President-Elect’s Proposed Solutions to the Refugee Crisis Are Insufficient to Address Root Causes and Amount to Victim Blaming

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Nayib Bukele will be inaugurated on June 1 and will become the youngest president in the history of El Salvador. Accompanied by his new Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill, a member of one of the families that makes up El Salvador’s historic oligarchy, and U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes, Bukele traveled to Washington, D.C., where he reaffirmed that his top priority will be to remain in the good graces of the United States. Meanwhile, in El Salvador, social movement leaders still await a meeting with the soon-to-be president, who since the February elections has not responded to demands that call on him to prioritize the environment over corporate greed and to stand in defense of migrant families.

On May 7, speaking at the “Disruption and Transformation in the Americas” conference hosted by the Council of the Americas, an elite business organization with multinational corporations among its membership, Bukele reaffirmed his commitment to prioritize good relations with the United States and to center the interests of private investors. During the conference, Bukele was asked about a variety of topics that he refused to speak on during the campaign trail,  including his views on the economy, immigration, foreign policy, relations between the United States and El Salvador, and much more. 

As a businessman-turned president-elect, Bukele’s ties to the private sector should come as no surprise. Although Bukele attempted to appear as an “independent” politician during the campaign, since the election it has become apparent that powerful U.S. economic interests are going to mold how he approaches topics of national importance.

With regards to immigration, Bukele made no mention of the human right to migrate, a notable contrast to the outgoing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) administration. Rather, Bukele expressed frustration with the crisis, explaining that he would combat the issue through job creation, a strategy that repeatedly has proven insufficient to address the region's high levels of inequality. Despite this, Bukele gave a rundown of the policies he intends to implement to make El Salvador “safer” for private investors, including simplifying the bureaucracy around the attainment of permits for new businesses, making customs procedures simpler for merchants at the border, combating insecurity, strengthening the tourism industry, and “flexibilizing labor schedules.”

On this last point, Bukele called the eight-hour workday an “anachronistic” old rule and proposed instead that people “work more hours in a day and fewer days in a week,” which would allow “businesses to create more jobs without investing more money.” This is not a new proposal; rather, organized labor in El Salvador has been fending off big-business's push for a “compressed” work week of 11- or 12-hour days, for years.  In neighboring Honduras, a new wave of neoliberal policies have also been recently proposed, stopped only by massive mobilizations of popular sectors. 

Proposals to create more low-wage, exploitative jobs are likely to exacerbate the migration crisis and damage the environment rather than allow working-class people to remain in their homes and communities. But this too comes as no surprise given Bukele’s eagerness to charm conservative U.S. politicians and corporations that have similar “frustrations” around immigration and other policies in the region.  

On May 7, Bukele ingratiated himself with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, playing into the Trump administration's anti-Maduro stances and throwing the FMLN under the bus when he stated, “We have spent 10 years receiving aid from the United States while being pro-Maduro and yet our leaders still have a ‘Yankee go home’ mentality.” Back in El Salvador, former Minister of the Economy Héctor Dada criticized Bukele’s meeting with Senator Rubio, calling it a dangerous trend of “rubbing elbows with the extreme right of the United States.”

During his U.S. tour, on May 11, Nayib also spoke before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and assured them that that El Salvador’s relationship with the United States is “more important than all of its other relationships combined.”

Just days before, when asked by a reporter about whether the Bukele administration would take a firm position against the Trump administration's anti-immigrant and xenophobic stances, soon-to-be Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill rhetorically responded, “I'm going to ask you a question: With the way the current administration of our country has been negotiating, do you think El Salvador deserves respect?” She went on to add, “How are you going to bite the hand that feeds you?”

Father José María Tojeira, Director of the Institute of Human Rights at the University of Central America José Simeón Cañas (IDHUCA), denounced Hill’s statements in an op-ed, stating, “The reality is the opposite: It is the poor peasants who feed us, and we bite their hands when we keep them in poverty with poor wages or incomes. Those who pay low wages to those who produce wealth with their work are those who not only bite hands, but condemn people to situations that are often inhumane.”

Hill has also expressed that she intends to restructure embassies and consulates to be more “like the private sector,” to which Rubén Zamora, currently serving as El Salvador's Permanent Representative to the United Nations and a former Ambassador to the United States, responded, “The government does not work like a private enterprise.”

On May 6, when asked to comment on Hill’s statements implying that the FMLN is responsible for the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies, Manes responded, “It’s not my job to comment on who Salvadorans elect,” adding, “Some days my job is easier, and some days it is harder and I think in the days, weeks, and months coming, my job will be much easier because we will have much more in common.”

On May 16, ARPAS, El Salvador's most important national community radio network, called on the President-elect to establish a relationship with the United States “without submitting to its political designs [and while] demanding respect for our compatriots, especially for migrants.” It remains to be seen if Bukele will take heed. 

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