US Members of Congress Concerned About Constitutional Crisis in El Salvador

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Image: Ambassador Michael G. Kozak speaks to House Committee on Foreign Affairs about Trump Administration Response to COVID19 in Latin America and the Caribbean. (Screenshot from hearing)

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on July 1 to discuss the Trump Administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. During the hearing, a number of House Democrats expressed concern about the ongoing constitutional crisis in El Salvador as well as Trump Administration’s silence around power grabs by the Bukele administration and others, such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. 

Since President Bukele’s military takeover of the Legislative Assembly in February, international human rights organizations, including the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, have raised major red flags about the president’s growing disregard for democratic governance and the separation of powers in the country. These concerns have only grown more urgent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, following militarized quarantine measures and arbitrary detentions deemed unconstitutional by the country’s Supreme Court. In late April, two leading members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee also wrote a letter demanding respect for democratic norms and human rights.

Speaking on behalf of the Trump Administration during the hearing were Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the U.S. Department of State and Josh Hodges, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). According to Kozak and Hodges, the Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic in the Western Hemisphere includes humanitarian assistance to over 26 countries using State Department and USAID funds and the delivery of 950 ventilators to Brazil, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Peru, 500 of which have gone to El Salvador.

They also touted U.S. support for Latin American countries in securing international loans to deal with the economic fall-out of the pandemic through institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (WB) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). However, social movements and labor organizations in El Salvador have already been sounding the alarm over predatory lending practices by these institutions, denouncing the pending threat of further cuts to social spending, privatization and other austerity measures in order to pay back these loans. Thus far, the Bukele administration has secured $389 million by the International Monetary Fund, $20 million from the World Bank, $15.4 million from the Inter-American Development Bank with more financing on the way.

During the hearing, Joaquin Castro (D-TX) raised concerns about the spread of misinformation and authoritarian positions by several Latin American governments during the pandemic. “For example, El Salvador’s government has detained citizens for violating stay at home orders and forcing them to stay in quarantine centers,” he said. “On the other hand, President Bolsonaro of Brazil continues to downplay the statistics and dangers of the virus putting Brazilians in danger.” To this point Kozak responded that the administration has “tried to be a little bit cautious about telling other countries how to deal with the pandemic.”

Following a similar line of questioning, Dean Phillips (D-MN) asked Kozak about the Trump administration’s silence about authoritarianism in El Salvador. “While the Trump administration has been vocal [about] public health responses in Venezuela and Nicaragua, it has really remained silent about power grabs in El Salvador and Bolivia,” he stated. “Do you believe that the State Department’s inconsistency in calling out these governments undermines our interest by feeding into the perception (at least) that our criticism on human rights grounds are informed by ideology rather than democratic principles?”

Unsurprisingly, Kozak's response to the question echoed previous statements concerning “systematic cover up” of health data in Venezuela and Nicaragua, but portrayed the constitutional crisis in El Salvador as a “robust political debate,” despite the fact that El Salvador’s Constitutional Chamber has ruled decisively that the President (and the legislature for that matter) cannot enforce a strict quarantine that restricts peoples human rights.

Concerns raised about Bukele’s abuse of power have also been reflected in recent votes to withhold certain types of security funding for El Salvador. On July 9, during their vote on State and Foreign Operations funding for fiscal year 2021, the House Committee on Appropriations opted to withhold Foreign Military Financing for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which provides funds to foreign governments to purchase military and police-grade equipment. While such funds to Guatemala and Honduras had previously been withheld, this decision represents a reduction in assistance to El Salvador, likely due to growing concerns about the Bukele administration’s authoritarian tendencies.

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