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Navigating the Northern Triangle: Part 1
Episode 815th October 2021 • Democracy! The Podcast • CEPPS Advisor Adrienne Ross, Fmr Deputy Asst Secretary Strategic Communications, US Dept of State, Journalist
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“...stability in the Central American region is at stake. We already have Nicaragua that the rest of Central America is concerned about, but we have in the northern part of Central America three governments in different areas, undermining the rule of law, transparency, and any freedom of speech, or movement by civil society and journalists.”  Deborah Ullmer, NDI, Regional Director for Latin America & the Caribbean Programs.

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In this episode of Democracy! The Podcast, join us as we head to Central America to navigate the nations of the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  Find out what’s really driving immigration, economic woes, and an alarming number of headlines about unstable democracy.  Plus, hear first-hand from the consortium’s teams as they prepare to stand by Hondurans in the upcoming general elections.    

Then, in a very short period of time, El Salvador’s democracy has gone from a beacon of hope to red alert.  We’ll learn what the crisis could indicate for the future of the country and dreams of enduring stability in the region, when Adrienne sits down with Ambassador Roger Noriega to break it all down.  

And then, beep beep, make way for the Vota Bus!  Democracy gets a lift when citizens gain a better understanding of their own rights and responsibilities. 

Democracy! The Podcast is brought to you by the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) with support from the United States Agency for International Development through the Global Elections and Political Transitions Award.  

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Follow CEPPS on Twitter

Democracy! The Podcast is hosted by CEPPS and Adrienne Ross. 

This podcast has been produced by the Consortium for Elections, and Political Process Strengthening through the Global Elections and Political Transitions award and is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development.

Opinions expressed here are those of the host and the guests and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the US Government.  This show is produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media.

Transcripts

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Hi, and welcome to Democracy!

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The Podcast that shines light on some of the darkest challenges facing the

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fight for democracy around the globe.

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"Democracy will and must prevail."

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[President Biden]

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This podcast is brought to you by the Consortium for Elections and

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Political Process Strengthening direct from Washington, DC with support

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from our friends at the United States Agency for International Development

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through the Global Elections and Political Transitions Award.

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I'm your host, Adrienne Ross.

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There is so much at stake.

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Amid a quickly rising number of dictators, challenged elections,

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deep-rooted corruption, not to mention growing disinformation, in Latin

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America, democracy is in crisis.

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But in this episode of a two-part look, Navigating the Northern Triangle, we'll

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first hear from two of the Consortium's Country Directors who offer a silver

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lining as they prepare to help Hondurans steer their presidential elections

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towards a victory for democracy.

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Then, former U.S.

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Assistant Secretary for the Department of State's Burreau of Western Hemisphere

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Affairs, former Ambassador to the OAS, Roger Noriega, shares his thoughts on

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what appears to be a critical and rapid decline of democracy in El Salvador.

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First, let's get a 360-degree look at the region from Amy Radlinski.

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Exactly 200 years ago, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras,

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Guatemala, and Nicaragua declared independence from Spain.

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Together in 1821, those countries, along with the southern state of Mexico, created

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the Federal Republic of Central America.

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In one of the region's first acts of democracy, the Spanish commander, along

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with the Royal Spanish governors at the time were absorbed into the Federation.

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But by 1840, after deep ideological differences and much bloodshed,

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the Federation was dissolved.

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Today, unprecedented waves of migration, rampant corruption, violence, and

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struggling economies have focused international attention to the

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region once again, particularly in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

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And once again, as new political landscapes take shape, the challenge

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remains how best to support democracy in the lives of citizens

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throughout the Northern Triangle.

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First, let's begin this deep dive on north Central America in Honduras,

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where the lead up to the nation's general elections are in high gear.

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Deborah Ullmer is the National Democratic Institute's Regional Director for Latin

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America and the Caribbean Programs.

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She has spent half of her career living and working across Latin America.

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Maximo Zaldivar is the Regional Director for the Americas at the International

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Foundation for Electoral Systems.

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Max, a native Salvadorian, has served all over the region and

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joins us direct from San Salvador.

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Max, what's at stake in the upcoming Honduran elections?

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Well, I think it's the validation of Honduras democracy, the alteration

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of power as a sign of maturity of its democracy, but also the

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solidity of its electoral system.

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As you remember, after the 2017 elections, which cast a shadow of a doubt on its

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integrity with serious accusations of irregularities, the consequent

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constitutional reform on January, 2019 created two new independent bodies.

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On one side, the National Elections Council to administer the elections,

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and on the other side, the Electoral Justice Court to deal with the

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jurisdictional aspects of the elections.

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These two new entities now have the great responsibility, not only to

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conduct successfully a free, fair, peaceful, transparent, and inclusive

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election, but also to put to the test their institutional capacity, as

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well as their actions as the leading authorities on electoral matters.

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Yes, in addition to what Max spoke to, specifically about Honduras, I

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would say stability in the Central American region is at stake.

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We already had Nicaragua that the rest of Central America was concerned about,

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but we have in the northern part of Central America, three governments in

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different areas, undermining rule of law, transparency, and freedom of speech or

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movement by civil society and journalists.

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What role do we see corruption playing in Honduras, in general,

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or the elections specifically?

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Well, unfortunately there was a lack of political will by the government of

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Honduras to renew the mandate of the Organization of American States' mission

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to support the fight against corruption impunity in Honduras, known as the Maxi.

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On the heels of the Maxi being shut down, the Honduras courts dismissed

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a case against two dozen legislators connected to a vast corruption

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scheme, known as Pandora, to embezzle public funds for political ends.

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In terms of the upcoming elections in November, many of those same legislatures

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allegedly involved in corruption are running as candidates again.

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And Honduran political analysts believe that the current president is looking to

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ensure that he is protected from future charges against him through a national

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assembly, which will elect a new attorney general and current reforms that are now

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undermining an impartial judicial system.

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With USAID's help, the Consortium has been able to give the country's

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fight for democracy a boost.

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Tell us what your teams have been doing.

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IFES as part of the CEPPS team in Honduras under the USAID-funded

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ELECT program has been supporting the National Actions Council, as well as

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the Electoral Justice Court, and even a third organization, which is the

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Unit of Clean Politics, responsible for control, oversight, and accountability of

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political financing and campaign expenses.

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The support consists of technical assistance and sharing of best practices

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from the region on various areas like strategic communication, civic

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and voter education, biosecurity and cybersecurity aspects, and a small

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sub-awards program for civil society organizations to contribute disseminating

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important messages to the citizens.

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Because there are concerns about post-election violence for these elections

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at the same level or worse than in 2017, with USAID support and working

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very closely with IFES, NDI is working to develop bridges among a network of

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national election monitors, journalists, corruption watchdogs, the private sector,

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and the electoral authorities either to prevent or mitigate the potential for

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election-related conflict and violence.

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With complimentary funding from the State Department, NDI's partner, Red de Igualdad

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Democrática en Honduras, or the Democratic Equality Network in Honduras, made up of

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civil society organizations, academia, church, and private sector groups, will

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be conducting longterm and election day observation hand-in-hand with USAID

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support and conducting election-related violence and feeding that information

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into the electoral authorities.

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Again, working very closely with IFES to ensure that we're doing everything

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this time around to facilitate dialogue, political dialogue, so

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that common ground can be found and hopefully we avoid the levels of

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violence that we saw in 2016, in 2017.

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Deborah, you touched on it a little bit, but Max, I'm wondering if

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you can expand a little bit more.

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Why is the Honduras election important for the rest of

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Central America and the region?

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That's a very good question.

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I think if we can witness after the election an undivided inauguration of

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a legitimate new president, it will certainly be a victory for democracy,

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not only in Honduras and Central America, but also in Latin America as a whole.

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It will be very important, also, to see how the new government of

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Honduras tackles critical issues currently affecting the region, such

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as illegal migration, human rights violation and endemic corruption, drug

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trafficking, and gang related violence.

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Deborah, in testimony that you gave to the Senate Foreign Relations

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Committee earlier this year, you summed up the elections in the regions

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to say that they're "contentious."

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Do you think that that characterization still stands?

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I would like to clarify I was referring to the 2016 process for Honduras.

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These elections, I would characterize differently.

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We have extreme polarization and the upcoming November 27th elections are going

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to occur in the context of incomplete electoral reform, as Max had alluded

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to, and a lack of a legal framework for dealing with electoral ,justice

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questions around how the votes will be counted, among other serious issues.

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So really, this is creating an environment of confusion that could

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be ripe for violence if the election authorities and political parties don't

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find common ground through dialogue.

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So I think a lot more is at stake.

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The last elections, there were questions by Hondurans about the legitimacy of

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the process due to the re-elections and question around how re-election emerged.

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This time around, we have multiple candidates at the legislative and

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at the presidential level that are being questioned for corruption.

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I agree completely with Deborah.

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As she said, it's a very polarized environment and

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there's a lot of uncertainy.

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However, Honduras has always managed through that dialogue that

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Deborah mentioned to those political negotiations to come out of these type

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of complicated situations and scenarios.

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Now, we have to give the benefit of the doubt to the new elections

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administrations, even with all the difficulties they have had, and they

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experienced this before in the primary elections, which happened in March.

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So they tested themselves, and we are confident, and as Deborah said,

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that's why we are here to support them to overcome this hurdle.

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The Honduran people weren't the international community to be paying

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attention to what's happening.

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And I think, we have, as the U.S.

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has been, dealing with the worst case scenarios of democracy,

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and too often, we don't see the slow moving signals of erosion.

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And we're at the point where we do, as Max mentioned, have

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new authorities, new electoral authorities, who have shown willingness

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to have dialogue, to reach out.

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And I think there is an opportunity for more transparency, and, therefore,

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a more open process for the elections, and, therefore, hope that Honduras can

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move beyond the current polarization.

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We're definitely confident that the elections will be managed properly

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and whatever shadow was cast in the past elections in 2017, this time

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this will not be the same situation.

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Honduras needs, definitely, a transition of power and a

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new chapter in its democracy.

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And I want to add that these elections will be highly observed.

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I think there's a lot of guarantees for observance to make these

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elections transparent ones.

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And we hope for the best.

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Well, we all hope for the best.

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There's so many things to pay attention to coming up in the next several weeks.

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Deborah Ullmer, Maximo Zaldivar, thank you so much for joining us today.

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In El Salvador, democracy seems to be crumbling before our eyes.

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Earlier this year, President Bukele's New Ideas party won

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the congressional majority.

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Immediately after the national assembly convened, he then appointed five new

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justices to the Salvadorian Supreme Court and removed the independent

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attorney general in a way the United States says was unconstitutional.

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Then, the magistrates overrode a long-standing interpretation of a

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constitutional ban on consecutive presidential reelections, which, in

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turn, landed them on the United States' Undemocratic and Corrupt Actors list.

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So, what does all this mean?

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Well, in short, it sets the stage for Bukele to seek, potentially,

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a second five-year term in 2024.

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And it's grabbed the attention of democracy supporters everywhere.

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Meanwhile, Bukele says it's "pure politics and the lowest kind of interference."

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The former U.S.

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Ambassador to the Organization of American States and former Assistant Secretary

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of State for Western Hemisphere, Roger Noriega, joins us now to try to help us

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make sense of what it is we're seeing.

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When President Bukele was elected to office in 2019, it was seen as a huge

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victory for democracy in Latin America.

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But now, the country seems to be suffering evident decline in its democracy.

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From your perspective, what is your reaction to what we're

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seeing in El Salvador today?

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Well, President Bukele won democratically in an elected process.

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He won fair and square in a landslide.

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But he came in after ten or fifteen years of institutional challenges,

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of corruption, of political parties that lost their credibility

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across the political spectrum.

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So he came in at a time when a lot of Salvadorians themselves had lost interest

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or lost faith in a democratic process.

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What we've seen is, really, a young man in a hurry who has done in

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eighteen months what Hugo Chávez didn't do for his first four or five

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years in his long period in power.

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He is running rough shot over other institutions, physically going in with

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armed soldiers into the legislative assembly in a way that caught a lot

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of people's attention that this person had no respect for these institutions.

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And what you see, really, is his using this immense political popularity

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that he has had to decimate the checks and balances of a normal democracy.

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Even at its worst in the previous decade, there was a certain

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semblance in the division of power.

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The last holdout was the courts, and he did away with that in June by

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replacing Supreme Court Justices, which he did in an unlawful way, and, just as

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importantly, firing an attorney general, prosecutor general, who was looking into

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criminality and corruption in his regime.

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You don't sound surprised.

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No, not at all.

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Quite frankly, I'd heard of Bukele when he was mayor of San Salvador.

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I know that he was a person who was estranged from the party,

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the FMLN party, and was someone with a very personalized agenda.

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He had very close ties to China that he tried to obscure, and very close ties to

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a man named José Luis Merino, who is a former FMLN chieftain, who is known, not

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only for his record as a guerilla, but as a kidnapper and a s someone who made

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common cause with the FARC guerrillas in Colombia and laundered hundreds of

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millions, billions of dollars for them.

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So you can't have those kinds of relationships and have those people

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deeply in your inner circle as he does now as president, and expect people to

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believe that you're an agent of change.

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President Bukele's decisions to remove the five judges from El Salvador's

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Supreme Court sure seems like a blatant move to commandeer the courts.

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What do you think might that indicate for the future of the country?

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Well, it indicates to me that this is a president who has

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no respect for institutions.

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This is very troubling, obviously.

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If you want to have a functioning democracy, you have to have

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these so-called guard rails.

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In this case, the court in El Salvador was one of the few institutions left

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that had a certain level of independence.

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Immediately after winning an extraordinary majority in the

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legislative assembly, the very first day he fired the prosecutor who was

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looking at the corruption in his circle.

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And he fired the Supreme Court.

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Now, this was done by vote of the legislative assembly, which,

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apparently, was totally unlawful.

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This is the same legislative assembly that has now pronounced itself - in a

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laughable way, I should say is the same Supreme Court now that has pronounced

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that he is eligible for reelection, which simple reading of the constitution of

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El Salvador says that's not the case.

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We've had many people say that this is just the Latin America

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playbook, that he's just reading right out of Chavez's plans directly.

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What do you think about that?

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I think it's a fair assessment.

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El Salvador has its own history.

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Remember that the traditional political parties, the established

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political parties, they have to prepare the foundation for these kinds of

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authoritarian regimes because they lose their accountability to the people and

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they lose their own credibility, and they, essentially, indicate to people

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that you need someone who wants to bust up the establishment, who wants

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to change the rules in order for the government to care about your interests.

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So yeah, you see this.

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What I will say is remarkable, as I said before, is that Bukele

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has moved at a breakneck pace to consolidate himself in power.

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He has his own clear agenda that he's following and it's very personalized.

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And I think that he really will not tolerate anybody or any

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institutions getting in his way.

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What do you make of him changing his Twitter profile to "the

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coolest dictator in the world?"

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Well, I think it's a cynicism that is disturbing.

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I don't think it's very funny or clever to refer to yourself as a

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dictator in a country where tens of thousands of people have lost their

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lives over the decades establishing a democracy, destituting a military

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dictatorship in the late seventies and eighties, fighting civil wars.

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Those hard-earned achievements of the Salvadoran people have been washed

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away by this cynical young man.

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I think that's very disturbing.

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He is someone who's certainly caught the attention of the Biden administration,

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and they are doing their best to try and put some barriers and roadblocks.

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But until Bukele uses certain popularity in the country, until he pays the

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price in the country, I think he will see very few obstacles to him going

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forward with his authoritarian agenda.

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You mentioned roadblocks and trying to manage the situation, but what options

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does the United States have to hault this kind of trajectory in El Salvador?

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We have to be pretty transparent about our concerns about the narco

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trafficking within his regime, about the pacts that he has made with

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gangs, about the fact that he's put leading gangsters in his government

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and acting within his political party.

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These are very serious issues that have to be addressed.

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I think, to a certain extent, this is a law enforcement problem, and there

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should be accountability on that.

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As I said, I don't think that he's necessarily going to lose altitude

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politically until the people of El Salvador see a cost for this behavior.

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And part of that is economic.

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If I were looking to invest in El Salvador, I would think twice.

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He probably thinks he has that wired up with the Chinese, but at the same

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time a pressing issue is what will the International Monetary Fund do?

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Will the United States sit by while the IMF cuts a check for hundreds

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of millions of dollars and another check for hundreds of millions of

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dollars to that government, which is blowing through all of the conditions,

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pre-conditions for previous IMF support?

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Pretty sure that the State department folks are taking a very serious look

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at that and considering their options.

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You mentioned the economy.

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We've seen El Salvador roll into being the first country in the

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world to adopt Bitcoin just a couple of weeks ago, really.

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Why is this so important to El Salvador in the global community?

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And how do you think that rollout of legal tender is going?

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I think it's been a big debacle, essentially, for

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the Bukele administration.

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He was riding very high politically, whether he admits it or not, there

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are some polls that indicate that he has paid quite a price in terms

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of popularity because of Bitcoin.

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He's still fairly popular, but people really rejected it across the board.

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And so you have to wonder what's he up to?

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As I see analysts who look at this whole cryptocurrency and Bitcoin

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and cyber currency, I should say, world, they say really it makes no

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sense for people to consider this, Bitcoin, to be a normal currency.

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What is the currency in El Salvador today?

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Well, there it's a dollarized economy.

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And a lot of what the economic progress El Salvador managed to make while

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other countries are sliding behind was because it was a dollarized economy.

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There are some who are saying that the introduction of Bitcoin in a dollarized

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economy is a gift, essentially, to people who are in shady businesses,

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including narco traffickers who want to find a way of laundering U.S.

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dollars and move them around.

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The instability that's growing in El Salvador, how does that

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affect the rest of the region?

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Well, the rest of the region is troubled, quite frankly, and El Salvador is falling

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right in line, which is a bit of a shame.

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This is a country that managed economic growth in the middle of Singapore.

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These are industrious people.

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They're hardworking people.

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Anybody that knows El Salvador knows this to be a fact.

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It's a shame to see the lawlessness that really settled in twenty,

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twenty-five years ago, decimate the institutions in Central America, in

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several Central American countries where weak institutions and corruptible

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politicians gave in to the very serious, violent pressure of narco traffic.

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You see what's happened in Venezuela, which gave in to this very dangerous

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confluence of criminality and theft and a lack of accountability

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to where they lost their country.

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And you have now a narco regime there that is making common cause with

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countries in the region and with criminal organizations in the region

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to attack democracy in a systemic way.

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The Biden administration has a vision of El Salvador.

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There are serious doubts about where Bukele is headed.

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There is a bi-partisan concern in Congress for where Bukele is headed.

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They have been using, essentially, sanctions against individuals in the

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country, and I think that we need to have a tougher position vis-a-vis

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the IMF to indicate that we're very serious, that we don't really want

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the International Monetary Fund to throw a lifeline to an autocrat.

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There has to be some accountability.

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Well, thank you, Roger Noriega.

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So much to pay attention to going forward.

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We really appreciate you helping us thread the needle on El Salvador.

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The Consortium's partner at the International Republican

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Institute has a secret weapon they haven't rolled out in a while.

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Jorge Ceballos, IRI's Resident Program Director for El Salvador

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and the Consortium's Country Director for El Salvador joins me

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direct from San Salvador with more.

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Thank you so much for being here, Jorge.

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Thank you for inviting me.

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It's a pleasure.

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What can you tell us about the Vota Bus?

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Well, the Vota Bus was born in the 2018 electoral process as part of

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the IRA activities to support with TSE in the citizen participation.

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The Vota Bus is a car that comes to the streets or squares in El Salvador and

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engages citizens in a way that they can learn about the ways that they can vote.

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Here in El Salvador, they can vote for a person, our party flag, or vote for

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two different people in the same ballot.

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So the idea of the Vota Bus is that people can understand and

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they can use technology, but sometimes they don't have access.

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So the Vota Bus comes to them and gives them the tools to learn

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about the electoral process.

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So how does it really work?

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The Vota Bus comes into town and the citizens can walk

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on board and ask questions?

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Yes, the idea is that the Vota Bus comes to one square of the municipalities

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and the citizens can come to the bus and a team can show them on a computer

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the different ways to vote, they can learn about the electoral law.

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So the idea is the citizens can develop confidence with the

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TSE and the electoral process.

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Why is a tool like the Vota Bus important in a place like El Salvador,

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or other places in Central America?

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The idea of this tool is to create more citizen participation, and, obviously,

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create community forums because when a team from the TSE and I arrive and talk

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to the people and demonstrate that it's easy to vote and learn about the electoral

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law and process, they feel part of that.

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I know Facebook is extraordinarily popular in El Salvador.

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How does social media play into something like the Vota Bus?

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Does it at all?

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Well, it's part of our communication in 2018 and 2019 electoral process

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because some citizens posted in their accounts that they were in the Vota Bus.

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So in the next town, they know what the Vota Bus is and they want to participate.

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So it's important.

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Obviously, we have to understand that social media right now, it's

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important for good things, but we have to be careful for bad things.

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These are in the Vota Bus always have some in basically because the people

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know when we arrive in a new town.

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Do you have any statistics on where all you've been in El Salvador?

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It's more than 10,000 people participating in that city.

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So it's a good number for the exercise.

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So the idea is teach and learn from the citizens and try to

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improve the classroom from the TSE.

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Do you think we'll see the Vota Bus back in action anytime soon?

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We're working for the 2024 election process and we hope that the Vota Bus

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can again and will visit our squares and the streets of El Salvador,

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especially to create more community with the citizens and improve the way

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that they see the electoral process.

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Jorge Ceballos in San Salvador, thank you so much for joining us today.

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Thank you.

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Have a good day.

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This podcast has been produced by the Consortium for Elections and Political

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Process Strengthening through the Global Elections and Political Transitions

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Award, and is made possible by the generous support of the American

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people through the United States Agency for International Development.

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Opinions expressed here are those of the hosts and the guests,

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and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the U.S.

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Government, and is produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media.

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For more information on Democracy!

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The Podcast, and to access the complete archives, please

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