El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele refused to meet with a visiting senior U.S. diplomat this week over what he sees as a pattern of light from the Democrats and the Biden administration, according to two aides from the Central American leader.
Bukele’s decision not to meet with Ricardo Zuniga, the Biden administration’s envoy to the so-called Northern Triangle countries in Central America, follows a similar snub he allegedly received from US officials during an unannounced trip to Washington in February.
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It also comes days after Bukele̵
Zuniga traveled to El Salvador on Wednesday after talks in Guatemala focusing on immigration amid a rise in child migrants at the U.S. border. Upon arrival, he immediately announced a $ 2 million U.S. contribution to an international commission seeking to strengthen the fight against corruption, which Biden officials see as one of the root causes of illegal immigration.
U.S. officials had told local journalists in the capital, San Salvador, that Zuniga was hoping to see Bukele before returning to Washington on Thursday.
But Bukele has told aides he will not meet with any Biden officials until the United States softens criticism and raises doubts about his commitment to democracy and the rule of law, according to the two people, who spoke on condition of anonymity given diplomatic sensitivity.
Specifically, the two said Bukele became angry with State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday that the United States looks forward to Bukele restoring a “strong separation of powers where they have been eroded and demonstrating his government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.”
The Salvadoran presidential presidency did not respond to a request for comment.
Price’s comments followed a scolding between Bukele and one of his harshest American critics, Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat who co-chairs the Central American Election Congress.
In a series of tweets last week, Torres accused Bukele of behaving like a “narcissistic dictator” indifferent to the situation of Central American migrants who take great risks to reach the United States
She attached a photograph that was widely circulated in 2019 showing the bodies of a Salvadoran migrant and his daughter lying lifeless in the Rio Grande on the Texas border.
“Send me a pair of glasses so I can see your people’s suffering through your eyes,” wrote Torres, who came to the United States as a child from Guatemala.
Bukele pointed out that he was not even in office at the time of the deaths, which came during an earlier rise in Central American migration under the Trump administration. He urged Salvadoran and other immigrants living in Torres’ Southern California district to vote her out of office.
“She is not working for you, but to keep our countries underdeveloped,” he wrote.
Despite all his fighting ability, the 39-year-old Bukele is by far the most popular politician in Central America, a region plagued by corruption and crime. His New Ideas party swept parliamentary elections with a landslide last month, and Bukele, who cultivates the image of a hip pragmatist, has sought to exploit China’s growing influence in the region to make new foreign investment.
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But he has struggled to get close to the Biden administration, which seeks to undo Trump’s tough immigration policies that limit asylum applications, which Bukele embraced in exchange for strong American support for his tough government style.
With U.S. politics under review, El Salvador last month hired former Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon to engage Bukele’s many critics, according to foreign lobbying records with the U.S. Department of Justice released this week.
The $ 1.2 million one-year contract with Arnold & Porter, signed by Bukele’s office on March 25, aims to strengthen El Salvador’s relations with the United States and multilateral institutions at a time when the country is reportedly negotiating 1.3 billion in assistance from the International Monetary Government. Fund.
“President Bukele is the most successful, politically stable and important leader in Central America,” Shannon said in a statement to the Associated Press on Thursday. “It is necessary that the United States and El Salvador have strong and positive working conditions. It is my hope to be able to help build these relations.”
Shannon, who served as acting secretary of state for two weeks before Rex Tillerson took office at the start of the Trump administration, retired from the State Department in 2018 after a career that included long stretches working in Latin America. He is close to Zuniga from their days together in Brazil, when Shannon was US Ambassador from 2010 to 2013, and Zuniga served as political adviser.
Respected by both Democrats and Republicans, Shannon has brought Arnold & Porter a list of lobbying companies that include the governments of Argentina and Ecuador.
The law firm was also hired in 2019 by the Honduran government in what federal prosecutors say was an attempt to push aside a drug trafficking investigation by President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s brother. Shannon played no role in this contract, the stated aim of which was to provide legal advice to Honduras regarding financing on the international market. But shortly after the agreement was signed, Honduran lawyers reached out to New York prosecutors to warn of potential “security implications” for their case over U.S. relations with the country, according to recent court submissions.
El Salvador’s hiring of Shannon took place before the final row with Washington.
The two Salvadoran aides said they trusted Shannon would be able to build support in Washington by highlighting the lasting ties between the two countries. Above all, the more than 3 million Salvadorans living in the United States, many of whom fled during the US-funded civil war in the 1980s and who are sending home money back, are a major driver of the dollarized Salvadoran economy.
The contract with Arnold & Porter was first reported on Wednesday by Foreign Lobby Report, an online publication that tracks the influence industry in Washington.
Bukele swept into office in 2019 as an independent pledge to save El Salvador from the deep divisions left by uncontrolled gang violence and systemic corruption in both right-wing and left-wing governments that followed the end of a bloody civil war in 1992.
But increasingly, Democrats – and some Republicans – have criticized him for strong-arm tactics such as sending troops to enclose Congress last year to pressure lawmakers to vote on funding for the fight against the gangs.
Relations with the Biden administration got off to a shaky start when U.S. officials refused to see him as he traveled unannounced to Washington in February, according to three people familiar with the decision.
Bukele has vehemently denied that he sought a meeting with Biden officials during what he characterized as a private visit, which only came to light when it was reported by the AP.
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Bukele has been lobbying for something of a lobbying company since last fall and has signed contracts worth more than $ 2.8 million with four lobbyists, including now Arnold & Porter.
But he allowed one of these, a $ 450,000 lobbying contract with Sonoran Policy Group, to expire on Feb. 14, also showing foreign lobbying records. Sonoran is led by Robert Stryk, who built one of the most successful lobbying firms under the Trump presidency, representing clients facing sanctions or a battered reputation in Washington such as the governments of Venezuela and Somalia and supporters of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.