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San Salvador, El Salvador. February, 2018. A view of the market on Calle Poniente, in San Salvador, El Salvador.

El Salvador's New President Shows Promise

July 2, 2019 by Matthew Rooney
A successful presidency in El Salvador is one that reverses the country’s slide toward chaos in the streets and opens economic opportunities to all of Salvadoran society.

El Salvador’s new President Nayib Bukele made news in the United States by explicitly taking responsibility for conditions in his country driving many Salvadorans to flee.  With that statement, he has created an important opportunity to set the direction of his Presidency.  

Most observers agree that a successful presidency in El Salvador is one that reverses the country’s slide toward chaos in the streets and opens economic opportunities to all of Salvadoran society. To seize this opportunity, President Bukele can do two things: 

Meaningfully Commit the Government and Country’s Political Leadership to Public Safety 

The government must roll back the numerous and petty ways that gangs have taken control of the streets, including protection rackets and shakedowns on the sidewalks and in public transport. It must also root out corruption at the highest levels by appointing a credible public prosecutor with enough political independence to investigate collusion with drug traffickers, graft in public procurement, and other abuses that undermine confidence in public institutions.  

There are successful models for how these things can be done, and standing offers of assistance from the United States, other friendly governments, and international organizations. The new government can and must seize these offers. A few quick high-profile wins will go a long way to restoring confidence in the future and put the Bukele government on a path to a successful term. 

Capitalizing on El Salvador’s Economic Growth while Accelerating and Ensuring Its Benefits Are Widely Spread 

Fifteen years ago, the Salvadoran government embraced a policy strategy that embedded Salvadoran industry in global supply chains and committed to domestic financial stability. This strategy, anchored by the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States, produced a period of sustained growth accompanied by a remarkable decline in poverty and the emergence of a middle class. 

Before asking for assistance, the Bukele government must return to the successful strategy of the past by reviewing spending, eliminating poorly targeted subsidies, and ensuring taxes are collected transparently and appropriately. President Bukele’s first budget proposal will be an opportunity to signal his government’s priorities; one that should be focused on education and training; public health, especially for mothers and children; and the infrastructure needed to connect with the global economy. This will communicate to the investors, both Salvadoran and international, whose investments will create jobs and growth, that he is serious about moving the country forward. 

Politics is complicated and no president really controls their country’s agenda. President Bukele will face numerous distractions, including relations with his neighbors, China’s determined efforts to gain a toehold in the region, the daily grind of gang violence, and the ongoing migration crisis. He can and should respond to all of these circumstances appropriately. 

But a successful five-year term in office is within his reach. He must keep focus on the country’s two overarching challenges – public security and economic opportunity – and use the power of his presidential leadership to ensure that his government’s every action forms part of a holistic strategy to overcome and move past today’s challenges to build tomorrow’s prosperity. 


Author

Matthew Rooney
Matthew Rooney

Matthew Rooney joined the Bush Center in June 2015 following a career as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. At postings in Washington and abroad, he focused on advocating market-driven solutions to economic policy challenges in both industrialized and developing countries, and on protecting the interests of U.S. companies abroad.

In Washington, Rooney was on loan to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to create a high-level private sector advisory body for the Summits of the Americas, working closely with the U.S. private sector and with companies and business associations from throughout the Americas to negotiate an agenda to promote economic integration in the region.  Previously, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible for relations with Canada and Mexico and for regional economic policy.  In prior Washington assignments, Rooney worked for then-Senator Fred Thompson, and supported negotiations to open global markets to U.S. airline services.

Abroad, Rooney was Consul General in Munich, a Consulate General providing a full range of Consular and export promotion services, supporting a permanent presence of 30,000 U.S. forces in two major base complexes, and carrying out a media and public relations initiative in support of U.S. diplomatic objectives in Germany. As Counselor for Economic and Commercial Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, El Salvador, he laid the groundwork for free trade negotiations between the United States and the five countries of Central America, and promoted market-based reforms for electrical power. Prior to this, he served in various posts in Germany, Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire.

Rooney studied Economics, German and French at the University of Texas at Austin and received his Master’s Degree in International Management at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Full Bio

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