Why Should We Care About El Salvador?

Today, President Obama welcomes Mauricio Funes, the president of El Salvador, in what is his first meeting with a Central American head of state at the White House.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas has reported on the development of the Funes administration from the time we monitored the elections which brought him and his party, the FMLN, to power through his inauguration to the early successes of his term.

Now, Linda Garrett, our organization's El Salvador consultant, has written an analysis of the issues likely to arise in this meeting and why it important - if not remarkable - that they are meeting at all.

Why should we care about El Salvador?

Thirty years ago this month Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated by a right-wing hit man with a bullet through his heart as he celebrated Mass.

His murder shocked the world. El Salvador spiraled into the chaos of a long civil war, with Washington supporting succeeding conservative governments and the military against the leftist guerrilla coalition, the FMLN, in one of the final confrontations of the Cold War.

Now, following twenty years of conservative administrations the FMLN is the party in power and its candidate, Mauricio Funes - a former journalist, not a member of the party - is the democratically elected president of the country.

And today President Mauricio Funes will meet with President Obama, the first Central American leader to be received in this White House.

The two have much in common: both are young, smart, center-left pragmatic leaders who have assumed power in the midst of severe economic downturn. Both face challenges from the right and left as they attempt to build post-ideological consensus for domestic and foreign policy programs and strategies. They also have a shared interest in helping El Salvador address issues like security and fostering economic growth.

To the surprise of many, El Salvador under the leadership of this center-left president and a party representing a former guerrilla army is becoming the most reliable Central American ally of Washington.

But whereas the Bush Administration could count on former Salvadoran governments to send troops to Iraq and in essence, as one analyst said, "to act as the lapdog of the State Department," President Funes is attempting to build a balanced, independent foreign policy.

During his first eight months in office the president and his foreign minister Hugo Martinez have normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba, Vietnam and Libya while simultaneously making clear that he looks to Brazilian president Lula de Silva and to Barack Obama as his models for governance, not Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez.

As the Salvadorans pursue an open, non-aligned diplomatic strategy, realities on the ground in the U.S. and in El Salvador require the presidents to forge a close, mutually beneficial relationship. Among the issues of concern that will surely be on the agenda when the two presidents meet is immigration.

An estimated 2.5 million Salvadorans live in the United States and the remittances they send home - over $3 billion last year - keep the country afloat.

Of those 2.5 million, 240,000 benefited from the TPS (Temporary Protection Status) granted in 2001 after Hurricane Mitch. Leaders of the Salvadoran community argue that these hardworking taxpaying immigrants should be given legal residency status. And though immigration reform seems unlikely this year, Salvadorans hope the TPS can be extended in order to legalize the status of more Salvadorans.

This is not just an immigration issue, but also a security issue.

Some 20,000 Salvadorans are deported from the U.S. every year. Some of the deportees have criminal records or are alleged gang members, and are dumped off planes at Comalapa Airport with nothing but bus fare and no hope for honest employment; many have never lived in the country and have no family, nothing except gang connections. And this has repercussions for the U.S.

El Salvador is considered one of the most violent countries in the hemisphere - with an estimated 17,000 known gang members on the streets and 10,000 in prison. According to a recent survey by the mainstream newspaper La Prensa Grafica, nearly 1/3 of all residents of the capital have been affected by criminal activity during the past three months.

Though gang activity represents only part of the problem - organized crime has infiltrated government institutions - the situation is so serious that President Funes has ordered the military to participate in joint operations with the National Civil Police.

Despite criticism from human rights organizations, and Funes' understandable reluctance to order his troops to patrol the streets given the history of abuses by the military, the president had few options. The violence could derail his social agenda and destabilize already debilitated government institutions.

The bottom line is that increasing violence in El Salvador provides additional opportunity for drug and human trafficking, money laundering and other illicit activities that filter north.

Central America is the south to north funnel for cocaine and heroin traffic and thus a security priority for the U.S. The FBI, ATF and DEA are all on the ground in-country and El Salvador hosts the DEA's "Cooperative Security" monitoring station for the region. But more assistance is needed including funding and technical training for the under-equipped and poorly paid police force.

Beyond security, the two nations are also intertwined financially. El Salvador has been on the dollar economy since 2001 and is vulnerable to fluctuations in the U.S. financial system. The crisis in the north also means fewer jobs for immigrants and a reduction in the crucial remittances returned home.

President Funes inherited an enormous financial deficit but he and his economic cabinet have skillfully earned the confidence of international financial institutions and of much of the domestic business sector, though some investors say they need greater legal reassurance that their investments will be protected.

From immigration to security to economics, the two presidents clearly share great interests and opportunities, but at a higher level, what is most remarkable is that they are meeting at all.

We share a complex, sometimes excruciatingly painful history. Many Salvadorans suffered as a consequence of U.S. policy in the 1980's and some in Washington may be uneasy with the new Salvadoran government. But as the Obama administration recognizes the importance of developing consequential relationships with the southern hemisphere, El Salvador can be a key ally.

So why should we - and President Obama - care about El Salvador? One Salvadoran analyst put it this way: "Our impoverishment and/or extinction can destabilize the entire region and this can affect you, Mr. President...For this reason we come to request your aid while we are still living."

Linda Garrett