On September 4, 2019, the freshly anointed U.S. Ambassador Ronald Johnson landed in El Salvador. In the waning months of his ambassadorship, he has had a strong media presence, usually flanked by President Bukele or the minister of defense, and regularly communicating with the public using his Twitter account, where a few tweets have been posted that were probably not intended to be publicly aired.
Assessing his performance is no easy task. The common misperception of an ambassador as a well-dressed diplomat living large in a luxurious house who spends their waking hours rubbing shoulders with the ruling elite in receptions, dinners, and vacations, has all but vanished today. The professionalization of the diplomatic corps, along with globalization, are responsible for the creation of more concrete and complex tasks which demand greater ability and dedication on the part of the diplomat.
Nor does Johnson fit that outdated mold. His résumé is that of an army colonel with more than three decades of military service, former CIA officer in the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, and graduate of the National Intelligence University. While true that in the world of international relations the diplomat and spy go hand in hand, their tasks and behaviors are quite different.
During the last 60 years, more than 80 percent of the U.S. Ambassadors sent to El Salvador have been career diplomats, along with a few businessmen and one politician. Johnson is the only ambassador to our country from the U.S. Army or CIA. Worth mentioning among them are figures such as Robert White (1980 – 1981), who repeatedly sounded the alarm about the human rights violations carried out by the police, military and death squads. He was dismissed at the start of the Ronald Reagan administration for criticizing the counter-insurgency policy of the Secretary of State. Throughout the armed conflict and up until his death in 2015, he denounced the massacres of the conflict.
We must also remember Ambassador Thomas Pickering (1983-85), not only for his clear denunciation of the human rights violations during the period in which he served as ambassador, especially in his closing speech, but also for his crucial role in the peace negotiations as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. As direct advisor to the U.N. Secretary General for El Salvador, he exerted huge sway on George H.W. Bush’s policy in the country.
Just as ambassadors faced many difficulties in conducting their work during the armed conflict, Johnson has faced a particularly acute dilemma under Trump, a president who has employed aggressive and abrasive rhetoric when referring to our country and its inhabitants. According to the Washington Post, in a meeting with immigration officials, he affirmed that the receiving countries of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) were “shitholes,” and threatened to cut off assistance to Central America “if they can’t stop the drugs.” In fact, USAID, the United States’ lead agency for international aid, has already cancelled its assistance to El Salvador for 2021.
On another occasion Trump threatened to use force against Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala in order to coerce the countries into accepting the deportation of gang-affiliated migrants, claiming that “the vast majority of undocumented Central Americans arrive to join MS-13.” Finally, referring to the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America, and explicitly to El Salvador, Trump said “they aren’t our friends” and has declared that MS-13 is “the gravest threat to American public safety.” With this rhetoric, it makes it extremely difficult for any ambassador to seek to establish friendlier relations between the two countries, as the ambassador set out to achieve before his arrival to our country.
In President Bukele, though, Ambassador Johnson has found a typical “yes-man” in implementing Trump’s disastrous anti-immigrant policy, thereby discarding his duty to advocate on behalf of more than a third of Salvadorans. The Bukele administration not only failed to respond to the hateful rhetoric; it has hailed as a triumph its having “the friendliest relations with the United States,” and claimed credit for the extension of TPS, which in fact hinged on the decision of a federal judge.
The Salvadoran administration even went a step further, signing hardline immigration cooperation agreements with the Trump administration without any public resistance and despite clear violation of international law. Among them is the declaration of El Salvador as a “safe third-country” for migrants prevented from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
This Salvadoran foreign policy of capitulation is not new, but rather has been the running policy of many administrations—with some honorable exceptions, such as our policy in the second decade of the twentieth century toward the invasions of the U.S. Army in the Caribbean and Central America. Together with Costa Rica, El Salvador’s policy led to the treaty between the U.S. and Nicaragua about the use of the Gulf of Fonseca, ensuring that it was resolved in our favor.
The ambassador’s stated interest in fostering closer ties and cooperation has thus placed him in an ambiguous situation: on the one hand, his government systematically threatens, insults and attacks our population; and on the other, he is dealing with a government that does not express genuine friendship, but rather subservience.
Ambassador Johnson has chosen to ingratiate himself as much as possible with Bukele, offering him support and largely steering clear of political hot buttons. He has repeatedly appeared not only at official diplomatic events, but also in others in which he would not normally be present, such as presidential press conferences and even the baptism of the president’s daughter.
Case in point was the ambassador’s response in the days following El Faro’s publication of negotiations between high-ranking officials and leaders of the MS-13, when a journalist asked for his opinion on the issue. The most important thing, he said, was the decline in homicides. His response truly peeved the Bukele government, which had sharply denied the veracity of the publication and accused El Faro of publishing fake news. Evading the question without condemning the pact between the gangs and the government, however, was a significant blow for the ambassador’s ultimate boss, Trump, since it gave the impression that it didn’t matter if the government was bartering for electoral votes with gangs. That one action already represented a serious departure from the rhetoric of President Trump, who had sermonized on bringing an end to and not negotiating with “the worst enemy for the internal security of the United States.”
A second break with decorum was the ambassador’s attendance of Milena Mayorga’s swearing-in as ambassador of El Salvador to the United States in an unusual live national broadcast. He should have known, or embassy staff should have informed him, that according to the Vienna Convention ambassadors can only be sworn in when the receiving government — in this case, the U.S. — has expressed that it does not have any objection to the nomination. The government of President Bukele, by contrast, called the press and the entire country to a swearing-in ceremony without having received the approval from the State Department, an offense to the receiving country. The presence of Ambassador Johnson, therefore, was a grave mistake.
Additionally, the public appearances of the ambassador, usually flanked by members of the armed forces, have become more frequent. This could be interpreted as part of the politics of President Bukele, who has increasingly turned to the armed forces for political support, but could also be explained by the ambassador’s own professional military service.
I therefore find Ambassador Johnson’s October 30 press conference surprising—firstly; because the embassy itself called for the conference; and secondly, because of the two messages delivered there. First, the ambassador stated that America’s friendship with El Salvador depends on respect for the laws and constitution. Such a statement — in a situation where both national and international reports of Bukele’s administration undermining the rule of law have increased — should be read as a warning from the State Department to the government. The second message was a call for an end to partisan attacks and pluralistic negotiations toward national consensus. President Bukele’s reluctance is clearly illustrated in his oft-repeated applause line that ‘we must turn the page on the post-war era.’ All preceding leaders were bad, the logic goes, and his government is the only solution. In this sense, the Bukele administration’s actions and the ambassador’s October remarks were polar opposites.
A prominent leftist politician who served as Ambassador of El Salvador to the United States, Rubén Zamora is a founding member of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (Frente Democrático Revolucionario – FDR) and the Democratic Convergence (Convergencia Democrática – CD), as well as a negotiator of the Peace Accords. In 1994, Zamora was the presidential candidate for the leftist coalition CD-FMLN-MNR.
*Translated by Isaac Norris