WASHINGTON, D.C. – For years, El Salvador has consistently bucked the tide of world opinion. Until recently, it was one of only two countries – the other being Costa Rica – that recognized Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel.
El Salvador remains the only Latin American nation that steadfastly refuses to establish diplomatic ties with Cuba, one of a handful that recognize Taiwan rather than mainland China, one of only three that use the U.S. dollar as its official currency, and the only with soldiers still deployed in Iraq.
Yet being the odd man out doesn’t seem to bother President Elias Antonio Saca.
A steadfast friend and ally of the U.S. government, Saca is a frequent visitor to Washington, D.C. During a three-day trip here earlier this month, he met with influential members of Congress and chatted with President George W. Bush at the White House about his concerns over an estimated 2.5 million Salvadorans living in the United States.
More than 80% of these Salvadoreños have some sort of legal status in this country; tens of thousands fled here during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, in which 75,000 people died. They were eventually granted legal status through NACARA (the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status), two programs that have been extended periodically due to earthquakes and other natural disasters and political considerations over the years.
“The TPS protects 240,000 Salvadorans until Mar. 9, 2009,” Saca told The Tico Times in an exclusive interview. “We know that by that date, there still won’t be immigration reform. In my meeting with President Bush, I asked him for an extension of the TPS. It’s the only solution these 240,000 people have (for staying in the United States) if there’s no immigration reform by then.”
In 2007, the U.S. government deported a record 4,000 Salvadorans, many of them with criminal backgrounds and a long history of involvement in the notorious MS-13 gang.
This has produced a violent crime wave back home, though Saca insists that “over the last six months, our national police have done an extraordinary job to reduce the number of homicides. In 2004, we had 13 murders a day; today, we’re down to eight or nine a day. This figure will keep dropping.”
What would happen if TPS isn’t extended and hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who have overstayed their visas are sent back home?
“I haven’t considered this scenario, because we will be successful,” Saca said of his lobbying efforts in Washington. “It’s logical that by March, there won’t be any movement on immigration reform because a new government will be in power by then. We know President Bush can fix this. He said he always wants the best for our people. I have faith in him.”
Saca, 43, is descended from Palestinian immigrants who emigrated to El Salvador in the early 20th century from the West Bank town of Bethlehem. A prominent businessman and former radio sportscaster, he was elected president of El Salvador in 2004, running on the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party.
Saca said he appreciates Bush’s strong support of the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which was ratified in 2005 and which he claims has rescued the Salvadoran economy.
“In the face of an invasion of Chinese products into Central America, if we and the United States had not agreed on CAFTA, we would now be in a very dangerous situation,” he said. “Fortunately, CAFTA was approved and ratified by both countries.
This has produced a 12% increase in our exports to the U.S. market, and has elevated the export of ethnic Salvadoran foods like tamales, frijoles and pupusas to around $500 million a year.”
Saca said that under his stewardship, the Salvadoran economy is now growing at a 5% annual clip. El Salvador already has the lowest per-capita debt in Latin America – 36% of its Gross Domestic Product – while its per-capita income is approaching $4,000 a year and exports are up to around $4 billion annually.
Furthermore, remittances from Salvadorans living in the United States now total nearly $3.3 billion a year, or 16.5% of total GDP. That’s money El Salvador can ill afford to do without.
“In spite of the recession in the United States, it’s always been a priority for Salvadorans here to send money to their families,” he said. “Our main goal is to convert remittances into productive money. We have done studies on how to get people to spend this money on housing, education and other areas where the money should be invested.”
The president said he has no regrets over El Salvador’s 2001 decision to phase out its national currency, the colón, in favor of the U.S. dollar, even though some critics say the policy made Salvadoran wages uncompetitive with those of neighboring Central American nations while driving up prices domestically.
“The process we have seen is bi-monetarization,” he said. “In the beginning, prices went up, but over time, the people have gotten used to dollars and the colón has disappeared. When you have a totally dollarized economy, you cannot spend more than what you have. Dollarization has permitted certainty in the economy and makes officials more responsible and more accountable to the people.”
Of bigger concern to Saca and his allies in the ARENA party are what he calls “unacceptable” attempts by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to finance the opposition in his country. El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) is a former guerrilla group that now functions as a political party, and hopes to wrest control from Saca’s ARENA in the next presidential elections scheduled for March 2009 (NT, Feb. 22).
“One day before my trip to Washington, I was surprised with a report by the 16 intelligence agencies that was presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which they mentioned that Venezuela is expected to provide campaign funding to the FMLN,” he warned. “If this is true, we’d consider this a serious intervention in our internal affairs.”
Saca added that he’s asked El Salvador’s foreign minister to order the country’s diplomatic representative in Caracas home for consultations to clarify the situation.
“We hope that (Chávez is paying) no money to the opposition,” he said. “We are worried about what’s happening in El Salvador. Presidents are elected to govern their own countries, and not Latin America. It’s unacceptable for any country to interfere with any other government.”
Both the FMLN and Chávez deny that Venezuelan money is going to fund the former rebel movement.
Though leery of Chávez’s intervention in other countries, Saca doesn’t consider the U.S. invasion of Iraq to be unacceptable at all.
In fact, Saca is Latin America’s staunchest supporter of White House policy in the Middle East – at a time when nearly every other country in the region has spoken out against the war. El Salvador currently has 280 troops stationed in Iraq.
“What you start, you have to finish,” he said. “What message would we send if all the coalition forces pulled out, leaving the terrorists in Iraq?”
El Salvador has also made waves in another part of the Middle East.
Last year, El Salvador closed its Jerusalem mission, but only after Costa Rica did so. At the time, the country’s veteran ambassador to the United States, René León, told The Tico Times that Saca’s decision was “entirely political,” that El Salvador could not be the only country in the world whose embassy remained in Jerusalem, and that “this was not a calculated decision to open up business relations with the Arab world,” as some have charged was behind Costa Rica’s move.
Taiwan is a different story altogether. Last year, Costa Rican President Oscar Arías shocked his Taiwanese friends with the announcement that he was ending his country’s 63-year partnership and switching allegiance to mainland China.
Saca said he has no intention of following Arias on the path to Beijing.
“We respect Costa Rica’s decision to break relations with the Republic of China, but we don’t need relations with mainland China since we are already being flooded by Chinese products,” he said. “We don’t believe in double standards, promoting free trade on one side and totalitarianism on the other.”
In the meantime, Saca says there’s virtually no chance his government will establish diplomatic ties with another island mired in controversy – Cuba – even though Fidel Castro has announced his retirement.
In a November address to foreign diplomats, Saca reiterated his concern over human rights violations by the Castro regime, leading the ailing 81-year-old revolutionary to write in a subsequent essay that “the speech made by the president of El Salvador provoked nausea.”
It seems nothing short of a total collapse of communism in Cuba will persuade Saca to abandon his anti-Castro policy and inaugurate an embassy in Havana, as all of El Salvador’s neighbors have already done.
“We don’t think Cuba is the best example of democracy for other countries to follow,” Saca said. “As long as there are no free elections, no political parties and no freedom of expression, El Salvador won’t contemplate relations with Cuba.”
Larry Luxner is a freelance journalist who specializes in Latin America.