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President Antonio Saca: Why El Salvador Matters
The Washington Diplomat / March 2008

By Larry Luxner

For years, El Salvador has consistently bucked the tide of world opinion.

Until recently, it was one of only two countries — the other being Costa Rica — that recognized Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel.

El Salvador remains the only Latin American nation that steadfastly refuses to establish diplomatic ties with Cuba, one of a handful that recognize Taiwan rather than mainland China, one of only three that use the U.S. dollar as its official currency, and the only one with soldiers still deployed in Iraq.

Yet being the odd man out doesn't bother President Elias Antonio Saca at all.

A steadfast friend and ally of the United States, Saca is a very frequent visitor to the nation's capital. He came here again in early February; during his three-day trip, he met with influential members of Congress, chatted with President Bush at the White House and held a joint press conference with Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine on the steps of the Capitol building in Richmond.

"We thanked Gov. Kaine for receiving us in his office," Saca said. "We talked about issues of mutual interest for his government, and for Salvadorans living in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We also talked about the contributions from Salvadorans, whose efforts strengthen Virginia and El Salvador's economy.

Along with foreign policy, the concerns of an estimated 2.5 million Salvadorans living throughout the United States (including 550,000 in the Washington, D.C., metro area alone) were high on Saca's agenda. In fact, so many Salvadorans live in northern Virginia that El Salvador — the smallest of Central America's six Spanish-speaking republics — maintains a separate consulate in suburban Woodbridge, Va., to serve them.

More than 80% of these salvadoreños have some sort of legal status in this country; tens of thousands fled here during El Salvador's 12-year civil war, in which 75,000 people died. They were eventually granted legal status through NACARA (Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status), which has been extended periodically due to earthquakes and other natural disasters.

"The TPS protects 240,000 Salvadorans until Mar. 9, 2009," Saca told the Washington Diplomat in an exclusive 30-minute interview, speaking in Spanish. "We know that by that date, there still won't be immigration reform. In my meeting with President Bush, I asked him for an extension of the TPS. It's the only solution these 240,000 people have [for staying in the United States] if there's no immigration reform by then."

With just over 6.5 million inhabitants, the Massachusetts-sized country already suffers from poverty and unemployment. In 2007, the U.S. government deported a record 4,000 Salvadorans, many of them with criminal backgrounds and a long history of involvement in the notorious MS-13 gang.

This has produced a violent crime wave back home, though Saca insists that "over the last six months, our national police has done an extraordinary job to reduce the number of homicides. In 2004, we had 13 murders a day; today, we're down to eight or nine a day. This figure will keep dropping."

What would happen if TPS isn't extended and hundreds of thousands of salvadoreños who have overstayed their visas are sent back home?

"I haven't considered this scenario, because we will be successful," Saca said. "It's logical that by March, there won't be any movement on immigration reform because a new government will be in power by then. We know President Bush can fix this. He said he always wants the best for our people. I have faith in him."

Saca, 43, is descended from Palestinian immigrants who emigrated to El Salvador in the early 20th century from the West Bank town of Bethlehem. A prominent businessman and former radio sportscaster, he was elected president of El Salvador in 2004, running on the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party.

Saca said he appreciates Bush's strong support of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was ratified in 2005 and which he claims has rescued the Salvadoran economy from disaster.

"In the face of an invasion of Chinese products into Central America, if we and the United States had not agreed on CAFTA, we would now be in a very dangerous situation," he said. "Fortunately, CAFTA was approved and ratified by both countries. This has produced a 12% increase in our exports to the U.S. market, and has elevated the export of ethnic Salvadoran foods like tamales, frijoles and pupusas to around $500 million a year."

Saca said that under his stewardship, the Salvadoran economy is now growing at a 5% annual clip. El Salvador already has the lowest per-capita debt in Latin America — 36% of GDP — while its per-capita income is approaching $4,000 a year and exports are up to around $4 billion annually.

Furthermore, remittances from Salvadorans living in the States now total nearly $3.3 billion a year, or 16.5% of total GDP — money El Salvador can ill afford to do without.

"In spite of the recession in the United States, it's always been a priority for Salvadorans here to send money to their families," he said. "Our main goal is to convert remittances into productive money. We have done studies on how to get people to spend this money on housing, education and other areas where the money should be invested."

The president said he has no regrets over El Salvador's 2001 decision to phase out its national currency, the colón, in favor of the U.S. dollar, even though some critics say the policy made Salvadoran wages uncompetitive with those of neighboring Central American nations while driving up prices domestically.

"The process we have seen is bimonetarization," he said. "In the beginning, prices went up, but over time, the people have gotten used to dollars and the colón has disappeared. When you have a totally dollarized economy, you cannot spend more than what you have. Dollarization has permitted certainty in the economy and makes officials more responsible and more accountable to the people."

Of bigger concern to Saca and his allies in the ARENA party are what he calls "unacceptable" attempts by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to finance the opposition in his country. El Salvador's Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) is a former guerrilla group that now functions as a political party, and hopes to wrest control from Saca's ARENA in the next presidential elections scheduled for March 2009.

"One day before my trip to Washington, I was surprised with a report by the 16 intelligence agencies that was presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which they mentioned that Venezuela is expected to provide campaign funding to FMLN," he warned. "If this is true, we'd consider this a serious intervention in our internal affairs."

Saca added that he's asked El Salvador's foreign minister to order the country's diplomatic representative in Caracas home for consultations to clarify the situation.

"We hope that [Chávez is paying] no money to the opposition," he said. "We are worried about what's happening in El Salvador. Presidents are elected to govern their own countries, and not Latin America. It's unacceptable for any country to interfere with any other government."

Yet Saca doesn't consider the U.S. invasion of Iraq to be unacceptable at all.

In fact, he's Latin America's staunchest supporter of White House policy in the Middle East — at a time when nearly every other country in the region from Colombia to Mexico to Brazil has spoken out against the U.S.-led war. El Salvador currenly has 280 troops stationed in Iraq, near the Iranian border.

"What you start, you have to finish," he declared. "What message would we send if all the coalition forces pulled out, leaving the terrorists in Iraq?"

El Salvador has also made waves in another part of the Middle East.

Last year, El Salvador closed its Jerusalem mission, but only after Costa Rica did so. At the time, the country's veteran ambassador to the United States, René León, told the Diplomat that Saca's decision was "entirely political," that El Salvador could not be the only country in the world whose embassy remained in Jerusalem, and that "this was not a calculated decision to open up business relations with the Arab world," as some have charged was behind Costa Rica's move.

Taiwan is a different story altogether. Last year, Costa Rican President Oscar Arías Sánchez shocked his Taiwanese friends with the announcement that he was ending his country's 63-year partnership and switching allegiance to Beijing. Local newspapers reported that the Chinese had offered Costa Rica at least $400 million in grants and loans.

Saca said he has no intention of following Arias on the path to Beijing.

"We respect Costa Rica's decision to break relations with the Republic of China, but we don't need relations with mainland China since we are already being flooded by Chinese products," he said. "We don't believe in double standards, promoting free trade on one side and totalitarianism on the other. Taiwan is a democracy, and our government will continue supporting it."

In the meantime, Saca says there's virtually no chance his government will establish diplomatic ties with another island mired in controversy — Cuba — even if Fidel Castro officially steps down and is replaced by someone else within the Communist Party. In a November address to foreign diplomats, Saca reiterated his concern over human rights violations by the Castro regime, leading the ailing 81-year-old revolutionary to write in a subsequent essay that "the speech made by the president of El Salvador provoked nausea."

It seems nothing short of a total collapse of communism in Cuba will convince Saca to abandon his anti-Castro policy and inaugurate an embassy in Havana, as all of El Salvador's neighbors have already done.

"We don't think Cuba is the best example of democracy for other countries to follow," Saca declared. "As long as there are no free elections, no political parties and no freedom of expression, El Salvador won't contemplate relations with Cuba."

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