Opinion / Politics

Will Biden Continue Dancing with Bukele on Migration?

El Faro
El Faro

Friday, February 9, 2024
Michael Shifter

Nayib Bukele was brimming with self-confidence on Sunday when he rushed to declare —no official count necessary— a historic landslide for another five-year term, claiming to have obtained 85 percent of the vote. The reelection was unconstitutional and could hardly be deemed “fair.” The playing field was heavily skewed, with massive state propaganda and persecution of dissenters, and the electoral authorities are gearing up for a recount before finalizing any results. Still, the Salvadoran president said he “pulverized” the discredited opposition and claimed that his political party, Nuevas Ideas, had secured almost total control of Congress. The election crystallized a system of one-man rule, stripped of judicial independence and checks and balances.

For now, the overwhelming majority of Salvadorans —in the country and the diaspora— are thrilled with the Bukele model and brand. It’s easy to see why. Over the past two years, backed by emergency powers, Bukele has dramatically reduced the levels of homicides and extortions that had terrorized the country for decades. Undeniable improvements in security, coupled with Bukele’s peerless mastery of communications and propaganda, have also made the charismatic Salvadoran leader a folk hero throughout the region. Though the nature of the security challenge differs widely from country to country, and El Salvador in many respects is sui generis, almost every government is trying to find ways to contain spreading criminality.

El Salvador’s improved security has, however, come at a huge cost for the country’s democracy, however flawed. The Bukele method —making deals with gang leaders and employing the police and military to round up and jail suspected gang members— has been executed with no regard for due process or rule of law. There is no question that among the 76,000 detainees are thousands of innocent Salvadorans. The rule of law, never robust in the country, is now non-existent. Bukele’s relentless attacks on the “elites,” civic groups, and the independent press (El Faro particularly targeted) were notably aggressive in his election speech. So far, most Salvadorans readily accept the tradeoff: security gains, they would appear to believe, can only be achieved at the expense of basic liberties.

Democracy, human rights, and security are also among the stated goals of the Biden administration’s Latin American policy. In practice, though, migration has been the top priority.   As a result, Washington has been in a quandary about how to best deal with Bukele. The ideal Latin American partner would be effective in its security policy while respecting human rights norms and practices and cooperating with the U.S. on migration. But rarely do all these desirable things go together, which poses tough choices for U.S. policymakers.

When Bukele initially exhibited his authoritarian tendencies, the Biden administration reacted by showing its displeasure: snubbing him in Washington, sanctioning some corrupt officials in his inner circle, and criticizing his anti-democratic moves. Washington was also worried about Bukele cozying up to China.

But early last year, the approach took a sharp turn toward greater accommodation. Confronting Bukele, with the goal of changing his behavior, proved ineffective, if not counterproductive. Picking a fight with the most popular and media-savvy Latin American president, one beloved by the Salvadoran community in the United States and admired by many in the region, was not a winning strategy.

In August 2023, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s warm welcome of Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hill signaled the shift and was followed by the visit last October of Brian Nichols, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America. The move to engage with Bukele is understandable but also carries risks for the administration. After all, Bukele has described himself as the “world’s coolest dictator.” To be sure, U.S. credibility on human rights and democracy has eroded in recent years, not least because of its treatment of migrants. But publicly backing Bukele’s authoritarian brand will make it harder for the U.S. to restore greater moral authority in the future.

Over the next nine months, migration will dominate U.S. policy in El Salvador and the region. The concern is driven by U.S. domestic politics, in the context of a high-stakes election in which immigration is Biden’s chief vulnerability. Moreover, although the improved security situation could be behind a modest dip in migration in the past two years, polls show that today the economy is the principal concern of most Salvadorans.

Even by regional Central American standards, economic growth has been disappointing, under 2 percent, and poverty levels remain high. Better security has not brought foreign investment. On the contrary, according to World Bank figures there has been a drop under Bukele. Remittances, mainly from the U.S., are the chief source of foreign exchange. Indeed, Bukele has proven to be a poor steward of the Salvadoran economy. His big gamble on bitcoin has so far been illusory. The country’s economic predicament is likely to become an increasingly important “push factor” driving Salvadoran migration to the U.S. and thus will be a growing focus of policy attention in Washington.

Corruption could also seriously undermine Bukele politically, especially in tandem with a weak economy. Credible investigations have already revealed a number of corruption scandals involving Bukele and his close associates, and there is no sign these will diminish. Bukele might believe that he can defy the adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But he would be hard-pressed to point to examples where this has happened.

Although Bukele is emboldened and determined to extend his run as the hemisphere’s most popular leader, his vulnerabilities will inevitably mount. It is hard to imagine a move to greater moderation on security. On the contrary, he is likely to double down on fighting gangs and intensify repression, which could trigger a greater backlash among Salvadorans than we have seen to date. It is unclear whether he will be able to deliver on the economy as he has on security. Bukele’s totally arbitrary rule, with no legal security, could discourage foreign investors.

Bukele might look even more to China, which in recent years has invested $500 million in infrastructure projects in El Salvador in recent years and is indifferent to human rights and democracy. The defiant Salvadoran president has been deft in trying to maximize economic support from both the U.S. and China and using the tension between them as leverage. The China issue will be especially important for the US no matter who wins the election in November, but especially so should Donald Trump return to the White House in January 2025.   Like the PRC, Trump will be unperturbed by violations of basic liberties or corruption, and will back Bukele’s hardline stance on security, but he is likely to be even more aggressive against China than he was during his first term.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, El Salvador’s vice president, Félix Ulloa, said the government is replacing democracy “with something new.” But it’s anything but new. It looks a lot like a dictatorship. Tragically, Latin American history is littered with them.

Michael Shifter is a Senior Fellow and the former president of Inter-American Dialogue, a leading policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs based in Washington, D.C.

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