Foreign Agents Law now also threatens to come to El Salvador

February 9, 2022

Devon Kearney in NPQ of 8 February 2022, reports on a worrying legislative development in El Salvador….

It has been nearly a decade since the Russian government passed its “foreign agent law,” a measure that requires nonprofit groups that engage in political activity to register with the government if they receive money from overseas. Russia justified the bill by saying it was based on a U.S. law—a statute from the lead-up to World War II that many of us came to know only after Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was accused of being an unregistered foreign agent. Putin’s message was that this was just an ordinary, even boring regulatory measure.

But it is more than that. Initial concerns focused on the stigma of being branded a foreign agent, but the law has sharper teeth, allowing the government to fine or even ban organizations that do not accept being branded as foreign agents. For example, on December 28, 2021, the government presented its case for disbanding the storied human rights organization Memorial for failing to include the disclaimer “produced by a foreign agent” on a few of its web pages. At the end of the hearing, the court ordered the Memorial to shut down. See:

The sinister brilliance of the foreign agent law is twofold. First, it targets human rights NGOs’ supply lines, as it were, making it difficult to accept the funds they need to survive. In much of the world, human rights defenders rely on support from global philanthropies like the Open Society Foundations for the funding they need to operate. By the standards of Russia’s law, most would be required to register as foreign agents. Groups that take foreign money would be subject to government meddling and harassment; those that opted to do without would struggle to keep their doors open.

Second, the law accomplishes this by co-opting legitimate regulatory functions of the state to crush dissent. Setting the rules for nonprofits—along with corporations, lobbyists, and a wide range of activities that impact the public good—is something governments are supposed to do. The great innovation of Putin and the autocrats that followed him was to turn regulatory schemes into instruments of their own political dominance. By obviating the need for violence against opponents, these methods may avoid the consequences of harsher exercises of state power. They are key to creating, in the words of Hungarian semi-dictator Viktor Orbán, an “illiberal democracy,” a state where elections continue but the rights and liberties of the people are curtailed.

The world took notice when the Russian foreign agent law passed and, today, more than fifty countries have adopted laws based on the Russian example. One of the latest, introduced in November 2021 and still under debate, has an ominous twist. See also: as well as

Under 38-year-old President Nayib Bukele, a charismatic young politician, El Salvador has taken a sharp turn toward authoritarianism. Bukele made headlines in February 2020 when he brought armed soldiers into Congress to stand behind him as he demanded funding for the military. He has since fired prosecutors and judges in order to pack the legal system with loyalists. Bukele is the latest in a growing number of modernized dictators who adopt the tactics but not the swagger of their forebears. But his style is distinctive. In the Journal of Democracy, Salvadoran political scholar Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez writes: “Bukele relies on millennial authoritarianism, a distinctive political strategy that combines traditional populist appeals, classic authoritarian behavior, and a youthful and modern personal brand built primarily via social media.”

Bukele’s authoritarian moves have raised alarms among Salvadoran civil society and around the world. The US has expressed its concern by hitting the government in the pocketbook: in May 2021, the United States Agency for International Development announced that it would pull funding from the Salvadoran police and other national agencies, instead directing the funds to civil society groups carrying out local development projects. More recently, USAID Administrator Samantha Power said the agency would commit $300 million for direct civil society funding in Central America, and promised to increase the amount of funding bypassing national governments to 50 percent within 10 years.

All of this is in keeping with Power’s stated intention to provide aid to developing nations with a local, “bottom up” approach that prioritizes small businesses over big international contractors, and local civil society groups over national governments—“[t]o engage authentically with local partners and to move toward a more locally led development approach,” as she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2021.

But in a region where US interference has long rankled rulers and their people, the move may be seen as ham-fisted—taking aid money to support opponents of a duly-elected government brings to mind the ways in which our country funded proxy wars that killed hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and left a bloody trail in Nicaragua and Guatemala, as well. More recently, in 2019 the Trump Administration slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the region in the hopes that by increasing financial pain it could pressure countries to take harsher measures to prevent their people from fleeing to the U.S.

With this history as a pretext, and perhaps stinging at this new reduction in aid funding, Bukele’s government struck back. On November 9, 2021, the government introduced a bill to require domestic nonprofits or social enterprises (solely commercial enterprises are exempted) to register as foreign agents if they “respond to the interests of, or are directly or indirectly funded by, a foreigner.”

That the Legislative Assembly is even considering such a restrictive bill sends a chilling message to human rights groups and organizations fighting against impunity and corruption,” says Ricardo González Bernal, the Fund for Global Human Rights’ Program Director for Latin America. The Fund supports grassroots human rights defenders and independent journalism in El Salvador, across Central America, and throughout the world.

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