El Salvador: A pragmatic U.S. response should follow Chinese inroads

Rather than ostracizing El Salvador, the U.S. should focus renewed attention on enhancing its support to Central American institutions working to enforce the rule of law.


On August 20, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador announced that his country was severing diplomatic relations with Taiwan to establish ties with China. Rumors, stoked by Salvadoran opposition politicians and the Taiwanese, are that El Salvador only recognized China after Taiwan demurred from financing a port project that Sánchez Cerén’s leftist governing party wanted to announce in the buildup to next year’s presidential elections. Linking its embrace of China with El Salvador’s support of the pariah states of Nicaragua and Venezuela, conservative critics in Washington are questioning the value of partnership with the Salvadoran government.

Yet the U.S. has recognized China since 1979, making this a puzzling issue on which to stake our bilateral relationship. El Salvador’s critics on the American right conflate the deep cultural, political, and economic ties between the U.S. and El Salvador with our global rivalry with China.  This is extremely worrisome; in the 1980s, El Salvador also found itself in the middle of the U.S. rivalry with the Soviet Union, which contributed to the country’s civil war.

The U.S. should not overreact to El Salvador’s recognition of Beijing. Instead, the U.S. should focus renewed attention on enhancing assistance to Salvadoran institutions working to enforce the rule of law. Developing effective democratic institutions will make El Salvador resilient to any malicious Chinese attempts to expand influence. More importantly, it will lay the institutional groundwork to make Central America a safer and more prosperous region.

Consider the motives for partnership with El Salvador: The U.S. is home to 1.2 million Salvadoran-born immigrants, whose $5 billion in remittances contributed 18.3 percent of El Salvador’s GDP in 2017. The Salvadoran diaspora took shape in the United States in the 1980s, as refugees fled a civil war fought by a U.S.-backed military junta against rural insurgents. El Salvador now enjoys a boisterous electoral democracy. But more than 25 years after peace accords were signed in 1992, Salvadoran politics are still marked by deep polarization. Salvadoran institutions—particularly the police, prosecutors, and judges—are either weak or deeply politicized. These factors constrict the state’s ability to jumpstart an economy that fails to generate opportunities and develop an effective response to the powerful gangs that control large swaths of the country.

After the end of the Cold War, El Salvador (indeed all of Central America) faded from focus in Washington, notwithstanding some un-sustained interest related to drugs or gangs. This began to change in 2014, when thousands of Central American children, fleeing brutal violence inflicted by gangs and, less often, state security forces, began arriving at our border to apply for asylum. By 2017, Central Americans made up 98 percent of minors and more than 50 percent of all adults apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Congress and the Obama Administration responded in 2015 by forming the Alliance for Prosperity with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Congress agreed to nearly double U.S. foreign aid to the three countries, with the goal of addressing the root causes of migration: poverty, violence, and weak governance. Beyond providing an increase in funding, Congress also wanted to incentivize structural reforms—like implementing asset forfeiture laws, creating independent judiciaries, and rooting out corruption in police forces—that for decades had been resisted by governing elites uninterested in developing institutions that could hold the corrupt (read: themselves) accountable. Congress guarded against sponsoring insincere efforts at reform by withholding delivery of U.S. assistance until the governments made progress to secure their borders against traffickers, investigate official corruption, and respect human rights. In essence, the Alliance for Prosperity amounted to a major increase in U.S. assistance to establish the rule of law in Central America.

Yet three years after the launch of the Alliance for Prosperity, U.S. assistance has not succeeded in encouraging the structural reforms necessary for the rule of law. There have been some tactical advances thanks to U.S. assistance, including programs providing training to prosecutors and technical assistance to cities looking to adapt replicable strategies used in Los Angeles to reduce gang violence. But on the whole, it’s hard to detect any shift towards an independent judiciary, effective investigations, and honest police forces.

Establishing the rule of law of course depends far more on the political will of Central American politicians than on U.S. assistance. But blaming Central American intransigence does not excuse flaws in the current U.S. approach to the rule of law, which could be significantly improved, even without increasing spending.

First, the U.S. should articulate an actionable strategy for promoting the rule of law in Central America, identifying a lead agency responsible for each component of the strategy. U.S. assistance is currently overseen by an alphabet soup of federal agencies with overlapping mandates. And as a recent report from the Wilson Center for International Scholars correctly notes, U.S. agencies do not share a common definition of rule of law, which leads to confusing contradictions and duplications in programming. The strategy should be country-specific, with the objective of influencing host-country spending within a reasonable period of time.

Second, the U.S. cannot condition its assistance on the ideology of governing parties, as corruption is not confined to a single party or country. Castigating corruption in the left-leaning Salvadoran government while praising the similarly corruption-prone right-leaning Honduran government only emboldens corrupt conservatives. The U.S. must combat the pernicious notion that it only triumphs the rule of law as a way of weakening governments it opposes by demonstrating consistency in denouncing corruption throughout Central America.

Third, the U.S. should rebalance its rule of law assistance away from building the operational capacity of elite units towards empowering civil society to advocate for reforms. For decades, the U.S. has trained and equipped elite Central American units to execute joint operations against criminal targets like cartel bosses. But it is unsurprising that these SWAT-like units have done little to increase the capacity of police forces that remain otherwise underpaid and poorly equipped. Instead, the U.S. would be wise to take a longer view by building the capacity of independent organizations to advocate for structural reforms like creating effective police forces. Civil society organizations are able to closely monitor politicians, convene protests, and sustain a locally relevant agenda far more successfully than the U.S. government, and should be a key component of the rule of law strategy. (The U.S. has some experience here, including in Honduras, where the U.S. funded a civil society organization to advise the government on its efforts to reform the national police.)

Fourth, Congress and the Department of State must speed up the process for certifying Central American countries’ progress and disbursing U.S. assistance. Far from incentivizing good behavior, the conditioning process is slow and opaque. The fact that the Department of State certified Honduras’ respect for human rights two days after Honduran military police began beating protesters following contested elections in late 2017 points to the slow (and, critics say politicized) nature of the conditioning process. This confusion dilutes the impact that the decision to either withhold or grant assistance is supposed to have.

Finally, leaders in Congress and the Trump Administration must exercise more personal diplomacy in engaging Central American political leaders and business elites. By investing in the time required for this diplomacy, U.S. leaders would communicate that they value partnering with Central America and expect meaningful progress. Such high-level diplomacy also has the potential to break through any bureaucratic delays in the delivery and coordination of U.S. aid.

It would be a mistake for U.S. policymakers to stake our partnership with El Salvador on the country’s recent embrace of China. This would reduce our engagement with Central America to our rivalry with China, when the reality is that partnering with Central America is crucial for the prosperity and security of our hemisphere. Our shared not-too-distant history with Central America should serve as a reminder of what can happen when we let global rivalries determine how we carry out regional relations.

Jimmy McDonough is a consultant specializing in business development, political analysis, and project evaluation for non-profits in Central America. He previously managed Central America programs for the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the largest private donor to the region. He received a B.A. in Latin American Studies from the University of Chicago.

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