President of El Salvador despises Biden’s visit envoy

MIAMI (AP) – El Salvador President Nayib Bukele refused to meet with a visiting US diplomat this week about what he sees as a pattern of contempt on the part of Democrats and the Biden government, according to two aides to the leader Central American.

Bukele’s decision not to meet Ricardo Zuniga, the envoy of the Biden government to the so-called North Triangle countries of Central America, follows a similar contempt he reportedly received from US officials during an unannounced trip to Washington in February.

It also happens a few days after the Bukele government awarded a $ 1.2 million lobbying contract to the former State Department’s longest-serving diplomat in an attempt to improve ties with the new American president.

Zuniga traveled to El Salvador on Wednesday after talks in Guatemala focused on immigration amid an increase in the number of migrant children on the border of the United States. Upon arriving, he immediately announced a US $ 2 million contribution from the United States to an international commission that sought to strengthen the fight against corruption, which the Biden authorities see as one of the main causes of illegal immigration.

Zuniga expected to see Bukele before returning to Washington on Thursday, according to a State Department spokesman.

But Bukele told advisers that he will not meet with any Biden authority until the United States softens criticism, raising doubts about his commitment to democracy and the rule of law, according to the two people, who spoke on condition of anonymity, given diplomatic sensibilities.

Specifically, the two said that Bukele was irritated by comments by State Department spokesman Ned Price. On Monday, the United States expects Bukele to restore a “strong separation of powers where they have been eroded and demonstrate its government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.”

The Salvadoran presidential press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Price’s comments followed a fight between Bukele and one of his most ferocious critics in the United States, Congresswoman Norma Torres, a Democrat who co-chairs the Central American political convention in Congress.

In a series of tweets last week, Torres accused Bukele of behaving like a “narcissistic dictator” indifferent to the plight of Central American migrants who take great risks in reaching the United States

She attached a photograph that was widely circulated in 2019 showing the bodies of a Salvadoran migrant and her daughter lying lifeless in Rio Grande, on the border with Texas.

“Send me a pair of glasses so that I can see the suffering of his people through your eyes, ”wrote Torres, who came from Guatemala to the United States as a child.

Bukele stressed that he was not even in office at the time of the deaths, which occurred during a previous wave of migration from Central America under the Trump administration. He urged Salvadorans and other immigrants living in the Torres district of southern California to vote against her.

“It doesn’t work for you, but to keep our countries underdeveloped,” he I wrote.

Despite all his combativeness, Bukele, 39, is by far the most popular politician in Central America, a region plagued by corruption and crime. His New Ideas party swept the legislative elections in a landslide victory last month and Bukele, who cultivates the image of a modern pragmatist, has sought to leverage China’s growing influence in the region to woo new foreign investment.

But he has struggled to get closer to the Biden government, which is trying to undo Trump’s hard-line immigration policies that restrict asylum applications, which Bukele has adopted in exchange for strong U.S. support for his rigid government style.

With US policy under review, El Salvador hired former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon last month to engage Bukele’s many critics, according to foreign lobbying records released with the US Department of Justice released this week. .

The $ 1.2 million one-year contract with Arnold & Porter, which was signed by Bukele’s office on March 25, aims to strengthen El Salvador’s relations with the United States and multilateral institutions at a time when the country is negotiating $ 1.3 billion in international monetary assistance Fund.

“President Bukele is the most successful, politically stable and important leader in Central America,” Shannon said in a statement to the Associated Press on Thursday. “It is up to the United States and El Salvador to have strong and positive working relationships. It is my hope to be able to help build these relationships ”.

Shannon, who served as acting secretary of state for two weeks before Rex Tillerson took office at the start of the Trump administration, retired from the State Department in 2018 after a career that included long periods working in Latin America. He is close to Zuniga’s days together in Brazil, when Shannon from 2010 to 2013 was an ambassador for the United States and Zuniga served as a political adviser.

Respected by Democrats and Republicans, Shannon brought Arnold & Porter a list of lobbying clients that includes the governments of Argentina and Ecuador.

The law firm was also hired in 2019 by the Honduran government in what federal prosecutors say was an attempt to ward off a drug trafficking investigation by President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s brother. Shannon played no role in that contract, the stated purpose of which was to provide legal advice to Honduras in terms of financing in the international market. But shortly after the agreement was signed, Honduran lawyers contacted New York City prosecutors to warn about the possible “collateral consequences” of their case in the United States’ relations with the country, according to recent court documents.

Shannon’s hiring for El Salvador occurred before the last dispute with Washington.

The two Salvadoran aides said they trusted Shannon to be able to build support in Washington, highlighting the long-lasting ties between the two countries. First, are the more than 3 million Salvadorans living in the United States, many of whom fled during the United States-financed Civil War in the 1980s and who send home money that is one of the main drivers of the dollarized economy. El Salvador.

The contract with Arnold & Porter was first released on Wednesday by the Foreign Lobby Report, an online publication that tracks the influence of the industry in Washington.

The State Department said that Zuniga sought a wide variety of meetings in El Salvador, including with Bukele. In the end, he met with Chancellor Alexandra Hill, Attorney General Raul Melara – a strong critic of Bukele – and also with business leaders and representatives of non-governmental organizations. He stated that the meetings aimed to lay the foundations for building an already strong dialogue with the Bukele administration at all levels and civil society.

Bukele took office in 2019 as an independent oath to rescue El Salvador from the deep divisions left by uncontrolled gang violence and systemic corruption in right and left governments that followed the end of a bloody civil war in 1992.

However, more and more Democrats – and some Republicans – criticize him for his strong tactics, such as sending troops to surround Congress last year to pressure lawmakers to vote on funding the fight against gangs.

Relations with the Biden government got off to a rough start when American officials refused to receive him when he traveled unannounced to Washington in February, according to three people familiar with the decision.

Bukele vehemently denied seeking an appointment with Biden officials during what he characterized as a private visit, which only surfaced when it was reported by the AP.

Bukele has had a sort of lobbying spree since last fall, signing contracts worth more than $ 2.8 million with four lobbyists, including now Arnold & Porter.

But he allowed one of those, a $ 450,000 lobbying contract with Sonoran Policy Group, to expire on February 14, they also show records of foreign lobbying. Sonoran is chaired by Robert Stryk, who built one of the most successful lobbying firms during Trump’s presidency, representing clients facing sanctions or injured reputations in Washington, such as the governments of Venezuela and Somalia and supporters of the founder of Wikileaks , Julian Assange.

AP editor Marcos Aleman in San Salvador contributed to this report.

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