El Salvador’s Moment Of Truth

The omnibus legislation passed on December 18 includes $750 million to be spent in the Northern Triangle of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The funds are specifically aimed to mitigate the symptoms that sent a surge of unaccompanied child migrants across the U.S. border in 2014. This new funding, along with the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity, announced in November 2014, present an immense opportunity for U.S. cooperation in the region, but many questions remain in terms of how the United States will support the implementation of the initiative. Designed by the three Presidents of the Northern Triangle countries and spearheaded by the Inter-American Development Bank, the Alliance for Prosperity aims to promote economic growth in the region and improve long-term security outcomes. As the largest bilateral donor in the region, the United States has a key role to play in the implementation of the Alliance.

When seeking to create change in El Salvador, the United States must work with the most anti-American leadership of the three in Northern Triangle governments. Many in Washington question this government’s commitment to reform, as well as its willingness to work with the United States. That said, many individuals I spoke with, both in and out of government in El Salvador, suggested that the United States can and should demand more from the government of El Salvador when providing assistance. Venezuela’s economic decline and El Salvador’s poor relationship with China (due to its recognition of Taiwan) mean that El Salvador has few alternatives to U.S. support.

El Salvador
San Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. During my visit, I was warned not to go out at night. (Photo courtesy of José Alejandro Álvarez Ramírez (JOSAL) under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.)

Jean Elizabeth Manes was recently confirmed as the next U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, and will be a central actor as the Alliance for Prosperity is operationalized. Ambassador Manes has very big shoes to fill–outgoing Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte, an Obama political appointee, has been a very effective interlocutor for the United States. A native Spanish speaker, Aponte is beloved by many Salvadorans and spoken of in almost reverential terms by career American representatives. It is crucial that the next U.S. Ambassador be comfortable asking tough questions and facilitating key dialogues across the political spectrum in El Salvador, particularly in light of the new resources that will be disbursed across the Northern Triangle.

 El Salvador, like its neighbors, has seen significant turmoil and transformation over the past 30 years. The Salvadoran Government and rebels of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) signed historic peace accords in 1992 at the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, alongside observers from the UN and Roman Catholic Church. The decade-long civil war ended with over 70,000 casualties, over 1 million individuals displaced internally and in other countries, and the formation of a political party from the former-guerilla FMLN fighters.

Today, El Salvador is a middle-income country of 6.5 million people and a stable, two-party democracy. Unfortunately, these significant achievements have been threatened by paralyzing political polarization, high unemployment and single days with more than 40 murders in the capital of San Salvador. Violence has overtaken the city, hindering the daily movement of people and basic business operations. When I was in San Salvador late last year, I was warned not to walk the streets or drive at night even in the nicest parts of the city. The current government seems to lack a long-term vision for tackling security and governance issues in the country. They have alternated between negotiating a truce and a “mano dura” approach to criminal gangs with little decrease in violence.

 In spite of immense challenges, El Salvador has significant growth potential due to its strategic geographic location, reputation for high-quality labor, dollarized economy and strong civil society and education system. In order to tap into this potential, El Salvador will need smart foreign assistance and partnership that goes beyond providing for basic human needs. Individuals I spoke to within the public and private sectors envisioned El Salvador becoming a hub for aviation and sea freight, as well as continuing to grow in communications; around 17,000 individuals are already employed in Salvadoran call centers serving multinational businesses. Many Salvadorans, particularly those who once lived in the United States, have the strong English skills valued by international firms.

El Salvador has a young population, with 32% of Salvadorans between the ages of 10 and 24. It is important to note that first-time voters in the last two elections, 2009 and 2014, did not grow up during the civil war, do not remember the violence often instigated by the FLMN, and as a result, may favor the FMLN. Former top FMLN military commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén was elected President in March 2014 by a margin of only 6,300 votes. This second leftist administration may have been a reaction to concerns among voters about corruption within the last two governmentsof the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA). Corruption continues to be a major problem in the country, and it scores a 39 out of 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

While American engagement has been inconsistent in Central America in recent decades, the United States has a strong legacy of building productive institutions in El Salvador, ranging from investing in its education system to standing up its Congressional Budget Office. FUSADES, a think tank that was built with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1983, is now financially independent and a respected source of policy research. Other world-class think tanks, including FUNDE, conduct impressive economic research, and have excellent ideas about the country’s economic and social future. It is important that U.S. leadership works closely with these strong domestic organizations, and helps to foster dialogue among the public that could help to mobilize political will for reforms.

Unfortunately, the United States has also played a role in the proliferation of El Salvador’s violent criminal street gangs. San Salvador’s largest gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, became prolific after gang members were deported from Los Angeles and other American cities in the 1990s. In an immense failure to understand the consequences of placing criminal leaders in a city with weak intuitions and weak familial ties, the pandilleros, or gang members, were not given social support or resources to help them integrate into Salvadoran society. Today, the estimates of active members ranges from 20,000 to 70,000, with most people believing that gang members and their affiliates and contacts come to over 100,000 individuals around the 8,000 square mile country. To deal with a threat of this scale, it will be vital to focus on eliminating the root causes of violence, reducing inequality, and building stronger national institutions.

El Salvador’s future success is closely tied to economic and security interests of the United States. There are over 1.5 million Salvadorans, or 20% of the total Salvadoran population, currently living in the United States. Remittances are a significant source of income for Salvadorans, making up 16.8% of GDP in 2014; the majority of this money comes from the United States. El Salvador has been a valued partner on defense and foreign policy priorities, sending over 3,000 troops to Iraq from 2003 to 2008, and sending Air Force Trainers to work with Afghan air units in 2011.

While in El Salvador, I spoke to many individuals about what the country needs to cut down on corruption and build less polarized, more resilient institutions. Many brought up the CICIG (Comison Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala), an independent, international body set up to support high-level criminal prosecution in Guatemala that has brought remarkable change to the country, including charges against Guatemala’s President and Vice President. When asked if El Salvador needed a CICIG-like institution, many were in favor, but others believed that Salvadorans do not need an outside entity to improve governance in the country. While many Salvadorans are still wary of intervention, international actors like the United States will continue to play a central role in the country’s future.

Article Published in Forbes.com on January 19, 2016.

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