El Salvador's president-elect wants migration to flow into, not out of, his country

Recently, I heard a message of hope and optimism from one of the world’s most inspiring young leaders. President-elect Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, just 37 years old and of Palestinian descent, made some astonishing pronouncements during a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.: He doesn’t want aid from the United States, wants to end emigration out of El Salvador, and  wants to build a closer relationship with America. 

Bukele declared, “El Salvador doesn’t want handouts, we don’t want aid — we are hard workers and we want to do business with the U.S.” Bukele’s vision for recovery is one that will be led by entrepreneurs, not by bureaucrats. His motto is that “government does not foster creativity — people do.”

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Bukele also vowed to build stronger relations with the United States and to cut ties with bad actors in the region, including the Maduro regime in Venezuela and the Ortega regime in Nicaragua. This marks a sharp departure from the policy of FMLN, the party of El Salvador’s former guerrilla movement.

Why does he sound so optimistic toward the free market and the U.S.? According to Bukele, the average Salvadoran family living in the U.S. earns $80,000 a year, and it only takes an average of 12 hours for a new Salvadoran immigrant to get a job here. His vision is to put that kind of industriousness toward rebuilding Salvadoran businesses that can then trade with the United States. In fact, Bukele said that if only 1 percent of the coffee or sugar that U.S. consumers buy came from El Salvador, it would put those Salvadoran industries at full capacity overnight.   

Bukele’s message probably comes as a shock to anyone who has been used to thinking of Central and South American countries as safe havens for socialist politics. But Latin America is changing rapidly, thanks in part to the younger generation. Countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile have turned to leaders who favor the free market. And any day now, Venezuela may be next.

My organization, The Fund for American Studies, has educated university students throughout Latin America. Interacting with these young people, I’ve noticed their strong desire to break away from their countries’ socialist and fascist histories; instead, they favor systems based on free markets, private property rights, and the rule of law. Many are motivated to stay close to home and improve their societies.

Having married into a Salvadoran family nearly 20 years ago, I have visited El Salvador often, coming to appreciate its vibrant culture, unique cuisine and spectacular landscape of volcanoes and beaches. I have also seen the by-products of a devastating civil war and burgeoning gang culture — the blight of poverty, the subpar infrastructure,and the highly fortified homes. Sadly, in 2017, El Salvador had the world’s second-highest homicide rate. But given the chance to weigh in on these challenging circumstances during this spring’s presidential election, Salvadorans showed they want the chance to build their lives at home, not as immigrants in a foreign country.

So how can El Salvador best take advantage of this opportunity to rebuild? For starters, it should refuse foreign aid that passes through mega-charities, which mostly serves to crowd out local NGO efforts while perpetuating dependency.

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They should work with, not against, the private sector in order to foster a stable business climate that welcomes foreign investment. They can use the country’s comparative advantage to expand local industries such as coffee, sugar and tourism. Lastly, they can take back the streets from gangs using best practices like New York City’s strategies to defeat organized crime in the 1990s.

“In a couple of years, people are going to say again that El Salvador is the motor of Central America,” Bukele said. I share his hope for a future in which migration goes into rather than out of El Salvador, where commerce flows freely with North America, and where U.S. tourists flock to this tropical paradise.  

Steve Slattery is executive vice president of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS), a nonprofit organization that teaches the principles of limited government, free-market economics, and honorable leadership to students and young professionals in the U.S. and around the world. Since 2008, TFAS has reached more than 500 students and young leaders in South America through its program in Santiago, Chile.