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Political Crisis in El Salvador and the Millennial Authoritarianism of Nayib Bukele

InterviewEl Salvador is experiencing an accelerated authoritarian drift at the hands of its eccentric president Nayib Bukele, which has led to widespread demonstrations. Bukele´s image is that of a millennial president, spontaneous, young, and cool. Yet this style goes hand in hand with the persecution of social activists, the removal of the entire Supreme Court and the militarization of society. To learn more about the current situation and ongoing protests, we spoke with activists from Fuerza Solidaria por El Salvador.

El Salvador is experiencing an accelerated authoritarian drift at the hands of its eccentric president Nayib Bukele, which has led to widespread demonstrations throughout the country. Coming from a wealthy business family, Bukele began his political life in the leftist party Frente Farabundo Martín para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), the institutionalized political force of the anti-dictatorship guerrillas of the 1980s, but later broke with it to run for the smaller Democratic Change party. 

Undoubtedly, what is most striking is the management of his image as a millennial president, spontaneous, young, and cool; his omnipresence in social networks and his communication style look more like the promotion of a pop star than that of a leader of a country with serious needs. However, this relaxed style goes hand in hand with the persecution of social activists and leaders of the political opposition, the removal of the entire Supreme Court and its replacement by loyal judges to enable his re-election, the remilitarization of society and the military intervention in Parliament, and numerous accusations of embezzlement of public funds.

Bukele took office as president in 2019 and in the early years enjoyed broad popular support. However, his political spring seems to have ended following events such as his entering the Legislative Assembly accompanied by military forces, the seizure of the three branches of government, or the enactment of the curious Bitcoin law, which makes mandatory the acceptance of virtual currency in a highly informal economy. This unleashed a great wave of protests throughout the country, with the participation of the established political parties, unions, social movements, or even citizens who had never before taken part in demonstrations, and thus opened up a new political scenario in this small but troubled Central American country. To learn more about the current situation, we spoke with activists from Fuerza Solidaria por El Salvador, a self-organized movement of Salvadoran people living in Europe that arose from the marked deterioration of democracy and respect for human rights in El Salvador.

Could you tell us about the emergence and rise to power of Nayib Bukele and the support he obtained from a large part of the population? 

His support is explained by a political system that is worn out. The traditional political parties, as in other countries, wore out as a result of corruption and of their inability to meet the needs of the general population, [or] to connect with the vast majority of the country. That political wear and tear was so great that it was only a matter of time before a caudillo (strongman leader) came along to capitalize on all that discontent, all that frustration, and channel it to his own benefit, as happened with Bukele in El Salvador. 

The two traditional parties that hegemonized political life after the civil war, the conservative ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) and the leftist FMLN (Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation), had been in a roulette game, taking turns all the time between the Presidency and the Assembly. But meanwhile the structural problems of El Salvador were not solved, and the same leaders were still in political power: the same people who had signed the Peace Accords in 1992, the same guerrilla commanders of the ‘80s, and the same leaders of the right wing kept ruling the country in mutual agreement and isolated from the population.

All this was capitalized on by Bukele, who presented himself as a fresh, new politician, an enthusiast of new technologies, and thus managed to connect with the majority of the population—which within the country is a mostly young population—through social networks and cell phones, things that were not mastered by the elite leaders. Of course, he is an expert communicologist, he comes from the world of advertising with his companies and agencies. Although he has not achieved improvements in social issues, his propaganda machinery has been quite effective. He had already shown this capacity for communication in his days as mayor of a small town called Nuevo Cuscatlán, and then as mayor of the capital city, San Salvador. 

Another important point in his strategy to maintain his popularity is what he calls the „internal enemy“, an expression with which he refers to the traditional parties that controlled the Legislative Assembly. This strategy was so important that it even generated a division within the ruling party, between a current that did not want to win the legislative elections, in order to continue maintaining the „internal enemy“—since for them the Assembly is not necessary to govern—and those who did want to do so. In the end, he won the elections and that phantom threat of the „internal enemy“ no longer works as it did before. 

Then, how did he move to this new scenario, characterized by a decline in his popularity and the growing wave of demonstrations spreading throughout the country?

The decline in his popularity was exacerbated by the Bitcoin law. Particularly because there is already a precedent [the dollarization of 1999] that is remembered as something disastrous for the country. The country was dollarized abruptly and without consultation, and to this day people remember that as a disastrous decision taken behind people’s backs. That came to the collective memory with the Bitcoin law, an unconsulted law, which to top it all was announced from Miami and in English. In addition, this brought serious problems, since many people do not have the right devices, do not know how to use the apps, do not have access to the Internet and, therefore, need an extra investment to buy the equipment, which affects the cost of living. 

Let’s remember that all this is happening in a context of crisis due to the pandemic, rising inflation, devaluation of the country’s bonds, the lowest investment levels in Central America, and high indebtedness. The government can no longer find anyone to lend to and can no longer meet the needs of some ministries and institutions, so it began a policy of adjustment: many public employees are being laid off, public services are suspended, and the transfer of funds to the country’s municipalities is no longer being paid. These funds are called FODES (Fund for the Economic and Social Development of Municipalities) and for most of the mayors’ offices they are their main source of income, since many of them do not collect many taxes and therefore cannot pay salaries or carry out their projects. It is worth remembering that these mayors‘ offices and municipal governments are the first contact of the citizens with the State, which brings about even more social discontent and loss of popularity of the government.  

There are other issues such as the pact with the maras (transnational gangs). On this issue the reaction has been quite strong, especially in intellectual circles, in the foreign press, or from international organizations. But when you look in the communities that are besieged by gangs, in the end they don’t care how you get them to calm down and stop the gangs from bothering them. Basically the agreement consisted of not extraditing gang members to the US; many Salvadoran gangs operate in the US, which is asking for the extradition of their leaders. 

Another part of the agreement consisted of better treatment in prisons for detained gang members, but this is something that is in the law, which has to do with basic human rights. Actually, Bukele offered something that the State is obliged to guarantee: dignified treatment, internal workshops, an end to arbitrary arrests and police abuses. Whether the pact with the gangs is good or not is debatable; in any case what is questionable is that it has been done behind the backs of the people and public opinion, that it has not been done in an open dialogue with the communities. 

There is also the question of the military intervention in the Assembly in May. This came about because Bukele accused the Assembly of hindering the fight against the pandemic by denying him special funds. What happened is that he was asking for more and more money without public accountability, and there is plenty of evidence of illicit enrichment and embezzlement of those funds, as has been shown by several media [organizations], such as El Faro and others. 

Could you tell us about the FMLN, which in the 1980s gained great notoriety worldwide for its revolutionary positions and its fight against the dictatorship, but which currently seems to have become just another party of a failed political system? 

In its programme and ideology, the FMLN is a leftist party, or at least what was left of the party. Let us remember that the FMLN emerged in the ‘80s as an agglomeration of various groups fighting against a dictatorship supported by the United States: the Communist Party, unions, the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army), a social democratic force from the east of the country, among others. The FMLN was the result of the union of different leftist currents in the armed struggle, but with time many of these organizations left the party, and what remained was the more bureaucratic line of the Communist Party. 

However, although in their ideology and manifestos they are still leftist, when they came to power through elections (in 2009, 2014, and 2019), although they promoted some progressive measures, they made close alliances with the big [capitalist enterprises] of the country. For example, agreements with businessmen of the powerful sugar sector to maintain sugar as a protected product, or with businessmen of the aeronautical sector and aircraft maintenance. The FMLN maintained these close ties with sectors of capital that are right-wing and conservative, but without managing to change the living conditions of the majority of the population. Of course, it cannot be said that nothing changed in El Salvador in the years after the war; the literacy and education rates did improve, there were some changes, but not as many as promised at the end of the civil war.

Is it possible to speak of a real opposition to Bukele having formed from the demonstrations of the last few weeks? 

It depends on how you understand opposition. There is no political opposition, since the traditional parties are very discredited. I don’t think they are the alternative and the new parties are too small, they only have one deputy each and there are two of them (Vamos and Nuestro Tiempo)—they are not strong enough to be parliamentary opposition. But the panorama is different if we talk about civil society, about all those people who have been mobilizing in the demonstrations of the last weeks—unions or associations of dismissed workers, civil society organizations, activists and people in general—many in a very spontaneous way, like [in] the one that happened [on 15 September 2021], people who saw the call and decided to go out and march. This is something very rare in the history of El Salvador: there is no precedent for such a big march against the FMLN or ARENA, for example. 

The context is difficult because there is still some support from the US and the country’s institutions are dominated by officials that Bukele has put in place mostly illegally, including the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. I believe that movements will emerge, including people who will try to create their own political party, but I doubt that we will have fair elections in 2024, since part of the strategy will be to manipulate the electoral process. 

Let’s not forget that in El Salvador there is a process of fracturing democracy through militarization, intervention in the judicial system, political persecution, silencing of the parliament, etc., which so far has not worried the population too much. And this is understandable, because when you put yourself in the shoes of the majority of the people who are struggling every day to eat, when you talk to them about democracy, institutions, state of law, the court, judges, all of those words do not matter if you do not have enough to eat; it only appears as something abstract and distant. 

In short, in the present situation there are two ways: on one hand, that leaders and organizations outside the two traditional parties will emerge, as long as the demonstrations become stronger and people lose their fear; and, on the other hand, that there will be a radicalization of the ruling party through more authoritarian measures due to the fear that its power will be disputed, for example through militarization, political persecution, and repression. 

Finally, we would be interested to know a little more about how you are organizing in transnational solidarity networks as a form of resistance and activism.

Emigrant solidarity with El Salvador took a lot of strength in May with the attempted coup d’état in the parliament. Of course, El Salvador already had organized networks at the time of the civil war, but now they have been reactivated and new ones have been created. The strongest networks are in the US, where most of the Salvadoran diaspora is, but there are also strong communities in Argentina and Mexico, and to a lesser extent in Europe, but they are also beginning to organize. Our aim now is to make visible what is happening, try to make connections, and put pressure on the international community to take a firmer stance against Bukele and grant political asylum. We also support journalists, [and] leftists who are in danger, or who have already left the country. Basically those are our immediate goals: to make visible what is happening, to help the victims of political persecution, and to [apply] pressure for measures to be taken against the current authoritarian turn in El Salvador. 

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