The U.S. Agency for International Development on Friday pulled funding for certain sectors of El Salvador's government, granting those benefits to civil society groups.
In a statement, USAID Administrator Samantha PowerSamantha PowerOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push 12 top U.S. officials to join Biden at major climate conference Air pollution is a major global health threat — why don't we treat it like one? MORE said the move was a reaction to the Salvadoran government's decision to remove the country's top judges.
"USAID has deep concerns regarding the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly's May 1st vote to remove the Attorney General and all five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court, and larger concerns about transparency and accountability," said Power.
"In response, USAID is redirecting assistance away from these institutions, the National Civilian Police, and the Institute for Access to Public Information."
The Salvadoran Legislative Assembly on May 1 voted to remove the country's top judges and a day later armed police showed up at the attorney general's headquarters to remove the country's top law enforcement officer.
El Salvador's assembly, controlled by President Nayib Bukele's New Ideas party, essentially granted him control over the country's Supreme Court with the move.
The USAID decision is part of the Biden administration's strategy to invest nearly $4 billion in three Central American countries -- El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
That strategy, key to Vice President Harris's plan to address the root causes of regional migration, has been made more difficult by a lack of trust in the institutions of the three countries and Mexico, a key partner in the effort.
Regional experts have pushed for more funding to reach non-governmental and civil society organizations, rather than government institutions or large corporations, which in the past have been receptors of a majority of foreign aid, with few results to show for the investment.
"This funding will now be used for promoting transparency, combating corruption, and monitoring human rights in partnership with local civil society and human rights organizations," said Power.
In February, USAID redirected $42 million in aid to Myanmar, after the military there took control of the government in a coup.
The El Salvador move represents not only a break from the Central America policies of the Trump administration, which generally demanded local immigration enforcement under threat of sanctions, but from former President Obama's short-lived Alliance for Prosperity.
"Today's decision is a hopeful sign that USAID is embracing the idea that its most reliable partners in Central America are independent local civil society organizations," said Gordon Whitman, academic and senior advisor to Faith In Action, a grassroots faith-based human rights organization.
"The U.S. needs to be consistent in its approach to corruption and democratic abuses, which means there should be a similar announcement for Guatemala and Honduras, where the case for working through local organizations rather than corrupt officials and elite institutions is even stronger," added Whitman.
El Salvador in 2020 received about $62 million in U.S. aid, about $60 million of which was administered by USAID.
Of that, about $7.5 million was directed toward governance projects; for 2021, $4.1 million is currently obligated for good governance projects in El Salvador through USAID.
The redirection of funds comes as Bukele has angered the Biden administration on one hand, but also as experts and activists have lobbied Harris to look to the region's relatively large and sophisticated civil society groups as an alternative for implementing aid programs.
“Earlier this week I met with Vice President Harris about bolstering the rule of law and combating corruption in Central America. I commend the Biden administration for taking swift action to support civil society, and also sending a strong message to El Salvador’s leadership regarding respect for an independent judiciary and democratic institutions," said Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles Harris's delayed trip to Vietnam ratchets up Havana Syndrome fears Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit MORE (D-Texas), a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Although El Salvador and its neighboring countries have changed dramatically since the civil wars that plagued the region in the 1980s, democratically elected governments in the region have generally had little success in rooting out corruption and crime.
"Respect for an independent judiciary, a commitment to the separation of powers, and a strong civil society are essential components of any democracy. The United States remains firmly committed to supporting democratic governance as we partner to improve economic and security conditions and to address the root causes of irregular migration from Central America," said Power.
-Updated 5:45 p.m.