Vice President Joe Biden may have had dubious ulterior motives for his recent visit to Guatemala - the trip coincided precisely with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the U.S. Congress. Yet the depth, breadth, and relevance of the region's challenges make any high-level engagement worthwhile.
Central America's Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is gripped by violence, stymied by corruption, and, as the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied children demonstrated last year, just a train ride away from the Texas border.
Seen through this lens, the importance of Biden's visit, and of the local elections held in El Salvador the day before, comes into clear focus.
With a $1 billion aid package at the center of talks, the vice president doubled down on the administration's rhetorical commitment to the region. Moreover, the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras each vowed to use the money to enhance security and create jobs.
But in elections just the day before, El Salvador voters seemed to embrace a continuation of the status quo, choosing to endorse the continued rule of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, a leftist party closely aligned with the Venezuela's leadership who loudly denounce America and reject its support.
Though official results have yet to be released due to technical glitches, the two major parties' own analyses confirm that neither party achieved a significant victory, save for the FMLN's symbolic win in the capital city, San Salvador.
Making sense of this contradiction - increased American aid and the years-long rise of a party typically hostile to such an intervention - may not be so difficult. After all, money talks. Still, the election helps reveal what makes El Salvador unique, and so important to the United States.
For starters, the country of 6.5 million is no Venezuela. El Salvador was the only Latin American country to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and today it counts on more than $3.5 billion in remittances from the US - nearly one-sixth of El Salvador's gross domestic product. The country is also in the first year of a five-year, $277 million compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which follows the success of a preceding $461 million arrangement that brought new roads and schools to its mountainous north.
El Salvador was also the first country to sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement, ensuring for itself a lifeline to American markets. Even its president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who is known best in the United States for leading a pro-al Qaeda march in San Salvador in the days after September 11, 2001, has moderated his rhetoric and promised to be an inclusive leader.
But the example of other Latin American countries shows that when Chavismo wins at the ballot box (FMLN party headquarters features a portrait of Hugo Chavez set between Pol Pot and Lenin), radical change is never far away.
In Bolivia and Ecuador, democratically elected left-wing governments expelled the United States Agency for International Development, dismissed the value of U.S. trade preference for their countries, and tightened their grips on once-independent institutions such as media, judiciaries, and electoral councils. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega's antipathy toward the United States dates back to the 1980s, and his dismantling of democracy continues apace - Ortega recently eliminated presidential term limits. All three countries, along with Venezuela and seven other nations, are part of the antidemocratic Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America.
The FMLN thus faces a choice.
That the party was able to win support despite the fourth-highest murder rate in the world, the slowest-growing economy in Central America, and a rising cost of living speaks to the FMLN's staying power. It also suggests the country's right-wing party, ARENA, may have committed a strategic error by avoiding stark warnings of the failure of the Venezuelan state - as well as its repercussions on leftist governments dependent on Caracas' petro-driven largesse.
From the U.S. perspective, a Salvadoran government more in sync with burning Venezuela than booming Panama means that children driven out by the drug war and poverty will continue to flee north. In the longer term, it signals a widening of the ideological gap between the two allies.
Whether El Salvador walks that fine line or runs with the Chavistas is the $1 billion question.
Michael Inganamort is managing principal at ASG Advisors and a member of the Foreign Policy Initiative's Leadership Network. He traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala with the American Council of Young Political Leaders.