From EL FARO ENGLISH: Will Costa Rica Be the Solution?

Jun 1, 2021
9:32 AM
Originally published at El Faro

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Photo by Alex Brandon/POOL/AFP)

Tuesday, as Nayib Bukele addresses the Assembly to commemorate his second year in office, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Costa Rica to meet with President Carlos Alvarado.

According to the agenda, he’ll also gather with officials representing countries from the Central American Integration System (SICA), which also includes the Dominican Republic, to address “the root causes of migration, including improving democratic governance, security, and economic opportunity for the people of Central America.” Costa Rica heads SICA, and convened the talks.

Secretary Blinken is also looking to meet bilaterally with each foreign minister, according to Julie Chung, Undersecretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, though the department hasn’t laid out which of the ministers have confirmed.

When Biden took office in January, Secretary Blinken’s first call to Central America was to President Alvarado of Costa Rica. Blinken signaled at the time that the Biden administration would view Costa Rica as a critical regional leader and ally on issues of migration, climate change, and Covid-19. Alvarado tweeted in response to Biden taking over the White House: “multilateralism is back!”

Last week, Costa Rica joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, solidifying its spot as the country most integrated with international markets in the region. Secretary Blinken’s first trip to the isthmus will test whether Costa Rica can and wants to emerge as a regional power broker, either by backing the U.S. strategy in its beleaguered dealings with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala or by leading discussions of a broader regional agenda.

Appointment of Jean Manes

The appointment of Jean Manes as interim ambassador to El Salvador may be the first Biden decision to put a smile on Bukele’s face. Last Thursday, the government-run newspaper Diario El Salvador broke the news of her appointment, naming Bukele’s office as their source—significant, in that the paper limits its coverage to news the administration views as favorable.

Bukele and Manes had a good relationship during her first stint as ambassador to El Salvador from 2016 to 2019. Sources say her support was instrumental to Bukele’s happy landing with Washington conservatives in early 2019, when he gave a memorable speech at the Heritage Foundation. “Thousands more ambassadors may come, and we’ll work with them 100%, but we’ll never have another Jean Manes,” Bukele tweeted as she left the embassy.

But her rapport with Bukele will now likely be chillier. Manes, a vocal diplomat, had no problem clashing with the Salvadoran administration during her time in El Salvador, especially after the FMLN’s 2019 decision to cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of China. And sources in Washington claim that she now feels personally troubled by Bukele’s authoritarian streak.

Manes, who will land in El Salvador Monday at 3 p.m. ET, will serve until the U.S. Senate confirms an ambassador in the fall. The State Department’s decision to return an ambassador to an old assignment is an unusual one. The veteran diplomat is expected to draw a line in the sand on the separation of powers and defense of civil society organizations—not to mention responding to Bukele’s increasingly close relationship with China.

Florida Senator Marcio Rubio, a leading and highly influential foreign policymaker among Republicans, was quick to welcome Manes back to the embassy: “As an experienced diplomat she will be a strong advocate in defense of democracy, the rule of law, and the challenges associated with Covid-19,” he wrote on the day of the announcement.

Samantha Power, the new USAID administrator, also praised Manes’ appointment, noting that El Salvador was at a “critical moment.”

After the May 1 coup against the judiciary, Power’s agency politically pressured the Salvadoran administration by announcing it would divert funds previously destined to the Bukele-controlled Supreme Court, Attorney General’s Office, National Civil Police, and the Institute for Public Access to Information, to transparency and human rights organizations instead.

Anti-NGO Strategy

“USAID can send their money wherever they want,” Bukele said at a press conference last week, “as long as they’re not funding political opposition groups, which is illegal.”

Bukele has smeared his civil society critics, whether funded by USAID or other sources, branding them as shills for the political opposition. During a televised meeting with the international diplomatic corps on May 3, the president claimed that skeptical ambassadors hadn’t “spoken to the real civil society” in forming their opinions of the events on May 1.

The administration is also looking for new legislative tools to clamp down on NGOs. On May 18, the Assembly formed a new committee to investigate private organizations receiving funds from the legislature and prosecute organizations found to have, as one Nuevas Ideas deputy put it, “stolen money from the people.”

Nuevas Ideas deputy Elisa Rosales says the Assembly should go a step further: “We are going to audit and investigate all ‘think tanks” and NGOs. They say it’s persecution, we call it justice,” she tweeted on May 21.

One of Bukele’s lobbyists in Washington, Damián Merlo, also called for increased scrutiny of NGO’s: “Seems to me, El Salvador needs a @TheJusticeDept #fara like law to know who is behind funding and what each person is getting paid.”

On Monday, another Nuevas Ideas deputy, Jorge Castro, suggested also “toughening our laws” against the press, so that “when someone harms the nation, they face the full weight of the law.”

El Salvador isn’t alone in the region in undercutting civil society and the press under the pretext that foreign governments —or George Soros— are interfering with the interests of its governing agenda. Laws with this purpose have surfaced this year in Nicaragua and Guatemala.

In January, the Sandinista-controlled Nicaraguan Congress passed a “foreign agents law” requiring that private organizations receiving funds from abroad register with the government, abstain from political activism, and submit to aggressive monthly audits under the threat of fines, annulment of legal standing, or criminal prosecution.

The Ortega-Murillo regime leaned on the new law last week to accuse members of the transparency and human rights organization Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation —most notably, its former president, Cristiana Chamorro, an opposition contender for president— of money laundering. For the second time in three years, they also ransacked the office building of independent newsroom Confidencial.

“They stole everything, but we continue demonstrating that they’ll never be able to confiscate journalism,” wrote Carlos Fernando Chamorro, founding director of Confidencial, in an op-ed on the raid.

In February of 2020, the Guatemalan Congress approved a law allowing the government to annul the legal standing of organizations it finds to be “altering the public order”—the same language invoked in the Nicaraguan law. This month the Constitutional Court —which the Congress stacked in April with allies of President Giammattei— ruled against civil society lawsuits against the law, allowing it to go into effect.

In Mexico, meanwhile, U.S. financing of NGOs that have been critical of the government has also come under fire. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently railed against what he sees as opposition civil society organizations (including Article 19, an anti-corruption and press freedom organization) taking money from USAID. “It’s interference, it’s interventionism, it’s promoting coup-plotters,” López Obrador said just days before Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to meet him.

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