René León Rodríguez often joked that so many Salvadoran immigrants lived in the District of Columbia, he’d probably win election as mayor of Washington—if only he were eligible to run.
Counting the hundreds of thousands of salvadoreños in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, that assessment probably wasn’t too far from the truth. León, who represented El Salvador as ambassador here for 12 years—from 1997 to 2009—was the dean of the Latin American diplomatic corps and the longest-serving envoy to Washington in his small country’s history.
León died unexpectedly in the early morning hours of March 4 at the age of 60. The cause of death was a heart attack, according to his son, René León Solano.
The former ambassador is also survived by another son, José León Solano. León will be buried at Columbia Gardens Cemetery in Arlington, Va.
León’s tenure in Washington spanned the administration of three U.S. presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—as well as three presidents of El Salvador: Armando Calderón Sol, Francisco Flores Pérez and Antonio Saca. Up until February 2020, León had been a senior project director for Creative Associates Inc., a Bethesda-based consulting firm.
Claudia Vásquez-Bartolini, the embassy’s longtime press attaché, said she first met León when he was an economics professor at El Salvador’s Universidad José Simeón Cañas. Years later, she ended up working for him in Washington.
“In addition to doing his job in bilateral relations with the US and generating positive results for El Salvador, he tirelessly sought the welfare of Salvadorans living in this country, especially those with irregular status,” she told us. “He was a brilliant man, with great clarity of thought‚ and one of the most intelligent people I have ever met in my life.”
Former foreign minister: ‘Neither of us liked to lose’
An even more important quality, she said, was his humility and compassion.
“For René León, there was no difference between being in the Oval Office of the White House, surrounded by presidents and high-level officials, and interacting with Salvadorans, helping them fill out their immigration forms in parishes, parks or schools where the services were offered.”
Marisol Argueta also worked with León at the embassy in Washington for a time before becoming his boss as El Salvador’s foreign minister—a title she held for 19 years.
“I really enjoyed our intellectual debates, sometimes intense but always cordial, respectful and well-argued,” she said. “Although we almost always reached the same conclusion, when it wasn’t like that we always preferred to end in laughter because neither of us liked to lose.”
Argueta, who now heads the World Economic Forum’s Latin America division, said that along with León, “we traveled many roads, knocked on many doors, created strong coalitions, built good and lasting friendships that still endure—and together, we fought various diplomatic battles for our compatriots and for our country.”
El Salvador, a small, densely populated nation of 6.5 million, has had more than its share of misery in recent years: earthquakes, hurricanes, a devastating civil war, gang-related violence and a migration crisis.
Juan José Daboub, former World Bank executive and former secretary of the presidency of El Salvador, called León “our point person here in Washington, and someone who really cared about El Salvador and its relationship with the United States” from all perspectives.
“He was a very good friend, and a very talented professional who was capable of thinking strategically. He developed good tactics for implementing ideas, and he had the capacity of getting from point A to point B while producing results.”
Immigration was at the top of León’s agenda
Daboub said León frequently organized Salvadoran trade missions to visit the United States “to share the situation of El Salvador—whether to positively describe them or to raise issues of concern when thing were not going well.”
In fact, only a week before his death, León spoke several times with Daboub about an upcoming online business event in which both had planned to participate.
Daboub credits León with being instrumental in obtaining Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for about 300,000 Salvadoran immigrants in the United States following a pair of earthquakes in early 2001 that destroyed a third of the country.
“For René, immigration was at the top of his agenda,” said Daboub, who is now president of the Honduras-USA-Guatemala-El Salvador Business Council, a nonprofit group that seeks to create jobs in the three countries comprising Central America’s so-called “northern triangle.”
“The most pressing issues in our region are security, economic development and immigration. About 22% of our population lives in the US, and their remittances account for 20% of total GDP,” he said. “René understood both the human side of the question and the economic side, as well as the political implications for the United States. So he was always looking for creative ideas to accommodate those three variables.”
David Lewis, vice-president of Manchester Trade Ltd., called León the “epitome of the US-Caribbean Basin alliance on trade, investment and economic development” dating from the 1980s-era Caribbean Basin Initiative through the CAFTA-DR free trade agreement of 2006.
“As vice-minister, minister and then ambassador to the US, he was unique in merging national interests and needs with regional and US ones,” Lewis said of his longtime friend. “The Caribbean Basin strategic alliances built in those decades were due in no small part to his work and commitment to the regional agenda, and his alliance with the US executive branch and Congress alike, as well as the business community.”
‘A devoted public servant’
Lewis said the late ambassador was “a devoted Salvadoran-Central American public servant, an exceptional economist and trade expert, and a great colleague who will be sorely missed.”
But the most emotional tribute to the late ambassador came from his son, René “Leoncito” León, 36.
“When I think about my dad, three things come to mind,” said León, a World Bank executive whose human development work focuses on the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka
“First, he taught me the world is very small, and that we need to explore as much of it as possible, because that’s the only way to bridge differences by getting to know other cultures. Ever since I was a kid, he took me with him to his meetings and exposed me to that world—which now helps me with my job at the World Bank.”
The second thing to know about León, said his son, was his father’s selflessness.
“He always thought about other people, as opposed to himself. His time as ambassador allowed him to put this into practice,” said León. “He was always thinking about the Salvadoran community here and would always ask everyone he met—whether it was a cook or a gardener—how he could be of help. That’s why I chose a career in development; he always taught me to think about others.”
And finally, said León, “he told me never to give up and keep trying—not for perfection because nothing is perfect—but to always persevere.”
The Washington Diplomat extends its heartfelt condolences to León’s family, friends and former colleagues.