Marco Rubio: El Salvador is a Bright Spot in Our Region, and it Can Be Even Brighter

Unfortunately, President Joe Biden and his left-wing administration does not see closer ties with Bukele as an opportunity. Instead, they badmouth Bukele as “illiberal”
Diseño: Informe Orwell

I made my first official visit to El Salvador in March 2023. What I saw was remarkable: under President Nayib Bukele, one of the world’s most dangerous countries had become one of the region’s safest and most promising, all in a matter of months. Now that Bukele has been re-elected, I encourage his administration to capitalize on this success and lay the foundations for prosperity that will outlast his term.

For decades prior, El Salvador was ruled not by its government, but by two sadistic criminal gangs: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. These gangs made extortion and murder facts of daily life, as I learned when I met a couple whose son had been murdered because they wouldn’t pay protection money. “See, hear, and shut up” was the public watchword.

Unsurprisingly, young and able Salvadorans fled their country in droves, many of them surging to the U.S. border. Meanwhile, foreign investors steered clear of El Salvador, unwilling to sacrifice their capital in a country where corruption was rampant and gangs threatened businesses with impunity. This combination made for a pitiful economy, devoid of opportunity and growth, which in turn further encouraged emigration. It was terrible and tragic, but it was also accepted as the norm.

Until March 2022, that is, when an unprecedented murder spree pushed the Salvadoran legislature to grant emergency powers to Bukele. Bukele immediately put those powers to use, employing the military to round up every gang suspect. This approach is not without controversy: 76,000 adults have been abruptly imprisoned, and innocents are only gradually being released. Nevertheless, by the time I visited El Salvador a year later, the unthinkable had happened: gang rule had been replaced by law and order. Now, the gangs “do not exist,” according to the Salvadoran media. The end of the gangs has breathed new life into El Salvador.

For the first time, many people are able to walk the streets at night and send their children to school without fear of being murdered or exhorted. To no one’s surprise, Bukele easily won a second term on February 4, 2024, with vast support from the Salvadoran diaspora, in elections that the Organization of American States declared were peaceful and without coercion. But what comes next?

If eliminating MS-13 and Barrio 18 was the first step to revitalizing El Salvador, renewing the Salvadoran economy is the second. This doesn’t mean abandoning the anti-crime program. To the contrary, prosperity follows from security.

According to the U.S. State Department, Bukele’s policies have “improved consumer confidence and optimism,” and Customs and Border Patrol reports that encounters of Salvadorans at the U.S. border are lower in 2023, compared to 2021 and 2022. To lock in these promising results, the Bukele administration should further professionalize law enforcement, increase the capacity of the court system, and ensure that gangs do not reconstitute in neighboring countries.

If Bukele can make El Salvador’s democratic institutions strong, he will attract more foreign investment. It’s my hope that the United States and El Salvador will work together on this front. It would be to our nations’ mutual benefit: El Salvador is in serious need of capital, and the United States is in serious need of near-shored manufacturing, which will protect our supply chains from being held hostage by Communist China and other adversaries. To that end, Bukele should further limit China’s influence in El Salvador, as he did by ceasing negotiations with Huawei in 2023. The more prosperous El Salvador becomes, the better a model it will be to its neighbors in our region. This will help the United States, because as crime and emigration decrease across Latin America and the Caribbean, we’ll be able to worry less about gang members and deadly drugs crossing our southern border.

Unfortunately, President Joe Biden and his left-wing administration does not see closer ties with Bukele as an opportunity. Instead, they badmouth Bukele as “illiberal” and sanction his officials. Never mind that this reeks of hypocrisy coming from people who grant concessions to the Venezuelan narco-terrorist regime and cast Fidel Castro in a good light; don’t our leaders know that their animosity will only push El Salvador into the hands of our adversaries: China, Russia, and Iran?

We cannot afford to abandon another promising democracy and leave it vulnerable to foreign authoritarian influence. Similarly, El Salvador cannot afford to squander the economic opportunities Bukele’s security measures have created by falling into Chinese debt traps. I hope the United States and Bukele can cooperate to prevent that from happening, and to make our region stronger, safer, and freer for years to come.

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio es senador estadounidense por el estado de Florida y Vicepresidente del Comité Selecto de Inteligencia del Senado.

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