U.S. Threatens Retaliation against El Salvador over Foreign Policy Decision
On August 20, the President of El Salvador, Salvador Sanchez Cerén, announced that the small Central American Republic would be breaking diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of establishing them with the People´s Republic of China. Within days of the announcement, Members of Congress and the White House issued statements condemning the decision and threatening to retaliate, including a small group of Republican senators who introduced an amendment to cut aid to El Salvador in response. While any such proposal is unlikely to pass, the threats – and the media storm they provoked in El Salvador – added fuel to the already-contentious panorama ahead of the 2019 presidential elections in El Salvador.
U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes responded immediately on Twitter, characterizing the decision as “worrisome” and saying that “without a doubt, this will affect our relationship with the government.” An anonymous State Department official told Reuters that “we are deeply disappointed” and “are reviewing our relationship with El Salvador following this decision.”
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, was the first in Congress to come out against El Salvador’s decision to pursue diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, threatening to “work towards ending [El Salvador’s] funding and removing them from the #AllianceForProsperity plan” as a result of the change. The next day, Rubio joined Colorado Senator Cory Gardner to co-sponsor an amendment to H.R. 6157, the Minibus Appropriations Bill, which would “restrict funding” to El Salvador.
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The White House soon followed suit with an official press statement issued on August 23, stating, “The El Salvadoran [sic] government’s receptiveness to China’s apparent interference in the domestic politics of a Western Hemisphere country is of grave concern to the United States, and will result in a reevaluation of our relationship with El Salvador.”
Shortly after, the U.S. State Department recalled the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes, Ambassador to the Dominican Republic Robin Bernstein, and U.S. Charge d'Affaires in Panama Roxanne Cabral for consultations. While Panama switched ties in 2017 and the Dominican Republic in May 2018, the U.S. has apparently drawn the line at El Salvador. As Rubio made clear, El Salvador should be made an example of and receive more punitive treatment from the U.S. than either Panama or the Dominican Republic did.
U.S. functionaries have also indirectly threatened other Central American nations. In Honduras, U.S. Ambassador Heide Fulton warned that "Countries seeking to establish or expand relations with China may be disappointed in the long run,” while Marco Rubio tweeted “The leftist government of #ElSalvador will soon lose US aid, I do not want that to happen in Guatemala either.”
For most of El Salvador’s contemporary history, until the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was elected to the presidency in 2009, the country modeled its foreign policy decisions on the United States’ geopolitical interests. El Salvador first established diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1941, under the dictatorship of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who led a ferocious anti-communist campaign and the genocide of tens of thousands of indigenous people in 1932. While most countries around the world eventually established economic and diplomatic relations with Communist China, as the United States did in 1979, El Salvador remained an unfaltering ally to Taiwan.\\
Ties between the Taiwanese government and El Salvador’s former right-wing governments have also been at the heart of several high-profile corruption cases that have come to light since the FMLN took office. In 2001, Taiwan donated $10 million dollars in humanitarian aid for victims of the 2001 earthquake in El Salvador that then-President Francisco Flores instead distributed to his political party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which used most of the funds to bolster the 2004 presidential campaign of Tony Saca, who has recently been sentenced to ten years in prison for embezzlement.
As economist and professor at the University of Central America Jose Simeon Canas (UCA), Julia Evelyn Martínez explained, “The parties that have taken advantage of and benefited [from Taiwan] now feel worried because they will not have that ally. Secondly, they probably dreamed of returning to the executive and that Taiwan was going to continue with that policy of distributing cash without asking for an explanation.”
Despite differing opinions and concerns about China’s intentions and plans in the region, El Salvador’s decision was a sovereign one to make and likely informed by the government’s assessment of the current geopolitical reality, both in the region and globally. As Marielos de León from the Coalition for a Safe Country without Hunger (CONPHAS) told the crowd gathered outside the U.S. Embassy to protest the U.S.’ intervention, “How many of us chose Trump as president of the United States? So we remind the Ambassador that she does not have to come to elect the presidents or dictate the internal policies of our country.”