(WASHINGTON) — Despite an increasingly vocal chorus of condemnations from the Biden administration and U.S. lawmakers of both parties, El Salvador’s president and his allies are pushing ahead with what critics call a power grab.
The growing political crisis in the central American country presents a stark challenge for the U.S. government, especially Vice President Kamala Harris who President Joe Biden tapped to lead efforts at boosting the region, combatting poverty and corruption, and stemming migration to the U.S.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has not spoken to Harris — even as she’s called leaders in Guatemala and Mexico — and the popular populist president has criticized the Biden administration’s plans for the region.
Despite Biden and Harris’ talk of cooperation, Bukele’s tightening grip on power is alarming U.S. officials, with Congress now raising calls for penalties like visa bans or restricting financing to El Salvador’s government.
“Just this weekend, we learned that the Salvadoran parliament moved to undermine its nation’s highest court. An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy and a strong economy. On this front, on every front, we must respond,” Harris said Tuesday.
On Saturday, the country’s legislature, known as the National Assembly, voted to dismiss all five judges on the Constitutional Court, as well as the attorney general, hours after its new members were sworn in. The body is now dominated by Bukele’s New Ideas political party, who with its allies has an absolute majority after winning big in February’s elections.
The Constitutional Court, a top division of the country’s Supreme Court, had repeatedly ruled that Bukele has exceeded his constitutional authorities during the coronavirus pandemic, while the attorney general had recently opened corruption cases into several of his ministers.
Within hours of the legislature’s vote to dismiss them, all were replaced by picks allied with Bukele. The Constitutional Court’s sitting judges ruled the dismissals were done in an unconstitutional manner — setting up a constitutional crisis that has been condemned by the U.S., the Organization of American States, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“Unfortunately, what we see in El Salvador is the deepening of an alarming trend towards the concentration of power. I remind all state authorities of the need to comply with their obligations under international law, to restore the rule of law and the separation of powers,” said Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. envoy, on Tuesday.
The Biden administration has similarly denounced the moves, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling Bukele directly on Sunday to express their “grave concern.”
But those efforts have been ignored — demonstrating that the U.S. partnerships in the region that the Biden administration has touted are, at best, troubled. Wildly popular in his country and throughout the region, Bukele is consolidating power in precisely the way that Harris and others say they are working against.
“No matter how much effort we put in on curbing violence, on providing disaster relief, on tackling food insecurity — on any of it — we will not make significant progress if corruption in the region persists,” Harris said Tuesday at the Washington Conference on the Americas. “If corruption persists, history has told us, it will be one step forward and two steps back, and we know corruption causes government institutions to collapse from within, preventing people from getting their children educated, from getting a business started, from getting a fair trial.”
But any entreaties to Bukele has so far been lukewarm. When Biden first unveiled his plans for the region, the young president, who tweets himself, wrote dismissively, “A recycled plan that did not work in 2014 will not work now.”
The administration has faced similar challenges with Juan Orlando Hernandez, the president of Honduras who has been accused in U.S. federal court of bribery and narcotrafficking. Harris has yet to call Hernandez, and when she makes her first overseas trip next month, she will visit Mexico and Guatemala, but skip Honduras and El Salvador.
As she finished her remarks, Harris did not respond to a question from ABC News about whether developments in El Salvador would make it more difficult to work with the government there on migration.
“The actions by President Bukele and his allies in the Assembly make it clear that the Salvadoran government is not acting as a reliable ally in strengthening democratic institutions or governance and that the Biden Administration won’t be able to cooperate with him and his government in addressing these problems,” according to Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office on Latin America, a D.C. think tank.
The administration has not said whether they agree with that. Asked if they are weighing punitive action, State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter told ABC News she has “nothing to read out, nothing to announce at this time.”
In the meantime, Bukele has been celebrating the strength of his political party, which he founded in 2018. In a tweet after midnight on Tuesday, he said he was “proud” of the party, adding, “Our country has a great future with young people like this (and a couple not so young),” with a crying laughing emoji.
In the face of the international outcry, including from the U.S., he also tweeted on Sunday to “our friends in the International Community… with all respect, we are cleaning our house… and that’s none of your business.”
But there’s rising anger in the U.S. Congress that may make it America’s business. Top lawmakers from both parties have urged Biden and Blinken to penalize Bukele’s government, including by imposing U.S. visa bans on senior officials or restricting financial support through institutions like the International Monetary Fund.
Sen. Bob Menendez and Patrick Leahy, both top Democrats, warned the Salvadoran National Assembly in a statement Monday “to immediately reverse this anti-democratic power grab and avoid any weakening of our bilateral relations at this consequential moment for the region.”
ABC News’ Sarah Kolinovsky and Ben Gittleson contributed to this report from the White House.
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