El Salvador’s Millennial President Touts Million-Dollar Freebies from China

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele speaks during a meeting with China's President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 3, 2019. (Photo by Noel CELIS / POOL / AFP) (Photo by NOEL CELIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
NOEL CELIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele announced a windfall of alleged “donations” from the Chinese government during a visit to Beijing Tuesday, a marked digression from Bukele hinting he may cut ties with China entirely upon assuming the presidency in February.

Bukele won the presidency largely on the heels of a nationwide backlash against leftist predecessor Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who cut ties with Taiwan after 85 years in exchange for diplomatic relations with China and a generous donation of rice. Bukele retweeted supporters mocking the trade deal on rice with Sánchez after announcing his new agreements, implying that China thought that administration was too corrupt to deal with.

Under dictator Xi Jinping, China has invested billions into unstable developing countries as part of its “Belt and Road Initiative,” much of it into infrastructure development that the countries could otherwise not afford. The deals have resulted in profound indebtedness in countries like Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Djibouti, now home to the world’s only permanent overseas Chinese military base.

Bukele dismissed concerns that allowing China to invest in his country would give the communist aspiring empire a stranglehold on El Salvador, claiming the money was “non-refundable.”

“President Xi Jinping just offered El Salvador a gigantic non-refundable cooperation deal, negotiated completely by our government,” Bukele said on Twitter. Among the free projects China promised to build in the country, Bukele listed a new national sports stadium, a new national library (“made of crystals, several floors high”), a new potable water system, and several projects to remodel El Salvador’s “Surf City” tourism district, including water clean-up, newly paved streets and parking lots.

Bukele also claimed China would invest in the complete refurbishing of the Joya de Cerén archaeological site and signed another nine agreements on agriculture, commerce, culture, and sports. “I forgot: the restoration and expansion of the Puerto de la Libertad pier, to turn it into an attractive international tourism destination

“I see some detractors trying to attack the gigantic cooperation deal we achieved with China, alleging that it is a ‘debt trap,'” Bukele later wrote. “What part of ‘non-refundable’ did you all not understand? It is not a loan, it is a donation. And all construction projects will be the property of El Salvador.”

He also added a swipe at the previous administration, stating, “the fact that they used to steal the donations or use them to fund their election campaigns does not mean that we will do the same thing,” adding a hashtag that translates to “the money is enough when nobody steals.”

“You have a government of the people and for the people. We share with you the goal of seeking the welfare of the people,” dictator Xi Jinping told Bukele during their meeting, according to the Salvadoran presidential office.

No reports indicate that Bukele challenged Xi on the wide variety of human rights atrocities that he currently presides over: the widespread disappearance and torture of political dissidents, the use of political prisoners for illegal live organ harvesting, or the establishment of concentration camps housing millions of Muslims. Bukele is ethnically Palestinian and the son of an imam.

As a newly minted president, Bukele hinted at potentially reversing his predecessor’s decision to establish diplomatic ties with China, which required cutting diplomatic ties with longtime ally Taiwan. Bukele insider Federico Anliker hinted in February that Bukele “will not necessarily break relations” with China but sought to “put them in the balance.” Bukele himself said as a candidate that the country needed “to review that deal this outgoing government made at the last minute in exchange for some tons of rice.”

Sánchez’s decision to pivot to China and abandon Taiwan generated outrage in Taiwan, where officials accused him of trying to shake Taiwan down for campaign cash.

“El Salvador will elect a new government next February,” Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said at the time. “The ruling party is lagging behind in the opinion polls, and they wish to receive funding for the campaign. This is against our democratic principles and therefore we were certainly not able to oblige.”

The windfall from China will help Bukele keep his promise to President Donald Trump that he will not seek unlimited aid from America.

“What do we really want to do in El Salvador? We want to get more free money? We want to get more blank checks? No. What we really want is to improve the conditions Salvadorans live [in] here and abroad,” Bukele said during a White House visit in July. Bukele promised to invest in keeping Salvadorans in the country to stem the flow of illegal immigration into the United States, and accepted aid in combatting organized crime like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang.

While Bukele, a former leftist expelled from the far-left FMLN party in 2017 after a shouting match with a high-ranking woman in the party, has expressed satisfaction with his ties to China, his government has cut ties with one of China’s closest allies in Latin America: Venezuela. Bukele expelled dictator Nicolás Maduro’s diplomats in November, as Maduro ceased to be legally president of the country in January, triggering a televised Maduro tirade in which he referred to Bukele as a “nincompoop.”

Like Bukele, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who campaigned as a hardline conservative and anti-communist, has embraced trade ties with China, the world’s largest communist state and a major investor in the Maduro regime. Bolsonaro visited Beijing in October, leaving with several agricultural deals that will boost the Brazilian economy and help keep China’s afloat during the ongoing trade conflict with the United States.

President Trump levied tariffs on Brazilian steel and aluminum on Monday, accusing Bolsonaro’s government of devaluing its currency. The tariffs will also apply to Argentina, which recently elected a leftist government.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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