El Salvador: Background and U.S. Relations

Congress has had significant interest in El Salvador, a small Central American nation that has had a large percentage of its population living in the United States since the country’s civil conflict (1980-1992).

During the 1980s, the U.S. government spent billions of dollars supporting the Salvadoran government’s counterinsurgency efforts against the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The United States later supported a 1992 peace accord that ended the conflict and transformed the FMLN into a political party. Despite periodic tensions, the United States worked with two consecutive FMLN administrations (2009-2019), but bilateral efforts were unable to prevent significant outflows of migrants from the country.

Domestic Situation

On June 1, 2019, Nayib Bukele, a 37-year-old businessman and former mayor of San Salvador, took office for a five-year presidential term. Bukele won 53% of the vote in the February 2019 election, standing for the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party. Elected on an anticorruption platform, Bukele is the first president in 30 years to be elected without the backing of the conservative National Republic Alliance (ARENA) or the FMLN parties. Bukele succeeded Salvador Sánchez Cerén (FMLN), who presided over a period of moderate economic growth (averaging 2.3%), ongoing security challenges, and political polarization. President Bukele has promised to reduce crime and attract investment, but his lack of support in the National Assembly (GANA has 11 of 84 seats) could present challenges. Bukele has proposed infrastructure projects that could help the country take better advantage of the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR); critics question how these projects will be financed.

Bukele has criticized repressive governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Honduras. During a July 2019 visit with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, President Bukele vowed to improve relations with the United States by working bilaterally to address gangs, drugs, and immigration and seeking investment rather than U.S. assistance.

U.S. Policy

U.S. policy in El Salvador has focused on promoting economic prosperity, improving security, and strengthening governance under the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America. Congress has appropriated nearly $2.6 billion for the strategy since FY2016, at least $410 million of which has been allocated to El Salvador. The Trump Administration has requested $445 million for the strategy in FY2020, including at least $45.7 million for El Salvador, and an unspecified amount allocated for the country under the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Future U.S. engagement in El Salvador is uncertain, however, as the Administration announced in March 2019 that it intended to end foreign assistance programs in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras due to continued unauthorized U.S.-bound migration. In June 2019, the Administration identified FY2017 and FY2018 bilateral and regional funds subject to withholding or reprogramming. It is unclear how funds appropriated for FY2019 in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019 (P.L. 116-6) and FY2020 funds may be affected. Bilateral relations also have been tested by shifts in U.S. immigration policies, including the Trump Administration’s decision to rescind the temporary protected status (TPS) designation that has shielded up to 250,000 Salvadorans from removal since 2001. A House-passed bill, H.R. 6, would allow certain TPS designees to apply for permanent resident status.