The Washington Diplomat / October 2006
By Larry Luxner
He's only 45, but René León is already the dean of Latin America's diplomatic corps, having served as El Salvador's ambassador to Washington for more than nine years.
That's a pretty demanding job, considering the United States is home to an estimated 2.5 million Salvadorans, including half a million in the Washington, D.C., area alone.
In fact, so many Salvadorans live in northern Virginia that the country — the smallest of Central America's six Spanish-speaking republics — maintains a separate consulate in Woodbridge, Va., to serve them.
El Salvador also has consulates in Brentwood, N.Y., Elizabeth, N.J., Nogales, Ariz., and Santa Ana, Calif. — communities with large populations of Salvadoran immigrants — as well as in 10 major cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco.
"The main reason I came to Washington was to promote trade relations between El Salvador and the United States, with the objective of gaining political consensus on the necessity of a free-trade agreement, and of course we have now done that with passage of CAFTA," he said.
Under that accord, officially known as DR-CAFTA, the Dominican Republic and five Central American countries — Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — gain duty-free access to the U.S. market in exchange for granting the United States similar privileges.
"I think CAFTA is a no-brainer for the United States and Central America," he said. "One day, the economic history of our region will be divided into before CAFTA and after CAFTA. That'll be the point of reference."
León said CAFTA has already generated more than $250 million in direct foreign investment for El Salvador, and has boosted exports by 18% in the last six months. "It's also creating a lot of opportunities for Salvadorans living in the U.S.., and it'll strengthen our institutional capacity to deal with labor and environmental issues."
With CAFTA out of the way, León's priority now is ensuring that El Salvador's enormous expatriate community will be allowed to stay in the United States.
León says more than 80% of these Salvadorans have some sort of legal status in the United States. Tens of thousands fled here during the country's 12-year civil war, in which over 70,000 people died. They were eventually granted legal status through NACARA (Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status).
Following back-to-back earthquakes in early 2001 that left over 1,159 people dead, 8,122 injured and hundreds of thousands homeless, the U.S. government granted TPS for Salvadorans who arrived here on or before Feb. 13, 2001. That gave them 18 months to live and work in the United States.
The program has been extended several times by the Department of Homeland Security, but in order to qualify, Salvadorans enjoying TPS need to periodically re-register.
"There are two reasons why TPS is granted: civil war and natural disaster. Unfortunately, we have qualified for both of them," he said. "If they don't register, they'll lose their immigration status and work permit, and they will get a deportation order."
And that's the last thing El Salvador wants or needs.
With over 6 million inhabitants, the densely populated country already suffers from poverty and massive unemployment. Its per-capita income is only $2,800 a year, and an influx of Salvadorans from the States would only drag the economy down.
Furthermore, remittances from Salvadorans living in the States now total nearly $3 billion a year, or 16.5% of total GDP — money El Salvador can ill afford to do without.
"Of course, it would create a disaster in El Salvador, but I see that as very unlikely," said León. "There are not going to be massive deportations. After TPS, you can have a DED [deferral enforcement departure]. There are lots of legal means to keep the people here until there's a law approved by Congress. Many of these Salvadorans are prosperous entrepreneurs and they don't represent a threat to the security of the United States. They have been here at least 5 years, they possess valid drivers' licenses and social security cards, and they have been screened by the FBI and the police. "
Just to be on the safe side, however, the Embassy of El Salvador for the last four years has been involved in a massive campaign to get Salvadorans to help get the word out. This year, León's schedule was particularly grueling.
"We visited more than 90 cities in 60 days," he said. "Our president made more than half a million automatic calls with messages to register for TPS. We were interviewed by the most important Hispanic networks and did at least 500 radio, TV and newspaper interviews."
León and his six staffers offered legal orientation to Salvadorans, filling out 25,000 applicantions themselves and saving an estimated $3 million in legal fees.
"The immigration fee is $250, but a lawyer could charge you up to $1,000 if you're not careful," he said. "Fraud is the main danger we face when we have these campaigns — unscrupulous notaries who deceive our people, telling them that if they're willing to invest $5,000 or $10,000, they can get them into a program when that's not the case. We combat that fraud extensively."
"The U.S. recognizes that the government of El Salvador is the most efficient government doing outreach for its citizens in the history of the TPS. We have the lowest rate of failure," he said, noting that 97.6% of all applicants from El Salvador are approved.
In the long run, however, says León, the only solution is to boost the country's economy through greater trade integration with the Western Hemisphere.
El Salvador took one step toward that goal several years ago, with the decision to replace its national currency, the colón, with the U.S. dollar.
León says proudly that "El Salvador is one of the few countries in Latin America that can issue bonds and debt. We don't have any exchange-rate risk or distortions in the economy, since all the prices are in dollars. Thanks to dollarization, we have the lowest interest rates in Latin America, and one of the lowest inflation rates in Central America."
El Salvador has also qualified for $442 million in funds from the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government development agency.
"This money will allow us to develop a program in the poorest part of El Salvador where 815,000 people live in impoverished conditions," he said. "Among other things, we're building a road that will connect this region with the rest of the country, and also with Honduras and Guatemala."
Another project in the works is the construction of a $198 million, state-of-the-art port at La Unión on the Pacific coast. Being built with Japanese financing, this port will connect with Puerto Cortes in Honduras, in effect creating a "dry canal" linking the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. Dredging is now underway; when finished, ships with capacities as large as 6,000 or 7,000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) will be able to call at La Unión.
"Our objective is not to compete with Panama, but to become an alternative, a logistics platform to do business with the United States and the rest of Central and Latin America," he said.
Nevertheless, El Salvador remains a poor, developing country — albeit a stridently pro-American one — whose long-term stability could be threatened by left-leaning, populist movements of the kind promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Not surprisingly, said León, the rise of Chávez is a consequence of the misery in which millions of Latin Americans continue to live.
"It has a lot to do with the lost credibility of traditional political parties. The people are disillusioned with the benefits of democracy. They were promised that if they followed this path, they'd be better off, and it hasn't happened," he said.
"In the case of El Salvador, we have experienced very authoritarian governments, military regimes and civil wars. Our people are well aware of the dangers of following this path. We have had continuous democracy since 1989."
He added, somewhat cautiously: "Chávez is very peculiar. We really have to be careful that his ideas of government not affect democratic institutions in El Salvador. We respect the right of the Venezuelan people to have whatever government they want, but we wouldn't like to see a negative influence in El Salvador."
León insisted that El Salvador's recent decision to transfer its embassy in Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv had absolutely nothing to do with Venezuela's temporary downgrading of relations with Israel in the wake of that country's recent war with Hezbollah.
Nor is it related to the fact that President Saca is of Palestinian origin
"Even while he was campaigning, Saca promised he would not move our embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv," the diplomat insisted. "It was other circumstances that made us take this very painful decision."
León said El Salvador closed its Jerusalem mission only after Costa Rica did so — since the early 1980s the two countries had been the only ones in the world that had recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
"I think the Israelis understood that it was very difficult for be the only one in the world not in compliance with the UN resolution that declared Jerusalem an international territory, and we would have been subjected to bashing at the international level."
He added that El Salvador's decision was "entirely political," and that "it was not a calculated decision to open up business relations with the Arab world," as some have charged was behind Costa Rica's move.
While El Salvador is no longer the only country with an embassy in Jerusalem, it is the only country in Latin America that maintains troops in Iraq.
And that's no accident, says León.
"El Salvador is determined to be a friend and ally of the United States. We believe that terrorism is a threat that has its roots in regimes such as the one [that was] in Iraq under Saddam Hussein," he said.
At the moment, El Salvador has a battalion of 380 soldiers serving in Tikrit. León says they're doing "reconstruction and humanitarian support" work. The battalion is one of seven serving in Iraq on a rotation basis; so far, the country has suffered three casualties.
"Most of the people believe that's not our conflict and it's not popular at all," León conceded. "However, I think leaders must be determined to do the right thing. If leaders would do only want people want, I don't know where the world would be."
Far less controversial is El Salvador's participation in DR-CAFTA.
Costa Rica has yet to ratify the agreement because of massive opposition at home, though El Salvador ratified it last year with the enthusiastic backing of over 75% of the country's inhabitants, according to polls cited by León.
In reality, León said El Salvador had no choice but to go with the flow.
"What were our other options?" he asked. "In 2008, we will lose CBI parity and then we'd be left with nothing. I don't think Congress is in the mood to renew preferential treatment to any country."
By 2008, El Salvador also might have a new ambassador here.
"It's rare to see ambassadors lasting more than 10 years, especially from Latin America," said León, adding that while he loves his job, "I don't want to be the ambassador to Washington all my life."