The Call

Why is Obama headed to El Salvador?

By Heather Berkman During last month’s State of the Union address, President Obama said little about the region south of the border. There was no reference to Mexico, unless you count acknowledgment of the need to tackle immigration reform. There was the expected call for a congressional push on trade deals with Panama and Colombia. ...

Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

By Heather Berkman

During last month’s State of the Union address, President Obama said little about the region south of the border. There was no reference to Mexico, unless you count acknowledgment of the need to tackle immigration reform. There was the expected call for a congressional push on trade deals with Panama and Colombia. The White House’s recent move to lift some restrictions on US travel to Cuba thankfully remained under the radar. He did announce that in March he would visit three countries in the region: Chile, Brazil, and…El Salvador.  

Chile is one of the region’s most dynamic emerging markets, one that has signed trade agreements in recent years with Japan, China, South Korea, and the European Union. Brazil is Latin America’s heavyweight and an increasingly important player in international politics. But why is the president visiting El Salvador?

Central America’s smallest country has a population of about 6 million, less than a third the population of metropolitan Mexico City. Locals call the country the "pulgarcito" (little thumb) in honor of its size and shape. Its economy depends heavily on remittances from the two million Salvadorans living in the United States and on U.S. consumers buying its exports. El Salvador is a member of the U.S. – Central America Free Trade Agreement, but its trade impact on the United States is negligible. Plagued with gang violence and high levels of organized crime, the country suffers from one of the highest murder rates in the world, and it has appealed to the United States for help in combating crime.

El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, has made strong relations with Washington a priority, and the country’s current president of congress was photographed hugging a cardboard cutout of Obama shortly after he won the election in 2008. Flattered though he may be, this hardly explains why the real President Obama chose El Salvador for a presidential visit.

A broader look at the region brings the country’s importance for Washington into sharper focus. U.S. policymakers have become increasingly concerned with the rise of drug trafficking in Central America, especially as Mexico’s efforts to crack down on drug cartels have pushed traffickers and their operations into remote areas of Guatemala and Honduras. Both those countries share a border with El Salvador.

The U.S. military coordinates with Salvadoran authorities at the country’s Comalapa Air Base to plan drug interdiction operations, which some Salvadoran officials say has helped their country avoid the spike in drug-related violence that plagues its northern neighbors. In addition, El Salvador has remained politically stable. Honduras is still regrouping following the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Guatemala’s government lacks the resources and the political will to effectively combat drug traffickers. Throw in the likely reelection of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua this year, Washington’s ongoing tensions with Panama’s mercurial President Ricardo Martinelli, and Costa Rica’s lack of regional political weight, and El Salvador begins to look more like Washington’s foothold in the region.

During the Cold War, U.S. policymakers watched Central America carefully for signs of communist encroachment. Today, it’s mainly drug trafficking that Washington cares about, a less immediate priority. But if U.S. officials really want to see progress on that front, a deeper commitment to El Salvador’s stability might be a smart use of resources. Obama’s visit could be a useful step in that direction.

Heather Berkman is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Latin America practice.

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