If the occupation was a throwback, it was also tailored for the social media era. El Salvador’s millennial president, Nayib Bukele, tweeted his demands beforehand, calling on the assembly to pass a bill to secure financing for his security plan. He took a selfie with a crowd of supporters before marching in with troops. Then he addressed the mostly empty chamber, warning that he could “press the button” at any moment and dissolve the legislature.
Bukele then announced that God had told him to give the legislators another week. As of Sunday, he has taken no further action. What’s going on in El Salvador? Here’s what you need to know.
At issue is a proposed $109 million loan
Bukele wants to spend the funds on police equipment to support his anti-crime initiative. This loan was preapproved by the Central American Bank of Economic Integration but requires legislative approval.
Bukele cited an obscure article in the constitution — one reserved for national emergencies — to call the Legislative Assembly to session so it could take up the bill immediately. The assembly denied there was such an emergency.
Is Bukele exploiting his popularity?
Bukele’s ability to pressure his opponents derives from his enormous personal popularity — and his opponents’ overwhelming unpopularity. An outsider candidate, Bukele took a circuitous route to the presidency and has developed a widespread social media following and a virtual bully pulpit. He enjoys 90 percent approval ratings.
Once a popular mayor of San Salvador with the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, Bukele broke with the party’s leadership and was expelled. He ran a successful third-party campaign for president in 2019 by capitalizing on public frustration with the FMLN and the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, El Salvador’s two major parties since the civil war ended in 1992.
Bukele invites comparisons to President Trump as a wealthy business owner and outsider. The Bukele family is of Palestinian descent and is not one of the country’s “fourteen families.” He is a relentless self-promoter who uses social media to bypass traditional media. He hates neckties, loves selfies and prefers to govern by tweet. After a bilateral meeting with Trump, he declared him “very nice and cool.… We both use Twitter a lot, so, you know, we’ll get along.”
El Salvador has a calcified party system
A number of former presidents have faced corruption charges, including Tony Saca, who in 2018 was sentenced to 10 years for embezzlement and money laundering; Francisco Flores, who in 2001 allegedly took $15 million that Taiwan donated to victims of an earthquake and kept it for himself; and Mauricio Funes, another onetime anti-corruption outsider, who is now hiding out in Nicaragua and fighting extradition over an embezzlement scheme during his 2009 to 2014 term involving trash bags full of cash.
El Salvador’s traditional parties still control the Legislative Assembly, where Bukele has few allies: ARENA and FMLN together hold 60 of the body’s 84 seats. There are judicial proceedings underway against the heads of both parties over accusations of paying gangs for votes in the 2014 election.
Crime is El Salvador’s evergreen issue
El Salvador has long had one of the world’s highest homicide rates, peaking at 18 per day in 2015. The country’s gangs, Mara Salvatrucha — better known as MS-13 — and Barrio 18, which has split into two factions, drive the violence. The gangs exploded in the 1990s, when mass criminal deportations from the U.S., where the gangs were born, ramped up under President Clinton. Mass deportations under every subsequent administration has fed these gangs with forced recruits and extortion targets.
But recently, crime has been declining. Homicides averaged 7 per day in 2019, and Bukele was quick to take credit. Like the decades-long drop in violent crime in the United States, El Salvador’s drop in crime is difficult to explain.
The Bukele administration announced killings by police no longer count in homicide statistics, a worrying development amid news reports of police death squads, murder-for-hire rings and gang infiltration into security forces. Disappearances do not count as homicides either, creating perverse incentives in a country where murder figures are highly politicized.
Backsliding toward authoritarianism?
Bukele’s threat to dissolve the assembly recalls the 1992 “self-coup” by the now-jailed Alberto Fujimori in Peru. The concentration of power by anti-corruption crusaders, who later face corruption charges themselves, is a familiar dynamic in the region.
Opinion polls show growing disillusionment with democracy throughout Latin America, and strongman rule may have some appeal, in the context of runaway corruption and crime. Flanked by generals in his leather jacket and baseball cap, Bukele projects a “presidente cool” image that may be an updated reflection of South America’s caudillo leaders of old, but it’s an image many will still recognize.