When President Obama lands in El Salvador on March 22 he will be facing the most challenging visit of his three-country trip to Latin America. Obama will have already met two consolidated, more mature, democratic states with clear commercial strategic value to U.S. interests.
Chile has trade agreements with over 60 countries and has been able to steer clear of the polarizing ideological discourse of the 1980s. Brazil, clearly a global and regional player, represents one of the top-10 trade partners of the United States. The mere size of the Brazilian economy puts it in a category of its own. And then, there’s El Salvador, the smallest country in continental America with intimate historic and demographic ties to the United States. Historically, the U.S. was actively involved during the civil war that occurred at the height of the Cold War, and demographically, Salvadorans represent the sixth-largest immigrant group in the United Statess. So why does El Salvador represent the most challenging visit to Obama?
First, the political climate in El Salvador is highly polarized with remnants and outbursts of outdated Cold War rhetoric being made periodically by important political actors. This should obligate President Obama to adjust his discourse to convey an unequivocal message that political stability grounded on democratic principles is pivotal in poverty reduction, foreign direct investment and economic growth. A compelling argument revolving around democracy consolidation will resonate in a region where fragile democratic institutions abound; especially when it’s made from a nation that has arguably advanced most on this matter in Central America. Furthermore, positioning poverty reduction as a strategic objective for the Western Hemisphere as well as highlighting the role of public-private partnerships will be an idea best delivered in El Salvador.
Secondly, El Salvador is best positioned to partner with the U.S. in combating organized crime and narcotrafficking within Central America. Since 2000, the country has a U.S. Navy Forward Operating Location providing logistical support to aerial counter-drug aircraft and their crews from U.S. military and government law enforcement organizations. However, President Funes will be pressed to convert the nation’s compromise to curtail the flow of drugs on their way to U.S. soil with concrete aid and cooperation from the Obama administration to stop the local spiral of insecurity, primarily linked to gang violence. The argument to be made is simple: given El Salvador’s size, real progress can be made in the short term with fewer resources. President Obama and his advisors will be in a position to deliver fast results in an obvious issue of national security south of the border.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, in a small country where we console ourselves with the reduction of poverty that has clearly been insufficient, where the private sector—despite all its drive—insists on needing more political stability to invest and where a spiraling violence epidemic persists, what we need most is a message of hope.
President Obama’s most triumphant moment while in El Salvador should be being able to speak to the people of El Salvador. He can bring a renewed sense of hope both for Salvadorans seeking permanent immigration status in the U.S. and for the youth growing up in a wave of crime. But that hope also brings a desire for continued engagement that the U.S. will then be pressed to deliver.
*Julio Rank Wright is contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is from San Salvador, El Salvador, but temporarily living in Washington DC.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.