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New Problems, Old Ideas

Nayib Bukele dismantles El Salvador’s fledgling democracy

On the morning of February 28, the day of El Salvador’s legislative elections, Nayib Bukele held a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador. Dressed down with his customary baseball cap, the incumbent president made a last-minute campaign stump for his three-year-old party, Nuevas Ideas, which he likes to present as a third-way alternative to the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN or Frente) and hard-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). It’s illegal for politicians to use public resources for campaigning, and also for them to make appeals to voters within three days of elections, but Bukele did both anyway. “Let’s finish what we started by electing an Assembly that works hand-in-hand with the president,” he intoned in his usual agitated cadence.

For months, Nuevas Ideas had dominated polls, and just hours before the last vote was cast, the election result was all but decided. The conference, then, was really a flex of hacendero impunity and an expression of contempt for the election officials who Bukele and his surrogates had all day accused of fraud and conspiracy on social media and television. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal fined the president for his stunt after the polls closed at five o’clock—but this had little impact on the result. In the end, around two in three Salvadorans voted for Nuevas Ideas, handing them the keys to the legislature.

If the events since election day are anything to go by, Bukele’s party plans to rule for the next three years in open contempt of democratic procedure. Hours after taking office on May 1, the new legislature dominated by Nuevas Ideas removed from office and replaced the five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (where the court’s president sits), as well as the nation’s lead prosecutor, the attorney general. These two institutions had held some check, however meager, on Bukele’s executive overreach. In February 2020, the Constitutional Chamber ruled that the president had put the separation of powers at risk by leveraging the Armed Forces and National Civil Police to intimidate the legislature. That November, the attorney general authorized a raid of the Ministry of Health as part of a sweeping corruption investigation into government pandemic spending. Nuevas Ideas saw this as so much judicial meddling, and both institutions’ figureheads had to go.

With a supermajority in the legislature and control over the Supreme Court, Bukele has erased all sources of meaningful resistance from within the government.

The replacements were illegitimate at face value, in that the legislature entirely skipped over formal removal proceedings, which would have included, at a bare minimum, the advance publication of a meeting agenda, not to mention time for defense and debate. Instead, Nuevas Ideas deputy Christian Guevara simply read out the new names just minutes before the confirmations began. Even rank-and-file party deputies had no idea who the nominees would be. By May 7, four of the five magistrates, as well as the attorney general, formally resigned, as if their offices had not already been occupied by their successors on May 1. One magistrate noted in his public resignation that “some of the deputies and officials in the executive branch” knew that his daughter was undergoing treatment at a public hospital. The Supreme Court president initially refused to resign—until police surrounded his house. He resigned on Monday, May 3.

With a supermajority in the legislature and control over the Supreme Court, Attorney General’s Office, National Civil Police, and Armed Forces, Bukele has erased all sources of meaningful resistance from within the government. The administration has shown its willingness to leverage phony removals, prosecution, and intimidation where necessary in pursuit of its agenda, while talk of “refounding the nation” hangs in the air.

As for the public, Bukele’s particular approach to institutional reform, which he has likened to “cleaning house,” is widely popular. On March 11, the Costa Rican research firm CID Gallup surveyed some twelve hundred Salvadorans over the age of eighteen, finding that 98 percent approved at least somewhat of Bukele’s handling of the pandemic. That same month, consulting group Mitofsky, contracted by the Nuevas Ideas administration, declared that Bukele had the highest approval rating of twenty presidents in the Americas, scoring eighty-four points out of one hundred. These figures point in the same direction, roughly speaking, as all independent academic polling in El Salvador conducted since Bukele first took office on June 1, 2019.

The groundswell of public support for the president, both domestically and in the diaspora, can seem baffling given Bukele’s flagrantly authoritarian streak. Yet it drives home a point made by many Salvadoran intellectuals:  underneath the administration’s savvy propaganda apparatus, much of the appeal of Nuevas Ideas lies in the far older ideology of mano dura (roughly, “iron fist”)—a virulent conception of society as a battle between “us and them” with deep roots in the country’s history. In the Bukele era, “us” has come to be defined by the president, around which stands his inner circle and political entourage, and around them his supporters. “Them” has become a catch-all term for all those who dare to differ: the feeble political opposition, but also the independent press, meddling human rights and transparency organizations, even critical Democrats in the United States Congress, like Representatives Norma Torres and Jim McGovern. “They” are “worse than trash,” “enemies” of the “people,” or shills for George Soros.

Bukele’s rise also owes to the corruption of both major parties, which have failed to curb violence and social instability throughout the post-war period. “Over time, these brands eroded as the parties faltered in performance and became embroiled in corruption investigations,” Columbia University political scientist Oscar Pocasangre wrote in a February 2021 column for El Faro, where I work. “Like consumers who switch to a different brand when the product they buy fails to meet expectations, voters started questioning their party ties and looking for alternatives.” Bukele’s platform, the twin pillars of which have been curbing corruption and violence, has proved attractive, even in the face of mounting evidence that Nuevas Ideas itself promises little more than business as usual.

FMLN guerrillas in their off-hours, 1982 | Reddit.

Nayib Armando Bukele Ortez was born in 1981 in San Salvador to a well-off Palestinian-Salvadoran business family which owns Global Motors, distributors of Yamaha motorcycles, and the marketing firm Obermet. He briefly attended Central American University in the city before leaving mid-program to work as a publicist in the family business. Around 2000, he got a contract to do publicity for the FMLN, a position he held for twelve years. In 2012, he broke into politics by winning, on the FMLN ticket, the race for mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, a small suburb a short drive southwest of the capital.

A former left-wing guerrilla front-turned-political party, the FMLN was once famous for its ideological discipline, with strict litmus tests imposed on party members and internal dissent punished. That it was willing to open its ranks to someone with scant, if any, leftist bona fides suggests how dramatically the party has changed since its Marxist-Leninist heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. The party leadership, dominated by former guerrilla commanders, felt it needed a fresh, charismatic face following Mauricio Funes’s underwhelming years in office from 2009 to 2014. “Nayib is the one who can beat his adversaries,” said Medardo González, then-secretary general of the FMLN, in 2014. “Nayib is an adult, young, entrepreneurial, a mayor who’s doing good things in the party’s view. He’s a person with a bright future.” By then, Bukele had made his name with public works projects as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, and had his sights set on San Salvador’s city hall.

Bukele ran for and won the San Salvador mayoral race in 2015, after which he developed an increasingly frosty relationship with party leadership, openly accusing it of neoliberalism, a jab aimed at divisions then widening within the party. After coming to power, the Funes administration held onto the U.S. dollar, stayed in the Central American Free Trade Agreement, left utilities largely in private hands, and struck a conciliatory tone with the military, right-wing political opposition, as well as the U.S. embassy. Hardly the substance of a left-wing agenda. In 2017, party leadership expelled Bukele, claiming he had sowed division in the party ranks, denigrated former guerrilla combatants, and “violated the human rights of women.”

It’s not uncommon to pass by entire housing lots walled in, complete with sprawling barbed wire and security cameras.

Bukele launched his presidential bid in 2019 through a pact of convenience with the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA), a right-wing party formed by ARENA dissidents following their 2009 presidential loss. Throughout the race, he preyed on the broadly felt disillusionment toward both ARENA and the FMLN, promising not only to supplant these parties, whom he branded as “los mismos de siempre” (“the usual suspects”), but to punish them. “The people’s money will be returned, and theft won’t be forgiven. Start saving up,” he said in his presidential acceptance speech.

Bukele’s publicly aired breakup with Frente appealed to many jilted voters on the heels of ten years of corrupt FMLN rule. Funes, for example, fled to Nicaragua in 2016 while facing prosecution for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars for international shopping sprees. People were also desperate for reprieve from three post-war decades marked by violence which has upturned, displaced, and claimed countless lives. For decades, gangs have controlled the daily flow of life in many Salvadoran communities, not only as brokers of terror but, at times, order, making them a political force to be reckoned with. Recognizing this, ARENA and the FMLN have both illicitly negotiated with gang leadership for electoral support. Behind closed doors, Frente orchestrated a fragile gang truce in March 2012, which brought homicide levels to peacetime low for a while, though it dramatically fell apart in June 2013. Crime spiked in the aftermath, and El Salvador descended into infamy, for the better part of the decade, as one of the most violent countries on Earth.

Today, the fear of this violence is palpable, making its way into everyday conversation. As a newcomer, you are warned not to bring anything of value onto buses, to avoid traveling on foot after dark, to steer clear of entire neighborhoods. It’s not uncommon to pass by entire housing lots walled in, complete with sprawling barbed wire and security cameras. Gun-toting private security guards, as well as heavily armed, masked police and military patrols, can be seen in most major urban areas and occasionally in cow fields or beside rural pupusa stands. The landscape is also a reminder of the hefty sums that the United States has poured into the Salvadoran military and security industrial complexes.

Bukele understood how to convert all this fear and trauma into political capital. One of his main strategies has been condemning rival political parties for their covert dealings with gangs, which he likens to “negotiating with the blood of the people.” However, as mayor of San Salvador, Bukele himself pursued backchannels with senior leaders of the gang known as the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. (One of his main negotiators, Mario Durán, went on to serve as his first minister of governance, and is now the newly elected mayor of San Salvador.) Moreover, since he became president, the Bureau of Prisons has been secretly negotiating with incarcerated gang leadership to reduce homicides—with some success.

In any case, what has mattered to voters is not statistics or the existence of covert negotiations, but the rhetoric and symbolism of mano dura. That’s why, after a three-day spike in homicides in April 2020, Bukele lined up imprisoned gang members for a photoshoot of men stripped down to their underwear, sitting back to back, hands cuffed behind them. The photo sent a clear message: I am in control, and I will punish them. It didn’t matter that negotiations were chugging along all through this time.

The Salvadoran psychologist Ligia Orellana has written with great insight about manodurismo, which she argues isn’t just a government framework or a method of addressing gang violence; it’s also a matter of everyday psychology. “Authoritarian attitudes permeate interpersonal life: child-rearing, religion, family structures, relationships with other people, who to love, who to kill,” she reflected in a March 2020 column in El Faro.

Bukele’s constituents reason like the Evangelicals who voted twice for Trump: he may be a bully, and there may be bumps along the way, but he’s our bully.

Nowhere was the Manichean idea of conflict more evident than an incident that has come to define Bukele’s brand of politics: his military occupation of the Legislative Assembly on February 9, 2020. For weeks prior, his administration had been mired in a crisis, as reports emerged of widespread contamination of the already drought-strained San Salvador water supply with algae. Government analysts monitoring social media assessed that the issue had drawn public ire, according to information leaked to El Faro. With an eye on upcoming elections, the administration diverted public attention to the decision of the Assembly, then led primarily by competing factions ARENA and the FMLN, to delay a vote on the president’s security plan, the centerpiece of which is to increase funding of the Armed Forces, as well as the daily presence of the military in tasks reserved for the National Civil Police, such as patrols in civilian areas. Bukele demanded an emergency legislative session and later called for a “popular insurrection” at the capital.

Mid-afternoon on February 9, 2020, he appeared outside the Legislative Assembly before an audience of some five thousand sympathizers. After slandering the deputies “criminals” and ratcheting up tensions in the crowd, he burst onto the floor of the legislature, flanked by the National Civil Police and Armed Forces. “It’s very clear now who’s in control of this situation,” he said from the chair reserved for the president of the Assembly. He then called for a prayer and put his hands to his face, as if crying, before silently walking back out to the roaring crowds. “If we wanted to press the button today, we would press the button. But I asked God and God told me to be patient,” he told them. “On February 28 [2021] these crooks will leave out the back door, and we’ll get rid of them democratically.” The swearing of the new Assembly marked the fulfillment of those words.

The stubborn support for Bukele can seem perplexing when you consider his open disregard for democracy, his failure to meaningfully improve the standard of living for most Salvadorans, and the well-documented evidence of widespread corruption within Nuevas Ideas, which in this regard is hardly any different from the other parties. But many of his constituents reason like the evangelicals who voted twice for Trump: he may be a bully, and there may be bumps along the way, but he’s our bully, and we’ll stick with him. “I’m going to vote for Nuevas Ideas, so the president controls everything,” one college student told my photojournalist colleague Carlos Barrera this February. “Our hope is that the traditional political parties will disappear and only one popular force will remain . . . You [journalists] should disappear, too; all you do is contradict the president,” answered another interviewee.

That’s not to suggest that civic resistance is entirely absent in El Salvador. Increasingly, young people raised during or after the armed conflict are pushing back against Bukele for labeling the Peace Accords as a “farce, a negotiation between two cabals.” Robust feminist and LGBTQ movements are a regular presence at demonstrations across the country. There are also independent newsrooms and human rights and transparency organizations who have been drawn into conflict with the executive simply for doing their jobs. But a ragtag assortment of civic groups hardly amounts to a serious resistance movement. In the arena of politics, it’s hard to see where a serious challenge to Neuvas Ideas will come from.

“Good friends let others get developed, too,” Bukele told a room full of ambassadors on May 3, many of whom have expressed concern over his consolidation of power. In coming years, all corners of El Salvador will discover whether Nuevas Ideas can make good on its promise of “refounding the nation,” which seems to entail dismantling the democratic institutions that brought Bukele to the presidential seat. Twitter will help keep record.