Senator's Concerns on U.S. Aid to El Salvador Spark Major Media Storm
As the long-awaited Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funding for El Salvador reaches the U.S. Congress for final approval this week, the $277 million U.S. development package is once again being used as leverage for right-wing corporate interests and as a powerful instrument of US influence. From opposing sides of the political spectrum, and presumably guided by very different motivations, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady have both weighed in to caution against the funds’ approval. On September 12, Senator Leahy (D-VT) published a statement raising multiple concerns about the approval of the proposed MCC aid to El Salvador, citing alleged corruption and weak government institutions. A recognized champion for human rights in the Americas, Senator Leahy also criticized the Funes Administration for allowing former military officials to remain in high public security posts and for not cracking down hard enough on police corruption. Leahy’s remarks have exploded across the front page of every major daily in El Salvador’s conservative media. Then, on Sunday, right-wing columnist Mary O’Grady used Leahy’s comments to blast the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party government and urge against U.S. approval of the MCC funds. In a vitriolic op-ed rife with misleading claims and outright falsehoods, O’Grady charged that the current government “has made El Salvador decidedly poorer and less free.” Her column was immediately republished in the Salvadoran press. President Mauricio Funes has responded by forcefully condemning Leahy’s statement as an act of “intervention” based on “misinformation,” countering that “Senator Leahy has said that we have advanced very little in the fight against corruption; well, I put before Senator Leahy the over 169 cases that we have investigated and presented to the Attorney General.” Indeed, if current prosecutions against former Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party officials are successful, they will mark the first sentencing for embezzlement in five years.Senator Leahy is the latest, surprising addition to the ever-growing list of U.S. officials who have used the MCC approval process to influence El Salvador’s legislative and judicial processes. Throughout the past year, U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte and the chairs of both the House and Senate Western Hemisphere Subcommittees have all threatened the funding with various aims, including to pressure the Salvadoran legislature to approve a U.S.-drafted privatization bill. Recently approved by the MCC Board of Directors, the package must now pass through both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives for a final vote. Despite Senator Leahy's statement and the resulting media storm, Congress is expected to approve the funds due to the State Department's overall support. When misleading statements from Reps. Salmon (R-AZ) and Sires (D-NJ) in April congratulating the MCC board for halting the grant process were published in Salvadoran newspapers, the Ambassador Aponte convened a press conference within 24 hours to clarify that the process had not been halted and would continue to the MCC board in September as planned.