El Salvador’s president declines to meet with Biden’s envoy on the immigration crisis

El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, declined to meet with a visiting senior US diplomat this week over what he sees as a pattern of disdain from the Democrats and the Biden administration, according to two aides to the Central American leader.

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


It also comes just days after the Bukele government awarded a $ 1.2 million lobbying contract to the former State Department diplomat in an effort to improve ties with the new US president.

Zuniga traveled to El Salvador on Wednesday after talks in Guatemala about immigration amid an increase in child migrants at the US border. Upon arrival, he immediately announced a $ 2 million US contribution to an international commission seeking to step up the fight against corruption, which Biden officials say is one of the root causes of illegal immigration.

US officials had told local reporters in the capital of San Salvador that Zuniga hoped to see Bukele before returning to Washington on Thursday.

But Bukele has told aides that he will not meet with Biden officials until the US eases criticism and casts doubt on his commitment to democracy and the rule of law, the two people said, who spoke on condition of anonymity given diplomatic sensitivities. .

In particular, the two said Bukele was upset with the comments made by State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday that the US looks to Bukele to restore a “strong separation of powers where they have been eroded and shows that his government is committed to transparency and accountability ”.

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

Price’s comments followed a falling out between Bukele and one of his fiercest American critics, Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat who co-chairs the Central American caucus in Congress.

In a series of tweets last week, Torres accused Bukele of behaving like a “narcissistic dictator” who was indifferent to the plight of Central American migrants taking great risks to reach the US.

She included a photo widely circulated in 2019 showing the bodies of a Salvadoran migrant and his daughter lying lifeless in the Rio Grande on the Texas border.

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

Bukele pointed out that he was not even in office at the time of the death, which came during an earlier wave of Central American migration under the Trump administration. He urged Salvadorans and other immigrants living in the Torres district of Southern California to vote her out of office.

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

Despite all his fighting spirit, 39-year-old Bukele is by far the most popular politician in Central America, a region ravaged by corruption and crime. His New Ideas party defeated parliamentary elections last month with a landslide, and Bukele, who cultivates the image of a hip pragmatist, has sought to use China’s growing influence in the region to try new foreign investment.


But he’s struggling to get close to the Biden administration, which is trying to undo Trump’s harsh immigration policies that restrict asylum requests, which Bukele embraced in exchange for strong American support for his harsh style of government.

With the overhaul of US policy, El Salvador hired former Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon last month to hire Bukele’s many critics, according to reports of foreign lobbying at the US Department of Justice released this week.

The one-year $ 1.2 million contract with Arnold & Porter, signed by Bukele’s office on March 25, aims to strengthen El Salvador’s relations with the US and multilateral institutions at a time when the country is reportedly negotiates $ 1.3 billion in aid from the International Monetary 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 becoming to the US and El Salvador to have strong and positive working relationships. I hope I can help build those relationships.”

Shannon, who served as Acting Secretary of State for two weeks before Rex Tillerson took up his post at the start of the Trump administration, retired from the State Department in 2018 after a long-time career working on Latin America. He has been close to Zuniga since their days together in Brazil, when Shannon was the US ambassador from 2010 to 2013 and Zuniga was a political advisor.

Shannon, respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, Arnold & Porter has compiled a list of lobbying clients, including the governments of Argentina and Ecuador.

The law firm was also hired by the Honduran government in 2019 in what federal prosecutors say was an attempt to push aside an investigation into drug trafficking by President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s brother. Shannon was not involved in that contract, the stated purpose of which was to provide Honduras with legal advice on financing in the international market. But shortly after the deal was signed, Honduras lawyers contacted New York prosecutors to warn of possible “additional implications” for their case regarding US relations with the country, according to recent court documents. .

El Salvador’s recruitment of Shannon took place before the latest feud with Washington.

The two Salvadoran aides said they were confident that Shannon could build support in Washington by highlighting the lasting ties between the two countries. Chief among them are the more than 3 million Salvadorans living in the US, many of whom fled during the US-funded civil war of the 1980s and who are sending home money that is a major driver of the dollarized Salvadoran economy.

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

Bukele took office in 2019 as an independent vow to save El Salvador from the deep divisions left by uncontrolled gang violence and systemic corruption in both right-wing and left-wing governments following the end of a bloody civil war in 1992.

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

Relations with the Biden administration got off to a tough start when US officials refused to see him when he traveled to Washington unannounced in February, according to three people familiar with the decision.

Bukele has vehemently denied seeking a meeting with Biden officials during what he characterized as a private visit, which only came to light when it was reported by the AP.


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

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