order, clearly made without consultation and criticized as counter-productive by most experts, has thrown the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other government and federal agencies into a tizzy. The two-week aid review stretched to 12, before the State Department on Monday confirmed rumors of as much as $1 billion being diverted from fiscal year 2018 and 2019 funds, plus any unobligated funds from FY17.

For El Salvador, it comes at the worst possible time. Bukele is the first president not representing the traditional conservative elite or the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas who had battled for 12 years after the right-wing assassination of Archbishop, now Saint, Óscar Romero in 1980. Bukele, a 37-year-old former FMLN mayor, later thumbed his nose at the FMLN hierarchy when it rejected his candidacy for the presidency. He ran on a third-party ticket and became the only first-round presidential election winner in the country’s post-war democratic history, wielding social media and a message of anti-corruption, anti-poverty, and pro-change.

Bukele’s initial presidential decrees kept faith with his supporters. The first told the military to remove the name of Col. Domingo Monterrosa from the military base where he had been given that honor despite having led a massacre of 1,000 unarmed men, women, and children at El Mozote in 1981. Other presidents had promised to do the same. Bukele delivered. The second order fired a former guerrilla leader accused of killing Salvadoran leftist poet Roque Dalton.

Meeting expectations inevitably depends on Bukele, his young and relatively untested new cabinet, and his ability to craft a strategy that enables more jobs, economic growth, and better governance than those of his predecessors. But his success also depends on support from Washington.

As someone who has been traveling back and forth to El Salvador for five decades, after serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer, I can tick off the challenges easily: a homicide rate among the world’s highest for a country not at war; corruption that has tarnished at least three presidents, an attorney general, and several ministers; and poverty still a reality for a third of the population according to the World Bank. Those factors, especially the fear of the “Maras,” drive migrants north.

Bukele also has moved forward on his campaign promise to establish an anti-corruption entity. I met with those drafting the independent investigatory body. They are determined to weave their proposal so as to garner anti-corruption movement allies, support the attorney general, and ensure the new administration against a repeat of Odebrecht, cartel, and Petrobras scandals.

Cutting key U.S. support has almost no backing in the U.S. Congress and conflicts with the Mexican insistence that halting migration requires addressing the factors that drive families to flee their countries.

What is even more surprising is that the Trump cutoff takes no notice of El Salvador’s recent successes, especially in high violence municipalities targeted by USAID, reducing homicides by more than 60 percent since FY 2015 and in cutting migration, both of unaccompanied minors and families, by near equal percentages according to U.S. Border Patrol figures .

Penalizing El Salvador when it has shown great success in addressing the factors of migration and when it has a new president whose message resonates both in El Salvador and here, makes little sense.

Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former assistant administration for Latin America at USAID, former U.S. Peace Corps director and former deputy assistant secretary of State for Human Rights.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved

Mark L. Schneider
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Americas Program and Human Rights Initiative