Latinos and U.S. Foreign Policy: A Lesson for the Future

During El Salvador’s 2003–04 presidential campaign season, ads appeared on Salvadoran televisions featuring U.S. Republican congressional representatives. Praising the right-wing ARENA party candidate Tony Saca, who eventually won the election, the U.S. officials warned Salvadoran voters that a victory by the left-wing opposition party, the FMLN, would result in their U.S.-based relatives being deported and their remittances being cut off. In light of the 2004 experience, an L.A.-based group founded in 1999 by Salvadoran American labor and immigrant rights leaders, decided not only to participate as electoral observers in El Salvador’s 2009 presidential election but also to pressure the U.S. government to remain neutral. This article originally appeared in the November/December 2010 edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Esther Portillo

During El Salvador’s 2003–04 presidential campaign season, ads appeared on Salvadoran televisions featuring U.S. Republican congressional representatives Tom Tancredo (Colo.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.). Praising the right-wing ARENA party candidate Tony Saca, who eventually won the election, the U.S. officials warned Salvadoran voters that a victory by the left-wing opposition party, the FMLN, would result in their U.S.-based relatives being deported and their remittances being cut off. This was no small matter: Salvadorans in the United States send home about $2 billion each year, keeping the country’s economy afloat. Meanwhile, Bush administration diplomats like Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, together with Florida governor Jeb Bush, made press statements reinforcing the message that U.S. relations with El Salvador would go sour if FMLN candidate Schafik Handal won the presidency. To further make the point, the rabidly anti-immigrant Tancredo introduced legislation to cut Salvadoran remittances in the event of an FMLN victory. In light of the 2004 experience, the Salvadoran American National Association (SANA), an L.A.-based group founded in 1999 by labor and immigrant rights leaders, decided not only to participate as electoral observers in El Salvador’s 2009 presidential election but also to pressure the U.S. government to remain neutral. SANA helped mobilize various sectors from the Salvadoran community in Washington and the surrounding tri-state area (the largest Latino group in the region, at an estimated half million), drawing on the community’s long tradition of activism. Previous organizational and movement-building experiences, coupled with the strong presence of Salvadorans in the U.S. capital, allowed SANA to help establish a more accountable U.S. foreign policy toward El Salvador. We reached out to both members of the U.S. government and to civil society. Salvadoran leaders met with key congressional representatives—including members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, and the Hispanic Caucus, and especially those who represented significant Salvadoran constituencies. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, felt strongly about the remittance issue as the representative of one of the country’s largest Salvadoran constituencies, and promised he would do what he could. The congressman sent an aide to El Salvador to release a powerful press statement on his behalf, assuring the Salvadoran electorate that the flow of remittances would not be jeopardized. SANA also identified a monumental ally, Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who circulated an open letter to Obama urging his support for free and fair elections in El Salvador. Salvadoran Americans came to the capital from California, Massachusetts, Texas, New York, Washington, and Virginia to urge members of Congress to add their signatures to the letter to Obama. Twenty-seven representatives and one senator signed on, including the chair of the Hispanic Caucus, Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.). Beyond the federal government, SANA reached out to Salvadoran American allies in the labor movement, including executive board members of SEIU Local 1877, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, and AFSCME 3299. Local elected officials, Salvadoran business owners, faith leaders, and academics also joined the campaign. SANA also held press conferences in Los Angeles, Washington, and San Salvador, where we released statements by U.S. Congress members like Berman and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) denying that remittances would be cut off in the event of an FMLN victory. The letter to Obama was also circulated. Targeting the media in the United States and El Salvador was crucial, enabling us to reach the electorate in El Salvador and their families in the United States. Three days before the March 15 election, the Obama administration announced that it would work with any candidate elected by the people of El Salvador. The day after the statement was released, U.S. Ambassador Robert Blau met with both candidates, the meeting made national headlines just one day before the election. It was a huge setback for the Salvadoran right. The FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes would go on to win the presidency by 2.6% of the vote. While other factors may have led to the Obama administration’s decision to take a position on the Salvadoran election, our efforts show that organized Latinos can influence U.S. policy toward Latin America. This experience could inform efforts on other international issues that affect Latinos. For example, Latinos in the United States could join the movement against the United States’ militarized approach to drug enforcement under such programs as the Merida Initiative, which has exacerbated violence in Mexico. They could also pressure the U.S. government to renegotiate DR-CAFTA, which has made it possible for a Canadian mining company with a U.S. subsidiary to launch a $200 million lawsuit against El Salvador for rejecting its mining application. NAFTA could also be targeted, linking the fight against corporate globalization to immigration reform—after all, “free trade” has devastated the Mexican economy and forced millions of people to migrate to the United States. For this reason, Latinos must begin to take on foreign policy issues if there is ever going to be a solution to the so-called immigration problem—U.S. foreign policy is largely responsible for displacing people in Latin America in the first place.


Esther Portillo is a board member of the Salvadoran American National Association (SANA).

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