"The United States Can’t Fix the Problems of El Salvador or Honduras"

José Luis Sanz / Washington


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Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) was the last member of Congress to leave the Capitol Building on January 6. When supporters of Donald Trump began storming the building, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was told to leave the floor and asked McGovern to temporarily take over the session: “‘See you shortly,’ she told me. She even left her phone there, so I imagine she expected she would be back,” McGovern recalls.

She never did. Minutes later, the Massachusetts congressman suspended the session and instructed his Democratic and Republican colleagues to don the gas masks under their seats and evacuate the premises. He was the last one out.

As he passed by the adjacent room, he saw the mob through the glass doors. “People said we were afraid. No, I wasn’t afraid; I was sad, and I was angry” he said. “I was sad because I’ve spent a big chunk of my life in the Capitol building. I was an intern for Senator George McGovern when I was in college. I worked for Representative Moakley for many years. I met my wife, who worked for another congressman, in the Capitol. And I’ve been a member of Congress for many years. And to see people destroying the building…”

When he saw the assailants breaking the glass, trying to knock through the barricade of chairs and desks that the Capitol Police had used to try to block the door, he recalls telling someone next to him: “These are not protesters.” And he thought that the Trump supporters were there not to make a point, but to kill members of Congress.

The storming of the Capitol will scar U.S. politics for decades. The investigation into what happened is ongoing, and the rift in trust between some members of the House and Senate will take years to heal — suspicions linger that some Republicans assisted the mob, and only nine Republicans voted in favor of the impeachment of Donald Trump for instigating the insurrection.

Amid the polarization, which has soured the Biden administration’s prospects for advancing a major immigration bill and other reforms, McGovern, one of the U.S. legislators closest to Central America and most influential in regional policy, reflects on the authoritarian governments and U.S. responsibility in the region. 

He says that the United States should have pushed a sort of Marshall Plan in the 1990s to help rebuild El Salvador. He also, unprompted, compared Nayib Bukele to Trump, and warned of the dangers when those in power wield hateful rhetoric: “Language used by any leader is important. We should not be tolerating leaders who incite violence, who use language that is incendiary, dangerous.”

Did the January 6 attack on the Capitol change your understanding of what must be done in the United States, or change in some way your sense of urgency, or the priorities for this political moment?

The reassuring news is that our democratic institutions held strong. The will of the American people was respected and Joe Biden was ultimately sworn in as president. But we learned that our democratic institutions are fragile, we can’t take them for granted, we have to fight to protect them, and we have to insist that they be respected. 

I don’t recall ever in American history, and I majored in history in college, having somebody in the White House quite like Donald Trump. And let me be very clear: Donald Trump has fascist and authoritarian tendencies. His role models are people like Vladimir Putin. He wanted to be and he wants to be all-powerful. That’s just who he is, and to me that’s been clear from the very beginning. But a lot of people tolerated his hateful rhetoric and disrespect for the norms that usually govern politics in this country. 

He had enablers in the House and Senate, and powerful people in the media who gave him a pass, who didn’t call him out on some of what he was doing. He lost the election in a big way, by close to 7 million votes. Yet he still tried, thankfully unsuccessfully, to steal the election at the last minute. He thought he could get Vice President Pence to disregard the Constitution, and enough senators and congresspeople to disregard the constitution. 

The sad thing is that he got a lot of Republican senators and congressmen to do so, and that’s what’s really shocking and disturbing to me even in this moment. Even in the aftermath of this attack, we had members of Congress and Senate get up, continue to advocate the big lie that somehow Donald Trump won by a landslide, and then vote to nullify the legitimate election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania.That, to me, is unconscionable. 

You talk about fighting to protect the institutions of government. But there seem to be two ways to do that. One is looking for common ground and consensus in a moment of extreme polarization. The other is to double down on your position, and it seems to me that it’s a debate inside the Democratic Party. Should the Democrats and Biden be stronger in their political moves, or look more for bipartisan agreements in this moment of political polarization?

President Biden is open to bipartisan agreements, as he’s said repeatedly. But let’s not forget how the Republicans treated President Obama. Mitch McConnell said, right after Obama was inaugurated, that their job was to make sure he got nothing done and lost the next election. 

Bipartisanship and collaboration require some willingness on behalf of some Republicans to engage. We’ll have to wait and see whether that’s the case. But we’re in a crisis right now. We have to crush the virus and rebuild our economy. This is a time of great urgency. We don’t have time to play political games, so yes, we need to try to build bipartisan consensus.

Biden is reaching out to Republicans. A number of Republicans are giving him high marks and supporting his Covid relief package. I want them to pressure their politicians to act like adults and put the interest of the country before their own political ambitions. We have to get things done. People are dying. People are losing their jobs. We don’t have the luxury of therapy sessions and months and months of give-and-take on one bill. 

Is it the same for the immigration bill, or other central proposals of this administration?

Trump didn’t start this, but he certainly poured gasoline on the fire. In the Republican base there has been a growing anti-immigrant sentiment. Republicans have demonized immigrants and used disgusting and racist rhetoric in attacking immigrants. One of the challenges is that Republicans wanting to win their primaries feel they have to cater to that narrow-minded group of voters. As a result it has been very hard to get the kind of consensus on migration that we used to be able to get.

But we have to fix our immigration laws. How much of our immigration system we can fix remains to be seen. We need to provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and TPS holders to give these people who have contributed greatly to our country peace of mind. That has to be done. 

Some of what we need to do is just follow our laws. Donald Trump violated U.S. and international law in terms of how he dealt with asylum seekers. We need to restore some humanity at our border. Only some of those things Biden can do without Congress. We need to push as hard as we can. Going another two or four years and making no progress on immigration is, to me, unacceptable. And the challenge for Democrats is if we can move a big immigration bill forward, or if we have to do it in a piecemeal way. And I hope some Republicans will support us. 

Maybe the question is, as you said, we don’t have time for political games, but is there still political space for debate?

I want there to be debates. One of the things that I continue to be appalled at is how Republicans treated Obama. They were obstructionists, they wouldn’t allow any of his ideas to come to the Senate or House floors for debate. They just blocked everything. That’s not politics. 

People like Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski have said they want to work on compromises with the Biden administration, and I think the Biden administration will be open to that, but not to endless negotiation aimed at getting nothing done. 

We’re in an emergency situation right now, so we don’t have the luxury of dragging discussions on a relief package for months. People are waiting in food lines in my home city here in Worcester. We’ve asked for Republican input. Biden has met with some Republicans. Hopefully some of them will vote for it, but we need to get stuff done. 

And on immigration, Republicans were complicit in four years of cruelty by the Trump administration. Biden introduced the bill saying, “I’m willing to work with you, let’s start working.” But we have to uphold our values. We’re going to try to get as much done as possible, hopefully with bipartisan support, and there’s an opportunity for Republicans to make some suggestions, but we have to learn from the past and can’t just allow them to be obstructionists. 

In Central America, the promises that the Biden administration made have generated a lot of hope about a new relationship with the United States. 

Trump ignored Central America. To a certain extent, President Obama didn’t spend nearly enough time focusing on how we can have a better relationship and be more helpful in Central America. I’m hoping Biden will be different and that he’ll focus on issues of impunity, corruption, rule of law, and justice, as well as economic investments that empower people, aimed at providing opportunities so Central American economies can thrive. 

A lot of people come to this country because there are no economic opportunities in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. It makes sense to me to figure out how the global community can help the economy of places like El Salvador. 

Secondly, people come here because of violence. We have to deal with issues of corruption, rule of law, accountability. 

Speaking of Donald Trump, it is important that leaders, whether in the United States, in El Salvador, or in any other country, be mindful that their words have consequences. When you say things that are inflammatory, target people, turn a blind eye to violence against certain groups of people, as a result you create more civil unrest, and you undercut the ability for the economy to grow. Who wants to invest in or start a business in a country they don’t think is stable, where there is too much corruption or violence? 

How do you stem the discourse of violence?

As horrible as these four years of Donald Trump have been, and as horrible as these last few weeks have been, including the January 6 insurrection, we have an opportunity to be better, do things better, and move forward in a way that empowers people and provides strong disincentives to wanna-be dictators like Trump. Out of all this negativity, I’m looking at this moment as an opportunity.

I think the same thing about El Salvador. Sometimes I think there are similarities between Bukele and Trump, and I worry about  the people of El Salvador because of that. I’ve learned over these past four years that it’s important to respond to things that people say that are wrong. Donald Trump and his supporters said a lot of crazy things, and his supporters said a lot of crazy things over the last four years, and many people, myself included, said, “I’m not going to dignify that with a response, it’s just outrageous.” But if you don’t respond to it, it gets repeated, people begin to believe it, and then a dangerous situation develops. 

People who care about El Salvador’s future need to speak out, to demand better. You mention I’ve been involved with El Salvador for decades. I spent a lot of time there during the war, I lost a lot of friends in that war. And to me it breaks my heart when I see that things are still so difficult for the people of that country. People deserve better. They’ve been through too much. Rational, thoughtful people who care about democracy, who care about accountability, who want to see an end to corruption, they need to use their voices. I think they’re going to have some allies in the Biden administration, and certainly some allies in Congress. 

You’re talking about the need to speak out for those who want to protect democracy, or are worried about hate speech. Is that happening in the United States? 

I think that all of us have a new appreciation that we can’t take our democratic institutions for granted. That we need to constantly work to protect them. Look, January 6 was about overturning the will of the American people. It was essentially an attempted coup. Our democratic institutions prevailed, but it was a wakeup call for everybody. I hope the lesson for members of Congress and the American people is that we have to be more vigilant and pay attention when people are using language like Trump did, which threatens the legitimacy of our democracy. 

When you say protect or be more vigilant, are you saying to be more clearly progressive in the face of the reactionary discourse?

First of all, I’m a liberal. I’m somebody who believes in a more progressive Democratic Party, but this is not about progressive versus conservative, or Left versus Right. The bottom line is that whether you’re Republican or a Democrat, you ought to respect the will of the American people. Period. Nobody wants to lose an election, but if you lose an election, you need to leave office. I don’t care what your politics may be. 

When you have a President who uses language that incites violence, who somehow seems to be okay with violence, people will follow the President’s lead. And that’s what happened on January 6. Language used by any leader is important. We should not be tolerating leaders who incite violence, who use language that is incendiary, dangerous. 

You talked about the instability that comes from authoritarianism, and how it affects investments. But in Central America we have authoritarian regimes that counted on, or still count on, the complicity of the private sector, as well as corrupt regimes that are quite stable and tolerated. For a long time now, Juan Orlando Hernández has been tied to drug trafficking. And there’s basically a consensus that he was reelected four years ago in a fraudulent election.  

Honduras has paid a price. The people have paid a price. You’ve had authoritarian regimes in Central America and Latin America that claim that they’ve brought in an era of stability, but what they’ve done is basically jail and kill opposition leaders and squashed legitimate uprisings by people who were being exploited. There’s no case, in my opinion, to justify authoritarian governments that don’t respect the rights of all people. My philosophy is that the rights of all people should be respected, whether you’re the richest or poorest person in the country. 

In the case of Central America, do you think the United States will take a firmer position? We are now talking about the Engel List and other tools about sanctions. Do you think sanctions and a firmer approach are the way to not tolerate authoritarian tendencies in Central America?

I think sanctions targeted at individuals who are guilty of corruption or human rights violations are important, but I don’t believe in blanket sanctions to hurt people. I don’t think that’s the best approach. I’m the author of the Magnitsky Act. Those are targeted sanctions at individuals guilty of corruption and human rights violations. I think that, for people who are guilty of those things, there has to be a consequence.

Even if they are in office?

Yes, even if they are in office. It doesn’t have to be a business person. It could be a politician. I’m for sanctions against officials in China responsible for their policies against the Uighurs and the Tibetans. I’m not for blanket sanctions on all Chinese people, but those individuals who are responsible for these terrible things. There has to be a consequence. If not, then what’s the incentive for them to stop?

Are you worried about the excess of influence of the United States in the region? Right now, in Honduras, or Nicaragua, or in El Salvador, there are a lot of people looking to the United States like the savior, the big player that can change things. 

That’s a mistake. Ultimately, the problems in El Salvador are going to be fixed by the people of El Salvador. The United States can’t fix the problems in El Salvador. The United States can’t fix the problems in Honduras, or in any country. We have problems in our own country. But we can play a role in trying to make it more difficult for those who are guilty of corruption and human rights violations. 

This is my critique of the United States in El Salvador, as somebody who has been going to El Salvador since the early 1980s: we funded a war in El Salvador in the 1980s that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Salvadorans, that destroyed the country. Thousands were disappeared. There was a brutal, terrible war, and we took sides and we funded a military that raped and killed nuns, that murdered Jesuit priests, that killed student leaders, union leaders. And then, when there was finally a peace agreement, we walked away. 

In the aftermath, the United States should have led an international effort to essentially come up with a Marshall Plan approach to help El Salvador rebuild, to create more opportunity for people who lived through that terrible war. We didn’t do that. Our economic assistance dropped considerably after the war. We built this massive embassy in El Salvador because we thought we’d be there forever, that the war would go on forever. And now much of that embassy complex is empty. 

The United States can play a positive role, but in the case of El Salvador, given our history, which is not a history we should be proud of, we have a moral obligation in El Salvador to help the country rebuild. We should be more generous to the immigrants coming to the United States from El Salvador. We should be more interested in working with community leaders to figure out how we can support community-based economic development to create opportunities for people. We ought to provide more assistance to help professionalize the police force, and we should provide more support to judges who want to crack down on impunity and corruption. 

The United States can’t solve all the problems in the world, and we certainly can’t solve all of El Salvador’s problems. Ultimately, the people of El Salvador are going to have to determine their future. 

Do you think the Biden administration has that kind of understanding, not only of the region or El Salvador, but about the historical role of the United States?

To be fair, I haven’t had a lot of in-depth conversations with the president or his State Department yet. I think I know that his inclinations are to care deeply about human rights and about the people in El Salvador, but he’s just putting his administration together. A lot of the positions that will be key to U.S. policy in El Salvador haven’t been filled yet. 

I’m hoping President Biden and Vice President Harris will understand that the people of Central America are important and that it’s in our interest to be a good neighbor, to help in efforts to strengthen democracy and create opportunity. I hope that it will be one of their foreign policy priorities. If not, I’ll be very disappointed, quite frankly. But I know that President Biden’s heart is in the right place when helping the people of Central America.

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