At the same session in which El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly passed a motion of repudiation against the results of the nearly unchallenged election of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo in Nicaragua last Sunday, deputies loyal to President Nayib Bukele presented a bill to the Legislative Assembly of law that emulates one of the punitive regulations of the Sandinista caudillo to silence civil organizations, journalists and opponents. This is called the Foreign Agents Act, whose justification is almost the same as used in October 2020 by legislators in Managua. A few more words, a few less words, but basically a decal: “To guarantee the country’s security, national sovereignty and social and political stability”, says the text submitted to the Legislative, which is dominated by Bukele’s Novas Ideias party .
In addition to the contradiction of condemning an authoritarian regime and following its same repressive manual, this new maneuver further undermines Salvadoran democracy and freedoms, cornered by the crusade of the popular ruler over the Legislative, Justice and Public Ministry. According to civil society members and journalists, this bill comes at a time when Bukele is toughening its stance against any voice critical of the current crisis of the missing, the violation of the separation of powers and the adoption of bitcoin as a currency.
After introducing the bill, Bukele let out a series of tweets arguing that his Foreign Agents Act is intended to “prohibit foreign interference”, the same argument Ortega used in Nicaragua to close down critical civil organizations, arrest and prosecute journalists, and prosecute dissent, forcing her into exile. The articulation of the law also has the same premises as the Nicaraguan one: to impose on organizations a series of administrative requirements that are almost impossible to comply with, which, therefore, lead to their closing and the silencing of dissenting voices.
The proposal sent by Bukele was presented by the Minister of Government (Casa Civil), Juan Carlos Bidegain, according to whom its objective is “to guarantee the country’s security, national sovereignty and social and political stability”. The draft, like Ortega’s, orders the Ministry of Government to create a Registry of Foreign Agents (RAE).
The RAE would be in charge of supervising, inspecting and maintaining control of the activities of “foreign agents” in El Salvador. Fulfilling the same inquisitive function as in Nicaragua, a biannual report would be drawn up from this register to be sent to the Attorney General’s Office, to be analyzed in light of the Law Against Money and Asset Laundering.
In Nicaragua, in practice, non-governmental organizations had to dissolve because they were unable to comply with the requirements. Those who signed up with the Government are dying little by little, as they have to report the same transactions up to three times in the same week. The delivery of documentation is complicated, and administrative fines are decided arbitrarily by the employees.
Trying to disassociate himself from the comparisons between the two Central American countries, Bukele claimed that the new Salvadoran law was inspired by the North American FARA (Law of Registration of Foreign Agents, its acronym in English). However, US policy does not include under the term “agent of a foreign principal” any news service, press, or association organized under its laws. In the US country, newspapers and magazines are not subject to this law if their employees and directors are US citizens and if the agencies are not directed, controlled and supervised by foreign capital. Bukele’s law omits this exception, leaving Salvadoran media under the law. Although several of them are funded by international organizations and publicly report this on their websites, with reports of accountability, they are not controlled or receive nominations from their financiers.
Something similar happened in Nicaragua. International donors and organizations receiving cooperation declared their programs to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Government, which gave their approval. At the same time, the organizations were governed by the national legal framework and paid the corresponding taxes. However, after the 2018 protests cracked down and the election dispute settled last June, Ortega began using the Foreign Agents Act to silence organizations and journalists who documented these facts and denounced recurring human rights violations.
“I who face the Foreign Agents Act in Nicaragua, who go through this ordeal of bureaucratic obstacles and fines every week, when I see Bukele’s I feel it’s the same thing,” said the director of a Nicaraguan NGO who preferred to remain anonymous , for fear of reprisals. “The point is that both laws are based on political arbitrariness. In other words, it only leaves two ways out: either you dissolve the institution or face this labyrinth of obstacles that make it impossible to even buy a broom”, he insisted.
One of the most controversial points in Bukele’s legislation states that organizations subject to the law will have to pay a 40% tax on each financial transaction, disbursement or transfer originating from resources of “foreign principals”.
Government legislator Christian Guevara, who received the proposal at the Salvadoran legislative palace, posted messages addressed to the magazine on his Twitter account. cat closed and to the newspaper El Faro, respected independent media that published cases of corruption and nepotism. “You will have to declare,” threatened Guevara. “In a few days, 40% of what the Open Society and other of its funders give them will be for taxes. That’s more works, streets, hospitals and health. What the people want. Enough of money for interferences, marches, succulent salaries and luxury offices. It’s over for you,” he wrote.
Bukele tried to contain the reaction and later said that “the tax does not apply to donations to social programs and projects, only to political activities that are carried out at the request of a foreign agent.” With a loyal majority in the Legislative, it is expected that the Foreign Agents Act presented by Bukele will be approved to face, according to the president’s words that could have been said by Daniel Ortega, the “oligarchy” that appropriated “an ideological apparatus ”, referring to foundations, think tanks, media and NGOs.
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