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Salvadoran leader dismisses Blinken’s efforts to bolster summit

LOS ANGELES – It was the kind of diplomatic rebuff that a small country like El Salvador in general can rarely afford.

In the run-up to this week’s Americas summit in Los Angeles, senior US officials worked feverishly on the phones to increase attendance, while the Mexican president and other left-wing leaders threatened a boycott over the exclusion of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Amid those efforts, the State Department sent a message that Secretary of State Antony Blinken wanted to speak with President Nayib Bukele last weekend, a rare show of willingness from a Biden administration that for months has denounced the Central American leader as a power-hungry populist.

“Attending the summit is a very good opportunity for President Bukele to share his perspective with the Salvadoran community in LA and with Joe Biden,” Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols wrote in a message to Bukele’s ambassador to Washington.

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In the end, Bukele didn’t take the bait and the call never came, said two people close to the Salvadoran president, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic business.

Another request to make a call with Blinken, made through the US Embassy in San Salvador, was similarly denied, according to the two people, one of whom showed The Associated Press a copy of the messages.

Blinken’s concerted effort to meet one of the Biden administration’s frequent goals in Latin America underscores the efforts US officials made to avoid an embarrassing flop at the summit.

It also shows how controversial leaders like Bukele, who have evaded criticism from the Trump administration in exchange for full support for its crackdown on migration, have struggled to adjust to a return to traditional foreign policy under Biden.

Bukele is one of 11 Western Hemisphere leaders who have stayed away from the summit, which is being held on US soil for the first time since its inception in 1994.

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Some, like the leaders of Mexico, Honduras and Grenada, are doing this to protest the expulsion of other leftists from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Others, like Bukele and Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala, are frustrated that Washington is finger-wagging about corruption and human rights abuses.

“It is clear that the Biden administration has not acted on the sentiments of these leaders,” said Michael Shifter, who recently retired as head of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “You can crack down on corruption, but there’s a trade-off and you shouldn’t expect others to play along just because there’s a call from the White House. That’s the reality that the Biden team doesn’t really grasp.”

Shifter pointed out that both Bukele and Giammattei were not among the more than 100 leaders invited to last year’s Pro-Democracy Summit, which included leaders with authoritarian leanings like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

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“Those are things these leaders don’t forget,” Shifter said.

The State Department declined to comment when asked about the contact with Bukele on Thursday.

But Bukele’s failure to respond to Blinken’s request for a call convinced US officials there wasn’t much they could do to improve ties, and the US eventually cut diplomatic contacts, a person familiar with the effort said.

Bukele has garnered strong support from Salvadorans by taking a tough stance against gangs and going after traditional politicians who have ruled during decades of corrupt rule after the country’s bloody civil war ended.

His critics in the US say that by concentrating power, Bukele is undermining already fragile institutions. Since Biden took office, the US has sanctioned several of his top aides for corruption.

A similar dynamic has been playing out in neighboring Guatemala, where Blinken recently said Giammattei’s election as attorney general was embroiled in “substantial corruption.”

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The Biden administration has downplayed the absence of the head of state, pointing to a summer visit to the White House by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as an example of how countries in the region will continue to work with the United States on migration and other issues.

“The substantive work of the summit was in no way affected, adjusted, or constrained by the issue of attendance,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Wednesday aboard Air Force One en route to the summit.

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Associated Press writer Matt Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/06/09/salvadoran-leader-rebuffs-blinken-effort-to-bolster-summit/ Salvadoran leader dismisses Blinken’s efforts to bolster summit

Sarah Y. Kim

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