We all know that President Obama has a lot on his plate. On the other hand, as candidate Obama reminded us, "words matter," especially the words spoken by the President of the United States, and with El Salvador facing a watershed Presidential election on March 15, President Obama could do a lot for the people of El Salvador and the future of U.S. relations with Latin America simply by saying something along the following lines between now and March 15:
"The United States government will remain neutral in El Salvador's March 15 presidential race, will respect the election results, and will work toward a positive relationship with whichever party is elected."
If you haven't been following the recent history of U.S. relations with Central America in general and El Salvador in particular, that might seem like a pretty banal statement. But in the context of the actual history of massive U.S. interference in the region's political processes, such a statement would be revolutionary.
Before El Salvador's 2004 presidential election, Bush Administration officials attempted to influence the vote by suggesting that if the opposition party won, the status of Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. would be threatened and remittances sent to El Salvador by Salvadorans working in the U.S. could be ended. These remittances have been estimated to comprise 10-20% of El Salvador's GDP, likely surpassing official development assistance, foreign direct investment, and tourism as a source of foreign exchange for El Salvador. These threats were widely reported in the Salvadoran press and have contributed to a lingering belief that the U.S. will not permit the opposition to win the election - a belief currently being stoked by right-wing campaign ads in the country, which are recycling the threats from 2004.
If the U.S. makes no statement that it will remain neutral and respect the results, the practical effect will be to preserve the enduring legacy of past interference, and thereby to effectively intervene against the opposition. An official statement is needed to clarify for Salvadoran public opinion that the U.S. will remain scrupulously neutral.
Representatives Raul Grijalva and Marcy Kaptur are sending a letter this week to President Obama urging him to affirm U.S. neutrality in the election. The letter says:
U.S. immigration policy should not be made into a political instrument used to influence foreign elections. Similarly, we reject the suggestion that the US government would seek to financially punish Salvadorans, in this country or in El Salvador , for exercising their right to elect a government of their choosing. As members of Congress, we will not support any such measure.
Could Obama say a few words for democracy in El Salvador? It would take him 30 seconds to do so. But it would be a big step towards repairing the damage of the last 30 years of U.S. policy.