El Salvador: Exploiting Superpower Competition

By Jeffrey Hallock and Christopher Kambhu*

Government of El Salvador / Creative Commons License

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is taking advantage of superpower competition between the United States and China to get vaccines for his country and boost his domestic image as a strong, independent national leader. Hours after the United States announced a donation of 1.5 million Moderna doses to El Salvador in early July, China announced its own 1.5 million dose donation – and Bukele touted his successes on Twitter. In securing and administering vaccines for millions of Salvadorans, Bukele has achieved a domestic political victory; 44 percent of adults have received one vaccine dose as of last month, well above the regional average.

  • China’s relations with El Salvador center on its longstanding policy goal to weaken international support for Taiwan. China has expanded its influence in El Salvador since the country switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan in 2018. During the COVID-19 pandemic, moreover, Beijing has donated a wide variety of medical supplies to El Salvador, and sold it 2 million doses of Sinovac vaccine last spring. For Beijing, vaccine diplomacy is a short-term soft-power and public relations victory that lays the groundwork for future economic deals.
  • Policymakers in Washington primarily view El Salvador through the lens of domestic migration politics. Fleeing gang violence and seeking better economic opportunities, Salvadorans form part of successive waves of migration to the United States from the Northern Triangle (which also includes Guatemala and Honduras). President Joe Biden seeks to address the root causes of migration through anticorruption and good governance initiatives, including denying visas to several senior officials in the Bukele government accused of corruption. This focus has increased tensions with Bukele.

Bukele’s superpower manipulation coincides with increasingly authoritarian tendencies at home since his inauguration in June 2019. With an approval rating well over 80 percent, he is among the most popular leaders in the world. His Nuevas Ideas party and its allies secured a legislative supermajority in February’s elections. Recently, Bukele and his legislative allies have acted aggressively to consolidate power, replacing the Attorney General and all five Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court magistrates with loyalists and preventing oversight of pandemic spending. Bukele also shuttered the OAS-backed anticorruption commission CICIES, which his campaign had supported. Numerous observers believe Bukele’s iron grip on the three branches of government will undermine El Salvador’s democratic institutions.

When Biden first took office, Bukele appeared likely to mimic the delicate dance choreographed by other Northern Triangle presidents: pledge to reduce migration flows to the United States in exchange for leeway on domestic affairs. However, the Biden Administration has not looked the other way as Bukele has violated democratic norms and lashed out at critics, including a Twitter spat with U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres of California. When the Biden Administration recently released a list of corrupt politicians that included several Bukele allies, he strongly criticized the list while publicly praising additional Chinese aid and vaccines.

  • The recent U.S. vaccine donation reflects Washington’s concern about China’s regional influence and acknowledges that the lofty goals of good governance can be overshadowed by other geopolitical considerations. The U.S. retains strong economic leverage over El Salvador through remittances from Salvadoran migrants (some 200,000 of whom are dependent on continued U.S. Temporary Protected Status), but the Biden administration is wary of pushing El Salvador too close to China.
  • While Bukele’s maneuvering has provided him a domestic political victory, diplomatic challenges remain. China’s foreign policy is transactional in nature, and Beijing will likely ask something of Bukele in exchange for its pandemic diplomacy. It is difficult to see what El Salvador can offer China since it already dropped recognition of Taiwan. Perhaps Bukele is betting he can avoid the difficult concessions which plague other nations’ Chinese relations. El Salvador’s strong economic and cultural ties with the U.S. will endure, but for the moment, Bukele is reaping the benefits of instigating great power rivalry.

*Jeffrey Hallock is a doctoral student at American University’s School of International Service. Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS.

August 5, 2021

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