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El Salvador president refuses to meet with Biden’s envoy on immigration crisis



El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has refused to meet with a visiting US diplomat this week because of what he sees as a model of omissions by Democrats and the Biden administration, according to two aides to the Central American leader.

Bukele’s decision not to meet with Ricardo Zuniga, an envoy of the Biden administration in the so-called Countries in the Northern Triangle in Central America follow a similar pickaxe, which he claims he received from US officials during a surprise trip to Washington in February.

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It comes just days after Bukele̵

7;s government awarded a $ 1.2 million lobbying contract to the former State Department diplomat in a bid to improve ties with the new US president.

Zuniga traveled to El Salvador on Wednesday after talks in Guatemala focused on immigration amid a growing number of migrant children at the US border. Upon his arrival, he immediately announced a $ 2 million US contribution to an international commission seeking to step up the fight against corruption, which Biden officials see as one of the main causes of illegal immigration.

U.S. officials told local reporters in the capital, San Salvador, that Zuniga hoped to see Bukele before heading back to Washington on Thursday.

But Bukele told his aides that he would not meet with Biden officials while the United States softened criticism, raising doubts about his commitment to democracy and the rule of law, according to the two, who spoke on condition of anonymity given diplomatic sensitivity.

In particular, the two said Bukele was outraged by State Department spokesman Ned Price’s comments Monday that the United States expected Bukele to restore “a strong separation of powers where they have eroded, and demonstrated his government’s commitment to transparency and accountability “.

El Salvador’s presidential press service did not respond to a request for comment.

Price’s comments followed a dispute between Bukele and one of his fiercest American critics, Norma Torres, a Democrat who co-chairs Central America in Congress.

In a series of tweets last week, Torres accused Bukele of behaving like a “narcissistic dictator” indifferent to the plight of Central American migrants who take great risks to reach the United States.

She attached a photo widely circulated in 2019, which shows the bodies of a Salvadoran migrant and his daughter lying lifeless in the Rio Grande on the border with Texas.

“Send me a pair of glasses so I can see the suffering of your people through your eyes,” wrote Torres, who came to the United States as a child from Guatemala.

Bukele pointed out that he was not even in office at the time of his death, which occurred during a previous jump in Central American migration under the Trump administration. He called on Salvadoran and other immigrants living in the Torres area of ​​Southern California to vote outside the office.

“It does not work for you, but to keep our countries underdeveloped,” he wrote.

For all his fighting, the 39-year-old Bukele is the most popular politician in Central America, a region plagued by corruption and crime. His New Ideas party ran a parliamentary election last month, and Bukele, who cultivates the image of a hip-pragmatist, tried to use China’s growing influence in the region to foster new foreign investment.

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But he is struggling to get closer to the Biden administration, which is trying to repeal Trump’s tough immigration policy restricting asylum applications, which Bukele has accepted in exchange for strong US support for his tough governance style.

With U.S. policy last month, El Salvador hired former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon to engage Bukele’s numerous critics, according to data from a foreign lobby at the U.S. Department of Justice this week.

The $ 1.2 million one-year deal with Arnold & Porter, signed by Bukele’s office on March 25, aims to strengthen El Salvador’s relations with the United States and multilateral institutions as the country negotiates $ 1.3 billion. assistance from the International Currency Fund.

“President Bukele is the most successful, politically stable and important leader in Central America,” Shannon said in a statement to the Associated Press on Thursday. “It belongs to the United States and El Salvador to have a strong and positive working relationship. I hope to be able to help build that relationship.”

Shannon, who served as acting secretary of state two weeks before Rex Tillerson took office at the start of the Trump administration, resigned from the State Department in 2018 after a career involving long stretches working for Latin America. He has been close to Zuniga since their days together in Brazil, when Shannon served as US ambassador from 2010 to 2013 and Zuniga served as a political adviser.

Respected by both Democrats and Republicans, Shannon brought Arnold and Porter a list of lobbying clients that includes the governments of Argentina and Ecuador.

In 2019, the law firm was hired by the Honduran government, which according to federal prosecutors is an attempt to remove the drug trafficking investigation from President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s brother. Shannon does not play any role in this agreement, which aims to provide legal advice to Honduras on financing the international market. But shortly after the deal was signed, Honduran lawyers turned to New York prosecutors to warn of potential “side effects” to their case on U.S. relations with the country, according to recent lawsuits.

Shannon’s hiring from El Salvador took place before the last dispute with Washington.

El Salvador’s two aides said they trusted Shannon to be able to build support in Washington, stressing lasting ties between the two countries. The most important of these are the more than 3 million Salvadorans living in the United States, many of whom fled during the US-funded Civil War in the 1980s and who return home money that is a major driver of the dollarized Salvadoran economy.

The deal with Arnold & Porter was first announced Wednesday by Foreign Lobby Report, an online publication that tracks the influential industry in Washington.

Bukele took office in 2019 as an independent pledge to save El Salvador from the deep divisions left by uncontrolled gang violence and systemic corruption in both right-wing and left-wing governments that followed the end of the bloody 1992 civil war.

But Democrats – and some Republicans – are increasingly criticizing it for tactics with a strong hand, such as sending troops surrounding Congress last year to pressure lawmakers to vote to fund the fight against gangs.

Relations with the Biden administration began rocky when US authorities refused to see him when he traveled unannounced to Washington in February, according to three people familiar with the decision.

Bukele categorically denied that he sought a meeting with Biden’s representatives during what he described as a private visit, which came to light only when it was announced by the AP.

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Since last fall, Bukele has continued to lobby, signing contracts worth more than $ 2.8 million with four lobbyists, including Arnold & Porter.

But he allowed one of them, a $ 450,000 lobbying agreement with Sonoran Policy Group, to expire on February 14, according to foreign lobby records. Sonoran is run by Robert Strick, who built one of the most successful lobbying firms during Trump’s presidency, representing clients facing sanctions or blue reputations in Washington such as the governments of Venezuela and Somalia and supporters of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.


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