US Dampens Criticism of El Salvador’s President as Migration Overtakes Democracy Concerns

In 2021, the Biden administration turned down a meeting request with El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, on a trip to Washington, snubbing the self-proclaimed “world’s coolest dictator” for fear a photo op would embolden his attempts to expand his power base.

A little more than three years later, it’s the United States that’s courting Bukele. A high-level delegation led by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and senior White House and State Department officials, attended Bukele’s inauguration in San Salvador on Saturday to a second term.

The visit — unthinkable until recently—captures a quiet, 180-degree shift in Washington’s policy towards the small Central American nation of 6 million that reflects how the Biden administration’s criticisms of Bukele’s strong-armed governing style have been overtaken by more urgent concerns tied to immigration — a key issue in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

“They’ve realised what he’s been doing works,” Damian Merlo, an American adviser to Bukele who is registered to lobby on the Salvadoran government’s behalf, said in an interview from El Salvador. “If the U.S. is serious about wanting to address the root causes of migration, then Bukele is someone who has actually done it.”

The 42-year-old Bukele, who was reelected with 85% of the vote, has been wildly popular at home for his frontal attack on powerful gangs, which has converted what was once the world’s murder capital into one of Latin America’s safest countries. The improvement in public security is credited with a more than 60% drop in migration from the Central American country to the U.S. since Bukele took office in 2019 — a stark contrast with a growing exodus of migrants from other parts of Latin America.

“We conquered fear, and today we are truly a free nation,” Bukele said in a speech Saturday to hundreds of supporters from the balcony of the National Palace after being sworn in for a second, five-year term.

Cured of what he called the “cancer” of gang violence, he said that his next term would be devoted to strengthening El Salvador’s economy, vowing to apply the same independent, unconventional approach that has characterised his rule and won him admirers from conservatives throughout Latin America.

“I’m not here to do what others think I should do. I’m here to do what’s best for our country,” he said.

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ABC News

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