In a surprising move, President Obama finished his Latin American tour in the small Central American country of El Salvador after visiting Brazil and Chile. It is glaringly obvious that Colombia, a strong supporter of American foreign policy against terrorism and recipient of U.S. grants to fight terrorism, was completely missing from this trip. The Obama administration has not given an official reason for the President’s specific visit. The Salvadoran government has mentioned the main topic of discussion will be drug trafficking and hemispheric regional security but other countries such as Mexico, Colombia, or Bolivia are more qualified to discuss these issues and have more resources to aid the United States. The Obama trip to El Salvador has more to do with the ‘special relationship’ that has developed between El Salvador and the United States. El Salvador opted to follow an accommodation tactic to U.S. interests and on economic and militia demands because the benefit of accommodation outweighed the cost economically and politically. In other words, the benefits of remittances and International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans, work permits for Salvadorans who reside in the United States, and support despite regime change from Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) to Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), outweighed the cost of liberalization of its economy and military support for the Iraq war. Obama visited El Salvador because of its strong support of American policy throughout the last 20 years and the stability shown from the transition from a conservative right party to a center left political party.
Lack of official responses questioning the President’s stop in this small Central American country has sparked much speculation. Press Secretary Jay Carney stated, “The President and First Lady will travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador March 19-23, where the President will meet with the leaders and speak to the peoples of these countries to discuss a broad range of issues including economic prosperity and job creation through increased trade and partnerships, energy and security cooperation, shared values and other issues of regional and global concern.” The topic of discussion is at the discretion of President Obama. Most of these issues mentioned pertain specifically to Brazil, which as the largest country in the region and fastest growing economy has the most potential to act as a regional power in the upcoming decades. The term “shared values” stands out as a credible reason for Obama’s visit to El Salvador because it assumes that El Salvador has had various alternatives for economic success but has chosen an alliance with the United States because of its similar values. In this sense, shared values describes El Salvador’s continuous efforts to adhere to the economic reform recommendations by the Washington Consensus and the military contribution to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also alludes that the peaceful party transition in the recent election was a result of a common appreciation for democracy. Obama will stop in El Salvador because of the support it has provided the United States in the past 20 years in forms of economic reforms and military contribution.
El Salvador accommodated economic demands made by the United States, under the Washington Consensus, in order to show its strong anti-communist stance in the 1990’s after the civil war was won by the conservative pro-United States ARENA government. The end of the Cold War put Latin American countries at a disadvantage because it was not a focal point of power or importance to the United States. The emergence of a global economy meant El Salvador had to decide what would be more beneficial for its own development. Since the U.S. government had assisted the conservative government during the civil war, it seemed as if the only way to repay the monetary assistance and weapons was to accede to the liberalization demands made by the Washington Consensus. UCSD Professor Peter Smith points out in Talons of the Eagle, “[Aligning with the United States] looked attractive because it assured some form of integration with the world economy.” The institutions of neo-liberal policies helped diversify the El Salvadoran economy which helped reduce poverty by fifty percent from 1992-2006. In 2001, El Salvador abandoned the colon and adopted the dollar as its currency hoping to benefit more from its exports, and the benefits have outweighed the cost of liberalization. El Salvador now has the third largest economy in Central America. The United States is the single largest importer of Salvadoran products, thus making the country very dependent on the American economy. An Obama visit would send a message to the Salvadoran government that their benefits are a result of the recommendations given by the Washington Consensus. The economic development of El Salvador can therefore be attributed to the interconnected economy that was fostered with the United States. El Salvador needed the United States if it wanted to compete in the new post-Cold War global economy and receive assistance to recover from the civil war.
The creation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement-Dominican Republic (CAFTA-DR) was another major step in liberalizing the economies in the region that would fit into the idea of free trade and privatization of the Washington Consensus. The fact that El Salvador signed and ratified the treaty in 2004 illustrates the eagerness to expand into new markets for its exports. This free trade zone became the third largest market in the region, making it an important trading block for the United States. CAFTA-DR proved to be beneficial to both the United States and El Salvador because of the economic reforms that were mandated once countries signed the treaty. Focus on product export expanded yet did not generate significantly higher revenue because the products exported were agricultural products that cost less, thus not increasing the standard of living of most Salvadoran. The economic reforms, however, have resulted in continuous growth of the Salvadoran economy (Seelke and Meyer). An Obama visit demonstrated that countries that support the United States and open their economies to accommodate the new global economy will have greater success than those who do not make economic reforms. While neighboring countries were skeptical and more pragmatic about engaging in a free trade agreement, El Salvador believed economic success would result from accommodating American demands when negotiating CAFTA-DR. El Salvador had transformed its self into one of the most open markets in the world.
The recent 2009 elections resulted in the election of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party over the ARENA party that had been in power since 1992. ARENA supporters argued that the victory of FMLN would result in retaliation from the United States and lead to political reforms similar to those in Hugo Chaves’ Venezuela despite the U.S official neutral position. An Obama visit to El Salvador would symbolize its acceptance of the new government and show to other Latin American countries that it will maintain strong ties despite the change of regime. It will attempt to pacify the ‘pink tide’ that has swept though out Latin America as a rejection of American unilateralism post 9/11. The shift from ARENA to FMLN does symbolize the growing disenchantment of the Salvadoran population with Washington foreign policy. Despite this shift, El Salvador has not decided to become more self-reliant because it would not be to its benefit. The economic development it experienced by following the Washington Consensus was worth the cost of economic reforms because it was able to access the American market and compete in the global market. Therefore, an Obama visit validated the stability within El Salvador in the transition from ARENA to FMLN and showed other countries in the region the benefits of following the Washington Consensus. Obama’s visit was in order to strengthen America’s position in Central America and show that countries that follow liberalization reforms enjoy stronger ties with the United States.
El Salvador’s accommodation on economic and militia demand also meant that the United States would provide more benefits to Salvadorans living within the United States; Salvadorans have been eligible to receive TPS (Temporary Protection Status) since 2001. Approximately 2 million Salvadorans live in the United States, making it the sixth largest ethnic group in the United States. Such a large number of Salvadorans means that they have the capacity to send money back to El Salvador, which would make a very large contribution to its economy. Remittances from the United States make El Salvador more dependent on the United States support for Salvadorans living there. Thus, it is imperative that El Salvador maintains strong political ties with the American government because of its dependence on remittances. Remittances account for twenty percent of El Salvador’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which makes the economic ties with the United States even more important. El Salvador cannot afford to alienate its self and take a resistance role toward the United States like Venezuela or Brazil because it does not possess the resources to do so. Salvadorans who reside in the United States benefit as well from El Salvador’s accommodation as exemplified by the American government’s consistent extension of the TPS. El Salvador has lobbied successfully for those extensions because of the strong ties that have been forged. United States-El Salvador relations have been a reciprocal relationship in which El Salvador has gained much more than if it were to have chosen a resistance strategy. Thus, President Obama’s choice to stop in El Salvador exemplifies to the Salvadoran community in the United States that they have nothing to fear with the change of political parties.
In demographic terms, the high number of Salvadorans can be seen as an important political block that can be beneficial to the Obama Administration in the upcoming elections. The New York Times reported, “Mr. Obama’s stop in El Salvador is as much about domestic politics as international affairs; one of the larger and fast-growing immigrant populations in the United States hails from this nation.” Certainly this fast growing population group can be an important political group but the fact remains that many are not eligible to vote because of their immigration status. Those who will have the capability to vote are the children of these immigrants who were born the United States. Since a majority of Salvadorans entered the United States in the past twenty years, those children born are still under the age of eighteen and will not be eligible to vote in the next election. Therefore, the assumption that President Obama went to El Salvador for domestic politics is flawed. The Salvadoran community is concentrated mainly in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C metropolitan region and these are regions that already vote democrat in elections. Gaining their vote will not change red states to blue states. As Salvadoran American children age, they will be a stronger political block but it will not help President Obama’s election campaign. An Obama visit will send a message to Salvadorans living in the United States that the support El Salvador has given the United States in the past twenty years benefits not only Salvadorans in El Salvador, but Salvadorans in the United States as well. It shows that a peaceful transition between different parties in El Salvador will be highly regarded in Washington and this trip validates this transition.
El Salvador was also part of the Coalition of the Willing and the last Latin American country to withdraw troops from Iraq. It has been a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, despite internal opposition. Equizabal writes “[El Salvador’s] long military deployment in Iraq provided the Salvadoran government with unprecedented leverage vis-à-vis the Bush administration” (Eguizabal 75). In other words, the support that El Salvador provided the United States on its Iraq expedition gave the country a special leverage with which it could use for its benefit. Deployment of its troops in Iraq demonstrated its strong support for U.S. policy. This support gives El Salvador reasons to expand its own national interests without attracting U.S. intervention. Such support could be translated into increased autonomy for El Salvador or extended legal services for Salvadorans living in the United States. Obama has chosen to visit El Salvador because of its strong military ties in the war in Iraq, albeit in smaller actual numbers. The size of the military contribution does not really matter, but rather the action of maintaining troops in Iraq for the longest time possible. The symbolism of a physical contribution sends a strong message to Washington that El Salvador is a trustworthy and strong ally in the region. Being the last country in Latin America to return its troops home is a very significant demonstration of its loyalty to the United States.
The special relationship developed between the United States and El Salvador in the past 20 years has differentiated El Salvador from its neighboring Central American countries. Despite the high level of violence, El Salvador has transformed itself into a stable democracy and a success story in economic development. The economic growth has not been as high as predicted, nor has it solved domestic problems, but it has proven to be a stabilizing democracy in the past two decades. President Barack Obama’s visit celebrates the efforts put forth by the Salvadoran government to reform its economic policies. It also validates the efforts in assisting the United States in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In all, the support El Salvador has provided to the United States and the stability it has shown in the recent national election that resulted in a change in political party. The benefits, which El Salvador has acquired because of its economic reforms and military contribution to the American efforts in the Middle East, have been greater than the costs of choosing extra-hemispheric assistance or resistance to American intervention. Both of these options would have resulted in greater strains on the limited resources in El Salvador and the economy would have suffered greatly from the lack of American monetary contribution in forms of loans from the IMF and loan pardoning. El Salvador is in a better position to lobby the American government for its interest domestically and for Salvadorans living in the United States. The Obama visit reciprocates the continuous assistance provided by El Salvador in the past twenty years, and shows the still growing political ties that have brought these two countries together.
Calmes, Jackie. “Obama to visit Latin America in March.” The New York Times. 18 February, 2011.
Equizabal, Cristina. Ed. Jorge Dominguez and Rafael Fernandez de Castro “The United States and Central America since 2000.” Contemporary U.S.-Latin American Relations. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Seelke, Clare and Peter Meyer. “El Salvador: Political, Economic, and Social Conditions and U.S. Relations.” Congressional Research Service. 8 June 2009.
Smith, Peter. Talons of the Eagle. New York: Oxford University Press,Inc, 2008.
Statement by Press Secretary Jay Carney on the President traveling to Lain America” The White House Office of the Press Secretary. 18 February 2011.
Terraza, Aaron. “Salvadoran Immigrants in the United States.” Migration Information Source. 1 March 2010.
White, Christopher. The History of El Salvador. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2009.
Photo Courtesy of erjkprunczyk