OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
MIAMI (AP) — El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele refused to meet with a visiting senior U.S. diplomat this week over what he sees as a pattern of slights from Democrats and the Biden administration, according to two aides of the Central American leader.
Bukele’s decision not to meet with Ricardo Zuniga, the Biden administration’s envoy to the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America, follows a similar snub he allegedly received from U.S. officials during an unannounced trip to Washington in February.
It also comes just days after Bukele’s government awarded $1.2 million lobbying contract to the State Department’s former top career diplomat in a bid to improve ties with the new American president.
Zuniga traveled Wednesday to El Salvador following talks in Guatemala focused on immigration amid a surge in child migrants on the U.S. border.
Upon arrival, he immediately announced a $2 million U.S. contribution to an international commission seeking to strengthen the fight against corruption, which Biden officials see as one of the root causes of illegal immigration.
Zuniga had hoped to see Bukele before heading back to Washington on Thursday, according to a State Department spokesman.
But Bukele has told aides that he won’t meet with any Biden officials until the U.S. softens criticism raising doubts about his commitment to democracy and the rule of law, according to the two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the diplomatic sensitivities.
Specifically, the two said Bukele was angered by State Department spokesman Ned Price’s comments Monday that the U.S. looks forward to Bukele restoring a “strong separation of powers where they’ve been eroded and demonstrate his government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.”
The Salvadoran presidential press office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Price’s comments followed a spat between Bukele and one of his fiercest U.S. critics, Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat who co-chairs the Central America caucus in Congress.
In a series of Tweets last week, Torres accused Bukele of behaving like a “narcissistic dictator” indifferent to the plight of Central American migrants who undertake great risks to reach the U.S.
She attached a photograph that was widely circulated in 2019 showing the bodies of a Salvadoran migrant and his daughter laying lifeless in the Rio Grande on the Texas border.
“Send me a pair of glasses so I may see the suffering of your people through your eyes,” wrote Torres, who came to the U.S. as a child from Guatemala.
Bukele pointed out that he wasn’t even in office at the time of the deaths, which came during a previous surge in Central American migration under the Trump administration.
He urged Salvadoran and other immigrants living in Torres’ Southern California district to vote her out of office.
“She doesn’t work for you, but to keep our countries underdeveloped,” he wrote.
For all his combativeness, the 39-year-old Bukele is by far the most popular politician in Central America, a region plagued by corruption and criminality.
His New Ideas party swept legislative elections by a landslide last month and Bukele, who cultivates the image of a hip pragmatist, has sought to leverage China’s growing influence in the region to court new foreign investment.