Romania Pushes to Be Treated as a Fully Fledged E.U. Member
The islanders were told their move was necessary to help achieve China’s plan for turning a downtrodden patch of Central America into a global trade hub and manufacturing powerhouse.
But they steadfastly refused, doubting that they would benefit from any bonanza the Chinese could bring.
“Where would we go?” said Mercedes Hernández, cradling a 1-year-old baby. “We have a life here.”
Over the months that followed, the island’s roughly 35 families would become unlikely participants in a struggle between Beijing and Washington, which wants to stop the Chinese from gaining a strategic foothold in a tiny impoverished nation that sits on its doorstep.
American officials in El Salvador went on the offensive to thwart China’s foray, painting Beijing as an untrustworthy partner with hidden motives.
For most of the past decade, the United States watched with unease as much of Latin America was pulled into China’s orbit through a growing network of trade and loans — which Washington did little to confront.
As China presented itself as a partner with a vision for El Salvador’s future, President Trump may have played into China’s hands, his critics say. The Trump administration initially countered China with little beyond threats to the Central American nation and its neighbors for not doing enough to curb migration, one of the president’s signature issues.
But then the United States took another tack: trying to turn public opinion in El Salvador against the Chinese.
American officials criticized China’s legacy in the developing world in several interviews, meetings with opinion makers and posts on social media. At one point, the American ambassador went as far as suggesting China could be seeking to establish a military post in the country.
“China’s agreements with El Salvador have been negotiated by a small group of individuals, behind closed doors and without the involvement of the public or representatives from the key sectors affected by those agreements,” said Jean Manes, the recently departed American ambassador in El Salvador, who was given rare leeway to publicly criticize China’s plans.
China, she said, “advances its own agenda with little regard for the long-term economic prospects for or environmental impact on developing countries.”
The American warnings, and the resistance of Isla Perico’s families, helped thwart China’s plans — at least for the time being. Measures that would have allowed China to proceed stalled in El Salvador’s legislature.
Ou Jianhong, China’s ambassador in El Salvador, declined several interview requests and the embassy did not respond to emailed questions. In an interview with Xinhua, China’s state news agency, Ms. Ou called Washington’s warnings “irresponsible and unfounded.”
The offer to create a special zone in El Salvador, by a Chinese state-owned company called Asia-Pacific Xuanhao, was summarized in a document called “Shared Opportunities, Shared Future.” A copy was reviewed by The New York Times.
The deal would allow China to advance its quest to establish an alternative trade route to the Panama Canal, and enhance its ability to shape commerce in the region.
The special zone also would give China a valuable perch to expand its military and intelligence capabilities in Washington’s vicinity, according to American officials who have watched warily as Beijing has invested in at least 60 Latin American port projects.
For El Salvador, the deal came with significant trade-offs, and left several unanswered questions.
The Chinese requested a 100-year lease of a 1,076-square-mile area — 13 percent of the country’s landmass — and demanded tax exemptions for their companies that would last three decades. Details about the financing structure were not publicly disclosed, causing concern among some Salvadorans that their country risked becoming financially beholden to Beijing for generations.
But by the time the United States began its campaign against the Chinese in El Salvador last summer, the Americans had a lot of catching up to do.
To some Trump administration critics, it was a self-inflicted wound.
While the Chinese were offering to build manufacturing plants, invest in renewable energy and make El Salvador a tourist destination, President Trump was calling migrants “animals,” and separating children from parents at the border.
“That attitude opens up space for China,” said Roberto Rubio, director of the National Foundation for Development, a research group in San Salvador, the capital. “If the United States threatens to cut our aid, treats our people poorly and brings little investment, why not go with the Chinese?”
While the Trump administration has suspended aid programs to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, Ms. Ou, the ambassador, noted that China had signed 13 cooperation agreements on infrastructure, investment, science, technology, education, culture and tourism.
“The cooperation with China will not in any way turn into a debt trap, but a cake for the benefit of its two peoples,” she said in the Xinhua interview.
In early July 2018, El Salvador’s president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, gave the legislature a bill that would establish the legal framework for a special economic zone encompassing 26 municipalities along the southeastern coast.
It soon became clear the bill had been custom-made for the plan the Chinese had been quietly promoting for months. Among other conditions, it required El Salvador to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the island off the Chinese mainland where China’s former government fled in 1949 when the Chinese Communists took power.
When Mr. Sánchez Cerén announced last August, during a televised address, that his country was breaking ties with Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations with China, he envisioned an era that would bring “great benefits to the country and provide extraordinary opportunities.”
Chinese banks are now the dominant lenders in Latin America, having provided more than $140 billion between 2005 and 2018.
Trade between China and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean soared from $17 billion in 2002 to nearly $306 billion in 2018.
The Obama administration did little to publicly challenge China’s deepening engagement in Latin America after the Chinese in 2009 signaled their intention to expand investment and trade in a region rich in commodities and in dire need of infrastructure upgrades.
Soon after President Trump’s election in November 2016, the Chinese issued an updated policy vision for the region that was notably bolder.
The update conveyed China’s desire to build military alliances with Latin American nations and signaled its aspirations to become a guiding force on global challenges like climate change, sustainable development and cybersecurity.
As the deal was debated by Salvadoran lawmakers over the past year, the Chinese sought to win them over, inviting lawmakers and journalists on paid trips to Beijing.
They also began disbursing a $150 million assistance package.
The first gestures included buying 10 trucks for the water agency of San Salvador and donating 15,000 laptops to public schools.
Ana Guadalupe, a 56-year-old resident of the Santa Fe district in San Salvador, said water service had been sporadic and unreliable before the new trucks began deliveries Tuesdays and Saturdays.
“There were many places where there was no water,” she said on a recent afternoon as workers from the water agency used a large hose on a truck emblazoned with the Chinese flag to deliver water. “Without water we can’t live.”
Across town, Sara Cruz, a computer teacher at Francisco Morazan school, called the new Lenovo laptops her students had received transformational.
“In the past, things that were Chinese were looked down on, as being of bad quality,” she said. But the sleek laptops shared by the school’s 400 students have changed her mind. “Before we had to teach them theory instead of practice,” she said.
Those gestures were not enough to overcome El Salvador’s doubts about the conditions of the deal, stoked by American criticism that the port project had been negotiated secretly. Even as China funded flashy projects that generated good will, efforts to get the special economic zone bill through Congress faltered as lawmakers expressed caution in the lead-up to the presidential election in February. Lacking support, the outgoing government never brought the bill to a vote.
Salvadoran lawmakers passed a measure last August forbidding the sale of islands to foreigners, acting in response to news that Chinese entrepreneurs were trying to acquire Isla Perico and a nearby island.
Yang Bo, a Chinese businessman who has lived in El Salvador for several years, was questioned by prosecutors about his role as the middleman in the attempted purchase of the islands.
As questions about the Chinese venture mounted, the residents of Isla Perico, who make a modest living fishing and growing watermelons, received visits from prosecutors, the governor’s office and the American Embassy.
The string of powerful visitors to their cluster of shacks strengthened the residents’ resolve to stay put.
Antonio Ferman, the mayor of San Alejo, a small town near Isla Perico, said a venture of the scale proposed by the Chinese may well create some desperately needed jobs in the area, which is hollowing out as people facing unemployment and gang violence seek to migrate to the United States. But Mr. Ferman said he doubted any benefit would be worth the impact of such a project on the artisanal fishing industry, which many families rely on, and on the region’s access to clean water.
A San Alejo resident, Esleta de Jesus Sariles, 40, said few in the region were putting much faith in the prospect of Chinese jobs, which in the best of cases could take years to create.
Like many of her neighbors who live along a winding unpaved road with a growing number of abandoned houses, she decided to head north to the United States, having raised the $7,000 smugglers requested to take her and her diabetic teenage daughter to the border.
“Nearly the whole country has emptied out,” she said. “And nearly everyone has made it through.”
Shortly before taking office on June 1, the new president, Nayib Bukele, signaled he had little appetite for grand Chinese ventures despite his promises to create jobs and attract investment.
The Chinese, he said, “go in, do projects that are not feasible, then they leave the countries with huge loans they cannot repay and use that as leverage.”
Weeks after taking power, however, he struck a different note and ruled out the possibility of switching El Salvador’s allegiance back to Taiwan. “We need to recognize China’s status in the world,” he said.
And in the long run, some American officials fear that China’s willingness to build roads, railroads and ports in the region will be impossible for El Salvador and some of its neighbors to resist.
Norma Torres, a Guatemalan-born representative from California who has become a leading voice on Central America policy on Capitol Hill, said the Trump administration’s focus on keeping migrants out will benefit China.
“They are not looking at short-term, immediate results as we do here in the United States,” Ms. Torres said. “The Chinese have focused on, ‘Where are we going to be in the next 20 years?’”
While the port deal was sidetracked, at least for the time being, it is clear the Chinese are positioning to become El Salvador’s ally of choice.
“Under the careful care of each side, the China-El Salvador relationship will, without doubt, transform from a shrub into a verdant tree,” Ms. Ou, China’s ambassador, wrote in a recent opinion piece published in a local newspaper. “The bilateral cooperation will be as fragrant and delicious as Salvadoran coffee and as sweet and tasty as the sugar of this beautiful nation!”
SEOUL, South Korea — It was sad enough when the bodies of Han Sung-ok and her 6-year-old son were found in their $74-a-month apartment in Seoul in July, two months after they had died.
But the story became national news after it emerged that Ms. Han, 42, was a North Korean who had fled famine in her homeland, and that the two had died alone and impoverished in one of Asia’s richest cities.
Their bodies were so decomposed that the cause of death could not be determined, according to the authorities. But several South Korean news outlets have reported that they died of starvation, and officials have not disputed those reports. The news channel that broke the story last month quoted an unidentified police officer as saying that there was no other possible explanation.
The deaths have been a shocking reminder of the hardships faced by many North Koreans in the South, as they try and sometimes fail to adjust to a radically new life. Since the news became public, thousands have visited a mourning station built for Ms. Han and her son, Kim Dong-jin, in central Seoul, laying white chrysanthemums in front of portraits of them.
The most emotional visitors were other North Koreans and their supporters, hundreds of whom came from across the country on Saturday to attend a funeral ceremony for the mother and son. Speaker after tearful speaker apologized for not protecting them from the prejudices, indifference and ostracism that many North Koreans say they experience in the South.
“I am still struggling to understand this: She escaped a famine in North Korea — only to starve to death in the heart of South Korea, where there is so much food that going on a diet is its biggest fad,” said Heo Kwang-il, who leads a North Korean defectors’ organization.
Not much is known about Ms. Han’s life in either Korea. But she appears to have become increasingly isolated and despondent in her last months, though help for her and her son was just a few hundred yards away at a district government office.
She first arrived in South Korea in 2009, according to government records. Like all defectors from the isolated, totalitarian North, she went through 12 weeks of mandatory classes, learning basic skills like using a credit card and driving a car.
The government provides North Korean refugees with low-rent apartments, welfare payments and free health care and job training. But many struggle to make the transition from the North’s highly regimented system to the South’s fast-paced, capitalistic one. A few have even returned to the North, complaining that they had been treated like second-class citizens in the South.
Ms. Han got off welfare in nine months, suggesting that she was adapting quickly to her new life. But Kim Yong-hwa, the head of the NK Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea, who knew Ms. Han, said she had been carrying an emotional burden.
She had originally fled the North for China in the wake of the famine that killed millions of North Koreans in the late 1990s, according to Mr. Kim. He said she became one of the thousands of North Korean women sold by human traffickers to rural Chinese men looking for wives.
Such women live with the constant fear of being returned to North Korea and sent to a labor camp. Rights groups say that many of the women’s Chinese husbands exploit that vulnerability and sexually abuse them.
Some North Korean women in that situation have made their way to South Korea with children they had in China, only to face the stigma of being a single mother in the South, along with all the other difficulties of adjusting to life there.
Ms. Han initially came to the South alone, leaving a young son behind with her husband, according to Mr. Kim, who said he helped arrange her escape through Thailand, using smugglers. She paid the smugglers $2,000 after arriving in the South and getting cash support from the government, Mr. Kim said.
“But she terribly missed her son in China,” he said.
In 2012, Ms. Han asked her husband, an ethnic Korean, to join her in South Korea with their son. The man found work at a shipyard. Another son — Dong-jin — was born in 2013. They soon discovered that he had epilepsy.
South Korea’s shipbuilding industry entered a slump, and Ms. Han’s husband lost his job. In 2017, the family moved back to China.
Last September, Ms. Han returned to South Korea with Dong-jin, having divorced her husband, according to Mr. Kim. He said she called him, sounding depressed. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to work, because she couldn’t find a child-care center that would accept an epileptic child. He said he advised her to apply for welfare benefits.
What happened to Ms. Han and Dong-jin after that is not clear.
North Korean defectors are closely supervised by the government for five years, but that time period had expired. The district office says Ms. Han never applied for welfare. Other North Koreans in Seoul have said that she did not have close friends among them.
She apparently could not afford a cellphone, meaning she would have been even more isolated. In her last months, her only income was $165 per month in government child support. In March, when Dong-jin turned 6, that amount was cut in half. A social worker visited in April and reported that no one was home.
On May 13, Ms. Han withdrew the last money in her bank account: $3.20.
On July 31, a meter man went to the apartment because the gas and water bills had gone unpaid for months. The smell was terrible, and he called the police. (Neighbors later told reporters that they thought it had been from a compost pile.)
The police later estimated that Ms. Han and Dong-jin had died in late May. Forensic investigators found no evidence of poisoning or physical trauma, nor was there any sign of a break-in. The refrigerator was empty except for a bit of chili powder.
Lee Jung-bin, an emeritus professor of forensic medicine at Gachon University near Seoul, said that starvation would be hard to prove in such a case, even if circumstantial evidence pointed to it. “If they don’t find any clear clues, like poisoning, forensic examiners will have to settle for ‘cause of death unknown,’ ” he said.
Many other questions are unanswered. Why didn’t Ms. Han ask for emergency assistance at the district office? Why didn’t she report her son’s illness, which would have entitled them to disability support? Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector-turned-journalist in Seoul who has been investigating the case, said Ms. Han could have withdrawn $4,500 that she had originally deposited to secure the apartment.
“She either didn’t know how to navigate the South Korean system and find the help that was available, or just felt so hopeless about her situation that she gave up trying,” Ms. Kang said.
Another North Korean refugee, Lee Min-bok, said: “She died not because she didn’t have any food, but because she had no hope.”
Helping defectors from the North has not been a political priority for South Korea in recent years, as the government has focused on improving ties with Pyongyang. And as the economy has slowed, there has been resistance to increasing subsidies for the refugees, who some see as competitors in a tough labor market.
But the deaths of Ms. Han and her son have unsettled many people. Government officials stood in silence in their memory this month, at a meeting to discuss how to repair gaps in the welfare system for defectors.
Later, they announced that the government would check in with all 31,000 North Koreans living in the South, to make sure that anyone who needed help received it.
BUCHAREST, Romania — More than 12 years after joining the European Union, Romanians are getting increasingly grumpy.
Romania pulled off a successful six-month presidency of the European Union, its first time in that role, and has made considerable progress integrating into Europe. Romanian officials have important jobs in Brussels, including Mircea Geoana, who was just named deputy secretary general of NATO, the first person from the old Eastern Bloc to have the job.
But many in Romania and Bulgaria, which both joined the European Union in 2007, feel that they remain under probation, as second-class citizens. They have not been allowed to join the Schengen zone of passport-free travel, and they are still under a special program to monitor corruption.
Romanians acknowledge continuing problems with corruption and oligarchy — after all, the man once considered to be the most powerful politician in the country, Liviu Dragnea, the head of the largest party, the Social Democrats, is serving a prison term for abuse of power.
But they argue that Romania is making considerable progress and that admission to the Schengen zone shouldn’t hinge on the corruption problems.
The country has long borders, but it has invested heavily in protecting them, and Romanians tend to think that they have as much right to be part of the passport-free area as Schengen members like Hungary, which has similar problems with corruption and is seen as a bigger violator of the rule of law, not to mention Norway and Iceland, which are not even members of the European Union.
Romania and Bulgaria were judged by the European Commission to have met all necessary technical conditions for full Schengen membership as far back as 2011. No other countries considered to have met the criteria have been kept out.
“We see it as discrimination,” George Ciamba, the Romanian minister for European affairs, said in an interview. “We showed solidarity during the migration crisis and took people from boats in Malta, and we expect this solidarity to be returned.”
But the migration crisis has complicated matters, he said, noting that, “Political correctness now means you can be tougher on fellow Europeans.”
Mr. Geoana, the NATO deputy secretary general and a former foreign minister, calls the Schengen matter “a deeply political issue,” laced with prejudice. Excluding Romania “is not only unfair but illogical — the routes of migration are not across Romania,” he said. The country has successfully protected its borders, he added, having blocked much of the smuggling between the Russian and Italian mafias.
The problem goes deeper, Mr. Geoana said: “It’s associated with the Roma and Romanians in Europe. There is prejudice here, and it harms us. With three to four million Romanians working abroad, you need a scapegoat.”
Many of those workers are young, well-educated Romanians seeking a better life elsewhere in Europe. They send money home — an important contribution — but as the economy improves, officials express hope that the need for a better-trained labor force and a low unemployment rate will entice people to return.
Still, Romania has been a political mess for several years. A deadly nightclub fire in 2015 that prompted huge demonstrations brought down one government, and protests reignited in the face of institutional corruption and what many saw as efforts to undermine the judiciary, including the firing of Laura Codruta Kovesi, chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate, in July 2018. Then came the fall of Mr. Dragnea and, later, the collapse of the coalition government. Now Ms. Kovesi is expected to become the bloc’s first chief public prosecutor, over the objections of her own government.
All this has had an inevitable impact in Brussels, even if European officials have noted the rise of younger, more liberal, pro-European politicians who did well in European elections in May. That vote saw support for the Social Democrats to fall by nearly half, and the rise of an alliance of two new parties, the Save Romania Union and Plus, which was founded by a former European commissioner, Dacian Ciolos. Presidential elections in November are expected to be closely fought.
Prime Minister Viorica Dancila has also complained about the special monitoring of corruption and judicial reform carried out by the European Commission on Romania and Bulgaria, known as the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. Other relatively new members of the European Union, such as Croatia, are not submitted to such oversight.
“If the C.V.M. would be valid for all member states then I wouldn’t be speaking about a double standard,’’ Ms. Dancila told the British newspaper The Guardian in July.
Mr. Ciamba, the minister for European affairs, echoed those sentiments. “We don’t have problems with rules so long as they apply to all,” he said.
The special monitoring was supposed to be a transitional measure, but it remains in place 12 years after Romania and Bulgaria joined the bloc.
However, commenting on the latest C.V.M. report, in November, Frans Timmermans, then the European commissioner for the rule of law, said, “I regret that Romania has not only stalled its reform process, but also reopened and backtracked on issues where progress was made over the past 10 years.’’
Correcting course, he added, “is the only way Romania can resume its path toward the conclusion” of the monitoring process.
But some member states, shaken by the rise of far-right and populist parties and by the political pressures of migration, have no interest in allowing Romania and Bulgaria to enter the Schengen zone.
At a summit meeting in Sibiu, Romania, in March — the showpiece event of Romania’s presidency of the European Union — Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands was blunt. Asked when Romania would be able to join Schengen, he said: “When you comply with the rule of law, democracy. And you are not moving in the right direction at the moment.”
Cristian Ghinea, a former minister for European funds and a member of the European Parliament for the Save Romania Union, said that joining Schengen had “a symbolic value.”
“It is this feeling that the E.U. accession is not complete,” he said. Schengen is also important for business and for travel, he noted, since Romanian citizens and Romanian trucks must pass through border controls, complicating their participation in Europe’s single market.
Bianca Toma, an analyst at the Romanian Center for European Policies, a research organization in Bucharest, said that despite the success of Romania’s presidency of the bloc, “there is still mistrust in the new members of the club.”
But Romania “is making progress toward being the country the E.U. wants it to be,” she added, noting, “From civil society, the young, those with connections abroad, there’s significant resistance, involvement and commitment to change the negative side.”
“If we look at the politicians only, we can get pessimistic,” she said. “But there is only one direction for the country to go.”
Ms. Toma predicted that the November presidential election would confirm Romania’s shift toward the more liberal politics that were signaled in the European elections in May. Local elections follow in summer 2020, with parliamentary elections scheduled for fall of that year.
“We’ll see a significant change of the political landscape,” Ms. Toma said. “I’m not saying that the new ones will be much better, but we’ll get rid of a lot of the old habits.”