By JOSHUA GOODMAN, Associated Press Writer
MIAMI (AP) — El Salvador has awarded a $780,000 lobby contract to a three-week old Washington firm set up to promote investment as President Nayib Bukele, a staunch Trump ally, seeks to pivot toward Joe Biden’s $4 billion development plan to stop the flow of migration from Central America.
The new entity, Invest El Salvador, is the third to have registered as a foreign agent of El Salvador since August with contracts totaling more than $1.6 million.
Invest El Salvador will “inform the U.S. public, government officials, and the media about the importance of fostering strong dialogue between the U.S. and El Salvador, and promoting direct foreign investment,” according to Department of Justice filings last week. The one-year contract, which has not been previously reported, was signed by a Bukele aide on November 5.
The firm’s sole employee and executive director is Brian Dean, a Latin American specialist who led the state of Florida’s efforts to expand trade in the region when Jeb Bush was governor. The group’s board includes fellow Republican David Metzner, the managing partner of ACG Analytics, a political consulting firm in Washington where Dean said he worked until now.
Bukele, 39, took office in 2019 vowing to rescue El Salvador from the deep divisions left by uncontrolled gang violence and systemic corruption in both right and left-wing governments that followed the end of a bloody civil war in 1992.
While he remain popular at home, he’s drawn criticism from U.S. lawmakers —mostly Democrats but some Republicans as well— for allegedly taking El Salvador down an authoritarian path, especially after he sent heavily armed troops in February to surround the congress to pressure lawmakers into approving a loan to fund the fight against gangs. His strict lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus has also proven controversial.
Bukele’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Dean told the AP that Bukele considers much of the criticism in Washington of his record “irritating” and based on a flawed understanding of his policies.
“I have no doubt about his commitment to democracy and rooting out corruption,” Dean said. “The rest is just semantics and color.”
Biden as vice president aggressively pushed a $750 million package to Central America to attack the root causes of migration—a sharp contrast to the Trump administration’s hardline policies that Bukele supported by signing a bilateral agreement that would allow the U.S. to send asylum seekers from other countries to El Salvador.
As president, Biden has vowed to expand aid to $4 billion, with a focus on mobilizing private investment, strengthening the rule of law and rooting out corruption.
“Biden’s goals are absolutely in line with what’s going on in El Salvador,” he said.
In August, El Salvador’s state intelligence agency hired for $75,000 a month Sonoran Policy Group, a firm run by Robert Stryk, one of the best-paid foreign lobbyists under Trump. That was followed in October by a second, similarly sized contract with Rational 360, a firm founded by Patrick Dorton, a former Clinton White House aide.