El Salvador looks to China after U.S. unveils corruption list

by Reuters
Tuesday, 18 May 2021 19:40 GMT

(Recasts with Bukele comments on Chinese vaccines)

By Nelson Renteria, Sofia Menchu and Ted Hesson

SAN SALVADOR, May 18 (Reuters) - Following the release of a U.S. government list of allegedly corrupt Central American politicians, El Salvador's president on Tuesday played up his close ties with China, praising it for offering grants with no strings attached and COVID-19 vaccines.

A U.S. State Department report released by the office of U.S. Rep. Norma Torres on Tuesday lists a close aide of Bukele and his former security minister among those "credibly alleged" to have engaged in corrupt acts.

The list also names six serving Honduran lawmakers, and two current Guatemalan legislators, along with former officials.

Apparently in response, President Nayib Bukele celebrated on Twitter $500 million in public investments from China "without conditions," apparently in contrast to aid from Washington and U.S.-backed lenders that are conditioned on good governance.

It was not clear whether the investments he was referring to were new. Bukele also praised the arrival of 500,000 doses of Chinese drugmaker Sinovac Biotech's COVID-19 vaccine due later on Tuesday, and thanked China's leader, Xi Jinping, for the help.

The corrupt officials list emerged less than a week after the U.S. special envoy for Central America, Ricardo Zuniga, visited El Salvador and met Bukele amid a push from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to confront graft and bolster the rule of law in the region.

Bukele earlier dismissed the list as lacking credibility, highlighting that it failed to name any members of El Salvador's right-wing ARENA party. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the list.

Zuniga used the meeting to express disapproval of Bukele's recent removal of top judges and the attorney general, which Washington considered to be clearly unconstitutional. Bukele says the move was justified by his large congressional majority.

El Salvador, which has a dollarized economy closely tied to the United States by trade and a large migrant population, is currently negotiating a $1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, where Washington has a dominant voice.

The loan is likely to include clauses aimed at committing Bukele to democratic standards.

In contrast to Washington's activist posture, China's embassy in El Salvador responded to Bukele's new control of the justice system by saying it would not interfere in sovereign matters.

With the new vaccine shipment El Salvador will have received some 2.15 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from China for its 6.7 million people, according to the country's embassy in San Salvador.

Neighboring Honduras, which does not have diplomatic ties with China, has asked Bukele to share Chinese vaccines in the absence of supplies from the United States. President Juan Orlando Hernandez has said he would consider opening a trade office in China to secure doses. (Reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Giles Elgood)

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