USAID chief speaks of fragility of democracy in El Salvador

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Weeks after announcing that U.S. aid to El Salvador would be steered away from government institutions because of “deep concerns” over the ousting of judges and the attorney general, the director of the U.S. development agency delivered a message about the fragility of democracy while visiting the Central American nation.

Even the site of U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power’s speech Monday was laden with symbolism. She spoke on the campus of Central American University, the country’s premier university led by Rector Andreu Oliva, an outspoken critic of President Nayib Bukele’s government.

Power started her speech to students by mentioning a tour she had on the campus. She spoke of the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989 by a military commando unit in what became a turning point in the country’s civil war.

Power did not mention Bukele by name and many of the points in her speech could apply to Guatemala and Honduras — others stops on her trip — but the fact that she chose to make it in El Salvador sent an unmistakable message.

“The United States believes that governments everywhere must earn the trust and goodwill of their people,” she said. “If corruption is allowed to run rampant, if judicial independence is not respected, if anticorruption institutions are dismantled as we have seen too often in Honduras, Guatemala and here in El Salvador then local governments will end up stymying the aspirations and the potential of their own people.”

Earlier this month, El Salvador’s new attorney general announced that he would end the cooperation agreement between his office and an anti-impunity mission from the Organization of American States that was supporting the country’s justice system. Leaders in Honduras and Guatemala made similar moves in recent years when outside anti-corruption missions pursued government officials.

Bukele has used his high popularity ratings to consolidate power and aggressively attack critics. His party dominated mid-term elections and won a supermajority in congress. When the new Legislative Assembly was seated May 1, it ousted the five justices of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court who Bukele had clashed with and then replaced the attorney general, another Bukele adversary.

Critics, including Oliva, have recognized that Bukele and the new congress won their elections, but say that democracy currently does not exist in El Salvador.

Biden administration officials expressed concern and White House Special Envoy to the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zúñiga visited in May and said the U.S. government would prefer the changes be reversed. Bukele said that wouldn't happen.

The shift in USAID funding away from the government was the first U.S. penalty. Power said the funding shifted from the government would be used to promote transparency, combat corruption and monitor human rights.

“Democracy, a free press, an unrestrained civil society, the separation of powers, free and transparent elections, basic human rights as we have heard are what guarantee prosperity and stability,” Power said Monday. “Now let’s be honest, democracies are fragile things, I fully acknowledge that.”

Power noted that the United States had seen recent attacks on judges, journalists election officials and institutions. “But that experience has shown us exactly why it is so important to stand up against corruption, to stand up against autocratic behavior wherever it occurs because these actions can quickly grow to threaten stability, to threaten democracy, to threaten prosperity.”

Bukele, uncharacteristically, did not immediately respond via Twitter, his preferred method of communication.