Prospects for President Obama's Meeting with President Funes of El Salvador

President Obama visits El Salvador on the last leg of his Latin American trip. The two day visit emphasizes ongoing U.S. ties to this small nation of 7.3 million people in a land the size of Massachusetts. Approximately one third of El Salvador’s population lives in the United States. So close are the traditional ties that 280 Salvadoran troops worked alongside U.S. troops in Iraq until 2008, despite the absence of a national security threat to this Central American nation. The economy is dollarized which provides economic stability, but has raised costs for basic foodstuffs. U.S. government aircraft fly narcotics enforcement reconnaissance missions from a coastal Salvadoran airbase, Comalpa. The U.S. regional training center for judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers, known by its acronym ILEA, is also based near San Salvador.

Ironically, historic ties have been strengthened further with the election in 2009 of a president from the opposition party, the FMLN. Mauricio Funes, a former TV anchor man with wide name recognition, became the standard bearer for the left. He has succeeded in creating a national government in which former Marxist-Leninists participate actively. Funes is criticized more for his cult of personality than for his management of the country. He leads a delicate political coalition and an economy dependent upon exports. Furthermore, his government seeks to contain levels of violence which, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, are among the highest in the world.

President Funes has a five point agenda for the Obama visit:

1. Recognition of El Salvador’s fight against low growth and enduring poverty which is linked to the migratory flow northward;

2. Continued support for the fight against drug trafficking organizations and criminal organizations;

3. Provision of equipment and training for a regional security plan for Central America, based in El Salvador;

4. Assurance of U.S. support for a $790 million Stand-By arrangement from the IMF to help the country mitigate the adverse effects of the global economic crises; and,

5. Seek U.S. private investment to develop alternative energy sources.  

Immigration will be raised only in the context of seeking a longer extension of the Temporary Protective Status (TPS) by which 220,000 Salvadorans can remain in the U.S. despite their undocumented status. TPS has been extended seven times over the last ten years, and Funes seeks a presidential commitment to extend it further so as to ensure the continued flow of remittances to poor families, and avoid exacerbation of El Salvador’s employment problems.

President Obama is popular in El Salvador and his visit will be an all-absorbing national event. He will spend the evening on March 22 in the capital city meeting with leaders from business, labor and civil society before heading out to northern Salvador for a morning visit to rural communities that participate in integrated development projects. “Generating Opportunities” seeks to provide health clinics, scholarships to keep kids in school, job training and micro-credit programs. It should support current livelihoods for the communities and provide future employment opportunities within the country. These northern communities were the scene of military repression during the civil war and Obama’s visit to this area emphasizes reconstruction and reconciliation by a U.S. president, whose nation was allied with the Salvadoran army.

Watching from the sidelines are the maras, youth gangs estimated at 60,000. (Mara is the name of a vicious form of ant.) They operate both in the United States and in El Salvador defending territory with knives and contracting with the drug traffickers for discrete pieces of business, such as car stealing, kidnapping, human trafficking and even murder for hire. Governments of both El Salvador and the U.S. are intent on containing, if not eradicating, the maras. Under USAID’s anti-gang strategy, ongoing efforts seek to dissuade young men and women from entering the gangs and reintegrate those who seek to leave. So fierce are the mara that the Zetas—the most notorious drug traffickers—prefer to operate from neighboring countries rather than embroil themselves in El Salvador.

The United States has provided funding for Colombian experts to work with the Salvadoran authorities to ring the penitentiaries with electronic blocks that prevent inmates from organizing illicit business. Within the jails, a cell phone costs approximately $5,000 indicating the power of electronic communication to order extortions and kidnappings. Use of electronic blocks has resulted in a recent diminution of both homicides and kidnapping.

Everyone agrees that the response to the violence must be regional. In 2010, the State Department established the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) to strengthen judicial and law enforcement institutions, enable intelligence sharing and address the underlying causes of the violence. For 2011, State Department requested $83 million for the seven nation participants in CARSI. The problem is how to implement the projects when corruption pervades law enforcement, politicians and the judiciary. El Salvador’s judiciary commands greater respect than its neighbors and citizens respect the role of the army in patrolling highways and key intersections. However, that trust is vulnerable to decisions derived from patronage and corruption.

El Salvador's economy was hard hit by the recession of 2009. 2010 saw recovery at 2%, but dependency on the U.S. export market makes full recovery likely only this year, so long as oil prices do not remain above $100 per barrel. Coffee prices have given a boost to domestic production, but neighbors in Central America produce the same agricultural goods and there is little to differentiate them, apart from Salvadoran reputation for enterprise, skill and hard work. The Central American and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA + DR) has resulted in rising exports, but not enough to help the 35% of Salvadorans living below the poverty line. Eradicating poverty and improving education is a major focus of both Funes and his vice president. 

President Obama’s principal contribution is the U.S. demonstration of confidence to a nation that is consolidating its democratic institutions. Alternation to the leftist FMLN government was fraught with uncertainty, but Funes' capacity to achieve political stability places him in a position which American politicians fully understand and sympathize. By his visit, Obama is signaling assurance in the Funes government’s capacity to rebuild the economy, distribute wealth and contain the violence. We must hope that foreign investors will build upon this assurance to develop manufacturing plants, alternative energy production and agro-industrial businesses. If Funes builds upon the visit to attract new investment, El Salvador has an excellent chance of leading Central America toward greater prosperity.