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Biden administration reportedly snubbed El Salvador’s president on Washington trip

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele
President Nayib Bukele speaks to supporters outside congress in San Salvador on Feb. 9, 2020.
(Salvador Melendez / Associated Press)

The Biden administration turned down a meeting request with El Salvador’s president on an unannounced trip to Washington last week, as criticism of the Central American leader mounts among Democrats, three people with knowledge of the decision said Monday.

The trip by Nayib Bukele, which has not been previously reported, came after a senior White House official warned in an interview with a Salvadoran news outlet highly critical of Bukele that the Biden administration expected to have “differences” with him.

Bukele was quick to embrace former President Trump’s hardline immigration policies restricting asylum requests, which won him a great deal of U.S. support for his tough governing style in El Salvador, where he is popular. But like other world leaders befriended by Trump, he faces an uphill climb pivoting to the Biden administration, which is seeking to undo those policies and has signaled its relationship with El Salvador is under review.

The president’s surprise trip amid a pandemic posed a dilemma for U.S. policymakers. They were given little advance notice and are mostly avoiding in-person meetings due to the coronavirus and because many senior positions remain vacant, said the three people, all of whom are in Washington and insisted on speaking anonymously in return for discussing internal decision-making.

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In rejecting Bukele’s request, the Biden officials wanted to ensure Bukele didn’t try to tout any meeting as a show of support before legislative elections this month where he’s seeking to expand his power base, the people said. However, they did make an exception for Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno, who met in Washington with senior Biden officials shortly before the Andean nation’s presidential election.

El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill Tinoco said she was unaware of any request for meetings with U.S. officials during what she described as a short, private trip by Bukele to Washington.

“There was no request, formally or informally, through the foreign ministry or our embassy in Washington,” she said.

The three people didn’t say how the request for a meeting was made. But they said the decision not to meet with Bukele was deliberate.

While the Biden administration hopes to eventually engage Bukele in its $4-billion plan to attack the root causes of migration from Central America, it has serious concerns about his respect for the rule of law and democracy, the people added.

“Clearly conditions have changed for Bukele,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch in Washington. “His popularity in El Salvador doesn’t insulate him from legitimate scrutiny in Washington over his record on human rights and respect for the rule of law.”

The State Department’s Western Hemisphere section said the Biden administration values what it considers a strong relationship between El Salvador and the United States and will work closely with its partners to address challenges in the region. A spokesperson declined further comment.

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

Polls say an overwhelming majority of Salvadorans approve of his tough approach, which is credited with reducing high levels of violence, and his allies are expected to win a majority in this month’s congressional vote.

But increasingly Democrats, but also some Republicans, have criticized Bukele for strong-arm tactics like sending troops to surround congress last year to pressure lawmakers to vote on funding for the fight against gangs.


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