U.S. Senators choose sides in El Salvador’s Supreme Court Dust-up
In the midst of El Salvador’s current political and constitutional crisis, members of the United States Senate are inserting themselves into the mix. On Monday, July 16 the offices of Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) released a statement of concern regarding “steps to deal with the Constitutional Crisis.” In an excerpt, Rubio and Menendez go even further by signaling their willingness to retract U.S. assistance through the Millennium Challenge Corporation if El Salvador does not resolve the dispute.
“We urge the Obama Administration to engage the highest levels of the Salvadoran government to gain a quick resolution to the serious constitutional crisis. The Administration must be clear in its engagement that if concrete measures to restore the constitutional and democratic order in El Salvador are not soon implemented, the United States will have no choice but to consider a variety of bilateral actions that would reflect this lack of a democratic framework. These options would include immediately suspending any further consideration of a second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact, review and denial of U.S. visas for individuals participating in or facilitating the continuation of the existing unconstitutional order, and the immediate termination of any U.S. technical assistance through said individuals or institutions under the Partnership for Growth.”
This statement was quickly parroted by Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN), who went even further.
“The administration of President Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) appointed judges to El Salvador’s Supreme Court before the new National Assembly took office in May. The nine-member court ruled that move unconstitutional, along with another set of appointments dating back to 2006. Rather than accept this verdict, the Salvadoran Assembly appealed to the regional Central American Court of Justice, which is controlled by Nicaragua’s appointees. Though it has no authority to decide Salvadoran constitutional questions, that tribunal ruled in the FMLN’s favor — creating an impasse in which two rival sets of judges in El Salvador now compete for legitimacy.
“’The unconstitutional installation of members of the judiciary is identical in its gravity with the illegal removal of the leading officials of any branch of the government. After recent political crisis’ in Honduras and Nicaragua that forced the suspension of Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funds to those countries, I am surprised to learn that the government in El Salvador would be willing to go down the same path. I have expressed my concern to the State Department, and have asked them to closely examine if El Salvador still meets MCC obligations under US law,’ Lugar said.”
As a counter to these statements, El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez dismissed the threats as isolated voices emanating from the U.S. Senate, that by no means represent the Obama administration’s policies in El Salvador. He reiterated that El Salvador only recognizes U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte as the official representative of the U.S. in El Salvador. Aponte has so far called for a peaceful and constitutional resolution to the crisis.
There is no doubt that El Salvador is experiencing a constitutional crisis. Spurred on by the current activist court’s decision to nullify the National Assembly’s last two elections of Supreme Court justices (in 2006 and April, 2012), and the National Assembly’s rejection of that decision, the crisis is shining a much-needed light on El Salvador’s highly politicized Supreme Court make-up. The process to elect new judges every three years in the National Assembly inevitably led to deal-making on either side of the aisle, while the historically unbalanced, single-party rule by ARENA likewise led to an historically unbalanced judiciary. The Supreme Court’s decision currently in dispute by the Assembly particularly upsets the FMLN and its coalition of the moderate-right GANA party, as they had recently negotiated a new group of justices last April, conforming to their rightful responsibilities as the two-thirds majority to select judges as set forth in El Salvador’s constitution. Politically, the Court’s decision to block these recent FMLN-backed justices benefits ARENA, who now enjoy a greater majority in the Assembly, and could again appoint judges friendly to their pursuits.
The statements made by Rubio, Menendez and Lugar serve only to fan the flames of a heated internal dispute between El Salvador’s branches of government, and the Senators risk revealing their hand in siding with ARENA instead of the people of El Salvador. Using the prospect of rescinding aid through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and Partnership for Growth, as well as halting Salvadoran visas to the United States, goes far in its threats to scare the El Salvadoran population and manipulate their sovereign political process, but contributes nothing toward a peaceful and constitutional resolution.