Construction on El Salvador’s China-funded national library is nearing completion and while a date has yet to be set, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele assured that the inauguration would happen before year end, Salvadoran newspaper El Mundo reported.
The YanJian Group, one of the companies that frequently carries out abroad constructions sponsored by Beijing, is leading the project. As per its custom, YanJian Group does not provide details about the execution and costs of the work.
“Because the Salvadoran government does not demand transparency from Beijing, the information is not known,” Eduardo Escobar, a lawyer and executive director of the Salvadoran social watchdog organization Acción Ciudadana, told Diálogo on September 25.
The agreements, published by the Judicial Documentation Center of the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice, do not specify the works or execution times, a common practice of Chinese companies. Of the agreements with China, only a few works are superficially known, which Bukele listed during his tour of the Asian country in 2019.
“For the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] and its companies it’s very important to keep the accountability of their operations off the radar. That’s why in countries with autocratic leaders, relations with China are handled by a very small inner circle,” Javier Meléndez, director of Expediente Abierto, a Central American think tank on defense, transparency, and human rights, told Diálogo.
According to Meléndez, this is very convenient for the PCC and its satellite companies, because they end up imposing onerous terms on these countries, which then fall into the infamous debt trap.
Among the works carried out in El Salvador is the construction of a new national stadium. In December 2023 it will be two years since Bukele announced its construction. Work seemingly began in December 2022, although no progress has been made.
Another work with China’s cooperation is the construction of a new dock in the Port of La Libertad, one of the best areas in the tourist coast, Eny Aguiñada, president of the Salvadoran Institute of Tourism told the press. “It is expected to be inaugurated before the end of 2023.”
“Between donations and loans there are less than 10 [projects] underway or recently completed. All have or had significant delays and are marked by corruption scandals or are onerous loans in which the Chinese are asking for a lot,” Meléndez said. “In general, they have a lot of ‘secrecy’ in the terms that will be finally channeled.”
Balance between nations
Expediente Abierto broke down China’s strategy and pattern of behavior in Central America into three: First, it promises large amounts of infrastructure projects; second, it promotes trade agreements, causing large deficits in the long term; and third, it perpetuates an important coordination of activities and alliances between the Chinese state media and the Central American media, to misinform and gain the public trust in its autocratic projects.
Proof of the above is that El Salvador renewed on August 30 an agreement to establish bilateral cooperation to execute economic and technical assistance projects between both countries, state-owned Diario El Salvador reported.
On this occasion, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly modified the agreement so that Chinese projects are excluded from the Public Procurement Law, which makes the whole process of executing public works transparent. “This allows China to choose the best project executing entity within Chinese companies,” El Mundo reported. “For each specific project, the procurement processes for its execution will be defined.”
“The possibilities that an economy like El Salvador’s could benefit from a free trade agreement with China are very small,” Ricardo Castañeda, senior economist at the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies, told Nicaraguan news site Confidencial. The most logical thing is that Chinese companies will be the ones to benefit the most from this agreement.”
Between January and June 2023, Salvadoran exports to the Asian country totaled $5.4 million, while in 2022 they were $43.5 million, a drop of 87.6 percent, according to the Central Reserve Bank. These would be their lowest figures since both countries established diplomatic relations in 2018.
“The Central American industry, with the exception of Costa Rica and Guatemala, does not have the capacity to generate goods that are penetrable and attractive to the Chinese consumer,” Meléndez said. “No Central American country is capable of penetrating Chinese markets to develop software, vaccines, or sell medical items. We are not at that level.”
The last maneuver that China successfully carried out is its incorporation into the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN). At Nicaragua’s request, the Central American congress revoked Taiwan’s permanent observer status and incorporated the Chinese National People’s Assembly in its stead, reported Nicaragua’s state-owned daily El 19 Digital on August 21. That same day, China celebrated the fifth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with El Salvador.