Salvadorans tried to ‘directly influence’ US elections

After winning re-election for her seat in the U.S. House, Norma Torres, a Democrat from California, released a press release with a surprising accusation: El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele participated in “foreign election interference” in her race.

Bukele, whose administration has said it is Torres who meddles in that country’s affairs, had urged residents of California’s 35th district to vote against Torres in a 2021 tweet. In the months leading up to this year’s midterm elections, lawmakers from Bukele’s party openly supported her opponent on social media.

“Let’s say no to Norma Torres for doing so much damage to El Salvador.” one of many tweets read.

Torres told NBC News that members of Bukele’s government openly supported her opponent during rallies and social media posts, and she said she was harassed in person and online with hateful and racist messages.

The State Department considers this an attempt to influence the election.

“During our last election process, we learned with alarm that some Salvadorans are making increasing direct attempts to directly influence certain election results in the United States,” a State Department spokesman said in an email. “As we have repeatedly made clear, this is unacceptable, and we have repeatedly communicated this directly to the government of El Salvador through official diplomatic channels.”

“The integrity of our elections is an essential part of our democratic processes; the will of the people must not be undermined by foreign influence,” said the spokesman.

Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., said members of Bukele’s government openly supported her opponent in rallies and social media posts.Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP file

When asked about lawmakers’ tweets against Torres, Milena Mayorga, the Salvadoran ambassador to the United States, said she could not comment on their actions because they represent a different branch of the government. But she said it was Torres who interfered in El Salvador by criticizing Bukele in Salvadoran media in the months leading up to that country’s February 2021 parliamentary elections. Torres disputes this claim.

Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas or New Ideas, and its allies went on to win the largest congressional majority in El Salvador’s history.

Richard Hasen, an expert on suffrage and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said there is a difference between a foreigner trying to influence the outcome of an election versus breaking US law, which requires spending money .

“There is a technical difference. You can say that someone is meddling in the elections, you can call it election interference. I think that’s fair to say,” he said. “But calling something election interference does not mean it is illegal election activity, which requires paying campaign contributions or spending money to promote or antagonize a candidate for federal office.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on whether any electoral laws were broken.

Torres’ press release stated that she was “disappointed with the lack of enforcement in our legal system to deal with foreign interference”, stating that she had been “the subject of many threats, falsehoods and harassment, both in person and online”, something what she repeated. in a recent interview.

“The fact that the Ambassador is still at her residence here in the US and has not been expelled from the country, the fact that the Consul Generals have not been removed from our country, I think is a telling story where the disconnect is,” says Torres, who immigrated to the US from Guatemala when she was five.

Torres, who has been in office since 2015, won with 57.4% of the vote. Her opponent, Republican Mike Cargile, received 42.6% of the vote, according to NBC News. It was the best performance in recent history for a Republican candidate in the district, once held by Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters.

The district is nearly 70% Hispanic and has a large Mexican American population.

Torres is president of the Congressional Central America Caucus, which she co-founded during her first year in Congress.

Bukele, a millennial populist leader, is popular in El Salvador and with many in diaspora communities, but critics say his government has taken authoritarian measures. The US denounced the 2021 Salvadoran Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for Bukele to run for a second consecutive term, saying it undermines democracy. Human rights groups say authorities committed human rights violations, leading to arbitrary arrests and deaths in custody, following a heavy crackdown on gangs following a spike in killings in March.

President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador
President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador and his party Nuevas Ideas, or New Ideas, and his allies won the largest congressional majority in the country’s history. Casa Presidential El Salvador via Getty Images

Mayorga said Torres spread false information ahead of El Salvador’s 2021 legislative election, saying that Bukele had come to Washington to meet with government officials. Citing unnamed sources, The Associated Press reported at the time that President Joe Biden declined a meeting request with Bukele.

“We never asked for a meeting with the Biden administration,” Mayorga said. Instead, she said, Bukele came to meet with the secretary general of the Organization of American States to request election observers ahead of the Salvadoran election.

Mayorga said Bukele’s government said nothing at the time, but more recently has complained about Torres through diplomatic channels.

Bukele and Torres met once in 2019 when she visited El Salvador with a congressional delegation. But the animosity between the two seems to have started after an altercation on Twitter in 2021.

After two toddler sisters were dropped off a 13-foot wall by smugglers at the US-Mexico border, Torres accused the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in a tweet of not doing enough to fight corruption and “the narco”.

But the two girls were from Ecuador and not from any of the countries Torres mentioned. After a back and forth between the two, Torres referred to Bukele as a “narcissistic” dictator and he responded with a tweet urging voters in her district not to vote for her: “She doesn’t work for you, but to keep all our countries underdeveloped.”

After the escalating tension between her and Bukele, Torres said, she was inundated with hateful messages including violent images and videos and her husband was harassed outside their home, so she began keeping a gun in her home last year.

“This gun stays very close to me when I’m home,” she said in an interview.

It is not the first time that politicians in Latin America have taken sides in US elections and vice versa.

“It’s the transnationalization of American politics,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University. “The U.S. election is being followed with tremendous detail in every country in the world.”

Issues like remittances and immigration are domestic to the US, but in the case of Salvadorans, it’s cross-border for them, he said.

In 2020, conservative Colombian senators supported then-President Donald Trump and Representative Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Fla, in social media posts.

Gustavus Petrowho is now president of Colombia, said in 2020 when he was a senator that if he could, he would vote for Biden.

Conversely, members of Congress have also taken sides in elections in Latin America. Congressmen in South Florida expressed concern about Petro, a leftist, when he ran for office, calling him a “thief” and a “terrorist.”

Gamarra said as diaspora communities grow in the US, there will be more attempts to influence elections here.

“They understand that whoever goes to Congress influences US foreign policy,” he said. “I think the reality is that we’re going to see a lot of this in the future, especially with large diaspora communities that have ties to their home countries.”

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