Central America / Newsletter

U.S. Gives Up on Mending Ties with Bukele

The interim U.S. ambassador to El Salvador will leave her post this week, citing the Bukele administration’s lack of interest in crossing “a bridge” of dialogue, as well as El Salvador’s refusal to extradite senior MS-13 leaders wanted on terrorism charges and concerns about the proposed “foreign agents law.” In Nicaragua last Friday, the Ortega regime announced it will leave the Organization of American States.

Monday, November 22, 2021
El Faro English

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The top U.S. diplomat in El Salvador, Jean Manes, announced on Monday morning that she will step down. “Why would I stay here if we don’t have a partner at this time?”, Manes said Monday morning on staple morning television show Frente a Frente. “When El Salvador wants to converse, our door will be open.”

In May, the Biden administration appointed Manes as chargé d’affaires to try to repair bilateral relations after accusing the Salvadoran president of antidemocratic acts in the illegal removals of the attorney general and Supreme Court magistrates on May 1. Manes, who served as U.S. ambassador in El Salvador from 2016 to 2019, had a close relationship with then-San Salvador Mayor Bukele and returned to El Salvador this May to convince him to stop weakening the country’s democratic institutions.

Sources in Washington explained at that moment that Manes’ job would be “undo what she did” when she introduced Bukele as a promising political ally to the White House during the Trump Administration. Bukele leaned on these inroads with Trump to consolidate initial U.S. support for his political project.

Rather than cooling tensions, Manes has constantly butted heads with the Salvadoran president over attacks on civil society and press freedom, his steps toward unconstitutional reelection in 2024 (Manes even compared him to Hugo Chávez), and, more recently, the Bukele-controlled Supreme Court’s refusal to extradite senior MS-13 leaders wanted on terrorism charges in the United States.

Jean Manes, chargé d
Jean Manes, chargé d'affairs of the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, on Nov. 22, 2021. Courtesy U.S. Embassy.

In announcing her departure, Manes condemned the newest source of tension in the international community: the administration’s “foreign agents” bill requiring non-profit organizations and independent media who “are directly or indirectly funded by a foreigner” to register as foreign agents, submit to government inspections, and pay 40 percent tax on all foreign income. Failure to comply can result in cancellation of legal status.

Bukele has argued that the bill is no different from the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, an inaccurate comparison that we dissected in our Nov. 10 newsletter. 'The [Salvadoran] Foreign Agents Law has nothing to do with the U.S. law,” Manes rebutted on Monday, adding: “That law isn’t about transparency.”

For now Bukele’s party has held off on the final vote, originally scheduled for Wed. Nov 17.

The same day as the scheduled vote, the German Embassy temporarily suspended all future grassroots funding projects, citing concern about the law. “Very alarmed by the Foreign Agents Law in El Salvador,” tweeted German Minister of State Niels Annen. “This law would complicate the cooperation between the civil societies of our countries and considerably limit their margin to maneuver. An urgent call to reconsider this project.”

“Germany’s announcement was clear because it reiterated that the population, especially the poorest, would be the most-affected,” Ricardo Castaneda, analyst with the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies, told El Faro English.

The bill racked up a broad range of condemnations as the vote approached, including from a coalition of 50 Salvadoran human rights organizations, the Association of Salvadoran Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and multiple U.N. special rapporteurs. 

“This measure raised alarms, not only as one adopted by authoritarian regimes, but rather because it was essentially an attack against international cooperation,” said Castaneda. “Not a very intelligent decision in the context of IMF negotiations where [the administration] needs the support of the international community.”

Nicaragua moves first and quits OAS

Nicaragua also made a major move to further isolate itself from the international community. Just as President Daniel Ortega had long signalled prior to his reelection, the Nicaraguan government announced it will begin the two-year process of breaking ties with the Organization of American States (OAS). Cuba and Venezuela are the only other non-member countries in the hemisphere.

On Nov. 12, days after the re-election of Ortega and wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo, 25 OAS member states — notably excluding Mexico, Honduras, and Belize — condemned the election as fraudulent and unfree. The OAS set a two-week deadline for reviewing the country’s potential suspension.

Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada announced the departure on Friday while standing under a painting of revolutionary Augusto Sandino, who led an uprising against the U.S. occupation a century ago. “We should stop being members of that sewer once and for all,” said Ortega in June. “It’s clear that it’s a tool of domination of the Yankee empire.”

Nicaragua’s exit comes at a moment when the OAS has been “strongly criticized for partiality and ineffectiveness in guaranteeing democratic stability in the region,” Salvadoran human rights advocate Celia Medrano told El Faro English. “As long as the OAS does not overcome these weaknesses, Nicaragua could be the first of other countries to take the same actions in which, unfortunately, human rights aren’t a priority.”

Foreign governments increased their sanctions against the Nicaraguan government after fraudulent elections, while the debate about the effectiveness of these actions continues. 

The U.K. and Canada issued a travel ban and asset freeze on Nov. 15 against senior officials including Murillo, the attorney general, and Supreme Court president. The E.U. called the government a “fully autocratic regime” following the elections. Ortega retorted that the E.U. is led by “fascists” and “Nazi parliamentarians.”

As promised before election day, the Biden administration blacklisted nine senior Nicaraguan officials and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, freezing any assets held in the United States and prohibiting U.S. citizens and residents from doing business with them. The next day, Biden banned all officials in the Nicaraguan government and their families from the U.S. The administration is reviewing Nicaragua’s standing in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

“Building alternative democratic institutions is more important than punishing the dictatorship,” wrote Enrique Gasteazoro, general manager at independent Nicaraguan newsroom Confidencial, in a post-election op-ed.  “Many of the sanctions and other forms of pressure are little more than a kind of symbolic punishment with little impact.”

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