RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. government is worried about what's happening in El Salvador. Earlier this month, lawmakers there fired the country's top judges and the attorney general. International rights advocates say this is a dangerous presidential power grab. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the president is not backing down.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The U.S. envoy to Central America was in El Salvador this week and says he told President Nayib Bukele that the Biden administration is concerned about the direction he's taking his country. Envoy Ricardo Zuniga says his meeting with Bukele was cordial.
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RICARDO ZUNIGA: (Non-English language spoken).
KAHN: "We only want to show and stress our concern about these actions that we believe are not contributing to the prosperity and well-being of Salvadorans," Zuniga told reporters. The actions he's referring to happened on May 1. With a new super majority, lawmakers from the president's party removed five judges on the country's top court and fired the attorney general. The judges were known for their independence. And the attorney general had been investigating corruption within Bukele's government. Bukele took to social media. He tweeted in delight, dismissed. He said the sackings were necessary to clean house.
SERGIO ARAUZ: (Non-English language spoken).
KAHN: Sergio Arauz, an editor at the independent news site El Faro, says Bukele, with his voracious tweets and attacks on the press, controls the narrative in the country, framing himself as a great reformer. That, as well as his perceived handling of the pandemic and free food handouts, has kept him very popular. His approval ratings frequently top 90%.
ARAUZ: (Non-English language spoken).
KAHN: Arauz, whose news site is frequently criticized by the president, says what Bukele wants is absolute power. He's an autocrat, he says. After the firings of the Supreme Court judges and the attorney general, the U.S. and international condemnation was swift. President Biden has made strengthening democratic institutions and fighting corruption in Central America central to his plan to curb migration from the region. But Bukele isn't deterred. During Special Envoy Zuniga's visit last week, Bukele tweeted that the changes we made are irreversible. We are moving forward. And we would like you to come with us. If you don't want to, we understand. Blessings, he wrote. Eduardo Escobar, director of the Citizen Action Association, a civic group, says it's great that the U.S. and the international community have spoken out about Bukele's anti-democratic moves.
EDUARDO ESCOBAR: (Non-English language spoken).
KAHN: "But," he says, "what we need now from them is action." Escobar is part of a growing movement in El Salvador urging sanctions to be slapped on the Bukele administration. Eric Olson of the Seattle International Foundation and an expert on Central America says he had hoped such a move would have come quicker. But he says the U.S. has now correctly focused on attacking the root cause of the region's problems, the trampling of democratic values.
ERIC OLSON: Because in the long run, that will cause more instability in the country, more injustice. And we want a stable relationship long term, not just right now.
KAHN: The Biden administration is considering stiffer measures, among those creating what has been dubbed a name and shame list of corrupt politicians who would have U.S. visas pulled. Vice President Harris is scheduled to travel to the region next month.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
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