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Last Updated: 03/22/2011
Obama’s Visit to El Salvador
Victor M. Valle, Associate Vice Rector, University for Peace

Victor Valle, Associate Vice Rector of the University for Peace and former member of the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) movement in El Salvador, comments on US President Barack Obama's visit to El Salvador and its implications for future Salvadoran-US relations.

On 22 and 23 March 2011 President Obama will visit El Salvador as part of an official visit to Latin America that includes Brazil and Chile.

Why have Obama and his advisors selected El Salvador? What can be expected from the visit?

El Salvador has a strong relationship with the US, historically and currently. It is believed that more than two million people from Salvadoran background are now living in the US, including several hundreds of thousands under the Temporary Protection Status.

This fact is based upon former US policy decisions: the support of US governments to rightist military dictatorships, mainly during the Cold War, immigration policies that have sometimes encouraged relocation, and the inability or lack of will to stop the flow of immigrants towards the US in search of the “American Dream.”

El Salvador now has a left-leaning government. The FMLN, formerly a leftist and anti-US armed insurgency group, is now the major political party at El Salvador, and is most prominently represented in the current government by President Funes. The Legislative Assembly is now chaired by a former guerrilla commander, Sigfrido Reyes, and most of the major cities in the country have municipal governments controlled by the FMLN. However, the current government and its supporting political forces, including the FMLN leadership, have shown prudence in handling several issues including foreign policy and relations with the US government.

El Salvador is an emblematic country in the region. It is a symbol of democratic change and evidence that a progressive government can be moderate in its actions without renouncing its fundamental ideas of justice and democracy for all. Under these circumstances, El Salvador is currently the most interesting and attractive political regime in the region. Guatemala is a fragile democratic country that is almost under siege by transnational crime; Honduras has a government of questionable legitimacy (although the US government has its responsibility, even by omission, in its establishment); Nicaragua has a government that is frequently hostile towards the US; and Costa Rica is a friendly country already.

El Salvador may be seen by Obama and his advisors as an example of acceptable political change in the region, based on conflict transformation and democracy building, which could inspire a new kind of alliance between the US and other countries with small economies and huge social problems.

Last but not least, Obama promised changes in all political actions. This visit is an opportunity for him to live up to those promises of change in terms of US foreign policy in Central America, which has had a regretful history of supporting bloody and cruel military dictatorships across the region, as well as being involved in the Iran-Contra affair.

There is no doubt that transnational organized crime and its effects on the security of both countries will be present in the discussions. Much of the crime affecting both countries has its roots in the armed conflict of the 1980s in El Salvador and its aftermath. Salvadoran migration to the US by non-legal means, for example, provoked a chain of crimes that have had detrimental effects on the security of people looking for better lives. Several kinds of trafficking occur along the migration route, including human, drug, and small arms.

There is one occurrence that is not always analyzed in the US society and politics. The phenomenon of the Maras, although originating in California neighborhoods, now has implications that transcend borders.

Urban areas in Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia are now threatened by the Maras’ actions. The existence and violent potential of these organized criminals can be seen as a direct threat to the safety of people in the US and elsewhere.

Funes campaigned on a platform of political change in El Salvador, and expressed his commitment to people-centered policies, respect for international law and El Salvador’s international agreements, national unity and good governance, the search for creative solutions to social problems, and the honest management of public funds.

So far, despite the compromises inherent in politics, Funes has been quite successful in living up to his promises. His performance has provided stability to the democracy building process and political system, which have left him with high popularity (70% approval) among Salvadoran citizens.

For all of these reasons, Funes is a worthy partner of Obama, and much good could come of their collaboration.

From the explicit declarations of President Obama in his State of the Union speech, the statements by official spokespersons of the US government, and the Salvadoran Foreign Minister’s statements, the expected results of the visit will be in the realms of public security, permanent residence for current Salvadorans under Temporary Protection Status in the US, and some development programmes associated with food and health security. Such results will be congruent with Obama’s aim of encouraging development and providing security for a trustable partner, the government of El Salvador. Strategically, the development measures will prevent an increase in the flow of
Salvadorans towards the US, and the security projects will provide safety for both Salvadoran and US communities.

Surely, the Obama government has its own plans and objectives for this visit. They took the initiative. However, both parties are likely to benefit.

Obama will gain credibility for his promises and demonstrate that, as part of a new political style, he is able to transform a longstanding source of tension into a fruitful relationship; a former enemy into a strategic ally. The US government cannot forget the significance of the votes of Salvadoran born citizens and voters with Salvadoran background, plus the increasing number of Salvadoran-born legislators and municipal government officials.

Emblematic and symbolic is the visit that Obama will make to the tomb of Monsignor Romero. Monsignor is now a universal personality for having been killed three decades ago by the Salvadoran political right.

Funes will benefit because the major partner in the Western Hemisphere (and the world) is sending a clear message of support to his government and performance. Politically, the Funes Administration’s image will almost certainly be strengthened by this visit. The assertion by political rightists in El Salvador that the FMLN/Funes victory in 2009 would alienate the US and jeopardize its support is no longer true.

Victor M. Valle is Associate Vice Rector of the University for Peace.