With each new journalistic or judicial investigation into high-level corruption and crime, Central American leaders have found a lifeline in U.S. ambassadors willing to scrub their public image. By dint of blackmail, the Trump administration has demanded an end to unauthorized immigration, promising in return the label of “reliable partner” and issuing blank checks to the presidents of the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America which have underwritten their attacks against the fragile democratic orders they lead.
As U.S. journalist Jon Lee Anderson recently observed in Newsweek, the turn of the decade has left the Americas with “thugs like Bolsonaro, Trump, and Bukele, spurning their countries’ democratic institutions, and undermining their societies with their tweets, vulgarity, and everyday decrees.”
The Trump administration, in its complicity and silence, has offered an enabling hand to these thugs in Central America.
Would the relationship change if Joe Biden wins the presidency on November 3? Maybe so. Thus far, former Obama diplomats advising Biden have stated that a Biden White House would be much more attuned to and strident in its stance toward authoritarianism in Central America. Maybe so.
Trumpism in Central America
Take El Salvador, where Trump appointee Ronald Johnson has publicly and privately stood by Nayib Bukele in his thorniest predicaments. Ambassador Johnson’s strategy is, at times, subtle: he stays quiet when the press, international human rights organizations, and even U.S. legislators of both major parties have demanded answers from Bukele for attacking journalists, flouting Constitutional Court rulings, or concealing public information. With the passing of each storm, Johnson cues up a tweet to reassert his good relationship with Bukele. Examples abound.
Bukele faced one of the gravest threats to his image thus far on September 3 when El Faro published an extensive investigation into the administration’s backchannel negotiating with MS-13 in search of electoral support for Nuevas Ideas, the president’s party, as well as a drop in the homicide rate. The investigation hinged on official documents that Bukele and his acolytes have failed to debunk.
Ambassador Johnson, meanwhile, carefully tip-toed around the events before dutifully showering praise on the administration. “Salvadoran and U.S. institutions are cooperating like never before, especially in the fight against the gangs,” he tweeted, one day after the publication of El Faro’s investigation.
Cornered by questions bolstered by the international press about the gang negotiations, Bukele lunged at El Faro and other journalists and outlets who had uncovered inconsistencies, corruption, and potential illicit associations within his administration. In response to the president’s counterattack against the press, he received a flurry of signed letters of bipartisan condemnation from the United States Congress.
On September 23, six Republican members of Congress—some of them Trump-friendly—sent a letter to Bukele expressing concern at the “slow but steady abandonment of the rule of law and democratic norms.” The next day, Bukele leveraged a national broadcast to smear journalists and critics of his government and announced that the Treasury Ministry would investigate allegations of money laundering by El Faro. He then shrugged off the letter, along with another signed days before by 12 congressional Democrats. “Anyone can get a signature from Congress,” he said.
The ambassador, as before, held his peace. To date, Johnson has said little about Bukele’s attacks against the Salvadoran press, whereas even his boss, Undersecretary of State Michael Kozak, weighed in.
When Bukele marked the start of his flirtations with authoritarianism on February 9 by storming into the Legislative Assembly with the military and police, Ambassador Johnson only managed to ask that the branches of the Salvadoran state try to work out their differences.
Even as Bukele’s international image appears to have faltered, the Trump administration represented by Johnson remains a pillar of support for the Salvadoran administration.
Honduras and Guatemala have followed the same pattern.
The case of Honduras is perhaps the most brazen. U.S. prosecutors and former diplomats have named the president, Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH), as an unindicted co-conspirator in a drug trafficking case condemning his brother, Tony Hernández. The case also implicated his sister, his former private secretary, and his minister of security.
Even as revelations of JOH’s potential collusion in drug trafficking surfaced in Tony’s trial in Manhattan federal court, Trump diplomats in Tegucigalpa hurried to upload pictures of them together with the president and other administration officials to their social media, touting their strong alliance along a number of issues including the fight against drug trafficking.
The affinity between Trumpism and JOH began in earnest upon Hernández’s 2017 reelection following a deeply controversial constitutional interpretation allowing him to run for a second consecutive term. International organizations with even an iota of credibility noted were marred by fraud, yet Washington signed off on it all.
Two days after the disputed elections, while the international community had yet to certify Hernández’s victory, the State Department touted Honduras’s progress in the fight against organized crime and corruption. This blank check not only validated the election, but gave the president, his political party, and the army political room to maneuver.
In the case of Guatemala, the Trump administration stood by and watched the collapse of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), perhaps the most successful multilateral experiment in supporting high-impact investigations and criminal prosecutions in the history of Latin America.
Former president Jimmy Morales and his entourage, similarly besieged by investigations into corruption, illicit election financing, and fraud, made the expulsion of the CICIG their top priority.
Flanked by an important sector of the Guatemalan business elite that the CICIG had investigated and taken to court for embezzlement, Morales wielded the state apparatus to spy on international investigators and the local prosecutors supporting the work of the commission, as part of a smear campaign and lobbying effort to convince Washington conservatives to retract political support for the CICIG. In one of his most infamous authoritarian episodes, Morales dispatched armed military vehicles donated by the United States to encircle the commission’s headquarters in Ciudad de Guatemala.
The Trump administration, undaunted, watched the CICIG crumble. “Barring 100 percent support for the CICIG from Washington, Morales was going to expel it from the country,” noted Stephen McFarland, U.S. ambassador to Guatemala from 2008 to 2011.
In a report issued on October 21, Ranking Member Bob Menendez of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote: “Committee staff heard from former US diplomats who served in the Trump administration that US diplomats on the ground saw first-hand how President Trump's action undermined the US Government ability to promote democracy.” “[Find original English quote].”
The Trump administration’s envoys and actions have enabled the antidemocratic tendencies of the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, thereby normalizing a president’s entry into the Legislative Assembly flanked by the military, electoral fraud, and the destruction of the few mechanisms for criminal prosecution of corruption.
In exchange for the blank checks, these leaders met Trump’s only requirement: unwavering submission to his immigration agenda, which for some Trump allies is a matter of ideology—if not theology, former ambassador McFarland told me—and, for Trump himself, an axis of his campaign rhetoric. From July to September 2019, all three northern Central American governments signed binding asylum cooperation agreements requiring them to receive those traveling to the United States to legally request asylum. El Salvador even created its own border patrol. Less democracy in exchange for less migration.
Bidenism in Central America?
To return to the question: Would this all change if Joe Biden wins the presidency on November 3?
The Democrats’ record in Central America, at least that of Obama and Biden, is better than that of Trump. During the Obama administration, Washington conditioned some international aid on countries’ democratic records, at least on paper. On one hand, they gave Guatemala and CICIG decisive political support. On the other, in its first years the Obama administration upheld the coup d’état in Honduras that paved the way for Juan Orlando Hernández’s ascent.
Given Biden’s track record, though, it seems fair to conclude that the foreign policy of a Biden administration would not look as kindly upon quid pro quos or the issuing of blank checks. But if a potential Biden administration were to prove unable to promote democracy and rein in Central American authoritarianism, Washington could yet again be an accomplice in the destruction of the region’s ever fragile democracy.