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MIAMI (AP) — El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele refused to meet with a visiting senior U.S. diplomat this week over what he sees as a pattern of slights from Democrats and the Biden administration, according to two aides of the Central American leader.
Bukele’s decision not to meet with Ricardo Zuniga, the Biden administration’s envoy to the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America, follows a similar snub he allegedly received from U.S. officials during an unannounced trip to Washington in February.
It also comes just days after Bukele’s government awarded $1.2 million lobbying contract to the State Department’s former top career diplomat in a bid to improve ties with the new American president.
Zuniga traveled Wednesday to El Salvador following talks in Guatemala focused on immigration amid a surge in child migrants on the U.S. border. Upon arrival, he immediately announced a $2 million U.S. contribution to an international commission seeking to strengthen the fight against corruption, which Biden officials see as one of the root causes of illegal immigration.
Zuniga had hoped to see Bukele before heading back to Washington on Thursday, according to a State Department spokesman.
But Bukele has told aides that he won’t meet with any Biden officials until the U.S. softens criticism raising doubts about his commitment to democracy and the rule of law, according to the two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the diplomatic sensitivities.
Specifically, the two said Bukele was angered by State Department spokesman Ned Price’s comments Monday that the U.S. looks forward to Bukele restoring a “strong separation of powers where they’ve been eroded and demonstrate his government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.”
The Salvadoran presidential press office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Price’s comments followed a spat between Bukele and one of his fiercest U.S. critics, Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat who co-chairs the Central America caucus in Congress.
In a series of Tweets last week, Torres accused Bukele of behaving like a “narcissistic dictator” indifferent to the plight of Central American migrants who undertake great risks to reach the U.S.
She attached a photograph that was widely circulated in 2019 showing the bodies of a Salvadoran migrant and his daughter laying lifeless in the Rio Grande on the Texas border.
“Send me a pair of glasses so I may see the suffering of your people through your eyes,” wrote Torres, who came to the U.S. as a child from Guatemala.
Bukele pointed out that he wasn’t even in office at the time of the deaths, which came during a previous surge in Central American migration under the Trump administration. He urged Salvadoran and other immigrants living in Torres' Southern California district to vote her out of office.
“She doesn’t work for you, but to keep our countries underdeveloped,” he wrote.
For all his combativeness, the 39-year-old Bukele is by far the most popular politician in Central America, a region plagued by corruption and criminality. His New Ideas party swept legislative elections by a landslide last month and Bukele, who cultivates the image of a hip pragmatist, has sought to leverage China’s growing influence in the region to court new foreign investment.
But he’s struggled to draw close to the Biden administration, which is seeking to undo Trump's hardline immigration policies restricting asylum requests, which Bukele embraced in exchange for strong U.S. support for his tough governing style.
With the U.S policy under review, El Salvador last month hired former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon to engage Bukele's many critics, according to foreign lobby records with the U.S. Department of Justice disclosed this week.
The one year, $1.2 million contract with Arnold & Porter, which was signed by Bukele's office on March 25, aims to strengthen El Salvador’s relations with the U.S. and multilateral institutions at a time the country is reportedly negotiating $1.3 billion in assistance from the International Monetary Fund.
“President Bukele is the most successful, politically stable and important leader in Central America,” Shannon said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday. “It behooves the U.S. and El Salvador to have strong and positive working relations. It is my hope to be able to help build those relations.”
Shannon, who served as acting secretary of state for two weeks before Rex Tillerson took up the post at the start of the Trump administration, retired from the State Department in 2018 after a career that included long stretches working on Latin America. He is close to Zuniga from their days together in Brazil, when Shannon from 2010 to 2013 was U.S. ambassador and Zuniga served as a political counselor.
Respected by both Democrats and Republicans, Shannon has brought Arnold & Porter a roster of lobbying clients that includes the governments of Argentina and Ecuador.
The law firm was also hired in 2019 by Honduras’ government in what federal prosecutors say was an attempt to push aside an investigation into drug trafficking by President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s brother. Shannon played no role in that contract, whose stated aim was to provide legal advice to Honduras concerning financing in the international market. But shortly after the deal was signed, Honduras’ lawyers reached out to New York prosecutors to warn of potential “collateral consequences” for their case on U.S. relations with the country, according to recent court filings.
El Salvador's hiring of Shannon took place before the latest row with Washington.
The two Salvadoran aides said they trusted that Shannon will be able to build support in Washington by highlighting the enduring ties between the two countries. Foremost among them are the more than 3 million Salvadorans living in the U.S., many of whom fled during the U.S.-funded Civil War in the 1980s and who send back home money that is a major driver of the dollarized Salvadoran economy.
The contract with Arnold & Porter was first reported Wednesday by Foreign Lobby Report, an online publication that tracks the influence industry in Washington.
The State Department said Zuniga had sought a wide range of meetings in El Salvador, including with Bukele. In the end he met with Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill, Attorney General Raul Melara — a sharp critic of Bukele — as well as business leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations. It said the meetings were aimed at laying the foundation to build on already strong dialogue with the Bukele administration at all levels and civil society.
Bukele swept into office in 2019 as an independent 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.
But increasingly Democrats — and some Republicans — have criticized him for strong-arm tactics like sending troops to surround Congress last year to pressure lawmakers to vote on funding for the fight against the gangs.
Relations with the Biden administration got off to a rocky start when U.S. officials refused to see him when he traveled unannounced to Washington in February, according to three people familiar with the decision.
Bukele has vehemently denied he was seeking a meeting with Biden officials during what he characterized as a private visit, which only came to light when it was reported by the AP.
Bukele has gone on something of a lobbying spree since last fall, signing contracts worth more than $2.8 million with four lobbyists, including now Arnold & Porter.
But he allowed one of those, a $450,000 lobby contract with Sonoran Policy Group, to expire on Feb. 14, foreign lobby records also show. Sonoran is run by Robert Stryk, who built one of the most successful lobbying firms during the Trump presidency representing clients facing sanctions or with bruised reputations in Washington like the governments of Venezuela and Somalia and backers of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
AP Writer Marcos Aleman in San Salvador contributed to this report.
Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman