It has become a cliché to say that Latin America is no longer the United States’ backyard. An Inter-American Dialogue report that came out yesterday mentions “[t]he growing assertiveness and independence of Latin America and the Caribbean,” as well as the “declining ability of the United States to exert authority and shape outcomes in the region.” A Brookings Institution report a few months ago discussed the “enhanced confidence and autonomy” of the region’s countries, and a CFR report flatly called the Monroe doctrine obsolete. Even President Obama as a candidate echoed these sentiments. “The situation has changed in the Americas, but we’ve failed to change with it. Instead of engaging the people of the region, we’ve acted as if we can still dictate terms unilaterally,” he said in Miami last May. But a look at El Salvador this month would have you thinking otherwise.
As the country approaches presidential elections this weekend, the United States has been front and center in both mayor candidates’ campaigns. Mauricio Funes, running for the left-wing FMLN released ads in December that directly compare him to U.S. President Obama. One of them congratulates President Obama on his victory and states that Funes looks forward to working with him on immigration reform. He even uses Obama’s slogans, in Spanish and English.
U.S.-El Salvador relations trump bread and butter issues in El Salvador because bread and butter depend on this bilateral relationship. The number of Salvadorans abroad (2.5 million) is comparable to El Salvador’s work force (2.8 million). Remittances, which account for about 18% of the country’s GDP, have been El Salvador’s most important foreign exchange earner for years. They drive consumption, which in turn drives economic growth, accounting for 96% of it in 2008.
This helps explain why for the past four years El Salvador had been the only Latin American country to maintain troops in Iraq. In exchange for the contribution the U.S. government extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to El Salvador, which allows about 230,000 Salvadoran immigrants to remain legally in the United States. When President Saca agreed to keep 200 Salvadoran troops in Iraq in August 2008 he was thanked by an 18-month extension of the TPS program.
But a country the size of Massachusetts, El Salvador’s dependence on the U.S. does not end with remittances. In 2001 the country adopted the U.S. dollar as legal tender and the United States is El Salvador’s number one trading partner, accounting for 50% of its exports and 35% of its imports.
In a country where virtually everyone has family members in the U.S. and where rice and beans are paid with bills featuring George Washington, people understand that their prosperity depends on one special relationship, and they have reasons to suspect the U.S. cares about who they elect. In the lead-up to the 2006 elections in Nicaragua the U.S. ambassador called Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega “a tiger who hasn’t changed his stripes,” former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs assured Nicaraguans that, if they elected Ortega, “Nicaragua would sink like a stone,” and the country received illustrious visitors such as Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, all bearing the same message.
During El Salvador’s last presidential elections Otto Reich, then Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere for the White House, visited the country and said, “We are concerned about the impact that an FMLN victory would have on the commercial, economic and migration-related relations that the United States has with El Salvador.” U.S. congressmen released a statement stating that an FMLN victory “could mean a radical change in U.S. policy regarding the essentially free flow of remittances from Salvadorans living in the U.S. to El Salvador.”
Other than the February referendum in Venezuela, this is the first election in Latin America since President Obama was sworn into office. Noting the history of U.S. involvement in Salvadorian elections and the use of Obama and his adviser’s images and words in the campaign there, groups have been asking the Obama administration to publicly state its impartiality before the election. While this would be helpful as a confirmation that U.S. foreign policy has changed, it is understandable that the Obama administration is reticent to comment about the issue as a statement would benefit one candidate over the other. Mauricio Funes would gain credibility, as a statement by Obama would help disprove ARENA’s claim that electing him would interfere with U.S. relations.
More important than a statement of impartiality before the elections will be the lack of a partial statement in the lead-up to the elections this week, and after the election on Sunday night. El Salvador may be a small country, but its close relationship to the U.S. makes it a perfect study case. Latin Americans will be watching whether the Obama administration will walk the walk and “turn the page to a new chapter in the story of the Americas.”